Celluloid Mavericks:A History of American Independent Film By Greg Merritt (Thunder's Mouth Press,416 pages, $18.95)
Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film By Emanuel Levy, (NYU Press, 565 pages, $34.95)
Sundancing By John Anderson (Spike Trade, 288 pages, $12.50)
But is that what really happened? A core group of doubters suspects the whole thing was essentially a marketing concept?one designed to enable creative people with few power connections to get personal movies made and seen, then move up to something with a fat budget, stars and a trailer. Whichever rhetorical camp theorists fall into, they rarely dispute the use of past tense in the above paragraphs. Whether the American indie film phenomenon was mostly real or mostly hype, the consensus is it's dead (or at least mortally wounded). Faced with irrelevance, the word "independent" has morphed and now apparently refers to any film with a dash of personality and artistic ambition, even if a major or mini-major distributed it. Meanwhile, hardcore indies like Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum and Scott King's Treasure Island are lucky to get booked into a dozen theaters nationwide before hitting video stores (most of which will only stock one copy). Out-of-nowhere labors of love usually don't get that far, because they're made by amateurs (many of them untalented) and because the system is rigged against them. (If you think digital filmmaking and the Internet will change things, better put down that bong, kid; optimists made the same predictions about cable tv and multiplexes and look how that turned out.)
You know a cultural phenomenon is over?or mutating into something else?when knowledgeable writers who were in the thick of it publish books trying to put things in context. There are three such books on shelves right now: Newsday critic John Anderson's Sundancing, Variety critic Emanuel Levy's Cinema of Outsiders and screenwriter Greg Merritt's Celluloid Mavericks. They have distinct styles and strategies and focus, respectively, on recent events, critical context and sociological history. Sundancing is the most immediately relevant and the slightest?less a book than a notebook, light on criticism and analysis and heavy on interviews with players and comers.
With the exception of film producer John Pierson's Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, no book about the indie film movement has etched a keener portrait of the Darwinian spectacle that is the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance was supposed to create a nurturing community of artists, but Anderson's version sounds more like a shark tank. Filmmakers, producers and studio reps all seems to share one sentiment: sadness that the event makes them treat almost everyone outside their immediate circle as a rival or potential rival.
Sundancing describes a paradise lost that maybe wasn't much of a paradise to begin with?a snowy hellhole where industry yutzes take cellphone calls in the middle of screenings, sometimes to talk to people sitting on the other side of the theater; where a name actress like Diane Lane gets treated like crap by a coffeeshop waitress because she's acting like a regular person, not a star; where logjam scheduling, transportation problems, mind-numbing p.r. stunts and the media's herd mentality conspire to crush all movies except the ones that are believed, for some mysterious reason, to possess "heat."
Dirt is dished. Elvis Mitchell admits getting off on the power of being a juror; director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) spews bile at audiences that act like "they're in their own living rooms"; Home Page director Doug Block expresses incredulity that Brothers McMullen prizewinner Ed Burns was ever taken seriously. ("A more talentless filmmaker is hard to find... Clueless as a director and one of the worst writers going.")
Village Voice critic Amy Taubin, a documentary juror in 1991, admits practicing scorched-earth tactics to keep Barbara Kopple's labor chronicle American Dream from winning over Jennie Livingston's drag queen portrait Paris Is Burning. (The films eventually split the award.) If the political agendas don't grind filmmakers down, the overall meat-market vibe just might. Jeff Lipsky, cofounder of October Films and head of acquisitions for Samuel Goldwyn Co., tells Anderson: "Here's a man, [Sundance founder] Robert Redford, who for decades has...eschewed the whole competitive notion of the Academy Awards, and now asks first- or second-time filmmakers, who may have stolen, scrimped, saved, borrowed their way into a nominal production budget, to go to Park City and get thrown into competition with each other [in] this barbaric, Roman-gladiator competition... And in the press the next day they don't list the losers, they list the winners. So not only are you a loser; you're damaged goods."
But then, isn't that what independent cinema always was?a haven for damaged goods by the film industry's rookies, misfits and losers? The title Celluloid Mavericks amounts to a qualified yes. Merritt's book covers a century's worth of off-center cinema, including 1890s nickelodeons, 1940s chitlin-circuit black films, Sam Fuller's genre-busting work in the 50s and 60s, blaxploitation and hardcore porn in the 70s and the Sundance wave of the 80s and 90s. The central idea of free spirits bucking the system unifies what might have been a too-broad historical text, and Merritt's tart wit enlivens the fact-packed narrative. His prose isn't merely amusing; it's lovingly polished, a real pleasure to read. He's honest enough to admit that most 70s blaxploitation films were garbage, "rarely as much fun as their posters or soundtracks." He coins a wonderful new phrase to describe the hillbilly flicks that flooded rural drive-ins around the same time: "Whitezploitation." He describes Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack as a movie about pacifists who "come to worship a man of violence," and declares, "the real hoot is seeing the messiah take off his boots and kick the grins off rednecks."
Sexploitation queen Doris Wishman's Deadly Weapons (1971) features, in the title roles, "the 73-inch chest of stripper Chesty Morgan. In the endless pursuit of crime-fighting, Chesty uses her breasts as lethal clubs." Of indie hero Henry Jaglom, Merritt rightly asks, "Is he a feminist for making movies about women and their concerns, or a chauvinist for making his women mostly concerned with men?"
This isn't one of those fuzzy, ruminative books where the author writes about whatever strikes his fancy and crams it into a bulging thematic suitcase after the fact. The preface carefully defines "independent" to mean any movie "financed and produced completely autonomous of all studios," and a "semi-indie" as a movie that received studio funding at some point. The definitions cast certain well-known American films in a fresh light. I didn't know, for example, that the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest didn't get a dime's worth of funding from any studio. Chapter for chapter and page for page, Celluloid Mavericks is an indispensable book, as entertaining as it is informed.
Cinema of Outsiders isn't as comprehensive. Though it provides some historical context, it doesn't go back as far as Merritt's book. To narrow his focus, Levy pinpoints the start of the modern indie film movement at somewhere around 1977, and he packs the bulk of historical analysis into the preface, doling out the rest in spoonfuls as the book unfolds. But then, Cinema of Outsiders was never supposed to be a survey; it's primarily a work of criticism, one that divides indie works by theme, tone and subject matter. (Chapter titles include "The New York School of Indies," "The Resurrection of Noir" and "The New Gay and Lesbian Cinema.") On this count, it's a success?less amusing than Merritt's book, but ultimately smarter and deeper, a personal work akin to David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Levy subscribes to the notion that "independent" is a term that transcends funding sources, having more to do with point of view and subject matter, and the filmmaker's control over the finished product. On first glance, this sounds like the "I know it when I see it" definition disdained by Merritt. But as Levy strolls through a quarter-century of idiosyncratic American movies, a definition gradually emerges. Independents, Levy believes, are primarily works of personal, expressive art rather than commerce; they lack "good" or "bad" characters, or at least characters who are easily defined as such; and they have (or ideally ought to have) some tenuous connection to the real events, emotions and anxieties.
Levy doesn't fall prey to self-pitying boomer nostalgia, disputes Susan Sontag's much-quoted assertion that cinephilia is dead, suggesting that it has simply changed form to include video rentals, cable and other outlets, and he insists that interesting new work is still being made. Levy is happy that black male filmmakers periodically get exposure at the indie level?along with the inevitable feature stories about a "renaissance" in black filmmaking. But he reminds us that black women are often shut out of directing jobs, and that black female characters are treated poorly by male directors of every ethnic persuasion.
Levy is one of the few critics to realize that John Waters "is not really a subversive filmmaker, because he shares most of the bourgeois values he satirizes. And, unlike the Jewish comic and filmmaker Albert Brooks, Waters is not an enraged comic, because deep down he wishes life were as simple as it seems to be in 'Leave it to Beaver.'" Levy's take on Sundance is less scathing than Anderson's: he suggests the festival has become a wellspring of much that's troubling in independent cinema, and a bit of a freak show in some ways, but he also suggests that despite its faults, the industry is better off with Sundance than without it. "Year after year, Sundance films teach Hollywood a valuable lesson: There's no need for a huge budget to make interesting movies. Often, the less filmmakers had to spend, the more they had to say."
That's another unifying thread running through all three books, along with the conviction that the 90s indie phenom is dead: the idea that a change in the landscape doesn't mean the end of the world, and that good movies will continue to be made. Celluloid may disappear and the Internet may replace theaters, but some industry truths will remain the same: filmmakers with money will still have the advantage in the marketplace, and filmmakers without money will have to rely on inspiration and guts. It's a vision thing.