Like Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine before it, Juno is proudly carrying the “Little Indie That Could” torch straight into the New Year. It’s an irritating little film about a pregnant 16-year-old who’s supposed to be too smart for her own good, but who still wasn’t quite smart enough to buy a condom. Its soundtrack features a dizzying array of twee pop by the likes of Kimya Dawson, the Moldy Peaches and Belle and Sebastian, plus gems from Cat Power, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks and Sonic Youth, and, if nothing else, it’s certainly doing its part to foster some dialogue about the meaning of “indie” in both film and music.
Mark Asch: First, some taxonomy: Juno is not an “indie” movie. Juno is released by Fox Searchlight, a satellite company of the old-school Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox, itself a subsidiary of News Corp., whose founder and CEO is Rupert Murdoch. Somewhere along the line, “indie” stopped referring to the circumstances of a film’s production (the real independent films are the ones put out by postage stamp-sized distributors who regularly scramble to get their acquisitions a platform in the form of a week of screenings in any of the already overcrowded small theaters in any of the half-dozen cities in America where it’s possible to turn a profit exhibiting subtitled movies), and became an aesthetic distinction, referring to any movie with affected quirkiness and quippy dialogue. It’s roughly equivalent to how “indie music” now means “non-threatening white people with guitars.” You know, like the Juno soundtrack.
Mike Conklin: It’s probably my fault for inviting the editor of the film section, where the distinctions between indie as production method and indie as an aesthetic are only recently being called into serious question, but I can’t get myself too bunched up about it. For me, the whole debate went out the window when I found out that the Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me was on a major label. Or when Built to Spill and Modest Mouse signed to majors and just kept right on being… Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. As far as I’m concerned, and I think this might be an unpopular opinion, I’ve always taken the stance that “indie” is, in fact, an aesthetic sensibility. And what’s so striking about Juno is that they straight-up fucking mangled that shit in the film, with all the retardo dialogue, yet they managed to nail it on the soundtrack.
Mark Asch: If we were doing this in the film section I’d probably do a Nexis search and figure out how many years it’s been since we started describing movies as “Sundance indies,” but instead: Nicolas Rapold, who reviewed Juno for us, referred to “the soundtrack’s twee apocalypse,” which I agreed with as I was watching the film, because really the entire movie is a twee apocalypse, and the music, focus-grouped to perfection, complements it admirably — I can’t be sure because I’ve blocked most of it out, but I think I tried to swallow my own tongue during the Cera-Page singalong. But taken out of the cloying context of Juno… not so much. I have a pretty high tolerance for music to knit your boyfriend a sweater by, and there are some fine examples of it on here. Although Wes Anderson (an “indie” filmmaker I very much respect) wouldn’t be caught dead putting ‘All the Young Dudes’ in one of his movies — not that it’s not a great song, just that it’s the one Mott the Hoople song everybody already knows. Check Darjeeling Limited: ‘This Time Tomorrow’, ‘Strangers’ and ‘Powerman’. Definitely no ‘Lola’.
Mike Conklin: I agree with you, especially about Wes Anderson knowing when and where to dig a little deeper, but look at what’s happening here: with the steady mainstreaming of “indie” and the general growing popularity of nerd-culture, we’re left really having to search for things to complain about. Like, you just complained that they chose the most famous Mott the Hoople song. And others have complained that the Moldy Peaches and Kimya Dawson are has-beens. We’re setting the bar pretty high here, and the way I see it, this can go one of two ways: Either, in an attempt to make the line in the sand even more noticeable, nerds the world over will learn to keep digging, just like Wes Anderson, to make sure they remain one step ahead, or — and this is what I’m afraid is actually happening right now — people just start to walk away from all of it, writing off indie culture as something for boring white people or whatever, choosing instead to use all their energy rationalizing an appreciation for bad art. I’m afraid the backlash against things like Juno or the fucking Decemberists is causing people to abandon the ideals we’ve all grown up with, possibly just for the sake of being contrarians.
Mark Asch: I think that with the mainstreaming of indie, or the indification of the mainstream, or whatever, the issue is the commoditization of taste — that something that used to be personal and hard-earned and (relatively) private, and for all those reasons a source of genuine pride, can be acquired almost passively. That way lies complacency. You talk about trying to stay one step ahead, which is something that some people take to be one-upsmanship or inside baseball or snobbery, but I don’t think that’s snobbery, I think that’s curiosity. (I feel like you agree with me on this: you spend a large part of your life listening to and writing about new pop music.) Contrarianism and backlash, though, are ways of staying one step ahead without actually doing any work, basically just a lazy, self-congratulatory way of calling people out for being lazy and self-congratulatory. Not that I want to give Juno defenders any ideas here — critics are often accused, by aggrieved fans, of positioning themselves in relation to some or other work of art and its perceived fans, and as someone who spends a large part of my life, on and off the clock, watching and responding to movies as honestly and intelligently as I can, shit like that offends me, personally and deeply.
Mike Conklin: Well, it’s understandable that it would. But at the same time, the guiding principle here, in trying to get people to look beyond music and films that are marketed as indie as opposed to actually being indie (for music, look at something like Kings of Leon), is that people should be aware of and question how things are presented to them. I’d argue that, at this point, thanks to an increased tolerance for anti-intellectualism, or at least a shift in which topics are perceived as deserving of intellectual examination, it’s probably just as important for people to question the motives behind a critic’s dismissal of something like Juno as it is for them to question the public’s mass acceptance of it.
Mark Asch: In the end, if you like something you like it, and I hope for your sake and its you can justify your taste with a reasonable degree of sense and eloquence. But it’s important to note that the movie and its soundtrack have been targeted (by People More Powerful Than You Know) to fit an idea of “indie,” not indie the means of production or indie the aesthetic, but indie the marketing niche. That said, there are certain elements of the package that I like — and no, I don’t feel like a hypocrite for saying that — and maybe something like ‘All the Young Dudes’ will even push some teenager towards a more aware, free-thinking place. At which point his or her youthful enthusiasm for Juno will be a bit of an embarrassment. •