Underground USA

Filmmaking beyond the Hollywood Canon, Edited by Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schne

by Kirsty Fairclough

12 February 2003


Pushing the Envelope

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, American independent cinema became popular thanks to the Sundance Film Festival, and the likes of breakthrough films such as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Since those heady days, the term independent has often been linked to films which are “quirky”, “offbeat” and “eccentric”, made by directors who are prepared to work on comparatively low budgets, and for the lucky ones, with the assistance of Hollywood for distribution and marketing costs.

The success of sex, lies and videotape opened up opportunities both economically and artistically for independent filmmaking. It was used as a (unrealistic) financial benchmark and changed the industry dramatically. Now widely referred to as the “indie” scene, it became a friend of the mainstream media. Hollywood began to pay more attention to the possible rewards of investing in low-budget independent films. Thus it seemed that, on the one hand, with the promise of financial muscle, Hollywood moulded some of the most promising filmmakers into mainstream clones, and on the other, allowed some of the most interesting filmmakers of recent years to gain audiences and acclaim.

cover art

Underground Usa

Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider

Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon

(Wallflower Press)

The situation today is a complex one, with Hollywood happy to invest in independent films in order to tap into niche audiences’ appetite for films beyond the drivel that Hollywood so often churns out. Hence major studios now have independent arms such as Fox Searchlight, their purpose to seek out and finance idiosyncratic directors in the hope of critical acclaim and audiences. However, there remains a long tradition of truly independent cinema in the US, most often categorised as “underground”. Underground is more often discussed in relation to experimental, avant-garde or exploitation films which either in terms of subject matter or narrative structure, are progressive or transgressive, in short, very different from the Vanity Fair friendly “indie” scene.

Underground USA seeks to offer the reader a “fascinating overview of maverick moviemakers” whilst “considering the links between the experimental and exploitation traditions of the American underground”. This is not a book that looks at celebrated independent names. You will not find Lynch, Soderbergh or Tarantino here. From the experimental films of Warhol to the exploitation traditions of Radley Metzger, this collection of essays and articles explores the darker corners of the US underground scene and provides the reader with an intelligent and sophisticated tour through American cinema.

The book’s subtitle—Beyond the Hollywood Canon—would suggest a discussion of the polarities of the two industries, but the collection looks squarely at the underground’s key directors and genres. The essays are not grouped thematically, perhaps a reflection of the diversity at work within the underground scene.

The introduction is lengthy, but necessary, describing the complexities of underground cinema and seeking to redress its misconceptions. President of Troma Entertainment Lloyd Kaufman’s foreword is a highlight, whose passion and enthusiasm for underground cinema is palpable.

Mendik and Schneider offer a welcome addition to the field and offer a wide range of essays including Joel Black’s ‘Real (ist) Horror: From Execution Videos to Snuff Films’, a naturally provocative article which, although its point of relevance to the collection’s themes are questionable, is nevertheless a timely discussion of the presence of reality and murder on screen and presents some interesting observations regarding surveillance techniques and the police.

It must be said, however, this is not an introductory text for those readers wanting to dip into the world of underground cinema. Joan Hawkins’ discussion of the use of theory in Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction is an interesting example. She presents a rather obtuse analysis that sits uneasily within the volume. She posits The Addiction as a key text in the history of modern underground cinema and in doing so attempts to provide an explanation of the use of philosophy and theoretical discourse as a means of extrapolating themes of addiction, economics and power.

Many of the articles focus upon maverick underground directors including, a sharp exploration of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman’s “gross-out” movies and Jack Sargeant’s analysis of voyeurism and transgression in Warhol’s Blow-Job and I, A Man. There are a number of articles which focus upon industrial strategies and practices. ‘Phantom Menace: Killer Fans, Consumer Activism and Digital Filmmakers’ by Sara Gwenllian Jones is an astute discussion of “the domestic cultural production between so called underground movements and the so called mainstream”. Conversely, Annalee Newitz’s article ‘Underground America 1999’ is immediately problematic, a discussion of the state of the underground scene, positing American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project as underground films. These films, whilst independently produced in the case of Blair Witch, and perhaps independent in spirit, are as far removed from the underground as Disney from Troma.

Underground USA is the first title in the new Alterimage series, a collection of texts which are aimed at undergraduates and academics interested in debates about global culture and popular cinema. Underground cinema, a long neglected area of film studies, gains some deserved exposure from this book and provides the reader with an overview of the complexities and vicissitudes of this overlooked field. Mendik and Schneider’s knowledge and understanding of the underground scene is evident; the collection of essays covers the topics one would expect, plus a few more surprising entries.

Given its intended readership, Underground USA hits the mark; it is not a particularly light read and is of a decidedly academic nature, although it will undoubtedly appeal to the specified audience. This is not a ground-breaking book, but an engaging discussion of a little explored area of film which will no doubt contribute to the myriad ways in which American underground cinema is thought of and written about.

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