A survey of the first thirty years of American Independent Filmmaking. Ray Carney wrote the essay on this page surveying the early years of the American independent movement for a Spanish film encyclopedia. It has never been published in English.

Page 1: Introduction / Page 2: Meyers, Engel, and Rogosin / Page 3: Cassavetes, Clarke, and Loden / Page 4: Rappaport, May, Morrissey, and Kramer

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American Narrative Art Film:
The First Thirty Years, 1949-1979, Part Three

The development of highly portable and relatively inexpensive 16mm cameras and Nagra tape-recording technology, both of which became generally available and affordable in America in the late-1950s, made possible the work of those who might be called the "second generation" of American independents. The six most important American narrative art filmmakers who established their careers in the period between 1957 and 1979 were: John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Mark Rappaport, Robert Kramer, and Paul Morrissey. The fact that all six were New York-based, or at least got their starts in New York prior to moving elsewhere, is indicative of the importance of the city as an alternative to Los Angeles. There are also a host of less important figures whose work, though extremely interesting in places, falls outside the space limitations of this overview: Robert Kaylor, Joan Micklin Silver, Michael Roemer, William Greaves, Robert Frank, Jim McBride, Milton Moses Ginsberg, Claudia Weill, Joseph Strick (who worked on his first film, The Savage Eye, with Sidney Meyers), Henry Jaglom, John Korty, James Ivory, and several others. (The fact that the final four figures I have named either lived on the West Coast or produced at least some of their best work there--Korty in San Francisco and Strick, Jaglom, and Ivory in Los Angeles, should indicate that although New York was indeed the undoubted center of the off-Hollywood movement, artistic originality knows no geographical boundaries.)

I should point out that I have deliberately omitted from either list the names of most of the filmmakers customarily associated with the "New Hollywood" movement. Although their work was much ballyhooed by American journalists and critics during the decade of the 1970s, it is simply of lesser artistic interest than that of the filmmakers on either my "major" or "minor" lists, and is, in my opinion, not really worth serious artistic consideration. I have in mind directors like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, Alan Pakula, Arthur Penn, Bob Rafelson, Paul Mazursky, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, and a score of others. Although they indeed have a place in the history of kitsch (or Hollywood art-for-the-millions), their story clearly falls outside of the history of cinematic art of the first rank.

As different as the six filmmakers I have named are from one another, they are united in their rejection of the values and forms of Hollywood moviemaking (which is why it is inconceivable that they would ever consent to work within those forms and values as directors like Nichols, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Kubrick, and others do). Hollywood filmmaking is implicitly (and frequently explicitly) capitalistic in its understanding of experience. It extols the virtues of rugged individualism in its characters, the competitive struggle for superiority in its plots, and the worship of materialistic rewards in its outcomes. It is also Faustian. It displays and admires power, wit, cleverness, and knowledge--on the part of both the characters in the work and the creators of the work. The American independents I have named reject both general tendencies. Their characters are not asked to compete with each other, but to interact and cooperate. They are not propelled on quests for material or social rewards, but are asked to embark on journeys of spiritual and emotional self-discovery.

These films are also harder to understand than Hollywood pictures. Neither the characters nor their narrative situations are as clear as those in Hollywood movies. The characters are not melodramatically sorted out into good and bad guys, but are often inbetween: both good and bad at once. The starring figures frequently are not intellectually clever, dramatically powerful, and socially or physically glamorous, but usually the opposite: imperfect, fallible, vulnerable, and flawed in many respects. Rather than providing a strong actor and character with whom the viewer can identify in the standard Hollywood way, the viewer's attention is often divided among a large group of characters. The scenes in these films also violate many of the standard narrative techniques of Hollywood filmmaking. They do not pose a concise series of narrative questions and answers, but instead expose the viewer to challenging emotional problems, usually problems having no definite answers. While Hollywood invariably sets out to demarcate a fantasy island different from life outside of the movies, a world in which conflicts are clearer and resolutions more definitive, these films usually attempt to break down the boundaries between life and art, and encourage the viewer to find himself and his affairs, in all of their uncertainty, confusion, and untidiness, on screen. These filmmakers set out to reclaim the forms and forces of ordinary life, in all of its sprawl and disarray, as the stuff of art.

John Cassavetes towers over all but a few of his contemporaries not only because of the brilliance of his work, but because he was able to sustain his career as an independent for almost thirty years by paying for many of his films with money he made working as an actor in mainstream television and film productions. Like Elaine May, he worked on the margins of the studio system, never completely inside nor outside of it. Although he was forced severely to compromise his vision in order to secure financing at certain times--as in Too Late Blues (1961), A Child Is Waiting (1963), Gloria (1980), and Big Trouble (1985), he managed to complete eight works over which he had more or less complete artistic control--Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1978), and Love Streams (1984).

Cassavetes unfortunately got the undeserved reputation as an "improviser" early on in his career with the result that American critics (both journalists and scholars) to this day refuse to take his work seriously. The fact is that very few of the scenes in his films, not even most of those in Shadows (notwithstanding the misleading statement that appears on screen at the end of the movie), were actually improvised; but the misunderstanding is a revealing one. It is of the essence of Cassavetes' work that he creates the artistic impression of plunging characters and viewers into a present-tense world in which seemingly anything can happen to anyone, at anytime. In their different ways, all of his films entertain a vision of human freedom and possibility, which, in his view, can be achieved only by breaking away from prefabricated systems, patterns, and categories of behavior and understanding. Viewers are asked to do the same thing as characters: to remain totally open and receptive to experience. His first two independent movies illustrate how the improvisational effect of his work is thematized within it. Shadows shows how characters in young adulthood use masks and role-playing (playing macho man, wounded woman, or "beat" roles) to flee from intimacy and emotional exposure. Faces demonstrates how mature adults similarly flee from vulnerability and emotional openness with heartless, mechanical routines and cruelly cliche'd patterns of understanding. (Faces is incidentally also a brilliant dissection of the sort of figures Cassavetes was forced to deal with in his brief but doomed flirtation with Hollywood studio filmmaking in the early 1960s. It is a depiction of men who use business values to conduct their most intimate relationships, and women who consent to this state of affairs, trading their love for a house, fancy furniture, and expensive jewelry--as if emotions could be bought and sold like real estate.)

Shirley Clarke came to narrative feature filmmaking in the early sixties from nonnarrative art shorts in the mid- and late fifties. Her works include the UNICEF short film, A Scary Time (1960), and the three feature-length movies, The Connection (1962), The Cool World (1963), and Portrait of Jason (1967). Like Cassavetes' work, Clarke's asks viewers to ponder the extent to which you can lose track of who you really are by giving away your identity to a series of prefabricated cultural routines and impersonal styles. Portrait of Jason, her most interesting work, involves an extended on camera interview with a street hustler and pimp named Jason Holiday. Questioned by Clarke and her collaborator, Carl Lee, Jason tells the story of his life directly into the camera. What makes the film fascinating is that the longer we watch it (or the more we go back to it on repeated viewing) the less sure we become of the truth of anything we see or hear. The film is a Chinese box of fictions within fictions, with every aspect of it progressively revealed to be potentially unreliable or arranged for dramatic effect. From the narrative structure that Clarke employs to organize the interview as a coherent cinematic experience (playing free and loose with the actual order of Jason's remarks), to Jason's mannerisms (which are brilliantly theatrical), to the story he tells about his life (much of which is apparently made up for artistic effect), to Jason's very name (which is a "stage name"), everything about the self and its expressions is revealed to be an artistic "choice." It is crucial to the dizzying effect that even the apparently "documentary" footage is itself rigged throughout--shot, edited, and processed on an optical printer in a highly selective way. Clarke and Lee ask leading questions, deliberately provoke outbursts on Jason's part by teasing or baiting him, and cut and edit the footage of the result to rig the effect (even to the point of doctoring the footage itself at one moment when a section of film is first slowed down and then printed twice back to back in order to prolong one of Jason's glances to make it dramatically significant). There is no nature in this world--not even human nature--that is isolable from the glorious, frightening transformations of art. As is said about Hollywood, there is no "there" there--a fact which Hollywood labors to conceal, and Clarke to reveal.

In Clarke's and Cassavetes' work, the self is less the designation of a realm separate from and distinguishable from the arrangements of art and culture, than an empty space within which cultural, intellectual, and artistic forces war for control. Shadows, Faces, and Portrait of Jason each dramatize the predicaments of individuals on the brink of self-destructive self-erasure, whose personal identities are in danger of being dissolved into (or "spoken by") impersonal styles (whether it is the styles of coolness and "beat" life or the styles of American business and deal-making makes little difference). Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970) dramatizes the loss of the self in another way. The film (which Loden wrote and stars in, and which she directed with the uncredited assistance of Nicholas Proferes) is a daring dramatic and social depiction of an individual without dramatic or social resources. While avant-garde critics and theorists like Barthes and Foucault speculated in their writing about the death of the author and the disappearance of man, Loden stunningly dramatizes what such a theoretical consequence looks like as a practical, ordinary, lived event. Her lower-class, white-trash drifter is a portrait of a figure at the point of self-annihilation. Since the plot of the film nominally concerns Wanda's becoming involved with another drifter in a bank robbery, it was invidiously compared by most American reviewers with Arthur Penn's tiresomely conventional Bonnie and Clyde (and predictably judged to be less gripping and more boring), when in fact the very point of Loden's movie is focus in on a character that won't come into focus, and on scenes that decline to be dramatic in the Hollywood way.

Page 1: Introduction / Page 2: Meyers, Engel, and Rogosin / Page 3: Cassavetes, Clarke, and Loden / Page 4: Rappaport, May, Morrissey, and Kramer

A survey of the first thirty years of American Independent Filmmaking. Ray Carney wrote the essay on this page surveying the early years of the American independent movement for a Spanish film encyclopedia. It has never been published in English.

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Text Copyright 2005 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.