American Independents: An Interview with Kyle Stevens

August 24, 2010

“Any contemporary study of independent film should start with Cassavettes,” says Kyle Stevens, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who will be teaching a class at Filmmakers in the Fall Semester entitled “American Independents: Cassavettes, Todd Haynes, and the Coen Brothers.”


Stevens’ class will cover the history of independent film, using these three filmmakers as case studies to illuminate the economics, aesthetics, and techniques of independent film. Cassavettes was the first modern filmmaker to work outside of the system, and to create “new forms of narrative” that challenge the expectations of viewers. He “pioneered the style,” bringing in new ways of filming and acting and incorporating improvisation, allowing his films to “capture the present moment.”

Todd HaynesStevens finds Haynes an exemplar of independent film because he “made us rethink ways we watch,” particularly the way we watch women, and how we identify with characters.

The Coen Brothers are the models of modern independent film. Stevens asks, “how independent are they if they are winning Oscars?” Yet they have their own style, and he lists one of their movies as among his favorites.

Stevens feels that independent films are accepted by the mainstream because “we enjoy having our expectations played with.” As life gets more complex, we are able to accept, and we often desire, “more complicated forms of storytelling.” Independent films are better suited to deliver this than mainstream films based on stock narratives. They also “speak to our senses of identity,” and are likely to deal with issues such as race and sexuality, which are of interest to a wide audience.

Coen Brothers

Stevens’ plan for the class is to have students watch films, cogitate, then spend class time analyzing and discussing. Themes that are of particular interest to Stevens are the ways people interact, the ways they present themselves, and the politics of identity. These topics, among many others, will be discussed in the class.

When asked about his favorite independent film, Stevens noted that he had recently seen the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” which he likes because it is “deeply funny” and, unlike other Coen Brothers movies, not cynical. It accomplishes being “sincere, but not trite.” In particular he is fascinated by the prologue, and says he “can’t wait to discuss it with the students.”


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