Book Review: ‘Independent Cinema’ by D.K. Holm & ‘Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production’ by John Berra

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Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 18, October 2010

Holm’s Independent Cinema is a slight book at 158 pages and so, whilst it may
not cover the ground of a weighty tome such as Emanuel Levy’s Cinema of
Outsiders (New York: New York University, 1999), which in 600 pages attempts
to cover twenty-one years of the rise of American independent cinema from at
least twelve different social, cultural, political and ideological perspectives,
Holms has stripped down his argument and has arranged his book around what
he considers to be the four fundamental motivations for filmmakers to make
independent films: 1) to create an alternative to commercial storytelling, 2) to
use the film as a stepping stone to Hollywood, 3) to create a type of
autobiography, and 4) to create something that is truly independent. Each of
these themes are presented in individual chapters that take the format of a brief
discussion focussed on one or two specific directors, followed and supported by
examples drawn from their oeuvre, with some of the chapters including
interviews with the case-study filmmakers themselves.

The four chapters are bookended by lengthier sections that discuss ‘What is an
independent film?’ and ‘The future of independent cinema’, and at the end of the
book there are interviews with Lance Weiler, producer, writer, and director
of The Last Broadcast (Weiler, 1998), and Head Trauma (Weiler, 2006), and a
brief selection of independent film resources. However, what separates this title
from the myriad of other indie-centric titles is the inclusion of a DVD featuring a
54 minute documentary directed by Paul Cronin, entitled Film as a Subversive
Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (Cronin, 2003), an excellent documentary in
which the founder of Cinema 16 and The New York Film festival shares his
experiences of fleeing war-time Vienna, his socialist interests and how they tie
into his appreciation of art, and the founding of the most significant film society
in America for developing filmmakers that existed outside of the mainstream
that also introduced foreign language art films that were deemed ‘unethical’ by
an American censorship board that was trying to control the audience’s
consumption of the media in a post-Hayes Code democracy.

According to Holm, his “book attempts to define, or redefine if you will,
independent film, by looking at how the phrase is used in relation to a small
cadre of filmmakers” (34). This may appear to be a synecdochal method of
examination, looking at a part of something to explain it’s larger summation, but Holm opens his introduction with a brief explanation of the production methods employed within Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999), and then demonstrates how Lucas’s multi-million dollar beast potentially shares the
same theoretical ‘independent’ ground as a YouTube user called Lonelygirl15,
who is actually a hoax perpetrated by two male filmmakers. Holm concludes that
with the looseness of definition “independent cinema is something of a myth, a
bogus term, a false genre” (11).

Consequently Holm suggests that in being able to understand what independent
cinema is, it is useful to also define Hollywood film in opposition, and to
understand how technical and industrial ‘advances’ have shaped the indie world.
However, after a brief analysis, Holm realises that “What we have come to call
‘Independent Cinema’ has evolved from experimental works by filmmakers free
of corporate supervision to what amounts to a genre unto itself, but a dry,
predictable, enervated genre, closely stage managed by corporations” (33). This
remark is saturated in disappointment, and with it, Holm shifts the emphasis of
his thesis from a potential overview of the development of an independent film
industry and significant cultural battles that we see in book such as
Levy’s Cinema of Outsiders and Merritt’s Celluloid Mavericks (New York:
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000) to a more intimate, almost melancholic, focus on
the subjects’ “careers as independent filmmakers, with sidelights into their
thematic concerns” (35)…

 

The full 3,800 word version of this review is published in Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 18, October 2010, where you can read the rest of the article for free.

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