Department of Theatre and Film
Book Review: AMERICAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA: AN INTRODUCTION
Yannis Tzioumakis, Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Yannis Tzioumakis’s American Independent Cinema: An Introduction (2006) offers a comprehensive account of the political economies shaping independent film. Tzioumakis not only presents a thorough historical overview of independent film from the early 20th century to the present era, but also an in-depth examination of the relationship between independent cinema and mainstream Hollywood. This differentiates American Independent Cinema from texts such as Geoff Andrew’s Stranger than Paradise (1998), which focuses on independent directors such as Todd Hayes, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen brothers, and from Greg Merritt’s Celluloid Mavericks (1999), which sees independent films as essentially separate from mainstream Hollywood.
By comparison, Tzioumakis finds that independent cinema is more than a simple, uncomplicated response to high-profit Hollywood blockbuster movies and mass popularity. By demonstrating the intersections that exist between the lines of filmmaking and how the changing conditions of independent cinema inform mainstream Hollywood, Tzioumakis reveals their multiple correlations. Thus, Tzioumakis illustrates an important conclusion: while the definition and influence of independent cinema is variable and constantly shifting, it has long influenced mainstream Hollywood, filmmakers, actors, and audiences.
American Independent Cinema opens with film critic Emanuel Levy’s definition of independent film, which declares: “ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker’s personal vision” (1). As in the volume by Tzioumakis, Levy’s text does not offer a simple definition of independent cinema. On the contrary, Levy’s Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (1999) examines the range of factors that shape independent films. Levy argues that there is no set guideline for indie film production. This is where Tzioumakis is in partial agreement, as he argues that a singular definition of independent cinema is impossible and arguably a misnomer. Rather, it is imperative to deconstruct the American film industry by asking specific questions such as: how does one define independent film? What is an independent film? What cultural, political, and economic factors shape an independent film and independent film practice? Most importantly, what is independent cinema’s relationship with mainstream Hollywood? Thus, Tzioumakis sets the tone for American Independent Cinema by refusing to chronicle a straightforward linear, independent history. As he explains, the identity of independent cinema is an influential yet mercurial facet of American culture and film practice that warrants examination from a critical perspective.
American Independent Cinema is chronologically divided. “Part I: Mid 1920s- late 1940s: The Studio Years” contextualizes the emergence of the mainstream film industry oligopoly. Once the studios had secured movie standardization as a means to maximize capital, independent directors, production-units, and distributors faced controlled creative conditions. To illustrate that point, Tzioumakis illustrates that the Big Five movie studios (Paramount, Loew’s [MGM], 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros, and RKO) and the Little Three (Columbia, Universal, and United Artists) were the companies holding the majority of the industrial power. Throughout the period of classical Hollywood cinema, these studios operated as agents that fueled monopolization and self-advantageous practices while also extending oppressive trade and distribution policies onto independent filmmakers.
It is important to note that the mainstream studios stood as the creative and productive markers that the independents opposed. To clarify this point Tzioumakis, ventures into the early 1910s to contextualize independent cinema’s pre-history. He notes that “the discourse of independent cinema appears perhaps for the first time in1908–9 with the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC, also known as the Patents Company or simply the Trust) and its antagonists, which became known as independents” (22). The MPPC then formed the General Film Company (GFC) as a method to control the market and monopolize distribution. However, by February 1909, the Anti-Trust Film Company of Chicago, and about one hundred film companies that were initially denied membership to the MPPC, challenged this control, and “these ‘unlicensed outlaws’ attached the label independentto their practices [thus becoming] part of an independent movement” (22). Tzioumakis explains that a defining feature of early independent filmmaking was “a production company’s refusal to succumb to the pressures applied by one or more organizations that actively seek total control of the film market” (21). This type of power play, divisible by money and creativity, becomes a central issue that spans the decades of the mainstream’s and independent’s histories.
Part I provides a crucial contribution to the field of film studies because Tzioumakis demonstrates that independent cinema is not just a contemporary entity. Instead, independent cinema has a legacy that is as far-reaching, multifaceted, and as important as that of mainstream Hollywood. Thus, American Independent Cinema explores an approach that considers and illustrates commonalities, meanings, and representations of film history while illuminating and expanding our historical understanding of film studies. In “Part II: Late 1940s – Late 1960s: The Transitional Years,” Tzioumakis explains that the era is marked by three key elements: the Paramount Decree that required new distribution rules, exploitation as a distribution strategy, and catering to the burgeoning youth market. The Supreme Court found the Big Five and Little Three guilty of monopolization, thus ending block-booking and forcing the “the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and therefore lose control of exhibition” (103). Inevitably, this made room for independent production to gain power through the adoption of specific distribution tactics such as arranging individual or multi-picture deals, selling to the highest bidder, competing for better access to theatres, etc. (125). The developing financial stability also made room to market exploitation films, such as Cocaine Fiends (O’Connor, 1935), Reefer Madness (Gasnier, 1936) and Assassin of Youth (Clifton, 1937) that depicted the “gratification of forbidden curiosity” and peaked at issues pertaining to venereal disease, drug use, homosexuality, etc. (139). Tzioumakis discusses aspects of the youth market as indications of trends that could contribute to a film’s financial success. Tzioumakis’s focus on teenagers highlights one of American Independent Cinema’s strongest aspects. Despite Tzioumakis’s emphasis on political economies, he situates the trade and industry histories within a larger social and cultural context, and thus presents American independent cinema as an intersectional, rather than a self-determining, cultural entity in American culture.
In “Part III: Late 1960s – Present: Contemporary American Independent Cinema,” Tzioumakis contextualizes key changes in the social and cultural fabric of both independent and mainstream film. Box-office failure of expensive films, audience decline, the closure of theatres, the rise in television’s popularity, and the outdated Production Codes pushed the intertwined industries toward a paradigm shift. Tzioumakis takes time to develop the dawn of the Hollywood Renaissance as an era that “combined a mixture of exploitation strategies, art-house filmmaking, emphasis on American themes and a new marriage between independent film production and the majors” (170). For instance, Tzioumakis notes that films such as The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) and Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) are radically different, aesthetically and thematically from the films being produced by the majors in the late 1960s. As Tzioumakis points out, the New Hollywood films’ confrontation of traditional morals and conventions of mainstream America and American filmmaking mark the paradigm shift. However, the new auteur cinema fueled the development of mini-majors and major-independents. As a consequence, in many instances, the process of institutionalizing independent filmmaking depended on independents’ relationship with a “conglomerate parent” (224). This turn at once contested and buttressed the independent framework. Corporate funding granted some form of autonomy, but it also challenged creative expression, and so curiously, conglomerate parents garnered the financial support necessary to ensure a concrete independent movement (249). The Sundance Film Festival, the Independent Feature Project, and the International Film Channel support independent cinema, but also reinforce what Tzioumakis refers to as Indiewood, or the “mix of practices associated with the majors with elements associated with independent filmmaking” (265). Clearly, the popularity and fiscal success of contemporary independent cinema, festivals, and channels renders the independent industry akin to Hollywood.
By way of examples, American Independent Cinema is imbued with case studies that range from an analysis of Cagney Production to examinations of The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958), On the Beach (Kramer, 1959), Foxy Brown (Hill, 1974) and Clerks (Smith 1994), to showcases of work by John Cassavetes and John Sayles. The case studies are separated from the body of the chapter and extrapolated upon at the conclusion of each section. Tzioumakis references the case studies in order to provide context. While one needs to page back to appreciate how the case studies figure into the discussions as a whole, they provide a useful basis for course discussions and assignments.
American Independent Cinema is quite condensed. In some instances, a more thorough engagement with the subject matter could benefit a reader who is not familiar with existing accounts of American cinema. For example, Tzioumakis briefly discusses the works of Poverty Row Films; films with a “low quality and cheap look…shoddy sets, dim lighting, non existent camera work and extremely poor sound recording” (63). Yet, as Tzioumakis points out, Poverty Row Films also acted as an avenue for ethnic and race films that fostered their audience’s sense of cultural identity. A closer analysis of some of Poverty Row films in relation to Hollywood would provide readers with a fuller view of the early foundations of independent cinema. However, simply by pointing to these historical tidbits, Tzioumakis illuminates the viable pasts of the cinematic histories erased or mediated by large-scale capitalism. Hence, Tzioumakis makes palpable the need for further research, and positions American Independent Cinema as a decisive text not only in the field of film studies, but in a number of other fields such as cultural studies, communication studies, economics, political sciences, etc.
For Tzioumakis, the independent industry is a relentlessly shifting entity that simultaneously challenges and advances culture. As he concludes, “to say the independent filmmaking does not exist anymore, this is far removed from the truth. The label might have changed, but the type of film it signifies continues to thrive and represent the most likely source of original and challenging material in American cinema” (284). Thus, Tzioumakis implores readers to examine the strengths and potential power of independent art and media. Indeed, American Independent Cinema: An Introduction bolsters the identity of independent cinema as a powerful contender in the film industry.