Kudos to Phil Hall for attempting the impossible: a comprehensive history of independent cinema from film’s invention towards the end of the nineteenth century until today. Self-confined to the indie movers and shakers from the United States (still, it’s great to see Canadian Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain slip through onto filmmaker Antero Alli’s “10 Most Important Independent Films of All Time” list), there’s just too much territory to cover in 300 pages.
One of the best features is inviting Eric Stanze (filmmaker), Charles Pappas (film historian), Dennis Schwartz (editor), Matthew Sorrento (film editor), Michael Legge (underground filmmaker), Christopher Null (editor) to join along with Alli and select groundbreaking work in their top-10 selections. Interested readers could use those choices as a starting point to bring their own first-hand understanding of productions that have had a major impact on the magical craft of moving pictures up to speed. Not surprisingly, no one film appeared on every list, but multiple nods include George Lucas’ THX-138 (1971), Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1942).
At the crux of it all is cash. Usually, independent filmmakers provide their own (or arm-twist friends and family) bankroll and frequently take on multiple roles (e.g., director/writer/producer/editor). That gives them total control but too often misses out on the all-important component of sober second thought. The comparison to self-published books is made, particularly “the folly of writing books without having an impartial outside editor examining the text prior to the actual printing of the work.” Physician heal thyself! Unfortunately, the overall effect of the incredible amount of information Hall has assembled is significantly weakened by too-many-to-count typographical and grammatical errors from the foreword to the epilogue. If this manuscript was professionally overseen then a full refund is in order. Let’s hope it’s a POD (print on demand) publication that can be corrected quickly.
The nine pages of production photos add much to the volume: the inner-city children image from Killer of the Sheep (cross-reference below) instantly rekindles the atmosphere of Charles Burnett’s remarkable feature just as seeing Miriam Makeba mid-song in Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa demands a trip to a full-service video store to hunt down a copy and hear it all.
In fact, the book’s greatest achievement is to spark the reader’s imagination: overwhelmed filmmakers will be inspired to get back to work and—against huge odds—complete and find distribution for a project worthy of inclusion in a subsequent update; film-lovers will scour the Internet to search out many of the historical shorts that are only a download away from view; film writers and critics will vow to learn even more about the major and minor masterpieces Hall discusses that—one way or another—have had such a strong influence on what is seen at the local Cineplex, home theatre or art houses and galleries. Can’t wait to get started! JWR