Independent films: how to receive and understand them

Independent cinema in United States

Making independent films means escaping the mechanism of industrial cinema of uniting creative resources within a decision-making power, it means reinventing oneself as managers of oneself and one’s own artistic skills.

It has often happened throughout the history of American independent cinema, since it all began between the 40s and 50s, with the works of Edgar G. Ulmer from inside the studios and with highly experimental shorts, worthy successors of the radical surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, the same ones who then contributed in 1960 to the constitution of the New American Cinema Group poster made by Jonas Mekas. The group brought together various figures, including Shirley Clarke (of the New York School with Andy Warhol.

A magazine such as Film Culture contributes to spreading the importance of innovative and highly personal works by these authors.

However, it will take some time to ensure their public recognition, which still exists today, thanks to New Hollywood (Penn, Peckinpah, Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Pollack, Pakula, Friedkin, Altman, Allen, Bogdanovich, Nichols, Lucas, Spielberg, Rafelson, Schatzberg, Ashby, Hellman, and other European authors such as Polanski, Forman, Schlesinger, Boorman …).

In addition to the group of independent films of those years, a whole series of stars who came out of the Strasberg school, students of the Stanislavskij method, capable of facing neuroses and problems in a profound, psychological way and with adherence to the characters’ experience (from Marlon Brando to Paul Newman, from Robert Redford to Gene Hackman, from Robert De Niro to Al Pacino, from Dustin Hoffman to Jack Nicholson, from Roy Scheider to Christopher Walken, from Faye Dunawau to Meryl Streep, from Jane Fonda to Sally Field, from Diane Keaton to Barbra Streisand, from Gena Rowlands to Glenda Jackson).

Loneliness, travel, dispersion, estrangement from concrete reality, problems of youth discomfort, explicit sexuality, relations of power and violence, problems inherent in the role of women and ethnic minorities within the mechanisms of society.

John Cassavetes was one of the main creators of American independent cinema and a certain director named Martin Scorsese , in full and profitable activity even today, declares that he was one of the most stubborn masters and supporters of him.

Cassavetes was a talented actor who, a bit like Orson Welles, decided to exploit the revenues from the roles obtained in Hollywood films, to invest them in his very personal films, made in “family” together with friends, technicians and high-level actors, according to a creative approach based on the branching of a flow of thoughts, ideas, dialectical suggestions which, as is evident in Volti (1968), are outlined in the very act of narrative creation, starting from a plot of themes, excerpts of dialogues and from a basic lineup useful for the actors.

Realism, documentarism, improvisation, light technical means, become the starting points of independent cinema, especially mindful of the lessons of Luis Bunuel and René Clair.

Films that could be shot with $ 10-15,000, truly unusual figures for Hollywood industrial cinema which in the 1950s was still the most popular, despite the development of the noir genre in the 1940s offered the possibility of reducing costs, compared often and willingly high-level screenplays, which proved to be very advantageous for the studios themselves.

Independent cinema in the 60s-70s

Development and codification that was then repeated in cycles, with underground and blaxploitation films in the 60s-70s, works by directors such as Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Jack Hill, who used to pay homage, quote and parody of police, horror, musicals, with boldness, in line with the sexual revolution in vogue, and that thanks to that and the success of films like Deep Throat pushed studios like Warner to contribute financially to films of this type.

Genres that began to die after the mid-seventies, also due to national associations that engaged in a crusade to ban violence and sexuality from the big screens. Religion and the media cloak around racism and pornography, from the high ranks of the church, exacerbated censorship and distribution blocks of courageous and provocative works, which were not new in the control system.

It must also be said that Blaxploitation films began to be exploited by white producers and directors. The protest that sanctioned the end of the genre came mainly from the communities of African Americans who hated the genre, as the works had quickly transformed into a series of stereotypes about their trampled culture and social dignity.

Subgenres that, like the pop and comics aesthetics of those decades, have always been a source of inspiration for a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, according to several explicit statements by him. All his filmography testifies to this.

Independent cinema in the 80s-90s

American independent cinema then revitalized itself in the 80s and 90s, thanks to the contribution of fundamental authors such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez.

Up to today and the expansion of possibilities thanks to the reduction of technical means and costs, due to technology that has gradually allowed an ever greater reduction in costs thanks to the democracy of digital, first with the abandonment of 35 mm film , equipment rentals and negative printing, in favor of handy and economical cameras, then with the increasingly sophisticated and intelligible development of software that allowed to significantly reduce post-production costs.

According to Geoff King, from his book “American Independent Cinema“ American independent films are produced in an ultra-low-budget world far removed from that of Hollywood blockbusters; they adopt formal strategies that abandon or dismantle the conventions of linear fluency typical of the classic Hollywood style; they offer provocative perspectives on social issues, a rarity in Hollywood ”.

Contrary to what the average public believes and often sees in theaters today, true independent cinema is born where the public believes there is only Hollywood.

There is no better form of contrasting the overwhelming power of the blockbuster industry, remakes and repeating sequels within a mechanism of exploitation by now worn out by brands, like an endless chain of advertising marketing.

There is no better alternative, if not that of regenerating the creative imagery of producing a film, through a lightening of technical resources in total favor of the search for alternative ways of narration, suggesting a precise stylistic code.

Independent cinema and major studios

Absolute freedom of expression is given to screenwriters and directors, because there is trust (they are almost always the same person). Productions such as New Line and Miramax have been born that have contributed to the clearance of independent authors (like certain festivals now of strong appeal such as Sundance), giving them higher budgets from the second feature film, demonstrating the fact that in the United States we invite you to dare with the budget you have available and you are often and willingly supported both at a production and distribution level.

Maybe you don’t go into the mainstream and you don’t make lots of money, but you set up your own circuit of exploitation and maintenance of revenues within the perspective of low-budget, if not micro-budget.

Furthermore, within these perspectives, more and more actors of caliber and considered to be stars, have begun to try their hand at these films, generating an alternative revenue front that has allowed other independent filmmakers or themselves, who later discovered independent producers, to further the discovery of these alternative universes.

The budgets available then become higher from film to film. All this has been possible to such an extent that today in the United States, works that are independent from those that are not get mixed up.

A demiurge, therefore, a total author who also deals with screenwriting, which is anything but obvious. The independent filmmaker turns out to be, potentially, a goldmine for the future of smart producers.

These are investments that rarely go to waste, because they are still included in a supply chain, a system that allows them a minimum diffusion, in the face of a microscopic budget. Colossal productions that invest in enormous advertising are at a much higher risk from the start.

Television, and it is a very European problem, has eaten up cinema and an increasing slice of the public is exchanging film products for television products.

The TV series have taken over, also thanks to the rapid technological change that has made it possible to enjoy films from home at low cost, and the birth of Netflix which has merged both the macro and the micro realities of the sector, incorporating in an embarrassing cauldron the best of filmmakers with the worst of the most cheap production companies.

But independent films, true independent films, have often turned out to be successes, precisely in relation to the initial investment and are often worthy of the spectacle, less real, of large productions.

Many of these films are constitutively founded on controversies concerning social issues of some relevance such as Spike Lee’s films, which deal head-on, in a very direct and burning way. This type of film is also important because it aligns itself more often with social minorities or because it often gives a voice to contexts and individuals usually not told in depth in majors’ cinema.

In those contexts, a social and aesthetic consciousness has formed in the United States, confirming that an alternative mode of production is possible and absolutely necessary. The same is true, albeit with the differences of the case, also for England. It is now a question of awareness.

To know or not to know. And in order to be aware, a profound cultural and human revolution is urgent, in which education must converge, the custodian of an education in the possibilities of the cinematographic medium.

Federico Mattioni

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