Were the 1980s one of the worst decades for commercial American film in this century? For a while, some of us--film critics as well as part of the audience--honestly thought so, deluged as we seemed to be with a prurient flood of films geared primarily to teen-agers in shopping malls: ludicrous one-against-a-hundred action movies, smirking suburban teen-age sex comedies, bloated star vehicles and careening buddy-buddy car-crash derbies.
But there was another American film industry in the 1980s, one that arose in response to the first, partially stimulated by the very economic factors that seemed to be forcing Hollywood movies not to the lowest common denominator but to the lowest conceivable denominator. David Rosen's book (written with Peter Hamilton) first was published as a special report of the Sundance Institute, and documents that counter-industry: the independent American cinema, movies produced and distributed almost exclusively outside the studios.
In a way, it's a sad book, because the authors are describing what is, in some ways, a past era, and also because they make no effort to move us, or involve us in their chronicle's passion. The only eloquent writing here is in the afterword by Jivan Tabibian. This is not a true history but a research paper, intended primarily as a tool for other independent film makers. (Its potential usefulness as such is probably what prompted its publication.) Rosen examines the history of a dozen independent films, made from 1980 to 1987, and he arranges the films not in chronological order--so we could get a sense of the decade's ebb and flow--but alphabetically , beginning with 1983's "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" and ending with 1984's "Wild Style."
Each film is analyzed in an unvarying pattern. A film synopsis is followed by sections on Development, Production, the Distribution Deal, the Marketing Campaign, the Theatrical Release, and a study of the Ancillary (or non-theatrical) Markets, capped by an overall review. The stories vary. Some of the films, such as "My Dinner With Andre" or "Eating Raoul," were surprise hits. Some, like "Cold Feet" and "Old Enough," were disappointments. Others, like "Wild Style," had sporadic success.
The earliest film studied--a key to the decade in many ways--is John Sayles' 1980 "The Return of the Secaucus Seven." The last is Ramon Menendez's 1987 "Stand and Deliver" (actually distributed not independently but through Warner Brothers). Rosen, in each case, interviews film makers, distributors and marketing people, seeming to accept many of their statements almost uncritically. His focus is not predominantly on any film's aesthetics but on how each was made financially possible, and how successfully it was sold to the public. Irony of ironies: Almost as much as in the Studio System, the makers and movers seem obsessed with the deal and the marketing process.
The difference lies, of course, in the kind of film being made. The vast majority of the movies discussed here have a leftward political slant. Some--such as the Weavers' reunion concert documentary "Wasn't That a Time!," Sayles' activist reunion comedy "Secaucus Seven," or "The Good Fight," a documentary on Spanish Civil War veterans--are quite openly radical. This isn't surprising, given the leftist stance of many film makers and in fact of many artists. (This accounts for the current legislative war on the National Endowment for the Humanities--which helped finance some of the films in the book.)
The Off-Hollywood films also are works that, to a certain degree, moved into a void created by the decreasing distribution of foreign films in the '80s. Intended for the same educated, discriminating market, they may, sadly, have helped diminish the demand for foreign films, forming a somewhat illusory replacement for them.
The heyday of the '80s American independent film, as described here, now seems past. That heyday died, to a certain extent, in the 1987 stock-market crash, victim of the drying up of venture capital that hit other industries. And it was a victim as well of its success: The studios began to co-opt some of the ideas, film makers (Spike Lee, the Cohen brothers) and audience. But perhaps that impression also is an illusion. One of the book's major surprises is the production chart, which reveals that during the mid-'80s, independent production gradually tripled that of studio films--380 films to 135, for example, in 1987.
Were we right to define the state of American film primarily by the state of the studio product? Of course, not all of independent films were distributed or seen, but the vitality of the process was obviously underestimated. And it may be underestimated still.
Independent American films flourished as a response to the increased demand of home-video markets and multiplex screens. That demand still exists, however overshadowed up by the majors. Obviously there is a need for the independents to band together, to change the patterns of distribution and exhibition and to nourish each other artistically.