There have been plenty of history books written about independent film, but few take the expansive, international view of journalist and critic David Spaner in his new book “Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film,” released this month.
“Shoot It!” is a revealing history of how Hollywood, with its eye on the bottom line, lost its ability to support the work of creative filmmakers; it is also a passionate portrait of the independent filmmakers who have risen to fill the void.
Indiewire is sharing an excerpt from the new book. Here, from the chapter entitled “New York Magic,” Spaner tracks the evolution of the New York underground filmmaking scene in the 1980s.
The counterculture and the 1960s hadn’t been down for long when a new underground sneered its head. Punk rock played a formative role in the independent film scene that emerged from New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s, armed with a do-it-yourself ethos that would quickly spread like contagious magic to young filmmakers everywhere. Filmmaker Tom DiCillo came out of that scene, but on this fall morning in his New York apartment, having just wrapped a documentary about the Doors, he is ruminating on something that happened years earlier in L.A.
The Doors’ Jim Morrison returned from a long drunken spree to find that other members of the band and the president of the Elektra record label had licensed their song “Light My Fire” for a Buick commercial. “He went insane. But they said, ‘Jim, we tried to find you. We thought you would like it. This is TV, a new medium.’ ‘Forget it,’ he said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ The last line of the documentary I wrote is: ‘And to this date, none of their music has been used in a car commercial.’”
Morrison’s stance is no less timely forty years later. “It affects the psyche, this whole commercialization of everything,” says DiCillo, “because it just relentlessly pounds this idea into the culture that everything is for sale. You’ve got to fight it.”
By the early 1980s, the New Hollywood was done and the studios were drawing crowds to blockbuster after blockbuster—”The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Superman II” (1980), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), “Return of the Jedi” (1983), “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). There were stirrings, though, in the resistance. A decade after the West Coast rumblings of the New Hollywood, DiCillo and his friends began to make their stand, finding inspiration in Manhattan clubs. Emerging first in London and New York, then in L.A. and elsewhere, punk bands didn’t rely on the approval of the major studios’ cousins, the major recording labels.
“That was one of the best things that punk blew apart,” says Jello Biafra, who fronted the San Francisco band Dead Kennedys. “From the beginning it was, ‘Hey, we don’t have to tone this down to get a record contract if we make our own records. We may not sell very many of them, but if we release our music ourselves we can do exactly what we want. You didn’t have to play for ten years [until] Warner Brothers offered you a huge amount of money, most of which would be kicked back to the producer and the recording studio and Warner Brothers anyway. The revival of DIY is probably the best gift punk gave the world.”
Punk’s DIY code quickly permeated the New York film scene. “Punk opened up the idea of possibilities and the idea that if they can do it themselves, we can do it ourselves,” DiCillo says. Many people feel they can’t make a film unless someone allows them to. The rules perpetuate that. ‘We won’t give the money unless you change your script, unless you da da da.’ Well, the punk movement said, ‘Fuck that. No one is going to allow me to do anything. I’ll do it if I want to do it.’ The same thing then affected the idea of independent film. A lot of people were shooting features in Super 8 and projecting them on the walls in bars. It was just that feeling of, ‘Don’t tell me a film has to be a certain way.’”
This new punk-fueled independence eventually included New York University students (DiCillo, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman), No Wave filmmakers (Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Vivienne Dick), the Cinema of Transgression (Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Cassandra Stark), and assorted individuals such as Slava Tsukerman and Mary Harron. Seidelman recalls the collaborating and socializing that crossed Manhattan. “I knew Jim Jarmusch and his girlfriend Sara Driver. I knew Lizzie Borden—she did a good movie called ‘Working Girls’ —Bette Gordon, and Alexandre Rockwell. Tom DiCillo was an extra in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ ; the camera pans along the bar at the Magic Club, and he’s one of the extras sitting there. Amos Poe is in ‘Smithereens’ . Richard Edson, who was the actor in ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ , is also in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan.’ Richard Hell’s in both of those movies.” Not all of these people identified as punks, but without the punk scene and its attitude, their filmmaking would have been far different.
After Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” independent film would never again mean drive-in double bills. New York emerged as the North American capital of independent cinema, which was now attached to a street-smart bohemian cool. Infused with an oppositional ethos, the New Yorkers’ anti-corporate outlook spread to film students and art houses everywhere in the late 1980s and early ’90s, becoming role models for the uncompromising, their hipster DIY attitude helping to galvanize young filmmakers from Paris to Seoul.
Bruce Sweeney would go on to be a mainstay of Canadian independent filmmaking, but in the late 1980s he and his friends were Vancouver film students infatuated with Jarmusch and his friends. “’Stranger Than Paradise’ was a huge film for us. I loved it,” he says. “You know, the popular fare in the ’80s was really quite a turnoff. I was not a big ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ fan.”
The filmmaking out of New York in the 1980s was an acute expression of the place, but it wasn’t as if Seidelman and her friends were introducing filmmaking to the city. New York had a long legacy of independents, and in Seidelman’s era there were other talented NYU film students not as consumed by the punk aesthetic, such as Spike Lee and Joel Coen.
“New York was interesting,” says Seidelman, “whether it was the Scorsese version of New York in the ’70s or the Spike Lee version of New York in the ’80s or the Woody Allen version. It started changing once it got so stockbroker-yuppified in the late ’80s when it became all about glitz and money. Before that, it was intellectually, culturally, just a cool place to live.”
So New York’s place in independent film is secure even without the punk-influenced scene from which Seidelman emerged. That film scene, however, combined a determined auteur sensibility, emphasis on place, and sense of community and purpose that recalled France’s New Wave, and it provided a seductive example for the upcoming American independent movement.
Reprinted by arrangement with Arsenal Pulp Press and David Spaner, from “Shoot It: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film.” Copyright 2012 Arsenal Pulp Press and David Spaner. $22.95. www.davidspaner.com