When we sent a letter out to several dozen critics, curators, distributors, and producers asking them to pick the most important American independent films of all time, we received a slew of responses ranging from the excited to the confused. Many of our respondents welcomed the chance to take a critical look back at indie film history while others were perplexed by our lack of clear guidelines. "What's the difference between 'best' and 'important'?" some respondents asked, while others brought up the age-old question of what constitutes an independent film. As was obvious by our phrasing, we wanted the responses to define "independent" film, and we were excited by the variety of responses we received.
For those whose indie film canon begins with sex, lies, and videotape, consider the following: Abe Polonsky's Force of Evil, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, George Kuchar's Hold Me While I'm Naked, James Benning's 11 1/2 x 14, Don Siegel's Private Hell 36, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's Riddles of the Sphinx, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Robert Downey's Putney Swope, and Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. All these films were defined by their respondents as "independent." For some, "American independent" was a term not limited by geography. Godard's Breathless was at the head of James Schamus' list, while his partner Ted Hope's first pic was Chris Marker's La Jetee; both films are as vital to the consciousness of indie filmmakers as any other. And others used their lists to make statements about the current indie film scene. Film Forum's Karen Cooper, for example, selected only documentaries because that's where "independents truly distinguish themselves."
But there is a crucial difference between "best" and "most important." While quality was obviously an important determinant in these selections, our respondents were also careful to select films that were pioneering in some historical, cultural, or business context. These aren't necessarily the "best" indie films, although most are pretty great, but rather 50 essential viewing choices for anyone interested in this country's independent media past. Definitely slighted in our list are auteurs. While some voters, such as those who coalesced around Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, settled on an obvious choice, other directors with significant bodies of work were killed by split votes. So, our apologies to Jon Jost, Victor Nunez, Alan Rudolph, Les Blank, Emile d'Antonio, Jonas Mekas, Nancy Savoca, Alex Cox, Stan Brakhage, Rob Epstein, Gregory Nava, Monte Hellman, and the many others who could just as well have appeared in this list of 50 films.
A Few of the Picks:
#1: A Woman Under the Influence - John Cassavetes 1974
With more films cited by our respondents - Shadows, Faces, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Love Streams, and Opening Night all got votes - than any other director, John Cassavetes is the quintessential American indie. And from its private financing by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes (nearly all the crew and cast worked for deferred salaries) to its status as one of the first feature films to be successfully self-distributed (see Lipsky, "Wielding Influence," p. 46), A Woman Under the Influence remains a paradigm for today's independent filmmakers. But financing alone hardly explains the film's brilliance and influence. Much credit is due to Gena Rowlands' mesmerizing depiction of a housewife slowly slipping away into a nervous breakdown and taking her family along for the ride. It was a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress that year. But as with his other films, Cassavetes' brutal vision of emotional life is not a solo performance but is generated by the skirmishes between the ensemble actors. Falk, another Cassavetes' regular, gives Rowlands her bittersweet edge by playing a loving husband incapable of understanding what is happening to her. Long before the word "dysfunctional" became part of the American vernacular, Cassavetes had created a vision of America that people would only later talk about in 12-step groups everywhere.
#10: Slacker - Richard Linklater 1991
Rick Linklater's Slacker was rejected by several domestic festivals, but then a Film Comment scribe spotted the film at the Seattle Film Festival and wrote a laudatory piece. And when a tape made its way to John Pierson, who forced distribution execs to travel to Linklater's hometown of Austin to attend the film's run at the local Dobie Theater, one of the brightest indie directorial careers of the '80s and '90s was born. Slacker, Linklater's second feature (his first was a little-seen 89-minute Super-8 epic titled It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books), was both a no-budget feature which inspired a score of Gen-X philosophizing and a film-savvy work informed by Linklater's days running a local film society. A La Ronde-ish jape in which the camera follows a succession of deadbeat characters, Slacker was capable of both entertaining and boring while always convincing the viewer that a potentially more engaging subject was just a scene or two away.
#20: Meshes of the Afternoon - Maya Deren 1943
Laura Mulvey called her the mother of the avant-garde, and indeed, many histories credit Maya Deren with the inauguration of an experimental film practice in the United States and Meshes of the Afternoon with inventing the dream film. Deren's first project uses trick photography, repetition, a swaying camera, and a figure cloaked in black to evoke a woman's dream state and the conflicting impulses of sexual attraction and fear. The film was shot in 1943 in Los Angeles by Deren's then-husband, Alexander Hammid, a Hollywood cinematographer and filmmaker himself, and it launched Deren's career as a staunch proponent of independent and experimental film in the New York indie scene. Deren's later work shifted - as a dancer she was very interested in rhythm, an interest that she carried over into her filmmaking and editing, and she became very curious as well about ritual, voodoo, and ethnography. Relatively recent MTV Meshes of the Afternoon homages (or are they thefts?) include Katherine Dieckmann's moody video for Kristen Hersh's "Your Ghost" and the sexy Milla video for "Gentleman Who Fell."
#30: Hoop Dreams - Steve James, Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert 1994
Producer/director Steve James, producer/ editor Frederick Marx, and producer/d.p. Peter Gilbert began their portrait of two African-American kids whose hopes for the future hinge on basketball scholarships in 1987 and finished years later. At once an exciting sports doc as well as a penetrating look at American class structure, Hoop Dreams ultimately took about $470,000 to finish, due in part to the on-line work needed to finish the video cut. Hoop Dreams is notable not just for its verite honesty but also because it was the first tape-to-film work, outside of HDTV projects, to receive a major theatrical release. Although there is a small amount of original film material in Hoop Dreams, the piece was largely shot on Betacam. After raves at Sundance, Fine Line beat out other interested distributors by promising an extensive grass roots campaign. Indeed, Fine Line worked the sports angle and arranged screenings in the inner city. The three-hour doc overcame a disappointing New York opening weekend to gross $7.8 million at the domestic box office.
#40:The Wedding Banquet - Ang Lee 1977
Good Machine, Ted Hope and James Schamus' indie production company, was known for refining the art of no-budget filmmaking when Ang Lee's second feature propelled them into commercial orbit. Ang Lee's nod to the Hawksian comedy ushered in an optimistic new view of cross-cultural relations. The film's classical screenplay, co-written by Schamus, contains a marriage plot which unites gays and straights, young and old, and Americanized-immigrants with their foreign parents. Passed on for production by the usual indie distributors, the film's approximately $1 million budget was put up by Central Motion Picture of Taiwan - a budget that was more than recouped when the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and later topped Jurassic Park in Variety's listing of the year's most profitable films.
#50: Deep Throat - Gerard Damiano 1972
Gerard Damiano's hardcore sex flick both ushered in the '70s era of "porno-chic," in which liberated couples discovered the pre-video pleasures of sex on screen, and figured prominently in the feminist anti-porn debates of the '80s when star Linda Lovelace argued that she had been coerced into performing in the film. Co-starring Harry Reems, the film's self-mocking storyline concerned a woman only able to orgasm by giving oral sex. As Jeff Lipsky wrote when he appended Deep Throat to his list of picks, Deep Throat is "the most successful independent film in history, possibly the highest grossing film ever made (exact figures aren't readily available). It has spawned more imitators than any film ever made. Its very title became the sobriquet for the unnamed source who led to the resignation of an American President. I'd say that's pretty damn important.
Thanks to: Bob Hawk, Jeff Lipsky, Ira Deutchman, Jesse Lerner, Richard P. Rubinstein, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adam Rogers, Paul Cohen, Bill Horrigan, Lindsay Law, Tom Kalin, Caldecot Chubb, Marcie Bloom, David Ehrenstein, Steven Gaydos, Peter Lunenfeld, Pat Thomson, Berenice Reynaud, Claire Aguilar, Tom Bernard, Michael Barker, Michael Lumpkin, Midge Sanford, Jeff Kleeman, Craig Baldwin, Karen Cooper, Jim Stark, Anne Thompson, Jim Yee, Maggie Greenwald, Ruby Lerner, Gail Silva, Christine Vachon, Amy Taubin, Jeffrey Jacobs, Sandra Schulberg, Owen Gleiberman, Catherine Tait, Tom Prassis, Tom Gunning, Ulrich Gregor, Ted Hope, Marcus Hu, Bill Banning, John Pierson, James Schamus, Richard Linklater.