Feb 16, 2007

Beyond the Multiplex

A wise, whimsical and totally romantic French hit. An absorbing look at women in the Israeli army. Plus: An award-winning film from Bosnia.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Jessica (Cécile de France) in "Avenue Montaigne"

There's something essentially contradictory about the world of independent film. I suspect this doesn't qualify as a revelation. It's more like the big hole in the front yard that I finally fell into on my way out the door, or the proverbial gorilla in the living room whom everybody politely ignores. On one hand, nobody who works in this cute little corner of show business -- not the filmmakers and actors, not the producers and executives, not the exhibitors or the critics -- got into it for cynical or venal reasons. Whatever vestigial coolness and fading aroma of rebellion still clings to indie-ness, the money involved is contemptible by Hollywood standards. (The entire reported box office returns for independent movies last week came to about $13.8 million, most of that accounted for by Oscar-nominated pictures like "Pan's Labyrinth," "Venus" and "The Queen." An average Hollywood action film in wide release can earn that much in a single weekend.

For all their posturing, these are movie people. I haven't met anybody in this business who doesn't hope to nurture film as an art form, according to his or her own peculiar taste. That said, we're all chasing movies in overpriced hotel bars around the world, from the ski slopes of Utah to the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin to the Croisette in Cannes, in hopes of the validation that only marketplace success can bring.

Movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "An Inconvenient Truth" and, now, "Pan's Labyrinth" -- at $26.6 million and counting, the most successful Spanish-language film ever released in the United States -- are of course the things that keep the indie business afloat, economically speaking. Each hit like that can support at least a dozen of the ambitious and difficult little films that are sighed over by a handful of insiders but mostly remain invisible to the general public. At Sundance, I got used to having conversations that ended with the "Sunshine shrug," generally signifying that the speaker didn't personally think "Little Miss Sunshine" was the second coming of "Wild Strawberries" or anything, but people loved it and, hey, what can you do? These conversations tended to go like this:

Me: Hey, [name deleted]! How the hell are you? How's business in your wonderful but struggling little theater in Anytown, USA?

Name Deleted: Oh, you know. Up and down. Not so bad, I guess.

Me: Cool. So what did people like in Anytown? What was your No. 1 film last year?

ND: Hmm, let me think. ["Sunshine shrug."] Do you mean besides "Little Miss Sunshine"?

One important distribution executive told me that her mom had dragged her dad off the sofa (apparently a task of some difficulty) to go see "LMS," based on a neighbor's recommendation, and then called her up to rave about their discovery. "I've heard of it, Mom," the executive said. "I tried to buy it at Sundance last year, and got outbid."

What everybody understands, and nobody can do anything about, is that the market is flooded every week with so many would-be "Sunshine"-size hits, and so many difficult and beloved little films, that most of them are never noticed by anyone. This week alone we've got a big-hearted, old-fashioned French comedy, of the kind that might have been a major hit 15 or 20 years ago, along with a terrific debut by a Bosnian director and a low-budget Israeli film that's been a festival favorite. All three are likable, accessible films, but they'd need careful feeding and watering to build an audience. With the movie world focused on the Berlin Film Festival this week and the Oscars next week, that's not likely to happen. But let's do our part right now.

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