American Independent Cinema by Amy Hubbard, Daisy Bird, Josh Webb et al

Juno

Over the years at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum we have created temporary displays based on courses taught at the university. This time a group of third year students studying on Dr. James Lyons’ American Independent Film module, volunteered to explore the themes of the module through an array of interesting artefacts from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Collection. The group was led by museum volunteer Amy Hubbard and the students who participated from the course were Daisy Bird, Josh Webb, Maddie Joint, Rebekah Heaney, Imogen Buller, George Graham and Lauren O’Neill . The group researched and selected the items and designed and documented the display.

Examining the movement from early American Independent cinema through to the growth of what critic Geoff King has referred to as “Indiewood”, the display contrasts early films such as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (1989) and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) with recent popular flicks such as Juno (2007) and Melancholia (2011). We were particularly interested in considering how the style, popularity and audience of American Independent cinema have changed over the years and how this can be traced through the films’ publicity.

In putting together the display we were at first unsure of what we would be able to find in the collection. We expected that the majority of items would be books or periodicals as, unlike blockbusters such as Jaws (1975) which thrived on merchandise and publicity material, independents are typically marketed in a different way. We were therefore extremely surprised when we found hidden gems such as a deck of Big Lebowski playing cards (EXEBD 15093) and a spoof Reservoir Dogs postcard (EXEBD 26866). The variety of items that we found meant that we were able to contrast the difference within film publicity between the earlier independents and the more recent high profile offerings. Whilst, to a certain extent, the boundaries between the independent and major companies overlap, attempting to tackle this enormous debate within one display would be futile. With this in mind we decided to focus on the foundations of the independent sector and the points of contention that exist within it.

The left side of the display case focuses on the self-proclaimed “originals” of purist American cinema, the true independents, wherein the aesthetically challenging meets the financially thrifty. From Romero’s 1968 iconic horror Night of the Living Dead to “no-one-puts-baby-in-the-corner” Dirty Dancing (1987), the independents branch far and wide in terms of audience. Also, looking at lower budget films such as Spike Lee’s cult classic Do The Right Thing (1989), they seem, to borrow the words of critic Yannis Tzioumakis, to “retain a certain grounding on mainstream traditions” which attempt to subvert, challenge and reform Hollywood aesthetics (American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, 9). Less alienating than avant-garde and experimental films, the independents attract a niche audience more responsive to edgier, challenging subject matters. Indeed, this is a sentiment evident from the display case – with fewer promotional gimmicks and devices and sparing use of colour, the independents invite those who have to work to gain meaning from its films…except for perhaps Dirty Dancing!

The middle section of the display case focuses on Indie films, those that arguably retain the independent aesthetic but which also have the financial backing to realise a particular vision. This is evident particularly in the 1990s when many large film companies began creating specialist branches specifically designed to produce independent film content. This resulted in the independent concept being exploited for profit. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is packed with promotional material for these films partly because the Indie film was defined by its all-out marketing. Standing on the lines between the film festival circuit, film magazine features and commercial domination meant for numerous eye-catching posters, postcards, props and other promotion materials. We found a good example in the rise of Miramax Studios which, thanks largely to skilful exploitation-inspired marketing techniques, secured its presence with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape in the latter half of 1989. Made on a miniscule $1.2 million budget, the film was a resounding and monumental success with audiences flocking to see this edgy, erotic Palme d’Or winner of the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. sex, lies and videotape marks the explosion of the ‘Indie’ era and the subsequent aesthetics of the 1990’s for the independent film sector which can be traced in this section of the display.

The promotional postcard for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) (EXEBD 26886) is particularly interesting as a marketing product. Featuring an image of Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in a black outfit and high heels, lying on a bed with a gun beside her, the postcard depicts the film’s most iconic image. In discussions we considered how in the film Mia Wallace is never actually seen in the costume shown on the poster, nor does she ever come into contact with a gun. This is a good example of the way that marketing was used during the Indie period; the image suggests that Thurman’s character is more of an explicit seductress than is portrayed in the actual film and the gun implies some kind of action or violence is involved in her story, both of which are clearly an attempt to draw a particular kind of audience.

In this section we also attempted to explore how some of these films were early projects from filmmakers who would become dominant figures of the “Indiewood” period. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are both depicted in the Indie section, but the director went on to make even more popular and commercial films such as the Kill Bill franchise, shown in the display through the American Cinematographer cover feature from October 2003 (EXEBD 37727). Kill Bill is an example of “Indiewood” – a commercially and financially backed film with A-list stars which retains an indie aesthetic (essentially Hollywood’s version of an independent film). The right side of the display demonstrates a progression from Indie films to “Indiewood”, highlighting the change in marketing techniques and the commercialisation of the Indie genre. Items such as a Juno drink container (EXEBD 55217) and a Christmas card Polaroid for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (EXEBD 42527) suggest ways in which “Indiewood” attempts to differentiate itself from typical blockbuster marketing, whilst simultaneously mimicking its ploys.

With the rise of “Indiewood” and the difficulty of distinguishing between Hollywood and Independent, the big question debated now is ‘does independent cinema still exist?’. The question that we perhaps should be asking, however, is ‘what is Independent cinema going to do next?’…

The following is a list of the key critical texts which informed our discussions and our approach to the display:

King, Geoff. Indiewood USA: Where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema. London:
I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. American Independent Cinema: An Introduction. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh UP, 2006. Print.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. “‘Independent’, ‘Indie’ and ‘Indiewood’: Towards a Periodisation
of Contemporary (Post-1980) American Independent Cinema.” American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond. Ed. Geoff King, Claire Molly, Yannis Tzioumakis. London: Routledge, 2013. 28-40. Print.

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Press Books for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ and ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ by Sabine Starmanns

While I was looking through foreign language film material, I came across two extraordinary press books for two films by Marcel Carné: ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ (a.k.a ‘The Devil’s Envoys’) (1942) and ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (‘Children of Paradise’) (1945). The press books form part of the Roy Fowler Collection at the museum, which includes a very rich resource of material from French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Normally, press books consist of a selection of publicity stills from a film or pages of publicity shots of the film’s stars. We also hold one of the standard press books of ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ as part of the BDC collection. However, by contrast, the press book of the film that I catalogued is unusual in that it does not focus on showing pictures from the film but instead aims to look like a medieval manuscript. It is ring-bound and the cover is illustrated with an elaborate embossed floral design, which runs through the whole book.

Visiteurs1

The pages are separated by transparent paper. Although the book features painted scenes and characters from the film, they have been given a medieval look. The pages consist of a detailed plot summary in old-fashioned script, with separate paintings of the main characters attached to the top corners.

Visiteurs3

While the drawings are such that you can recognise the actors, the only obvious link to the film is a flyleaf at the beginning advertising a specific screening of the film and listing the main cast and crew. This style of programme seems to have also been used at the film’s premiere at the Madeleine cinema in Paris.

The press book for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (1945), by contrast, manages to include black-and-white stills from the film within an old-fashioned overall look. The cover is unusually thick and embossed, with a hand-drawn and partly coloured picture taken from a film still.

Enfants1

Two more of those pictures are used to introduce the film’s sub-sections.

 

Enfants2

An introductory black-and-white hand-drawn picture sets the nineteenth century scene, while A4 portrait photographs of the main cast represent the film’s setting within the world of theatre. A detailed plot summary uses small drawings from the period to illustrate the text, as well as beautifully framed black-and-white stills from the film.

 

 

The press books’ luxurious appearance may have something to do with the fact that both films were directed by Marcel Carné during the Occupation of France. ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, which had the ‘longest first run (of a film) of the period’ (Turk, 190), was hailed by Andre Bazin at the time as ‘having restored to French cinema grandeur and style’ (Turk, 191), which shows that the opulence of the film, as well as that of the press book, was deemed necessary to reawaken pride in French cinema. It has been claimed that there were numerous allusions to the situation of occupied France in the plot, with the Devil’s envoys representing the Germans, while the unsuspecting castle inhabitants stand for the occupied French, submissive but defiant underneath. By setting the story in the 15th century, a time of court grandeur, Carné alludes to a more optimistic time in French history.

 

 ‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’ was not released until the end of the war. Carné was very keen to wait until the war was over before the film’s release, so that the film would be the first to be shown in free France (Turk, 227). The press book’s drawings give an indication of the production’s lavishness, with huge sets made to represent the Boulevard du Temple, the size of which could either demonstrate a pride in French culture and history during the hardship of war or be an example of Carné’s conviction that ‘quality filmmaking was inseparable from extravagant expense’ (Turk, 227). Interestingly, the film is still acknowledged to be one of the classics of French cinema. However, in addition to criticism of his excessive expenditure, Carné has been accused of making films that were not patriotic enough. However, the theme of what Bazin called ‘spiritual patriotism’ (Turk, 192) seems to run through both films. In ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, the quiet defiance of the French is supposedly demonstrated by the lovers’ hearts still beating after they have been turned to stone. Likewise, the image of the theatre, or spectacle, that runs through ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ has been regarded as an example of the ‘spiritual survival’ (Turk, 254) of life under Occupation. I believe that both films are examples of an attempt to awaken the French audience’s pride in its history and culture, as well as satisfying the need for audience escapism during, and just after, the war. Therefore, the films’ significance would have been emphasised by their press books’ unusually lavish format, designed to transcend the ephemeral purpose of publicity material in general.

 

 

Quotes taken from: Turk, Edward Baron (1989) Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press.