American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader

edited by Jim Hillier

Published by BFI Publishing

283 pages, 2001

Buy it online





A Conversation on Film

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


The British Film Institute consistently releases some of the most readable and insightful film books ever. American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader is no exception; if anything, it's one of its most exciting releases yet.

As the subtitle indicates, this anthology culls its contents from the pages of the renowned film magazine Sight and Sound; it also includes a handful of newly commissioned thematic overviews original to this volume but penned by regular Sight and Sound contributors. While relying on previously published pieces may result in odd imbalances -- for example, as editor Jim Hillier notes in his introduction: "it is doubtful whether Night on Earth (covered in a featured article) will be considered over time as important a Jarmusch work as Dead Man (covered only by a review)" -- readers are amply rewarded by the immediacy and vitality of the writing and by the unusual and compelling blend of material: feature articles, reviews, essays and interviews.

American Independent Cinema is divided into six thematic sections -- Pioneers, African Americans, Queers, Miniaturists and Minimalists (a category never defined to my satisfaction), Mavericks and, finally, Generics -- although Hillier acknowledges that these are somewhat arbitrary and that several subjects and articles could have been at home in any number of the sections. The book is mostly preoccupied with the wave of American independent cinema that came in the wake of spectacular and unexpected financial success of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film, Sex, Lies and Videotape -- although its first section is devoted to independent pioneers such as John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol.

Earlier, I said that I found this book exciting. And I do. However, that doesn't mean that I agree with all its stances. For example, I found it rather overdone to devote so much space to Andy Warhol -- on whom the tag of filmmaker sticks rather dubiously -- only to ignore the much more influential Russ Meyer and John Waters -- both, love them or hate them, true passionate pioneers of American independent cinema. In fact, the still-active Waters is inexplicably given a rather cold shoulder throughout this volume: B. Ruby Rich fails to mention him in her overview of queer cinema and outside of two passing mentions in the queer section (a throwaway comparison in the review of The Doom Generation and a one-line anecdote related by Gus Van Sant in an interview by Amy Taubin) discussion of his work is nowhere to be found. As for Meyer, he's completely absent from these pages. Also, I could only scratch my head in uncomprehending bafflement at the pages and pages devoted to praising the films of Abel Ferrara.

Of course, all this is part of the fun. Moments of empathic agreement (yes! David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an undervalued gem) clash with others of heated dissent: how could anyone find Steven Soderbergh's sloppy and clichéd Out of Sight worthy of an in-depth essay, unless it were to cut it to shreds -- which is far from Peter Matthew's intent in "Blind Date," where he proclaims it "one of the best formula pictures in years." Further, I can only disagree with Matthews when, in the same article, he compares "the meticulous Soderbergh" with "the blowhard Tarantino"; I would say "the manipulative Soderbergh" and "the enthusiastic Tarantino" -- and certainly many other readers would in turn disagree with both of us.

I guess what I'm trying to convey is that even when I disagreed with the various writers and pieces, I had tremendous fun reading and thinking about the ideas and films these articles invoked. For example, Hal Hartley (a director I find spectacularly overpraised) is mentioned frequently and various writers offer radically and passionately divergent views of his work (echoing many conversations with friends of mine who love Hartley's films).

Nevertheless, lest I give the impression that I could mostly find faults in the opinions expressed here, I'd like to point the way towards some of the several eye-opening articles in this book. Karen Alexander's interview with Julie Dash was intelligent and probing. Jonathan Romney's piece on Todd Haynes' Poison deftly balanced the diverse elements that make up a memorable review. The two articles on Harmony Korine and his uncompromisingly idiosyncratic approach to cinema made for fascinating reading. Larry Gross' account of writing the screenplay for This World, Then the Fireworks ("The Thriller inside Me") was engrossingly honest. And I could go on and on.

American Independent Cinema's 69 pieces are written by people who care about cinema and who know how to articulate and convey their ideas. For anyone for whom cinema is not only a 90-or-so-minute distraction but a passionate interest,this book is a rare treat: a smorgasbord of informed, divergent and engaged ideas on the 20th century's most defining art form. | September 2001


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.