What better way to attack the monolith of social/sexual repression than by attacking the “sanctity” of the linear narrative?
“The Official cinema of the world has run out of breath. It is morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, and temperamentally boring.”
~ Lionel Rogosin et al., New American Cinema Group Manifesto, New York, 1960
It was natural that film in the 1960s would reflect that decade’s tremendous social and cultural upheaval. The same audiences that were rejecting the social status quo (racial segregation, sexual repression) were also demanding that movies incorporate new forms of expression to parallel those being created in painting (abstract expressionism, Pop art) and literature (the Beats).
Foreign films, with their frank portrayals of sexuality, gained fresh currency; Italian neorealism, in particular, and then-cutting-edge directors like Godard, Bergman, and Fellini wielded a great influence on a new generation of filmmakers who were also filmgoers. (In Lionel Rogosin’s case, we can add the critical role of film exhibitor – besides making independent films himself, he also provided a venue in which other such work could be seen, at New York’s groundbreaking Bleecker Street Cinema.) Interest in all forms of “renegade” cinema – from social realist (Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man, 1964) to early deconstructionist (Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, 1967) to taboo-breaking sexploitation (Herschel Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, 1963) – increased exponentially, and we can now view these films as important components of the American independent narrative cinema, a movement that not only exploded existing narrative forms, but also prefigured aspects of the commercial and independent cinema of today.
While many of these films grew out of disenchanted or disenfranchised American subcultures (blacks, beats, politicos, hippies) and all carry a subversive message portrayed through subject or style, they cover an enormous range of aesthetic and social concerns. Major and minor studios were represented (AIP’s The Wild Angels, 1966, Columbia’s Head, 1968), but the typical independent auteur of this time worked in black and white, employing cinema verité techniques, often untrained actors in real (non-studio) locales, and a variety of cinematic strategies – some new, some not – that would match the dislocations and discontinuities erupting in the culture at large. What better way to attack the monolith of social/sexual repression than by attacking the “sanctity” of the linear narrative?
Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills (1963), for example, absorbs cinematic history into a modernist framework, skewing the narrative by resurrecting visual and aural strategies as old as cinema itself: iris shots, speeded-up movements, real location shooting, novice actors, and a use of music that recalls the silent film – not merely commenting on the action, but working with the visuals to create the film’s mood.
The silent film reference is no mere conceit. Other independent films from this period – De Palma’s The Wedding Party (1966), Greetings (1968), and John Korty’s Crazy Quilt (1965) – combine modernist, radical visuals (bizarre angles, discontinuous editing, double exposures and flash forwards) with silent movie techniques to exhilarating effect. These films recall early cinema in their sense of openness, of the fantastic possibilities of film for aesthetic pleasures and social change. The use of silent techniques, black and white photography, and music verifies this. Far from being reactionary, the films gain immeasurably from such references – the sheer joy of filmmaking, surely an important component of silent cinema, is obvious in the gleeful rule-breaking apparent in many of these films.
Hallelujah the Hills, again like others here, has a subtext of deprivation, a purposeful exposure of the financial struggle behind the film and evident in what we see. Mekas allows the ragged edges to show, cutting through the artifice to say, yes, this is a film! – but exploiting its budget limitations in the name of realism rather than artfully disguising those limitations as in commercial cinema. In addition to the obvious class resonances, this approach also increased audience sympathy with the characters as the distance between viewer and viewed is eroded, the latter an important motif in all kinds of art of the 1960s and beyond.
Some directors combined visual and aural experimentation to breathe life into what they viewed as a moribund art form. Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964), for example, contains a brilliant sequence in which Duke, a 14-year-old gang leader, is talking to a young whore, Luanne. Clarke allows just a few sentences of dialogue between them, then dubs a brief segment from Mal Waldron’s powerful jazz score over their words, then returns to the conversation, continuing this variation to tremendous surging effect. The color and dynamism of Clarke’s rendering of this encounter contrast with the squalid, carefully observed urban backgrounds of New York, circa 1964.
In terms of experimentation, we can cite also the nervous, intense, hand-held camerawork of Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969) or John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1958), films that can be interpreted as behaviorist, formalist, and social realist in equal measure.
New York appears as the center of much of the independent movement of this period – Clarke, Cassavetes, Morris Engel, Martin Scorsese, and Rogosin all worked out of New York and found much of their inspiration there. The grinding poverty and racially mixed neighborhoods of the city provide both backdrop and subject for many of the films, which, by portraying the difficulty, even impossibility, of human relations (particularly sexual and romantic), dealt a body blow to the credibility of the “happy ending” in American cinema. Films like the downbeat Weddings and Babies (1958) by Morris Engel simply refused to introduce the reassuring romantic deus ex machina beloved by the mainstream filmmakers.
Rogosin’s Come Back Africa, a powerful examination of apartheid in South Africa, circa 1958, experimented in more ways than the merely formal. He smuggled a camera into South Africa to shoot his film, using native actors and a documentary style that contrasts overwhelming industrial landscapes with grim shots of masses of trapped, oppressed black slave laborers.
Many of the films from this period have a similar rough documentary feel, as if the actors were shown the contours of a scene, then asked to improvise. And indeed, this was often the case. Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? shows clear signs of improvisation, and the film benefits enormously from the realism inherent in such a method, even as it “breaks up” reality with jarring cuts, overdubs, and repeated shots. Films as dissimilar as Weddings and Babies, McBride’s extraordinary David Holzman’s Diary, and Dennis Hopper’s commercial Easy Rider (1969) show the power of open-ended, improvised, “real” encounters in the context of narrative cinema.
Other films from this period use a “mock-documentary” style, with overdubbed narration and real locations – Allen Barron’s late noir, Blast of Silence (1961), a recent rediscovery of a legendary film that’s finally resurfaced on video, is a good example.
The use of real people and real-time photography in a film like David Holzman’s Diary, where the discomfort of the players takes on existential aspects, is apparent in other films of the time and it’s especially noteworthy that directors like McBride, William Greaves (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, 1967), and Bob Rafelson (Head) could incorporate techniques typical of underground film (Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner) into their narrative films. This melding of styles creates a hypnotic effect in the viewer, a sense of endless surprise and of forced audience involvement, even complicity, in what is occurring on screen.
Some of the films work as behavioral rather than formal studies. Nothing But a Man uses a deliberate slow pace to observe its characters, who gradually come to life for us through Roemer’s tremendous simpatico. The director expressed regret at using the upbeat last line of this stark racial drama, but the main character remains clearly nonassimilable, resisting both black and white entreaties to conform, making the film a forerunner of the black urban dramas of Spike Lee and John Singleton.
Many of the important filmmakers in this movement – De Palma, Scorsese, Rafelson, Romero, Korty – moved with varying degrees of success from independent to commercial cinema, but their filmmaking style was established in these early works. Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, for example, ranks with his best films, as intensely behavioral as Raging Bull but with the addition of daring formal strategies that show a young director’s powerful imagination undisturbed by the strictures of commercial cinema.
Other filmmakers – Leonard Kastle, Michael Roemer, Herk Harvey – did not pass into the commercial mainstream, not only because of their uncompromising temperaments, but also because the films themselves are sui generis – stark, definitive, one-of- a-kind works of art. Their reputations can rest securely on, respectively, The Honeymoon Killers (1970), Nothing But a Man, and Carnival of Souls (1962).
Straddling the line between personal and commercial cinema are directors like Herschel Gordon Lewis, Tom Laughlin, and Monte Hellman. Lewis, particularly, has a historical importance disproportionate to the aesthetic value of his films. As the (correctly) self-proclaimed “Godfather of Gore,” Lewis paved the way for directors like Cronenberg, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and other horror-meisters in his obsessively misogynist, low-budget, gore-drenched dramas Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs (1964). Conversely, the late Herk Harvey initiated a more contemplative branch of horror in Carnival of Souls – a film that prefigures the work of David Lynch, Slava Tsukerman, Gus Van Sant, Rinse Dream, and other visionaries of modern American cinema.
The most commercially minded of the independent films of this time were the renegade subculture films, mostly made for AIP and other low-budget companies. These films detail the fragile worlds of bikers (Tom Laughlin’s Born Losers and Daniel Haller’s Devil’s Angels, both 1967; Hopper’s Easy Rider; Corman’s The Wild Angels), sexual libertines (Deep Throat), and drug-crazed hippies (Head, Richard Rush’s Psych-Out). They share with their more experimental counterparts an attack on consumer capitalism – Deep Throat features a pornographic rewrite of a Coca-Cola jingle that triggered a lawsuit. (Coca-Cola was a frequent counter-culture target: in Head Mickey Dolenz, trapped in a desert, assaults an empty Coke machine.)
These films attack a bourgeois value system by featuring overt assaults by a small, unassimilable group on a complacent middle class, or by that group’s withdrawal into an insular world of lawlessness, drug-taking, and Dionysian revels. Head represents one of the most ingenious critiques of the culture it derives from in its brutal demolition of the image of the prepackaged, intensely commercialized pop group, The Monkees. Like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and David Holzman’s Diary, Head constantly reminds us we are watching a film, with characters breaking through the sets and the director arguing with the actors – forcing the audience to confront the controlling, even sadistic, aspects of the director’s relationship to the actors and to the material.
The questioning of, assault on, American bourgeois culture is a common thread running through these films – from the social problem picture (Nothing But a Man, Frank Perry’s David and Lisa, 1962) to renegade subcultures (Shadows, Devil’s Angels, Psych-Out, 1968, Deep Throat). The more experimental of these films – Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, David Holzman’s Diary, Hallelujah the Hills – use formal strategies to accomplish the same ends as the problem picture – to question and attack American notions of complacency, coherence, and blind optimism. An unsettling but necessary and invigorating process in leaving behind Rogosin’s “out-of-breath” cinema and extending the boundaries of narrative film art.