AMERICAN INDEPENDENT / THE NEW HOLLYWOOD
Little Fugitive (1953)
Salt of the Earth (1954)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Don’t Look Back (1967)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Easy Rider (1969)
Mean Streets (1973)
American Graffiti (1973)
Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979)
Killer of Sheep (1979)
Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Blood Simple (1984)
Sherman’s March (1985)
Runaway Train (1985)
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Roger & Me (1989)
Bottle Rocket (1996)
In the Company of Men (1997)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
All the Real Girls (2003)
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
The Puffy Chair (2005)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Shotgun Stories (2007)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Ain’t them Bodies Saints (2013)
First of all, good luck trying to define the term “Independent Cinema.” Is it how a film is financed? Is it who makes it? Is it a style? Is it how controversial it is? It could be any of these, depending on who you are talking to. The only one for sure requirement is that it has to be bleak. At least that’s the way things look on every list of the best independent films you will ever find. No happy endings, nothing for kids, no laughter--abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Well, forget all those list makers. Sure, American independent cinema tackles some heavy subjects, but there’s room for some fun, too.
There were glimpses of independent film in the first half of the century, but for our purposes let’s start with John Cassavetes. He made it big as an actor in the 1950’s and also taught acting workshops on the side. But, he was tired of the limitations of storytelling within the studio system. So, he got his acting friends and students together to make Shadows, a rough black and white drama about New York Jazz musicians and interracial tensions. They used improvisation techniques and a DIY work ethic to give the film a sense of authenticity. Shadows was released in 1959 and is now known as a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema.
Cassavetes went on to inspire other filmmakers like Charles Burnett, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and Kelly Reichardt to tell personal stories about subjects or characters that mainstream Hollywood wasn’t interested in.
By the late 60’s, the Hollywood studio system was imploding. They had spent too much money too many times on big movies that less and less people were going to see. But, producer Roger Corman was doing great business by making low-budget horror movies. The films were generally boilerplate shlock, but he was able to give young directors a chance to cut their teeth without much financial risk. Among others, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese all got their start at “The Corman Film School.” Ron Howard remembers that Corman told him, “If you do a good job on this film, you'll never have to work for me again" (“Corman”).
For a lot of these young directors, that proved to be true. In an effort to stop the bleeding, Hollywood started employing their own version of Corman’s formula: hire newcomers and film school graduates to make genre films on the cheap and see what happens. After both Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider made generous profits, Hollywood started adapting their business model. Francis Ford Coppola was hired to direct the musical Finian’s Rainbow, then went on to write the screenplay for Patton and write and direct The Godfather.
Martin Scorsese graduated from NYU film school and went on to direct Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman. But when he showed the film to Cassavetes, the response was “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of s***” (Brown). Cassavetes encouraged Scorsese to return to his roots and themes that were important to him. Scorsese took the advice to heart and came out next with Mean Streets.
Coppola himself became a huge influence on the new Hollywood. Because of the critical and financial success of The Godfather, Coppola was able to start his own company, American Zoetrope. He employed many of his friends from film school and financed their projects as well. He believed in a young George Lucas enough to pay for his ascetic sci-fi project THX-1138. And when that one flopped, he still paid for Lucas’ next film, American Graffiti, which turned out to be a huge success.
We should also mention that by this time, Hollywood had abandoned the Hayes’ Code, replacing it with the rating system. This meant filmmakers were free to include swears, nudity, and decapitations. So they did.
Many filmmakers and scholars now get all misty-eyed talking about Hollywood of the early 1970’s, those halcyon days when they could make films about politics, incest, and concert pianists turned oil riggers--all with a blank check from the studios. Because, like we said, filmmakers and scholars love the bleak stuff. And with the Vietnam War, recession, and Watergate, that’s what the American public was buying. Or wasn’t buying. Attendance at theatres that decade was at an all-time low. But soon, with the help of a scary shark and some glowy space swords, Hollywood changed its mournful ways and started packing the theatres again.