Conference Report: American Independent Cinema: Past, Present, Future. Liverpool. 8-10 May 2009

Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 16, February 2010

In his opening remarks, Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool), one of the principle co-organisers of the conference with Claire Molloy (Liverpool John Moores University), briefly explained the ambitious agenda for the conference speakers: they were to “map out” and “open up the field” of independent cinema studies with a specific emphasis on (re)examining and revising the established dichotomies between Hollywood and independent film, film-makers, and film studios.

A task this large signalled the first collaborative major international academic conference between the newly developed Liverpool Screen School of Liverpool John Moores University and the film department from the University of Liverpool, and reflecting this widened expertise base, the papers also varied considerably. The four Keynote addresses covered terrain as diverse as the evolving criteria for the term ‘independent’, Stanley Kubrick, ‘DataMining’ Inland Empire (2006), and the crisis/renewal of indie cinema. There were also fifteen panels, and they were equally spread around all notions of the term ‘independent’; examining horror, music, the ‘quirky’, race, exploitation, rotoshop animation, self perceptions, Hollywood majors, genre, Cassavetes, women, and speciality labels.

Despite the multiplicity of themes, Claire Molloy’s closing remarks accurately summarised the academic tendencies and interests examined in Liverpool, and I will use them in this report to discuss and draw parallels between individual papers. Claire noted that there was a marked usage of Foucauldian discourse theory in attempts to map out the boundaries of ‘independence’, and as such there was a distinct attempt by academics to problematise arbitrary limits and drive away from singular definitions. Janet Staiger (University of Texas, Austin) provided the opening Keynote address with a paper examining the evolving contexts in which definitions have been employed: “Independent of What? The Ideology of ‘Alternatives’ to Hollywood”. Drawing upon her earlier work with Bordwell and Thompson, Staiger mapped out a brief history of independent film production: from 1917 to the 1960’s, independent films were produced to be virtually the same as the films made by the majors. However, from 1960 onwards “the desire to make ‘independent’ mean more than industrial factors seems to have developed”. According to Staiger, this shift is partly prompted by the writing of the history of American cinema at the time. Inspired by theories such as the auteur theory, filmmakers started changing the definitions of their films from ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ to ‘personal’ and ‘independent’. Consequently, a dual-track history emerges of ‘New Hollywood’ and ‘New American Cinema’ which culminates, in the 1990’s, with the renewed majors beginning to take on small ‘independent’ films, with the eventual trading on the arbitrary definition of an ‘indie’ film as a brand/idea different to the mainstream…


The full 2,500 word version of this conference report is published in Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 16, February 2010, where you can read the rest of the article for free.

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