Book Review
By Richard Armstrong


Linda Lawson, Night Tide


Underground USA

Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon

Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider, editors

Wallflower, 2002. xvii + 224 pp. ISBN 1-903364-49-3, $19.95


Review by Richard Armstrong

underground-usa.jpgThis collection of essays brings texture and nuance to our understanding of postwar American cinema, as well as being an important contribution to our perspectives on some under-appreciated filmmakers. Characterized by distinctive strategies of production and exhibition and trading in representations and aesthetics that often differ radically from the conservative structures of Hollywood, the underground filmmaking that emerges here nevertheless interacts with Hollywood aesthetically, ideologically and institutionally. And of course, Hollywood and its underground ‘Other’ have both responded to the shifts and tendencies of American cultural history. This book makes us look again at what we mean when we talk about the American underground. Underground euphemisms like ‘cult’, ‘exploitation’, ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ are regularly used in the postmodern market place to describe well-known classics and high-profile releases. In an era in which arcane labels have become sexy ways of differentiating products, and domestic delivery systems have made celluloid arcana increasingly available to sustained scrutiny, Underground USA becomes a handy map of the American cinematic boondocks.
    The underground is tantalizing because it is knowable and obscure in equal measure. Pieces like Annalee Newitz’ on millennial ‘indie’ breakthroughs The Blair Witch Project (1998) and American Beauty (1999) sit alongside Jonathan L. Crane’s on Harry Smith, bringing fresh perspectives to mainstream experiment and new audiences to under-exposed work. Harmony Korine’s films have been available to the arthouse audience. Yet in Benjamin Halligan’s view, they violate the boundary between arthouse and avant-garde by failing to recuperate dysfunctionality as American films traditionally do and owe much to New German Werner Herzog’s interest in insanity and illogicality. Curtis Harrington moved from the underground into the industry in the 1960s, and the relationship between the experimental and exploitation wings of the underground is an aspect of the perennial traffic between underground and industry to which this book is especially sensitive. Doris Wishman’s work in the exploitation grind house of the mid- to late-1960s is usefully introduced in Michael J. Bowen’s piece in which the underground’s arthouse and titillation spheres are linked in such depictions of shocking and transgressive sexuality as ‘Chesty’ Morgan. Exploring an area notoriously charted by Andy Warhol in the experimental arena, Wishman’s ‘nudies’ took a sense of the absurd into downtown cinemas, eventually earning retrospectives and campus acclaim. As Bowen writes: “The marriage of avant-garde and exploitation remains an uneasy alliance. Film Studies, however, can only profit by looking more frequently into the basement — and not just the ‘underground’ — of the filmmaking experience” (p. 122).
    Sara Gwenllian Jones’ piece challenges official and academic perceptions of fandom as either deranged or heroic, finding fans supporting and using, as well as obsessing over, moving image texts. Further dismantling the 1970s ‘apparatus theory’ perception of Hollywood as capitalist behemoth, fans are less “doomed Davids firing their slingshot at an imperturbable Goliath” (p.173), than market-savvy producers collaborating in the creation of meaning. Aside from some striking instances in which fans generated DV derivatives of network TV shows and blockbusters that became industry calling cards, as Gwenllian Jones points out, many a Hollywood insider was once a fan. Indeed, by bringing a fractured but mysteriously fluid underground into public view, this book contributes to the popular discovery of American cinema’s dark corners carried out by mainstream works from Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks! (1996) to Walking and Talking (1996).
    Central to this collection is an appraisal of the unofficial images of the 1960s, an era of tumultuous change in the American cinema. That decade saw a welter of underground activity as exploitation and experiment jostled over the relationship between art and pornography, 16mm technology introduced new realisms, and the New American Cinema Group fêted the experimental avant-garde. As David James writes in his marvelous Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton UP, 1989), “The sixties alternative cinemas were built amid the ruins of an industry, but the unprecedented social maturity they bought to film was its autumnal ripeness” (p.348). Jack Stevenson and David Schwartz here offer accounts of the co-op movement and the New York efflorescence that bring historical shade and clarity to the distribution and exhibition sectors during this era.
    The underground’s allegiance to the mainstream is colorfully evoked in Troma Entertainment President Lloyd Kaufman’s foreword: “I’m not going to lie — I would cum in my drawers if a Troma film ever blow_job.jpgbecame a grand slam in movie history like Hitchcock’s Psycho” (p.xiii). It is a revealing statement, Psycho (1960) itself seeming to have imported grind house sex and splatter into mainstream cinemas. Yet Kaufman is the first to celebrate the underground’s joyous independence from the constrictions of “official” filmmaking. Driven by narrative, dramatic and aesthetic unity, predictable ideology, American cinema is traditionally thought of as a literal cinema, its literalness interrogated by exploitation and the avant-garde’s preoccupation with visuality. This book’s toughest assignment is to attempt description of the underground’s more visionary project. The assignment finds these critics, theorists, filmmakers and exhibitors pushing at the boundaries of film writing. Crane writes that Harry Smith “has left behind simple figures for the semiotic blizzard of wildlyheteroclite collages. Seemingly impossible to fully interpret, but a lysergic mindwash to watch…” (p.148). Similarly, for Halligan, Harmony Korine has imported a scabrous impressionism into that seeming contemporary paradox, the indie mainstream. “Because all that is not annihilated is being assimilated into the Neo-Underground” (p.160). Before Korine, Andy Warhol’s morbid and exploitative screen tests during the making of Blow Job (photo above; 1963) and I, a Man (1967) pushed the camera to witness eruptions of selfhood normally recuperated by genre or left well alone by the mainstream, according to Jack Sargeant. The notoriously grueling Empire (1964) is as much a reflection upon how audiences respond to images as it is upon how icons speak to us, an observation of Warhol’s that has become all the more relevant post-9/11. Proffering the American underground as a living adventure playground, this attractively produced and illustrated book goes a long way towards accommodating the American cinematic unconscious into the mainstream of film reception.


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Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute. He is the author of Billy Wilder, American Film Realist (McFarland, 2000), and contributes to publications including Audience Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Quarterly, and the Times Higher Education Supplement. His book on Realism appears from the Bfi in 2004 and he is currently working with Leslie Felperin, Steven Schneider and Tom Charity on The Rough Guide to Cinema, due to appear in 2005.