This dissertation argues that contemporary American independent cinema needs to be theorized in a new way. Film criticism has traditionally defined independent film in one of two ways: financing (which, as we see by George Lucas’ independently financed _Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith_ , is not an adequate approach) or anti-Hollywood content (which is problematic because it only explains what this cinema is not, rather than what it is). Instead, I argue that contemporary American independent cinema is best defined in terms of style. This style may best be described as dysphoric (a state of anxiety or restlessness specifically constructed for the spectator). Building from David Bordwell’s analysis of film form, I show how the dysphoric style structures the aspects of 1) narrative causality; 2) temporal relations; and 3) spatial relations. Such a style arises from and conveys the nihilistic themes that characterize contemporary American independent cinema.
Chapter 1 examines narrative, arguing that the dysphoric style constructs narratives with loose causality, ambiguity, unresolved gaps, an open ending, and passive characters devoid of clear goals. Looking closely at the film Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998), I explicate how its narrative is distinct from a film with similar themes, but which arises from a completely different group style, A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001). Comparing and contrasting the pair of films in this and subsequent chapters allows for greater illumination of the distinct nature of the dysphoric style. I also provide additional examples of independent films in this and the following chapters to substantiate my argument. Chapter 2 examines the realm of temporality, arguing that Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001) constructs time in a way that heightens ambiguity and leaves unresolved narrative gaps, something quite different than Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) which I show to be a mainstream film, despite its reputation. Chapter 3 looks at space, while providing a critique of Bordwell’s account using more recent scholarship. I argue that dysphoric space is fragmented, unstable, unclear, metaphoric, and subjective. Here SLC Punk (James Merendino, 1998) is revealed as being spatially dysphoric, while Mallrats (Kevin Smith, 1995), a film often considered independent, is really only performing the same old classical maneuvers. Chapter 4 describes the evolution of the dysphoric style, presenting a case about how it morphed from the existential styles of film noir and European Art Cinema of the 1960s. I also demonstrate how the dysphoric style in turn influences its own neighboring contemporary cinemas. This dissertation provides a new way to conceptualize, theorize, and discuss the phenomenon I am calling contemporary American independent cinema. It enables a more nuanced understanding of its films. It provides an opportunity to notice how contemporary American independent cinema intersects, informs, is distinguished from, and is influenced by other cinemas. Most importantly, it allows us to understand U.S. culture in a more complex manner by seeing how this cinema not only reflects nihilism, but produces it.