Week 10: Indie Cinema’s Heyday

This week, we began our investigation into American cinema of the 1990s by discussing the rise of the American independent film. Indie films can, of course, take on any form, genre, or mode of cinematic address, so we moved from the independent film in general to a more specific focus on the New Queer Cinema, finishing up with an examination of how two independent films of the 1990s, Sadie Benning’s Girl Power (1992) and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) challenge and destabilize conventional notions of gender, sexuality, and identity.

It should be noted that independent film did not start in the 1990s. In fact, much of the experimental cinema we have seen thus far in the class can also be understood as examples of independent cinema, in that they were made by one person outside of the studio system of production and distribution. On the other hand, we must remember that “independent” does not necessarily mean “experimental”—it is a term more descriptive of a mode of production than a description of aesthetics. Previously, we’ve discussed the availability of 16mm cameras after WWII, which opened up possibilities for filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, and Jordan Belson, to name but a few.

We also know of pioneering independent films such as John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), the B-films of Roger Corman, and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). We know that Easy Rider was an indie-financed picture distributed by a major. Other examples of pre-90s independent filmmaking include many films by John Waters, David Lynch’s Eraserhead  (1977), and the small-gauge punk filmmaking of Beth B., Nick Zedd, and others in the 1980s.

Some reasons indie film took off in the 1990s:

• the expanding influence of film festivals, and, in particular, the critical and commercial success of Stephen Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989).

• the proliferation of production programs in American universities.

• the purchase of indie studios by the majors

Geoff King, whose “Alternative Visions: Social, Political, and Ideological Dimensions of Independent Cinema,” we read this week, also points out that the dominant audience for independent film has and remains middle class, well educated, white, and arts-oriented. King is also careful to point out, however, that “Independent cinema, in general, in its more institutionalized forms, is stronger at offering alternative visions through the creation of unsettling or ambiguous impressions than it is at conduction more explicit inquires into social, economic or political territory.”

We then examined referentiality and postmodernism in two pivotal indie films:

Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991):

and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994):

We then discussed queer theory, depictions of gender identity, female masculinity, and challenges to heteronormativity in…

Girlpower (Sadie Benning, 1992)

and Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999):

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