Succinct Cinema: Ugly Truths of Indie Film

A Bostonian bartender in Los Angeles, Troy Duffy sold a film script for $300 grand, with several other lucrative deals immediately subsequent, and in all his pride and excitement, asked two film student friends and bar regulars to start documenting his life. Six years later, their relationship with him had completely degraded, but they stumbled upon something far grander than a beef between a trio of blue-collar men when they released the end product of that documentation, Overnight. Emerging from its own humble beginnings, at least on the part of the duo and not fellow filmmaker Duffy himself, Overnight assembles a dissection of American cultural mythos via Hollywood’s role in it, and their intersection with the reality and nuances of class system in this country.

The environment in which Duffy experienced his 15 seconds of fame was a complex, volatile one, the “go-go 90s” gripped with post-Tarantino, post Robert Rodriguez, post Kevin Smith hysteria, as described in Dorian Lynskey’s 2005 Guardian piece on Overnight. (Which is also the source for all direct quotes from Overnight directors Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith provided in this piece.) If you were to define the origin for a lot of the worst stereotypes about independent filmmaking and filmmakers, this same setting would reasonably be where you first look, where Tarantino-imitator was a concept coined for a variety of equally shallow, equally ugly works that collectively still received more of a spotlight than numerous less flashy creations from less volatile creators who had to struggle to compete with not only the appointed single paragons of their communities (Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, etc.) but these various mediocrities as well. The artist still stuck working in the underground isn’t afforded the same flexibility that men like Lee or Tarantino received and receive for their limitations and flaws both personal and artistic simply for having already claimed their new positions of power. Maybe genuine talent shouldn’t earn as much power and leeway as it does, not when so many of equal or greater talent can still be neglected. Just looking at this same era of filmmaking, consider people like Kasi Lemmons and Gregg Araki, neither of whom ever even got close to the opportunity Duffy had and are continuing to scrounge and scramble for each project 20 years later. They are but a small fraction of the unseen visionaries of Hollywood.

Strictly maintaining the dichotomy of awareness for smaller filmmakers to be between these New Royals of the 90s and their imitators allows for the erasure of such a vast swath of creators and creations of genuine variety and import. An illusion is maintained as if the minorities who break through are the only ones even attempting to instead of a tiny percentage of the total. As long as outright awareness of the true totality of striving, meaningful artists is kept to a minimum, both the successes and failures that do get the spotlight can together self-evidently “justify” who is rewarded and who is kept out, as if it isn’t so often deeply arbitrary and outright exclusionary. All the while, the stories that get the resources to be told will more often than not reinforce the narratives the powerful want to be told, stories that allow us the public to believe in the class system as it is, taught to desire disproportionate success, disproportionate wealth, and believe that we have access to it, that it can be and is earned rather than actively denied and kept out of reach more often than not.  The system can on all fronts obfuscate how it actually functions, all of the actual severe barriers of entry to success in the industry, the desperate need for networking and connections even for the ostensibly independent artist who is in turn forced to contend with or tolerate those hostile to their presence via prejudiced or predatory perception and behavior.

Let’s go back to those big 90s directors again. Many famous popularized aspects of the narratives around their respective successes are notoriously distorted if not outright inaccurate, especially their shared perception with Duffy of ‘overnight success’, going back to the systemic function of these myths that I described. Reservoir Dogs was the product of roughly a decade’s worth of building up connections and relationships in the industry. Rodriguez’s El Mariachi becoming famed for being made with only $7000 doesn’t account for the $200,000 funding applied in post-production from distributor Sony before the public ever viewed the picture. There isn’t as much mythology to Smith and Clerks, but there is the long shadow cast by his film being bought right after Sundance by Harvey Weinstein, whose influence on his career Smith shares with Tarantino and Rodriguez, and indeed Duffy1 was once lined up to be the next man for the recently convicted rapist to uplift into stardom. What is the fast track to success truly worth if it is constructed atop the support received from a true monster? If it hinges on the neglect, knowing and otherwise, of all manners of abuse towards fellow artists.

Duffy on the surface and ever so briefly lived everything we as the public want to believe about the experience of independent artists, a meritocratic plucking out of the ether through sheer strength of craft that would provide the same kind of connections and resources his indie film forebears had worked for and ‘earned’. He got to be the face of the American Dream in a pure and effortless form, just as swiftly and effortlessly went on to encounter and embody every aspect of the underbelly of that American Dream, living up to every worst possible fear and expectation one might have about the direction of said experience both internally and externally. He possessed an  utter lack of any sense for how to behave in professional relationships and human interaction whatsoever, and shifted seamlessly from reflecting an artist ‘worthy’ of uplift to reflecting the harshest darkness that can be hiding within an artist and often is within many far more successful and powerful people, only without their sheens of privilege or merit to protect them.

Overnight not only conveys a subversive underdog narrative in which the ‘hero’ alienates2 all around him and self-destructs through sheer hubris. It goes so far as to challenge the audience further by, in the midst of documenting Duffy’s capacity for ruining relationships through his abrasive ego,3 eventually putting them into a position where all instincts are defied and Harvey Weinstein is the more sympathetic, or at least understandable, figure in the story’s conflict. Duffy’s capacity for poisoning the naturally sympathetic, position of lesser power he was in creates a confrontation for the viewing audience to consider the difference or lack thereof between him and the worst of what he’s clashing against, and from there the understanding that one begat the other.

(I wrote the original draft of this piece more than a year before the full public exposure of Weinstein’s crimes, so revising and revisiting it, and this section in particular almost four years later is, to say the least, a hell of a thing.)

This sort of viewership experience receives even greater complication via the intersection of economic class with race and privilege as called to mind by comparing Overnight with Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker, in which Iraqi immigrant Muthana Mohmed runs into similar, though less heightened, territory as Duffy did when his script was bought. Mohmed ultimately displays that he’s absorbed a tremendous sense of privilege and lack of awareness from wealth and life in America, seemingly contradicting expectations one might have based on his social class and thus leading one to a better understanding of media culture’s role in crafting twisted forms of ‘class solidarity’ in this country, embodying the understanding that some Americans live and self-perceive not as the poor but as the temporarily not-rich as a product of the narratives they’ve been sold. From there, his misbehavior only enables the establishment to justify their methods to keep “outsiders” remaining outside with no responsibility for their influence or acknowledgment of just how similar he or Duffy is to any of their own vanguards.

Troy Duffy. In all his arrogance vastly outstripping his shallow sense of artistic ambition and creativity, his attempts to cultivate a Fuck The Man persona that spoke more to his desperate need for attention than the earnest disaffection of the working class he was born from, his capacity for swallowing any form of encouragement received and converting it to fuel that solely amplifies his natural toxicity, he was a mirror held up to all practitioners of self-mythologizing, the worst of all being Hollywood culture itself and longstanding figures of its own toxicity and maintaining of power imbalance like Harvey Weinstein, that they soundly rejected and shattered upon the floor for they could not bear to witness themselves clearly.

 

This work has been edited and republished from a 2016 college essay.

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