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

Kirsty Fairclough

Hollywood moulded some of the most promising filmmakers into mainstream clones.

Underground Usa

Publisher: Wallflower Press
Subtitle: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon
Author: Steven Jay Schneider
Price: £13.99 (UK)
Display Artist: Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider
Length: 235
UK publication date: 2002-10

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.

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.





West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.