Warning: Spoilers for STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE and DOCTOR STRANGE appear in this article
In the long long ago, a time that some called the 1990s, it seemed like the world was all sorted out. Smart people, people way smarter than me, went so far to call it “The End of History”, meaning that, with the end of the Cold War, all real conflict was over and humanity was on it’s way to a calm, cool, and collected eternity through the powers of democracy. The concept came from Francis Fukuyamas essay titled “THE END OF HISTORY?” and as often happens when smart people come up with complex idea, we dummies misunderstood it and thought he meant American democracy with a nice healthy piece of capitalism. That wasn’t what Fukuyamas was getting at, and no matter how hard he tried to explain it to us idiots, we just kept thinking he meant “America awesome! Buy stuff!” This idea, the idea of “America awesome! Buy stuff!” brought on the biggest battle the kids known as Generation X would fight; the battle against selling out. We weren’t the first generation to fight against selling out, but we may be the last.
Fuck your Z100 music and big Hollywood movies, we’re into the Butthole Surfers and CLERKS! We like art that goes against the grain, like Peter Bagge’s HATE and Bill Hicks! We spit on your Skidz and Zubaz with our torn jeans and dirty flannel! We are our own deal, man, and you can’t buy it! Like the song goes, “I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like”.
And a huge part of that off brand no culture culture rebellion of the time was being pissed at success. If your favorite band hit it big, then they had failed. REM is on MTV and it isn’t during 120 MINUTES? Guess they sold out.
Selling out was the ultimate crime for some reason. A band or writer or actor or director hitting it big was a sign that they were part of the masses. All us kids (I say us, but I was kind of a loser. I still liked REM) wanted our new idols to be themselves, as long as that meant they fit the mold we created for them. This became real important, especially in movies. I can’t say when it really started, I don’t know if anyone can, but most agree that Richard Linklater’s SLACKER was the first big explosion in the 90s style of cool. Hell, for quite a while, there was a back and forth on if the 90s teens should be called Slackers or GenX, that was how much of an effect Linklater’s film had (and it’s a great movie. Y’all should check it out if you haven’t seen it).
Not long after Linklater introduced a generation to indie film, the big guy showed up. Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS wasn’t just an indie movie, it was a crazy, cool, violent, sexy indie movie that set the tone for the decade; fast talking guys and gals shooting the shit and slipping in as many pop culture references as they can. If you can’t make the references, you better bring the violence. Splitting between the two pillars of what everyone thought Tarantino was all about, we got two more indie darlings, Kevin Smith with CLERKS and Robert Rodriguez with EL MARIACHI (never mind that EL MARIACHI came out a month before RESERVOIR DOGS, most of us didn’t realize that at the time).
The form was found; cool dialogue spoken way too fast for old people to understand and filled with more expletives than a sailor’s convention, an aversion for common filmmaking formats, and lots of guns. These were surely things that the bigwigs in Hollywood would never take on! Yeah! Fuck you, Hollywood!
Lots of copycat indie movies sprang up, most of them trying real hard to be like Tarantino, specially after PULP FICTION, which may have been an awards darling, but it wasn’t selling out because even today there is nothing corporate about PULP FICTION. We kind of got lost in the mix of the indie movement and accepted anything that was “different”. Look, SEVEN is a great movie, but it should never have been considered “indie”. Still, we accepted it as such. Same thing with GOOD WILL HUNTING.
By 1995, the main thing you needed to get that “indie” cred was to be outside what was considered mainstream cinema. It wasn’t about budget anymore. It wasn’t about technical skill. It sure as shit wasn’t about only playing in art houses anymore. It was about staying true to your vision and doing your own thing. Back then, it was a lot harder for film lovers to know just how much studio interference went on with a movie. We had no idea that Kevin Smith had to reshoot the ending of CLERKS, or that GOOD WILL HUNTING was originally written to be a Boston based thriller before Rob Reiner suggested to get rid of the FBI stuff and focus on the therapy. We just thought we knew that these guys were making their own thing and we loved it.
During that time, believe it or not, fan casting for movies was just as fun a pastime as it is these days. We movie geeks would sit around and breakdown what we wanted to see in the next HALLOWEEN. How we could save it with the right actors and directors. Still, some people were off limits. If your pal suggested David Lynch as the guy who should take on the next installment of the Michael Myers killfest, you would chide him. “Dude! Lynch would never sell out! Sure, he had a show on ABC, and yeah, it was popular, but that shit was weird so he didn’t really sell out, he used the man to tell his story and once they caught on, they fired him!”
They couldn’t sell out, these gods of ours. If they did, it would be akin to Lucifer attacking God; we would have to cast them out. These artists that we loved had one job – to do what we wanted them to do.
Then it all changed, and the change happened fast. It all came down to the summer of 1999 and the one-two punch of STAR WARS and THE MATRIX.
It’s hard to explain the massive effect STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE and THE MATRIX had on everyone if you weren’t there at the time. We were all so excited for the return of STAR WARS. MTV premiered John Williams’ DUEL OF THE FATES with a video showing off some awesome Jedi fighting. Everything in the supermarket was marked with STAR WARS, from Pepsi cans to cereal boxes and beyond, and we bought it up. Grown men and women drove hundreds of miles to buy action figures of characters they had yet to see on screen. Sure, the re-releases of the original trilogy with new FX was… not exactly what we wanted, what with Han shooting first and CGI creatures, but that was Lucas just playing around. This was a new STAR WARS! Lucas had been planning this for decades! He wouldn’t let us down! Indie was out, because STAR WARS was back.
In a way, Kevin Smith helped set this up. He had taken his View Askew universe and turned it into a merchandising goldmine. He had toys and shirts and posters and anything else he could think of, and we ate it up. That isn’t meant as an attack on Smith, mind you, the guy grew up a collector and used his collecting chops to grab a market looking for something new. Endless respect on that from me.
Before STAR WARS hit screens, we all got shocked by THE MATRIX. It was a movie no one had really heard about, released in March, a time not known for big hits, and it took us by storm. A high concept sci-fi flick with amazing action and great FX about an outsider who is really super awesome? We GenXers ate it up. Maybe we ate it up a little too much.
STAR WARS was… it was a bust. We tried to pretend we loved it. We saw it multiple times and worked hard to reason away the awfulness, but it was no use. Still, for the studios, a lesson was learned; we didn’t mind being sold to anymore.
A year later came X-MEN, directed by indie darling Bryan Singer, and we ate it up. Singer was an outsider making a movie about the ultimate fictional outsiders, and we couldn’t be happier. Then came Sam Raimi, king of indie horror, with SPIDER-MAN, and we really ate that up. Right then, right there, studios knew how to get us; go for our childhoods.
Which leads us to today. There’s still an indie film market, but it is far from what it was 20 years ago, and now we expect the indie filmmakers we like to jump into bigger things. We cheered when Duncan Jones, whose movies I love, was announced as the director for WARCRAFT. We sent digital high-fives to Rian Johnson when word came down that he was doing STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII. When the news broke that Tim Miller was off DEADPOOL 2, people petitioned for Quentin Tarantino to direct the movie. Not that long ago, the idea of Tarantino directing a studio movie would have caused mass hysteria, now, some people dream of it. We beg our indie idols to join the corporate structure to give us high budget summer blockbusters.
When did we give in? When did we decide it was better to have fifty year old superheroes on the screen than having artists create new stories? When did we agree that yearly installments of STAR WARS is what we should aspire for?
And is it wrong to want those things? Is it wrong for an indie darling to make a SPIDER-MAN movie? Or can they bring some of the indie touch with them? Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN movies are inherently Sam Raimi movies, right down to the actors getting hit by random objects thrown by Raimi himself. Could anyone else but a weird indie director from New Zealand tackle the LORD OF THE RINGS and make them awesome?
Fifteen years ago, the summer blockbusters had little going on besides special effects and big stars. These days we get movies like DOCTOR STRANGE, which ends not in a massive battle, but in a moment of passive resistance. We have STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE, a movie being used to sell shaving cream, that ends with all the heroes dying. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is a rather obvious criticism of the US drone program that was sold to audiences through a superhero political thriller. Those are all a far way off from movies like ARMAGEDDON and AIR FORCE ONE.
Can these writers and directors use the studios to get the budgets they need for their own projects? Did Duncan Jones helming WARCRAFT give him the ability to get financing to make MUTE, a project stuck in development hell for years? Will Kevin Smith directing episodes of FLASH and SUPERGIRL remind him how to make another critical darling, or will it allow Smith to keep making whatever the shit he feels like making without caring what audiences think?
One thing I’m pretty sure we’ll never see is a superhero movie directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Is it OK to sell out? Was it ever really wrong to in the first place? Or was it wrong of us, the fans, to make such odd demands? Why did we hate it when our favorite bands or directors succeeded? Did we fear that if our idols became big, they would forget us? Or that we would be left with no one to speak on our behalf? Did we think that new talents wouldn’t come along?
No, I think we were just greedy. They were ours, and we didn’t want to share them with anyone else. We collected our idols like Smith fans collected the View Askewniverse Inaction Figures, to be kept in the packaging, never changing. Never getting dirty. Exactly as we wanted them to be.
Still, it is real gross to hear The Who at the start of a TV show.