The Chronicle Review

An Anthropologist Goes Indie


In the 2008 film "Frozen River," a struggling mother becomes part of a scheme to smuggle immigrants from Canada to the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River.
January 14, 2013
An Anthropologist Goes Indie


In the 2008 film "Frozen River," a struggling mother becomes part of a scheme to smuggle immigrants from Canada to the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Ask someone packing a parka for Sundance this month about independent film, and you're likely to get an argument. Ever since their flowering in the late 1980s, the nature of "indies" in and beyond the fabled festival has been debated. Today, what can one say about a movement that at one extreme champions the Ur-stories of filmmakers' maxing out their credit cards à la Kevin Smith's $27,575 for Clerks (1994), and at the other includes the films of studio subsidiaries like Sony Pictures Classics with their name actors and much healthier budgets? Is there a tone to the films that overrides such disparities?

Entering the fractious world of indies is a new and unusual interlocutor: Sherry B. Ortner. How did the well-known anthropologist come to write her latest ethnography on independent filmmaking?

The story begins years ago with Sherpas.

Ortner's early fieldwork in Nepal was the basis of several books, starting in the late 1970s and culminating in the ethnography Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (1999). Then came a shift that would eventually lead to Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

"I thought, either I'm going to write x-more-many Sherpa books or do something else," Ortner explains over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is a professor at UCLA. Then teaching at Columbia University, she turned close to home with research that became New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58 (2003), a study of her graduating class at Weequahic High.

That project was "very sociological," she says, tracking "real people on the ground and what happened to them." Wanting to take a wider view of American mores, she "settled on Hollywood as a font of certain kinds of major cultural themes."

At first, she planned a "Hortense Powdermaker redux," or a "re-study" of that anthropologist's Hollywood, the Dream Factory (1950). But she soon faced a major problem: studio access.

"I just couldn't crack it," she says. One executive she interviewed had qualms about her using any quotes. "We'd have to go through the lawyers," he told Ortner. "You don't want that, I don't want that." The scholar says she didn't "so much consciously give up on Hollywood" as she became more and more interested in the independent scene—its blossoming when it did, its social world, and the ways it defines itself.

Ortner argues that independent films, particularly the darker ones, are best understood as cultural critique. They grapple with the range of profound changes in American society under neoliberal capitalism, which she describes as "the more brutal form of capitalism that has become dominant in the United States since about the 1970s." This critique is most often implicit, not overt, at least in feature films. In turn, Ortner ties independent films and their particular form of realism or hyperrealism to Generation X, the first cohort to bear the brunt of what has been termed the "end of the American dream" and the decline of the middle class. She says that a majority of indie filmmakers were born in Gen X, give or take a few years. And those who pre- or postdate its parameters, roughly 1961 to 1981, reflect its influence.

Not Hollywood alternates thematic chapters on films "watched ethnographically" with interview-based chapters on the indie social world, including an intriguing take on how the cultural capital of a typically "blue chip" education shapes the work of indie producers. Mining self-perceptions in the indie community, Ortner finds that some of the "discourse of contempt" for Hollywood is genuine, some is posturing, and there's everything in between. After all, a filmmaker might diss Hollywood one day and sign a deal the next. Yet there is the indie distinction of stories written to challenge audiences and make them uncomfortable. One filmmaker she interviewed puts it bluntly. A film isn't worth anything to him unless it really "beats him up."

It's safe to say Ortner felt a bit beat up, at least in the beginning. She writes she was often "stunned or shocked" by the heaviness and relentlessly dark subject matter of many indie films. For the project she watched some 650 movies. Previously, the anthropologist says, she was a "normal American filmgoer," maybe going to theaters twice a month. In fact, that's vastly above the average for theater attendance. Still, Ortner radically upped her consumption to twice a week at the theater and, at the height of her research, five or six selections from Netflix each week. Those screenings were accompanied by a few great swallows of cinema at festivals, including once at Sundance. As she watched, patterns emerged.

For example, what did it mean when a swatch of indie films, including Happiness, L.I.E., and Capturing the Friedmans, seemed to take a morally ambivalent view of pedophilia? Ortner notes a recurrent trope in such films of absent or otherwise dysfunctional parents. "Whether any given Gen X filmmaker experienced parental divorce or other forms of destabilization of family life when growing up is not the issue," she writes. "The idea of radical family instability became in that era simply part of the zeitgeist." She widens the argument to the "dehumanized post-morality of the neoliberal economy." She doesn't see filmmakers endorsing that condition. "What they do seem to be saying," she writes, "is that the world is a very morally messed up and confusing place, and that we cannot go back to the white hats and black hats of the Hollywood melodrama. We need to be shaken up and disturbed by this state of affairs."

Elsewhere, Ortner, a founder of feminist anthropology, explores female directors' films centered on women. In movies that focus on working-class life, she finds parables for the fears of the middle class of falling into poverty. She spotlights the 2008 film Frozen River, in which an unforgettable Melissa Leo plays a working-class mother whose husband leaves suddenly, taking their money. Down to feeding her kids popcorn and Tang for dinner, she resorts to smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canadian border on the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Ortner says that despite her trepidations, she was "embraced" at the UCLA film school. And what of anthropologists? Will her new field be too far afield? In informal discussions, at least, she says, her colleagues seem excited about the book. She notes the enormous growth and transformation of visual anthropology. As anthropology has become less focused on the "exotic," she says, the ethnographic film has become more of what we think of documentaries in general.

Docs are a favorite genre of hers, particularly the politically progressive kind like Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, a 2007 film on the Iraq War that she deals with at length. "Maybe I'm an anthropologist because I love documentaries," she comments, "or the other way around." While features dominate most discussions of independent film, for Ortner, it was important that documentaries "were in the mix from the very beginning."

So is all this critique from the indies having any impact? The scholar is cautious even as she admits she left the question "hanging" in the book. "It's a reception answer," she says, "and a question of knowing what people are thinking and feeling out there. I don't have the data." Still she ventures some opinions.

"My students, are they all just going to see Batman? I don't think so," she offers. Assuming some are watching indie films, they are seeing a kind of confirmation and clarification of feelings they thought were personal and individual.