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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