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American Independent Narrative Cinema of the '60s: A Brief Survey
(Page Three)

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Some of the films succeed 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.

Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But a Man.

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).

The ghouls in Carnival of Souls.

Straddling the line between personal and commercial cinema are directors like Herschel Gordon Lewis, Tom Laughlin and Monte Hellman. Lewis, particularly, has an 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.)

Mickey Dolenz assaults a Coke Machine in Head.

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.

Gary Morris is the editor and publisher of Bright Lights Film Journal. He writes regularly for the Bay Area Reporter and SF Weekly.

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Photo credits: New Video and Rhino Home Video.

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