The Little Guy Makes It Big! A Critic’s Recycled Storyline

In 1989, Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival gave us the premiere of a seductive low-budget psychodrama by an unknown director named Steven Soderbergh: sex, lies, and videotape. A film that defined the zeitgeist, it would later win the 26-year-old Louisiana native a Palme d’Or (putting him in the company of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman)—and also validate the fledgling Utah festival. Made for a little over $1 million and promoted with all the marketing acumen of the brothers Weinstein, it would gross over $100 million worldwide and revive an American independent-film scene that had waned in the 1980’s.

“If Dennis Hopper’s freewheeling 1969 road movie Easy Rider was the key in the ignition for 1970s Hollywood,” writes James Mottram, laying out the premise of The Sundance Kids, “there’s no doubt twenty years on that sex, lies and videotape was the same to the decade it was to precede.”

The next several years would find Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, to name a few, following in Mr. Soderbergh’s large footsteps. This celebrated coterie of Sundance alums provides the jumping-off point for Mr. Mottram’s book, which then becomes a dissection—unparalleled in its breadth and scope—of American cinema in the 1990’s.

This isn’t the first time that Mr. Mottram, a British film critic, has traversed this terrain: He’s published three previous books about film, including one about the Coen Brothers and another about the making of Memento. His writing is confident and incisive. Consider the reason he gives in his new book for ignoring Kevin Smith, a Sundance alum whose film Clerks made him the festival’s poster boy in 1994: “[Smith’s] body of work has yet to make an impact on the medium of cinema in the way films by Soderbergh, [Alexander] Payne, [David] Fincher, or Tarantino have.” Touché.

Mr. Mottram pushes hard with his 70’s/90’s, New Hollywood/Sundance Kids parallel. It doesn’t hurt that most of our current directors and film writers have, quite rightly, lionized Mr. Coppola, Mr. Scorsese, Hal Ashby, et al. Who wouldn’t want to inherit their bully pulpit? “Part of my whole career plan,” said Mr. Soderbergh, “was to pretend it’s 1974 and that you can make movies for adults and they’ll show up.”

Mr. Mottram is certainly not the first person to make the connection. If there’s one thing that film writers have in common with the industry they cover, it’s that ideas for articles and books are recycled, reinvented and dusted off for new generations, like so many movie remakes and sequels. But Mr. Mottram is the first to make a sustained argument based on the content of the films. He mostly leaves out the morass of industry deals, behind-the-scenes tussles and box-office grosses, the insider dope expertly peddled by Peter Biskind in Down and Dirty Pictures (2004)—and again by Sharon Waxman in Rebels on the Backlot (2005).

At first glance, there seems little difference between Mr. Mottram’s book and Ms. Waxman’s, whose subtitle (“Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System”) bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Mottram’s. Whether the “mavericks” conquered Hollywood or simply took it back seems too small a difference to warrant two separate tomes in just two years. But where Ms. Waxman sees a disparate crew of independent directors, Mr. Mottram sees an interconnected posse of filmmakers dedicated to inheriting the mantle of New Hollywood. And he relegates biographical material to a supporting role.

Sundance Kids reminds me most of Geoff Andrew’s Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American Cinema (2004). Mr. Andrew covers some of the same ground, focusing on Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Tarantino but adding the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, John Sayles, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch—all directors whose careers flourished in the 80’s. Unlike Mr. Mottram, Mr. Andrew situates his collection of directors in a broad context: “The history of the American cinema is littered with free spirits who, rather than merely conform to the escapist ideals fostered by mainstream Hollywood, strove to bring a personal vision to the screen and, in so doing, created lasting works of art that transcend the narrow definition of film as entertainment, pure and simple.”

This points to a disconnect in Mr. Mottram’s book: Though he focuses on the films, the real throughline (as with all things relating to Hollywood) is money. The 70’s were the last time that artistic and financial success intertwined in a splendid symbiosis. This was before the onslaught of the blockbuster and the utter bomb of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Though Mr. Mottram’s “mavericks” want to make good movies, they also want to make good money. They’re different from David Lynch or Spike Lee, auteurs destined (until recently) to stay on the fringe. Mr. Singer, whose The Usual Suspects was both a commercial and critical success, says his agenda was “to bridge the gap between mainstream and independent, by doing an interesting film on a large canvas, the way it was back in the 1970s.” With X-Men, Mr. Singer single-handedly revived the comic-book movie while drawing critical praise.

It’s perhaps ironic that a book about the substance of movies ultimately depends on the money they make. But I guess that’s the point: Good directors know how to blend the two, how to make both goals harmonize. And it’s this aim, I think, that separates the two decades, at least in spirit. Sundance commodified independent filmmaking for the studios; it branded it in a way that’s different from the films made in the 70’s. Moreover, the 70’s were a time of radical political and social change. And don’t get me started on the drugs ….

“I just think you can’t repeat the political films of the ’70s today because the political climate is different,” said Mike De Luca, the New Line executive who greenlighted both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. “People want entertainment. They’re into having a good time. If you’re going to be satirical or angry today, I think you’re Magnolia or you’re [Alexander Payne’s] Election. It’s a different time … the ’70s were about the time those artists were coming of age in, and you can’t duplicate that. We are living in a very ironic, weird kind of age where nothing is shocking anymore.”

Mr. Mottram may have passed up an opportunity here to draw a stronger conclusion from the movies being produced by the Sundance Kids. He clearly and energetically makes a case for their success, but he doesn’t make any larger statement about what, if anything, links them thematically.

After seeing I ♥ Huckabees, the critic Philip French lambasted David O. Russell’s film as “a lesser product of ‘the new whimsy,’ that school of surreal, absurdist comedy to which Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson belong.” To which Mr. Mottram replied: “As derogatory as French’s comment is, it does indicate that Russell and Co. are being seen as an unofficial group or ‘school.’” (A Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.)

As it happens, Mr. French’s remarks are echoed by one of the Sundance Kids, Sofia Coppola: “[The directors of the 70’s] really did seem like they were putting their necks on the line and now it seems safer—nobody’s marching into the jungle to make a movie.” Perhaps Mr. French and Ms. Coppola are on to something; perhaps the films that we celebrate now will ultimately appear frivolous to future generations. But these questions are not addressed by Mr. Mottram; he’s too busy, for better or worse, with the past.

Jake Brooks is an associate editor of The Observer. The Little Guy Makes It Big!  A Critic’s Recycled Storyline