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.