Category Archives: Books

100 American Independent Films

100 American Independent Films

Format: Book

Author: Jason Wood

Publication date: 11 September 2009

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (BFI Screen Guides)

Paperback: 272 pages, 2nd edition

The second edition of Jason Wood’s 100 American Independent Films arrives at a critical industrial juncture for the American independent sector; the economic slump of the past year has seen the Hollywood studios almost entirely withdrawing from the ‘speciality’ business, leaving genuine independent financiers and distributors to flounder on the sidelines, struggling to secure screens and attract audience attention. Wood acknowledges this in his new introduction, observing: ‘The recent economic climate has led to a process of consolidation in Hollywood, with production being scaled down and the activities of specialist divisions frozen or closed.’ Since the publication of Wood’s revised text, Disney announced the downsizing of Miramax, which even in its post-Weinstein era was still the market leader among the boutique divisions, scoring critical and commercial success with such films as Steven Frears’s The Queen and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men until its corporate parent decided that competing for Oscar gold was no longer beneficial to its bottom line. Yet Wood remains optimistic; he notes that the 2008 Sundance Film Festival received 3,000 submissions, suggesting that the independent sector is in rude health creatively, if not economically. He also draws parallels between the advent of digital cinema and the self-distribution methods practised by John Cassavetes, and speculates about a time when ‘a filmmaker will be able to deal directly with the cinema operator about showing his or her movie’, thereby eliminating the involvement of the studio or even the niche distributor.

Wood’s thoughts regarding the future of American independent cinema are argued concisely and convincingly but, as the title of his study indicates, this is a celebration of the films themselves, not industrial networks, and entries range from breakthrough hits to midnight movies and obscurities that many readers will want to track down. Some selections seem obvious or obligatory; Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider exemplifies what we ‘traditionally regard as key aesthetics of American independent films ‘, while George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is ‘permeated by a nihilistic sense of abject hopelessness and frantic despair’, and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets ‘bristles with the director’s ferocious energy and commitment’. The faux-documentary The Blair Witch Project seems to merit inclusion based on unprecedented commercial success (a domestic gross of $140 million against a cost of $25,000) rather than any enduring quality, while Wood’s praise for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is undermined by the suggestion that the director is ‘now little more than a skilled copyist.’

Certain movements suffer from a lack of representation; Wood is not as strong on African-American cinema as he is on suburban stagnation, so Boyz n the Hood, which was produced by Columbia Pictures, is included at the expense of more authentic examples of ‘new black cinema’, such as Matty Rich’s Straight out of Brooklyn or Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. However, Wood does not argue that his list is definitive, and is self-deprecating enough to reprint the preface from the 2004 edition in which Suture directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel bemoan the fact that Wood did not initially include their favourite American independent film, Tom Laughlin’s ‘pacifist-vigilante recipe’ Billy Jack, or any examples of their own work. The 2009 preface by Tom Kalin is more serious, with the director considering what is meant by the term ‘independent’ in an age of economic uncertainty, while also recalling his ‘watershed moment’, which came with Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, as well as the challenges he encountered while shooting his most recent film, Savage Grace.

The enthusiasm that Wood expresses regarding the future of American independent cinema is also evident in some of this edition’s 25 new entries. In Search of a Midnight Kiss, the first crossover success of the ‘mumblecore’ movement is ‘gently sprinkled with the melancholy that often trails in the waning hours of the year and the desperation to find happiness and have a good time’, while Wood also notes the ‘residual accumulation of brutality, recrimination and confrontation’ that is integral to Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories and the ‘creeping and almost suffocating sense of paranoia’ evident in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, an unsettling genre piece by a director who has been largely ignored beyond genre aficionados. Park City casts a long shadow over the independent sector, but Wood’s championing of Lynn Hersham-Leeson’s little-seen experimental documentary Strange Culture and Jem Cohen’s Chain, which was developed from a video-installation project, ensures that 100 American Independent Films also searches for the post-millennial successors to the underground movement, rather than simply serving as a check-list of Sundance success stories.

John Berra



Format: Book

Author: Alex Cox

Publication date: 1 September 2008

Publisher: Soft Skull (USA)

Paperback: 304 pages, illustrated

There are film directors who have written books and those who have had books written about them. There are also film directors who have found fame in the public eye either through their own mystique, reputation or self-promotion. Alex Cox has occupied many of these positions, and both through his film output and on the evidence of this book, deservedly so.

I encountered Cox as a TV presenter before I became aware of his work as a director: he presented the exemplary TV programme Moviedrome on BBC2 from 1987 to 1994, introducing a variety of obscure B-movies and other esoteric titles. Cox’s choice of films was limited to a long list given to him by the BBC and some were edited and shown in a less than perfect print, but this fitted with his own experiences as a filmmaker: his career was shaped by the whims of financiers, the locations he found and the Byzantine path his films often took before ending up on screen in some sort of final form.

X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker documents the making of 10 films Cox directed between 1978 and 2008. This choice in itself is a mixture of self-censorship and self-promotion - his first film Edge City, aka Sleep is for Sissies (1978), was actually a student film that probably wouldn’t have seen release outside of festival screenings anyway due to its 36-minute running time, and should perhaps have been relegated to the introductory passage. Elsewhere, the book omits his 1996 film The Winner, which he took on only as work-for-hire and has since disowned. That said, no matter what Cox’s own feelings are about that film, it is disingenuous to not mention anything about the movie, when the other feature films the director made during his career are documented in great length, with self-deprecation and much enthusiasm.

One of the main reasons Cox has written this book is to describe vividly what a challenge it is to make movies, particularly if they are not considered or intended to be mainstream (perhaps, one of the reasons for the exclusion of The Winner) and how it isn’t anything like the glamorous lifestyle depicted by the media. Anecdotes include nearly coming to blows with Harry Dean Stanton while making Repo Man to the perils and travails of working with rock stars in the ill-considered spaghetti-style Western Straight to Hell. While Cox talks with honesty about his own limitations and the myriad of problems a low-budget filmmaker comes across, he has censored some of his personal problems, which tempers the verisimilitude of the book, including sleeping through the first call of the day due to misuse of certain substances, which has been documented elsewhere by his peers and colleagues.

Cox is as erudite and charming a host as the author of this book as he was as a television presenter, and while some of his anecdotes of near-fatal stunts and risk-taking in the face of adversity serve more as a cautionary tale than promotional material for the film industry, it’s hard not to get involved in the adventure of it all. Like his introductions to Moviedrome, many of the stories about Cox’s filmmaking experience lead to digressions on facts, figures, other filmmakers, and Cox’s beloved spaghetti Westerns.

Illustrations are provided throughout; some productions have only a Spartan number of behind-the-scene photos, while others are accompanied by Cox’s own sketches and comic strips. While the director’s visual style isn’t as idiosyncratic or as important to an appreciation of his work compared to someone like Terry Gilliam, it would be fascinating to see a much larger collection of Cox’s comics and doodles. It seems entirely appropriate that the unmade sequel to Repo Man - Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday - has just been realised as a graphic novel. My own favourite Cox film is Death and the Compass (1992), which started life as a TV movie then was expanded to feature length - the reasons why are explained in X Films. His first feature, Repo Man (1983), had its (copious) swear words redubbed when shown on TV, including the infamous new expletive ‘Freaking Melon Farmer!’ Cox himself is fond of this version, but neither the PG version of Repo Man or the shorter (better) cut of Death and Compass are available on DVD, and so exist only as memories (or video tapes for the lucky few) for people who saw them on transmission. Reading X Films is like recalling alternate versions of the director’s movies; it casts the end product in a different light and leaves you wanting more. While the book’s shortcomings can be laid at the hands of its author, you could say the same ultimately of his films, and overall, like the finest entries in the director’s career, X Films is a startling, engaging and occasionally hilarious volume that’s well worth a read.

Alex Fitch


Naked Lens: Beat Cinema

Format: Book

Author: Jack Sargeant

Publication date: 1 January 2009

Publisher: Soft Skull, revised edition

Paperback: 288 pages, illustrated

As Jack Sargeant acknowledges in his introduction to Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, to offer a definition of ‘Beat’ is inherently problematic. The term carries with it a number of political, philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic possibilities and connotations, and is deeply rooted in the underground culture of post-war American society, with such novels as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ representing its popularly celebrated literary legacy. Sargeant’s Naked Lens, which is now in its second edition, is a unique exploration of the relationship between the Beat Generation and the medium of cinema, and the early influence of the literary movement on American independent film. Through his discussion of significant shorts and features, and interviews with such Beat filmmakers as Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, whose Pull My Daisy (1959) is often cited as the first Beat film, Sargeant offers an enlightening account of a spontaneous cinema which occurred on the social margins, yet eventually penetrated the cultural mainstream and proved to be a profound influence on such directors as David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. Naked Lens benefits from a structure that is at once loose yet purposeful, providing a sense of Beat cinema as both a wilfully experimental art form and a closely-knit community with a genuine sense of social engagement.

Part One, ‘Searching for a Free Vision’, considers the roots of Beat cinema in Pull My Daisy, which was written by Kerouac, and the emergence of avant-garde activity in San Francisco in the early 1950s, alongside the films of John Cassavetes, Taylor Mead, and Jack Smith, the latter of whom intertwined Beat culture with camp in his exotic Flaming Creatures (1963). Part Two, ‘The War Universe of William S. Burroughs’, focuses on the influence that the author of Queer and Junky had on experimental cinema. Although more conventional accounts of the Beat Generation have chronicled the life and work of Burroughs, most notably Graham Caveny’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs and Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel, the second part of Naked Lens is a fascinating insight into his collaborations with Anthony Balch and Ian Somerville, which were rooted in the ‘cut up process’ that had been devised for literary purposes at the Beat Hotel. The original incarnation of this method entailed cutting through a pile of old papers, creating montage and juxtaposition within the confines of the written word, and Sargeant provides an analysis of how this technique was appropriated to cinema, with Burroughs appearing in, and providing the narration for, such non-linear films as Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1967). Burroughs did not associate himself with the Beat Generation, often insisting that, although he was close friends with Kerouac and Ginsberg, his writing and outlook were distinctly different to those of his contemporaries, but Sargeant illustrates his importance to Beat cinema, discussing David Cronenberg’s polarising adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), alongside Nick Donkin’s The Junky’s Christmas (1993) and Philip Hunt’s Ah Pool is Here (1994), a pair of short films that encapsulate the surreal humour of Burroughs’s writing in animated form.

In the tradition of Beat culture, Sargeant does not provide a conventional conclusion to Naked Lens, reaffirming his theory that this is an ongoing movement which manifests itself in a variety of texts, both literary and cinematic. He discusses the milieu with enthusiasm, including such affiliated figures as Peter Whitehead and Conrad Rooks, but resists the temptation of myth-making to instead elaborate on the creative process and cultural context of Beat cinema, making Naked Lens as much of a map of its underground networks as it is a celebration of its subversive spirit.

John Berra