Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Celluloid Mavericks, by Greg Merritt

Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film, by Greg Merritt. Thunder’s Mouth Press. Paperback. Suggested list price: $18.95.

There are plenty of film histories, but not so many of independent film, and even fewer good ones about that “movement,” as it’s generally regarded. The quotes are necessary because anything that encompasses D. W. Griffith, Oscar Micheaux, Edgar G. UlmerRuss Meyer, the New Queer CinemaOrson WellesQuentin Tarantino, and John Sayles must be seen as more than a movement. Indeed, it’s difficult to talk about mainstream cinema without constantly invoking the indies, which developed in all kinds of ways parallel to — and often influencing and even overshadowing — commercial studio fare. Add to this the fact that the studio system responsible for the very concept of mainstream film broke up long ago, leaving the field ripe for free agents, renegades, and backwater auteurs of every stripe to leave their own mark.

Greg Merritt’s Celluloid Mavericks is a solid, comprehensive history of the indie that works chronologically, with numerous sidebars and diversions along the way. Merritt uses this definition of indie: “any motion picture financed and produced completely autonomous of all studios, regardless of size.” This would seem to narrow the field to untenably small proportions, since a “studio” was often that in name only — for example, AIP, which released most of Roger Corman’s work, didn’t have a studio per se but rented out facilities. Like many a “studio,” AIP was in reality a marketing and distribution company. What lets Merritt cover a much wider range of material is his inclusion of the semi-indie: “a film not produced directly by a major studio (such as Paramount or Fox), but it does have a guarantee of distribution before it’s produced, and it may be made by a smaller studio (such as Miramax or Gramercy).” Merritt’s definition refers to extant companies, implying the book is mainly about modern indies. But in fact, he covers all periods of cinema from the beginning to the golden age of the B’s to today. This includes legendary Poverty Row companies like PRC and Monogram, and unquestionable “mavericks” like Oscar Micheaux, Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and others who worked in the classic indie mode: where and when they could, using whatever resources they could scrounge.

Merritt’s a decent writer, but the book’s major strength is in its scope. He intelligently discusses all the usual suspects (Tarantino, Sundance, Night of the Living Dead, The Blair Witch Project, e.g.), but also includes all manner of outré indie auteurs who usually don’t make it even into indie histories: underground legends like Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce Conner; art-porn maestro Rinse Dream (aka Stephen Sayadian) of Café Flesh fame; and one-hit wonder Slava Tsukerman (Liquid Sky). Of course, the indie pantheon is well represented: Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Radley MetzgerJohn Waters, John Cassavettes, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, et al., but the author also positions these auteurs in their time. Thus Radley Metzger appears in a section called “Pornography,” along with Russ Meyer, influential imports (such as I Am Curious — Yellow), and Deep Throat. While readers may not agree with Merritt’s opinions of what he’s documenting — he’s sometimes too glib and dismissive — it’s hard to argue with his facts. This is a well-researched book that, where possible, quotes the key players and commentators of the period being discussed. The author sensibly repeats certain categories — Pornography, e.g. — in his discussion of different time periods, showing succinctly the changes in approach and in what was acceptable.

The book takes a welcome egalitarian attitude in the discussion, paying notice to even such disreputable genres as the “wilderness” films of the ‘70s like Challenge to Be Free (1972), which he rightly pegs as “tedious”; and the hilariously awful The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1976). Some benign inner impulse made me forget that the latter spawned two equally ridiculous sequels, but Merritt is right there, reintroducing them for those who can stand to know.

Merritt includes many obscurities that deserve a wider audience — e.g., Bill Gunn’sGanja & Hess (1973), a supposed black vampire movie in which the word “vampire” is never said. Merritt’s description makes it sound enticing indeed: “Ganja & Hesshas nudity, sweaty, eroticism, and puddles of blood, but it’s not exploitation. Gunn’s movie is about addiction (to power, money, sex, drugs, blood), about cultural assimilation, about the black bourgeoisie feeding on the lower class, and about Christianity…” The film’s tortured history is well detailed, but happily, in this instance, the DVD is available to satisfy interested viewers.

Identity politics get some much-needed attention here in discussions of Hispanic-American cinema and the enduringly attractive blaxploitation. Some readers, though, will take umbrage at the lack of attention to the female side of the latter genre, particularly Pam Grier’s mega-hit Coffy or New World Pictures’ women-in-prison flicks, which were quite successful and at least “semi-indie,” and of course Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones series.

Such carping is minor, however, given the breadth of Celluloid Mavericks. It can be recommended without reservation as a useful, quite readable book on a subject that’s endlessly discussed but rarely documented in such reliable detail.