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Guest Post: Wanda Bershen "Recognizing Where Indie Film Began"

by Ted Hope
August 3, 2011 3:00 AM
7 Comments
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It seems that most Indie Film Makers & Lovers think Indie began in the late 80's or early 90's. There is a lot to be gained from the study and appreciation of those that came first though, and looking at the roots might point us to a better future. I was pleased to see one of those films, David Holtzman's Diary, recently get new attention, and pleased again when Kit Carson's post on it, brought some comments that opened my eyes to other work from the period. Wanda Bershon, guests today, to share some of her knowledge of the initial -- and essential -- Indies.

"Not only was DIARY a pioneering film, there were quite a number of other people making “indie” films at the time. Check out ICE (Robert Kramer, 1969), LIVES OF PERFORMERS,(Y Rainier, 1972), WINTERSOLDIER (1969), CHELSEA GIRLS (Warhol, 1966) BRANDY IN THE WILDERNESS (Stanton Kaye, 1969), and that is only the beginning. American Indies was a 50s-60s-70s phenonmenon—too little known and screened today."

Posted by by Wanda Bershen on June 9, 2011 on Hope for Film Blog

Having posted the above comment in June re: Kit Carson’s remarks on this blog about DAVID HOLZMANS DIARY (1969) – pointing out the many other interesting films of that period which rarely get screened – Ted Hope suggested doing a guest turn on HOPE FOR FILM. So here goes.

For whatever reasons the history of American “indie” film is often told as if it started in the early 1980s with work by Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Claudia Weill, et al. That term refers to feature length films for the most part. Meanwhile there is a large body of work (also feature length) made in the 1960s and 70s which does not get much attention these days, and does not often get screened. Much of it is highly innovative and constitutes the earliest exploration on this side of the Atlantic both of definitions of documentary styles, of drama styles and includes some impressive hybrid combinations.

Indie film history really started in the late 50s and 60s with a number of pioneering films mixing documentary and drama elements, of which the DIARY is an enduring example. Jim McBride followed up with MY GIRLFRIENDS WEDDING (1969) – a very funny film about her getting a green card, and PICTURES FROM LIFES OTHER SIDE (1971) about their cross country trip through 1970s America. Both would today fall into the category of “personal” films. This early work is rarely seen and to its credit UNION DOCS recently screened both.

Another film in this vein is BRANDY IN THE WILDERNESS (Stanton Kaye, 1969), – a partly actual and partly fictionalized portrait of the world’s most dysfunctional relationship, told by each in turn. Cast as film within a film, Kaye and girlfriend Brandy travel cross country, visit friends, fight and end up in California with dog, cat and baby. Shown at the Cannes festival and at MOMA, the film was a kind of counterculture hit.

Then there is Robert Kramer whose film ICE (1969) was a B&W feature drama with himself as protagonist about a group of Weatherpeople types living in NYC and planning a major protest action (as the term was then). Subsequently Kramer made the 3 plus hr long MILESTONES (1975) about a bunch of former war protesters in the post-Vietnam era trying to put their shattered lives back together. It was shown at both the Cannes and NY film festivals. Both films were shot and edited with a cinema verite look, and a strongly ironic tone which underlines the social critique they embody.

Recently restored by Milestone Films, WINTERSOLDIER (1969) is a searing doc of a staged War Crimes Tribunal organized by VVAW in Chicago in 1969. Made by a collective, it is a kind of cinema verite account of a live event. Young vets back from Vietnam talk in very graphic terms about what they saw and did (and are horrified by) – a very different view of the war than that reported in any media.

Perhaps better known but rarely seen is Shirley Clarke's PORTRAIT OF JASON (1969), a diary of the amazingly articulate street hustler, representing the class tensions at home during that era. Jonas Mekas' film THE BRIG (1964) is another fake documentary portraying soldiers confined in a U.S. Navy ship and the three guards who beat and humiliate them. An interesting example of mixing documentary and drama is Haskell Wexler’s drama, MEDIUM COOL (1969), which incorporated actual footage of the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 into its narrative.

At the same time Emile de Antonio was turning out hard-hitting documentaries. De Antonio's specialty was his amazing use of archival footage with no narration to create powerful social critiques, another relatively new approach to documentary. Several from that period are IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG (1968), CHARGE AND COUNTERCHARGE (1969) and his inimitable portrait of Nixon, MILLHOUSE; A WHITE COMEDY (1971). Does anyone remember NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLDED ME NIGGER (1968) by David Weissman filmed at an anti-war march from Harlem to the United Nations in 1967? The title is a quote from Mohammed Ali on why he refused to serve in the war. The 60s also saw the rise of the “cinema verite approach" in films by Robert Drew, the Maysles brothers, Don Pennebaker and the recently departed Richard Leacock. Those films have managed to stay in distribution and garner considerable visibility on the festival and museum circuit.

Simultaneously (early 70s) the Women’s Movement was taking off and women began to direct in a variety of styles: Barbara Kopples' powerful HARLAN COUNTY USA (1976) belongs to this period. Another first was Barbara Loden’s drama about a working class woman, WANDA (1970), set in the eastern Pennsylvania coal region, with Loden’s powerful performance in the title role. Elaine Mays’ MIKEY AND NICKY (1976), about a couple of small time gangsters played by actors John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, was shot with 3 cameras to allow substantial improvisation by the actors. WOMANHOUSE (1974) by Johanna Demetrakas chronicled Judy Chicago’s now famous feminist art project – taking over an old house in Hollywood and with her students turning it into multiple installations portraying women’s lives. And there was Yvonne Rainier’s groundbreaking LIVES OF PERFORMERS (1972) using a combination of experimental form and documentary to tell a personal story.

Also adding to the lively film culture of that time were a number of filmmakers who tend to be called “experimental” and whose work bridges documentary and re-enactment. Ron Rice’s wacky road movie THE FLOWER THIEF (1962), featuring infamous Warhol actor Taylor Mead, is another trip through dystopian America with a distinctly “beat” aesthetic. And throughout the 60s and 70s Warhol was making films in the Factory (also usually tagged as experimental). His famous and innovative feature CHELSEA GIRLS was made in 1966 consisting of two 16 mm-films being projected simultaneously, with two different stories being shown in tandem.

It is worth pointing out that all this work was made on film – 16mm, sometimes 8mm, sometimes in combinations – an entirely different process than working with digital tools. Editing was laborious, done by hand, cut by cut. All effects had to be done either in the camera while shooting or at a film lab equipped for things like optical printing.

Looking back at all this “independent” film in the 60s and 70s I am struck by how much experimentation was done in terms of mixing documentary stylistics with fiction and/or re-enactment. Notions of “truth” in terms of photographic representation were a major concern. TV went through a rapid development and a major expansion in the 60s and 70s and famously brought home the “living room war”. Perhaps that growth combined with the volatile politics of those times also contributed to the pervasive suspicion of media and to the innovative approaches to independently made films.

Wanda Bershen is a consultant on Fundraising, Marketing and Distribution for Documentary projects and arts organizations. Her company, RED DIAPER PRODUCTIONS, has organized film programs, festivals and travelling series with The Brooklyn Museum, MOMA, BAM Rose cinemas, and Walter Reade theater. She has written for American Quarterly, Film Quarterly and Documentary magazine and currently teaches a graduate seminar at CUNY/Baruch. www.reddiaper.com

7 Comments

  • Bill Pace | August 8, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    A great conversation about the beginnings of indie film that reaches past the ealy '80s, but wanted to include Oscar Micheaux, an African-American working very independently, making films for his own people and working outside the system from the 1920's through the late '40's.

  • Bill Pace | August 7, 2011 1:37 AMReply

    A great conversation about the beginnings of indie film that pushing beyond the early '80s. But we should really go back much earlier too to include people like Oscar Micheaux, an African-American who was very independent, creating films for his own people starting in the early 1920's and doing so through the late '40's.

  • wanda bershen | August 5, 2011 3:53 AMReply

    @Dennis D

    thanks for reading! Indeed I like your points and the notion of a "stream". History is mostly pretty messy with multiple threads happening at the same time (see Kublers Shape of Time). And keep up the good work at Milestone!

  • Hannah Hulin | August 4, 2011 5:04 AMReply

    Here is a video of Jonas Mekas comparing avant-garde films to mainstream films.
    He's a very interesting and unique man!
    http://www.webofstories.com/play/52392

  • Bill Hilly | August 3, 2011 10:42 AMReply

    Debating indie film origins is an exercise in futility. Who cares?

  • old_timer | August 3, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    The films you describe seem to have little relationship to independent film as we know it today. The films don't appear to have been made in expectation of profit or wide exposure. They weren't conceived to appeal to investors, studio executives, festival directors or Park City audiences.

    It might be more accurate to say independent film ended, rather than began, in the 80s.

  • Dennis Doros | August 3, 2011 3:35 AMReply

    Thank you Wanda for an excellent article! This is a subject that I've thought a lot about in the past few years. To me, independent films started almost the first day cinema began. The Lumiere Brothers and George Melies and Mitchell & Kenyon were such examples later to be followed by others such as Watson and Weber in the US. I found that almost all the post-war filmmakers were inspired by a combination of Robert Flaherty and De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves. Their mixture of documentary and fiction inspired Lionel Rogosin, Morris Engel, Kent Mackenzie, John Cassavetes and many others. There has yet to be written the great book on American indies because many historians want an immaculate conception where one or several people started a revolution. It really is a stream that has no singular source and has taken many twists and turns. For example, Cinema Verite codified documentary leaving behind Flaherty and Rogosin as "staged." But with the re-release of KILLER OF SHEEP lending a hand, the idea that truth can be a blend of fiction and documentary is coming back into vogue.

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