To say that the American independent film scene is the product of serendipity is an exercise in colossal understatement. Like a kaleidoscope clicking into place, the early 1990s saw industrial, cultural and social factors fall into alignment; one that produced an unprecedented demand for quirky and complex cinema. Emerging from the Sundance Film Festival, the US independent film scene grew into a distinctive and original creative movement. An entirely new and unique generation of directors emerged, including Richard Linklater, David O Russell, Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Although the subjects of their films range dramatically, there are undeniable threads ‒ beyond temporal adjacency ‒ that connects the work of the “Sundance Generation”. The unique character of these texts (a collection too small to call a genre, yet too wide-ranging to be a movement) was first identified by James Sconce in 2002(1), who outlined the cycle’s shared interest in eloquence, familial relations and social politics. However, above all else Sconce argued that these films are defined by their preoccupation with intellect. Accounts of this “smart” cinema cycle (for example, James Mottram’s Sundance Kids(2) have focused on industrial context, ignoring, or only briefly addressing the cycle’s common thematic elements. Consequently, it is refreshing to find a book that takes a more nuanced and delicate approach to analysing this moment of modern American film. Claire Perkin’s American Smart Cinema builds on Sconce’s account to dissect the key elements to what she calls the definitive “smart sensibility” (p. 3).
American Smart Cinema considers how reference, quotation and ironic detachment define the sensibility of the cycle. However, rather than using these points to outline a cinema of cynicism and disaffection (as Sconce did), Perkins demonstrates how irony is used to explicitly and strategically position the films within the history of popular culture (p. 13). Her premise is that, by taking an ironic and detached tone to its subject matter, smart cinema found a way to undermine traditional American film while still affirming its core values: human connection and optimism. In this way, the smart cycle is strategically sarcastic, deriding mainstream Hollywood while concurrently affirming its ideals. Perkins demonstrates how this postmodern approach to the politics of film creates a wry outlook that is “not entirely joking”(p. 29); detectable in the slightly skewed characters in The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001), Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994) and Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1998). However, smart cinema is not limited to metatextual sardonicism. Perkins outlines the key components of the cycle, namely: ironic detachment, a blank and apathetic tone, an episodic structure (as opposed to traditional act-based structure), strong musicality, wry sarcasm, economy of storytelling and an overwhelming focus on the abstract idea of family.
Perkins suggests that this interest in family and family politics stem from the increased divorce rate and interest in therapy culture that occurred in the formative years of smart cycle directors. Perkins draws this idea from the sceptical tone smart films take when considering “traditional” family structures, as seen in texts like The Royal Tenenbaums , Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) and The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005). Developing Deleuze’s thesis that disciplinary culture is in decline, Perkins demonstrates how smart films explore failed attempts to reinstate the “disciplinary family structure”(p. 81).In each of the works that Perkins considers, this rupture is presented dispassionately, revealing the strategic irony that allows the filmmakers to critique and affirm in equal measure. This tone points towards the key value which sets the cycle apart from current trends in American independent cinema (such as the mumblecore movement). Despite its apparent scepticism, smart cinema still acknowledges the importance of human connection, and in particular the richness and poignancy of familial connections. This comes back to an inner tension between the order of old disciplinary traditions and the chaos of a new period in society.
This becomes the foundation to Perkins’ larger argument: that through irony, smart cycle directors are able to simultaneously criticise and participate in mainstream American culture. Perkins writes that smart filmmakers are largely reeling from the destruction of the core family unit, and their films have consequently taken on the task of discerning the true meaning of family. Perkins shows how by affecting a blank, almost apathetic tone, smart cycle films present the best and worst aspects of traditional family values side-by-side, similar to a therapeutic pros and cons list. What is fascinating about Perkins’ account is that the sceptical/affirmative doublethink these films use works on a textual and meta-textual level. As Perkins later demonstrates, the filmmakers involved are as concerned with finding their place in film history, as their characters are with finding their place in a familial structure. They use ironic disengagement as “strategic positioning in relation to the history of cinema and popular culture”(p. 13).
The smart cycle was perhaps the last bastion of true authorship in modern mainstream cinema, where a single director could have pure creative input into their work. This fact allows Perkins to sidestep many of the criticisms of auteur theory, and instead explore how these directors have shaped their own voices and personal philosophy. Perkins argues that the way the cycle critically examines Hollywood cliché can be followed back to “a self reflexive concern with the notion of authorship”(p. 21). This effect of being dialogically engaged with film history, is further entrenched in the cycle by the serialization of smart films. Perkins claims that smart cinema creates ‘spiritual’ trilogies; with filmmakers making a string of texts that are each a discrete take on the same subject matter. The pseudo-trilogies of Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson, for example, each take the same basic subject matter (for Stillman it is the young American bourgeoisie, for Anderson dysfunctional family dynamics) and equally rehash, revisit and build on the films that began the series.
While similarity in tone and theme is undoubtedly a result of auteurism, it also has the effect of undermining the permanence of change and the teleology of a narrative. At a textual level, the episodic structure of the films Perkins discusses and their place in a trilogy, underlines the difficulty of permanent change. Characters seem to evolve, but only slightly. Building on research she originally published in The Velvet Light Trap(3), Perkins demonstrates the striking similarity between the young rich protagonists of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). The distinctly repetitive characterisation, she argues, is a comment on how the more things change; the more people stay the same. Causation itself is brought into question by the endless recycling and quoting redolent of smart cinema.
The crisis of causation enacted in smart cinema is the lynchpin of Perkins’ major philosophical thesis. Drawing on Deleuze’s action-image, Perkins identifies a key convention of smart sensibility: doubt over the permanence and possibility of change. The action-image, as Deleuze saw it, related to a character’s active response to their environment, where their action precipitated a new situation. Perkins shows that smart cycle films take this code and undermine it by ambiguously questioning the sustainability of the new situation. The cycle’s tendency to revisit and recycle its own plots (as in Stillman’s trilogy) and archetypes (as in Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson’s work) implies that change will always be impermanent, that life is elastic rather than plastic. As she carefully outlines, smart films close with a reprieve, not a happy ending (p. 68).
According to Perkins, the crisis of the action-image also affects the way characters are constructed and portrayed (p. 136). While Hollywood films have laboured to create characters that go beyond their actions (the family-man police officer and prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold tropes come to mind), she demonstrates that in smart cinema, a character’s actions are the entirety of their personality. The characters become apathetic blank slates, their choices emblematic and their actions the only way to divine an underlying personality. Perkins draws this out to reveal the cycle’s inclination to show, rather than tell. Indeed, a key aspect of smart cinema is that it asks to be ‘read’, its nomenclature referring as much to its intended audience as its characters. This desire to be read by the audience harkens back to the dialogical nature of the smart cycle, which Perkins has shown is always part of a larger conversation between the filmmaker and social culture. Indeed, the meta-textuality of the cycle is one of the most interesting aspects of smart cinema. As a dialectical sub-genre, these films take on the trajectory of their hyper-verbal actors. As Perkins writes, smart cycle characters externalise their existential crises, while the smart film itself explicitly searches for its place in cultural history (p. 13). Indeed, both sift through conventions, clichés and normative standards in a search for authenticity.
What is perhaps missing from American Smart Cinema is a critical appreciation for the hollowness of this search for authenticity at an industrial level. Smart films often create these moments of quiet sincerity, made all the more moving by the cynicism that bookends them. There is an important mirror here, where the sincerity of the individual films is surrounded by cynical economic intent. Most of the films Perkins discusses were produced in the wake of independent film’s burgeoning success. At the time that the cycle emerged, a pseudo-independent film was a potentially lucrative venture for the major studios; given that they were low cost and potentially high-grossing. Perkins suggests that the smart cycle was made with the intention of expressing a particular disillusionment with modern society and desire for the purity of human connection (p. 141). However, it was funded out of unbridled capitalist sentiment, a political position heavily derided in smart film.
Perkins is aware of a cognitive dissonance here, and briefly uses it to explore the limits of ironic detachment. The cycle, she states, cannot continue to hold its subject matter at a distance if it wants to create moments of authentic human connection that are affective (p. 97). What she does not discuss is that these moments were cynically designed to be affective; that the majority of them were made in the mould of earlier work (which was perhaps more legitimately independent) and had proven profitable. After all, much of the impetus for the cycle came from a renewed interest in independent film by major distributors. Due to its political sensibilities, smart cinema could only achieve its authentic poignancy in spite of these conditions. Given these circumstances, it is not outrageous to question the success and integrity of the cycle’s artistic endeavours. This divide between smart cinema’s aims and its context causes a political disconnect that I would argue even ironic detachment cannot overcome.
Although Perkins is wise to the limits of irony as a political strategy, she leaves aside questions of the integrity of the cycle. The book is never overtly critical of the creative aims of its films. In fairness, it is partly her even-handedness that makes the book such a rewarding read, as it sets it apart from most film scholarship, and contributes to its fast and entertaining pace. In further deference to Perkin’s equanimity, it bears saying that given the popularity and resonance the movement has had on the mainstream Hollywood culture, it certainly touched its audience.
Perkins is quick to point out the impact that smart cinema has had in film and television; citing new programs such as AMC’s Mad Men (2007) and Showtime’s Weeds (2005) as an indication that the smart sensibility has become mainstream (p. 158). In this way, American Smart Cinema shows that it is also poised to have a larger impact on the academic field. When Perkins indicates the sheer force that the smart cycle has had on western cultural sensibilities, she is also noting the importance of her extended critical inquiry. The crisis of causation is of particular interest, as she is breaking new ground in cultural studies on a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in mainstream film and television. It would be unsurprising to see her research continued into debates on quality television, a popular and emerging field.
Perkins has taken great care to make complex theorists such as Deleuze accessible to a lay audience, while still maintaining a scholarly engagement with the texts. Although the book is absolutely suitable for a general audience, it will be most rewarding to those with a background in modern American cinema, and is a valuable addition to the scholarship in this field. As Perkins’ work on the cycle shows, smart cinema does not want to tell a story. In response to a more culturally literate audience, its filmmakers want instead to make a point about the state of modern life. The study of American cinema is all the better for Claire Perkins having made hers.
Claire Perkins American Smart Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
- Jeffrey Sconce “Irony, nihilism and the new American ‘smart’ film.” Screen 43.4 (2002): 349-369.
- James Mottram The Sundance Kids: How the mavericks took back Hollywood. (New York: Macmillan, 2007). For further reading on the economic factors of the Sundance generation, refer to Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures : Miramax, Sundance, and the rise of independent film (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004) and Emanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. (New York: NYU Press, 2001).
- Claire Perkins. “Remaking and the Film Trilogy: Whit Stillman’s Authorial Triptych”. The Velvet Light Trap 61 (2008) 14-25.