Great indie films in your living room

Cable channels are showing original, enlightened movies, even some you won't see at the art house.


March 17, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Local filmmakers have been howling for the past few weeks, ever since Comcast rolled out its new cable lineup and pulled the Independent Film Channel off the air in Baltimore. IFC still is unavailable on Comcast here, and the community is the poorer for it.

But there is another story that I was struck by while reporting that one: how much even such filmmakers as John Waters and Steve Yeager rely on cable television to see new movies. One of Waters' points was how important cable has become in bringing independent filmmakers and their often outside-the-mainstream voices into American living rooms. And Yeager, who has a Sundance Award for best documentary film, thinks this is an exciting and culturally important time in the relationship between cable television and filmmaking.

They are right in many ways, and the evidence is all around us.

The number of cable channels offering original films seems to grow month by month. Last week alone, two new cable channels went into the made-for-TV movie business with premieres of their first original films: ESPN with Brian Dennehy as basketball coach Bobby Knight in A Season on the Brink, and Court TV with Academy-Award-winner Mercedes Ruehl as a woman unfairly sentenced to prison under controversial mandatory sentencing laws in Guilt by Association.

But more important is the quality of many of the offerings -- and I don't mean just on HBO, which has been the gold standard of made-for-TV movies for the last decade or so. There now are several channels that offer edgy, original, enlightened films that can't be seen elsewhere. And sadly, in some cases, that includes art-house movie theaters.

Two great examples air tonight: The Believer, with Ryan Gosling as a religious Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi, and Wasted, the story of three teens in an affluent Texas suburb who spend most of their days and nights chasing a heroin high. Wasted stars Summer Phoenix and airs at 9 tonight on MTV, while The Believer airs at 9 on Showtime.

These days, the caliber of cable movies is nearly that strong almost every week. On March 24, BBC America offers Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise from director Danny Boyle (Trainspot-ting), starring the marvelous Timothy Sprall (Shooting the Past). It's written by Jim Cartwright (The Rise and Fall of Little Voice), and its take on the life of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman is in a league with Glengarry Glen Ross' depiction of a group of insurance peddlers.

On April 8, Lifetime premieres We Were the Mulvaneys, a moving adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates book about a Hallmark-card-perfect family shattered by the rape of their teen-age daughter. Tammy Blanchard, who won an Emmy last year as the young Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows, is even better here. And Blythe Danner's performance as the mother of the family is equally compelling.

Cable-network swap

The boom in the number of cable channels making movies partly is a reaction to changes at the major broadcast networks, according to Jeff Shell, president of the Fox Cable Networks Group.

"Over the last five to 10 years, the broadcast networks have declined with every sweeps and every quarter," he said during a press conference last month in Los Angeles.

"And, in the face of these declines, you've seen their programming change dramatically. It used to be that if you wanted to see a crazy game show or an outrageous reality show, you had to tune to cable. Now, those have become the staple of the broadcast networks. ... And that has created some huge opportunities, as the broadcast networks have ceded major strongholds that they used to program into."

Two areas that the networks mainly have abandoned and cable has embraced are documentaries and made-for-TV movies, Shell said -- with happy rating results for cable. ESPN, for example, attracted an audience of 4 million for On the Brink last Sunday, one its largest audiences ever. And the sports channel did that opposite the 9 / 11 documentary on CBS, which was seen in one out of four American homes. Competition does not get tougher than that.

Most important, though, is that the best of these movies enrich the medium. Exhibit A: The Believer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, but couldn't find theatrical distribution.

As Entertainment Weekly put it in an article that excoriates "groovy" art-house distributors such as Miramax and Paramount Classics for their cowardice: "But the cachet [of the Sundance prize] and critical praise have been no help in attracting a theatrical distributor willing to risk money and reputation on as 'alienating' and 'controversial' a topic as the intersection of serious bigotry ... and serious religion."

The Believer tells the story of 22-year-old Danny Balint (Gosling), a highly intelligent but deeply troubled neo-Nazi. The film opens with Balint stalking a yeshiva student on the subway and brutally beating him in an alley.

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