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American independent film

Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused starring a young Matthew McConaughey. Photo credit: Gramercy Pictures

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Three Easy Pieces, a column in which I guide you through the evolution of a particular genre of pop culture: its birth, its development, and how the form is represented today. This is a Cliff Notes-esque examination of these topics, so if brevity is your thing, consider this essential. Given that the Grand Cinema recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, I was inspired to christen Three Easy Pieces with a look at American independent film.

BIRTH: John Cassavetes

Honorable mention: Roger Corman, Dennis Hopper

To find the birth of American independent film, one need only look at John Cassavetes. Certainly, other independent films had arisen before Cassavetes' Shadows arrived in 1959, but Cassavetes concretized how we think of indie movies, with all their ragged edges and inconsistencies.

An accomplished actor in his own right, having prominent parts in classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen, Cassavetes embraced the challenge of making minutely budgeted films that highlighted performance and feeling over flash - his films were naturalistic studies of acutely drawn characters and eschewed bull*&%# populism. He also helped usher in the now-clichéd mode of indie films favoring handheld cameras; this was to assist the improvisational nature of his style of filmmaking, which gave control to the actors who were embodying his characters, as well as helping Cassavetes to make movies in record time.

In casting friends as leads in his films, and shooting on weekends for almost no budget, he also created the template of indie films as a labor of love and an exercise in bending craft to reward limitations. His movies - including FacesA Woman Under the Influence, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - became oft-imitated classics, and his workman-like style resulted in an Independent Spirit Awards category being named after him (the award being given to the best film made for under $500,000).

DEVELOPMENT: Richard Linklater

Honorable mention: Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch

Flashing forward from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, I have to elect Richard Linklater for helping give birth to the hang-out movie - films full of chatterboxes and loads of incident, with little in the way of plot. Beginning with Slacker, essentially a movie made up of interactions between weirdos in Austin, and following that up with the ultimate hang-out movie, Dazed and Confused, Linklater established himself as a director unafraid of the specificity that comes with observing characters that truly resemble real people.

Linklater also embraced a healthy amount of experimentation, adapting a number of plays (SubUrbiaTape), Texas-based true-crime stories (The Newton BoysBernie), previously thought unfilmable books (A Scanner DarklyFast Food Nation), and creating a densely philosophical cartoon (Waking Life). This is not to mention his explorations of time: the Before ... trilogy and the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood.

Linklater also found success helming big-budget fare like School of Rock and the ill-advised Bad News Bears remake. Mostly, though, he's excelled at being an unabashed collaborator with his actors, churning out film after film of people you'd love to get deep with over a few beers.

TODAY: The Duplass Brothers

Honorable mention: Kelly Reichardt, Adam Wingard

In the aughts, we find ourselves confronted with mumblecore, a genre so-named because of its extensive use of amateur actors, improvisation, found locations, and drastically cheap equipment - a combination that results in such verisimilitude that early critics characterized the actors as mumbling. The genre even has a horror offshoot, adorably dubbed mumblegore.

The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, are credited with starting mumblecore with The Puffy Chair, a charmingly spare affair charting one man's journey to give his dad a chair for his birthday. In utilizing friends and family, handheld cameras, and stories that are eminently filmable due to their lack of spectacular set-pieces (thanks, John Cassavetes!), the Duplass Brothers unlocked the code for everyone to be able to make feature films. Coinciding with the rise of the Internet, an egalitarian movie-making culture began to emerge.

Mumblecore, and the Duplass Brothers, reflect the greatest promise of independent film taken to its extreme: that art is, for better or worse, in the hands of the artist. And, if you're an insufferable sort, the audience will know, just as they'll know if you really do have something to say. Given control, what story would you tell?

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Break-Up Albums. 

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