Credit: Randall Michelson/

With its giant white tent on the sunny Santa Monica, Calif. beach, and the throngs of black-suited, fast-talking Europeans smoking outside, one could easily mistake the Independent Spirit Awards for a Los Angeles annex of the Cannes Film Festival. The event certainly took on an international flavor this year, with The Artist — which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival — taking home four awards, including Best Feature, Best Male Lead (Jean Dujardin), and Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius). (Check out the full list of winners here.) The bulk of the folks from The Artist only made it to the Indie Spirit tent in time for Hazanavicius’ win, driving directly from the airport after flying in from the César Awards in France. Actress Penelope Ann Miller, who has a small supporting role as the haughty wife of Dujardin’s silent movie star, ended up accepting both her co-star’s award and Guillaume Schiffman’s award for Best Cinematography.

Should The Artist also prevail at the Academy Awards on Sunday evening, as most everyone predicts it will, the silent film will be only the first film since 1986’s Platoon to win the top prize at both the Indie Spirits and the Oscars. Some apparently call this record the Indie Spirit “curse,” but the entire point of these awards are to be an iconoclastic, irreverent awards alternative to the Big Hollywood pomp and circumstance of the Academy Awards. Other than Best Supporting Female winner Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), virtually every major winner of the Indie Spirits is an Oscar nominee, and a great deal of them are favorites to win on Sunday. Does that seem like much of an alternative?

The show was, at least, a brisk one, clocking in at just over two hours, an unusually short time span for any awards show, let alone one with no limits on acceptance speeches. Before the festivities officially began, attendees lingered outside near a phalanx of sponsor pavilions (Audi, Nokia, Piaget, Jameson, ELLE), some available to regular ticketholders, some only to people with special sponsor badges. Inside the tent, many gladly availed themselves of the open bar — which officially opened at 11 a.m. PT — and genially mingled with indie filmmaking VIPs. With six films and 14 nominations, Fox Searchlight had by far the greatest presence (I counted at least six tables). The Descendant‘s co-writer-director Alexander Payne appeared to be first among equals, his jacket off and shirt-sleeves rolled up as he chatted up well-wishers just a few feet from the stage.

Host Seth Rogen certainly embraced the Indie Spirits’ irreverent reputation, first by joking about how irrelevant winning an Indie Spirit Award is: “If anything, it proves you’ll work for nothing.” Much of Rogen’s humor had little snap beyond being R-rated, including a pretty funny run of jokes about how Michael Fassbender’s impressive member measured up against Harvey Keitel’s in Bad Lieutenant. But one joke really did bite: “Horrible bigot” Brett Ratner (Rogen’s words) really wishes he’d been hired to produce the Grammys instead of the Oscars: “You say a few hateful things, they don’t let you within 100 yards of the Oscars. You could literally beat the s— out of a nominee, they ask you to perform twice at the Grammys.” Interestingly, that joke made it onto IFC’s evening broadcast of the Indie Spirits completely intact. But Rogen’s joke about Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s Elizabeth Olsen got cut-off halfway through. We heard this part: “I learned there’s a whole other Olsen this year. Where were they hiding her? She’s the best one!” But the TV broadcast cut out Rogen’s final punchline (which I’m likely paraphrasing a bit): “I can’t believe she’s the mistake!” Olsen, to her credit, appeared to be laughing.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

All told, Rogen neither crashed-and-burned nor really stuck his neck out enough to make any lasting impression, and he pretty much disappeared after opening the show. Perhaps that’s just as well, since the audience quickly started dispersing after the show stopped for its first brief ad break, either heading out to the mobile restrooms outside, chatting up friends at other tables, or heading back to the VIP sponsor pavilions that circled the main tent.

As it was, the show rarely broke away from a bare-bones awards show format — i.e. introduce presenters, present nominees, announce winner, acceptance speech, repeat until finished. Comedy-folk duo Garfunkel and Oates (i.e. actresses Kati Micucci and Riki Lindhome, pictured) did a cute ditty about how depressing the six Best Feature nominees are. My Morning Jacket and K’Naan, meanwhile, each performed for no apparent purpose other than they said yes when asked. Patricia Clarkson toasted late indie film exec Bingham Ray, though no other “In Memoriam” montage was featured.

The most pointed, and peculiar, break in the flow of the show were the four thank-you videos played by emerging filmmakers who had won financial grant awards bestowed by one of the Indie Spirit corporate sponsors. The sentiment was certainly noble — financially encouraging artists who most need the money — so why segregate them from giving their thank you from the stage? And why force these filmmakers to shoot their thank-you’s using Nokia’s latest smartphone?

Even with things humming along at such a gotta-keep-things-moving pace, the audience often barely appeared to pay attention to what was happening on stage. Rogen’s choice joke halfway through that nominee and scary-looking-dude Michael Shannon would “murder someone in this room” sailed right over the constantly buzzing crowd. Thankfully, the double win for Margin Call — the first, the pre-announced Robert Altman Award for the full ensemble, the second, the Best First Feature award for writer-director J.C. Chandor — did bring some brief jolts of excitement. The financial thriller enjoyed a successful simultaneous release in theaters and on-demand, and represents where the world of American independent cinema resides right now far more than a lovely black-and-white ode to the old Hollywood studio system that was shot largely on the Warner Bros. backlot.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

As The Artist racked up more wins, any interest that was left in the final outcome of the show rushed out of the tent like air from a puckered balloon. So thank goodness for Michelle Williams, who accepted her Best Female Lead award with a speech that cut to the heart of what the Indie Spirits should be about. With no notes, she talked about how her first Indie Spirit awards were 10 years ago, and how she wore her own clothes to that event, and cut her own hair for it. “But I still remember,” she said, “the feeling that, in this room, unlike others, that was okay, possibly even preferred.” She said she realized the tent was filled with “misfits, outcasts, loners, dreamers, delinquents, and drop-outs — just like me.” She concluded: “Thank you for supporting me and welcoming me and making me feel at home in this room and in this community, all the way back then, and now, when the only thing that I own that I’m wearing is my dignity.”

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The Artist
  • Movie
  • 100 minutes