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By Noel Lawrence | October 19, 2011

Recently, Slamdance asked Burke Roberts and myself [Noel Lawrence] to recommend underground films for the Anarchy Shorts and Special Screening sections of the Festival. We are psyched. At the same time, we are pensive. How does one define underground film and why is it important?

Burke and I work as a programming team but we are not monolithic in our views. If anything, our partnership is more like Siskel and Ebert. With our thumbs primed for battle, Burke and I started an e-mail dialogue to ponder the status of underground film today. Filmmakers take note: the Slamdance submission deadline is Friday, October 21.

What is underground film? By word association, Emile De Antonio’s “Underground” (1976) immediately comes to mind. The director filmed an underground interview with an underground terrorist organization and the FBI tried to confiscate the footage. They tried to keep the film underground so to speak. The director’s work was controversial and theatres got bombed. Predictably, a lot of screenings were cancelled. The government buried the films underground. I have no idea if De Antonio considered himself an underground filmmaker but I admire that spirit of resistance.

And there is also something he said about his craft that informs my underground ideals: “I raise a minimal budget for a maximum amount of effort, for a maximum amount of commentary, for a maximum amount of creating new form.” He was speaking of documentary in that quote but, again, it makes me think of underground cinema at its best.

As you will note, we are already two paragraphs into this text and I have not ventured a definition of underground film. I don’t have a good one yet. However, I have a few ideas that might describe it.

L’Age D’Or (1930)

Underground film is not a genre. It is a form of resistance to dominant cultural paradigms. And what bestows underground status must occur in the specific circumstances of a historical moment. What may appear shocking to one generation seems quaint to the next. For instance, Bunuel’s “L’age D’Or” (1930) was condemned by a Spanish newspaper as “the most repulsive corruption of our age… the new poison which Judaism, masonry, and rabid, revolutionary sectarianism want to use in order to corrupt the people.” It was banned in many countries and yanked from distribution for nearly a half-century. Though it has achieved institutional status today, that was an underground film for its time.

There is something about underground cinema that is feral. Avant-garde film is more domesticated. It does not seem out of place in a modern art museum. When underground film crosses into “respectable” venues, there is the satisfaction of vindication but also a feeling of loss. It’s like putting a lion in a zoo so visitors can gawk at it from a safe distance.

Your thoughts, Burke?

First of all who is Siskel and who is Ebert in this discussion? I tend to agree with everything you said there – on an intellectual level. However, What is interesting to me is the way in which you’ve said it is inherently contradictory… I’d like to focus on your use of “feral” and “domesticated.” To me the word “underground” is far too often commandeered as a self-proclaimed badge of cool to offset the insecurity of not having been invited into the eyes or ears of the masses. And, of course, they would jump at the opportunity! I can speak on this because, in my youth, I was admittedly guilty of this.

So “underground” is a flawed word from the jump. Like “liberal” or “independent” or “punk.” They are the kinds of words that transform in the mouths of the users, including all the academic diarrhea my esteemed gentle-brother just spouted, which is still from the position of an outsider looking in. Neither position is correct. These are simply semantic debates.

‘Feral Cinema’… I like that. Work that comes from a unique personal exploration is what hits me in the clit: the fiery voice of an individual (“Individualism” being another word that has been re-connotated by the fools).

I think your construction of the definition as based on history is necessary, but in and of itself deconstructs the “feral” nature of which you speak. Like the art professors who will teach Picasso’s brush stroke techniques, but will never teach that Picasso’s defied his teachers. And most of could never have discovered these techniques on their own because they are too busy trying to define things. Playing devil’s advocate – I would say your very attempt to categorize it, using the language of institutions is exactly that cage imprisoning the lion.

We live in exciting times. New resources for creating cinema give power to the people. As a result, you get the paths flooded with mediocrity and worse. I wish the cream always rises to the top but let’s be realistic. We have not heard of all the greatest artists who have ever lived. A few have been lucky, and we’re lucky to have had them.

I think that is where you hit the nail on the head – timing. What is underground to one generation is quaint to another and what not. I differ on your point of view mainly in that I don’t think the box office statistics or budgets or venues are relevant to the “underground” film. I think it is the nature of the piece that makes it so. I think no matter how many Oscar nominations David Lynch receives, he is still exploring techniques that are untried and ideas that are personal – not sculpted for the masses. To speak on it as a matter of numbers is to open up the can of worms labeled “degree.” Is Gaspar Noe not underground anymore because he’s got financial backing from major international players (…which he did, and continues to do, very brave and difficult work to earn) or is he underground still because 99% of Americans have still never heard of him?

If I may shift this conversation toward a different perspective, I propose that many a “Punk Rock” band failed to find their potential because they were concerned with what is Punk Rock. Tearing away the constraints that define punk is the “punkest” thing to do. Underground cinema need not be anything more than unique, spirited and most importantly: BRAVE.

GOOD underground cinema needs all those elements as well as a technical and creative prowess in every element of filmmaking.

I give you the floor sir.

Just as intended, I rattled Burke’s cage with my “lion” comment. I agree with him in many ways. The point of an underground should not be to stay underground. That’s certainly my hope with “Occupy Wall Street.” I want to see it become a mass movement. Otherwise, true change is not possible.

Further, revolutionary purists suck. The last thing fringe artists need to do is argue amongst themselves about who belongs in their little clubhouse. A lot of potentially important art movements flamed out because of these playa-haters.

However, sticking to the punk rock analogy, I grew up in the 1980s and the battle lines were clearly drawn. There were bands like the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag that were never, ever going to be on a major label. For me, that music had an inspiring sense of subversion and resistance. It wasn’t on MTV. It wasn’t sold at Wal-Mart. It rejected mainstream America.

After Nirvana, record labels got smart. They saw commercial potential and signed some of these acts. Now I would have loved if Sonic Youth or Big Black played stadiums. However, more often than not, major labels watered down the raw energy of underground music into the mediocrity of “alt-rock.” The suits let just enough grunge through the corporate meat-grinder to give audiences the sense they were getting an “alternative.” But the choice ultimately became a “Coke vs. Pepsi” sort of decision.

Now let me qualify that previous statement. I’m not claiming every band that ever appeared on a major label is a piece of s**t. I like a lot of popular groups. However, by co-opting the underground, the major labels may have ultimately transformed what could have been a mass autonomous music scene into business as usual. This is a situation where the numerous exceptions prove the rule.

Likewise, I feel indie film partly succumbed to the same cultural and economic shift. Instead of brave and committed work, we got “quirk” as Michael Hirschorn called it in his controversial article for “The Atlantic.”

“Quirk is odd,” he wrote. “But not too odd.” In other words, we’ll show you films that are offbeat in a nice, harmless sort of way. But don’t worry. We won’t challenge your fundamental beliefs and assumptions. Again, let me issue a disclaimer: I like a lot of indie films and they deserve to be seen. At the same time, there needs to be a place for underground cinema now more than ever. As a programmer, it disturbs me that when people finally acquire the tools to make their own films, they just make their own $1.98 imitations of Hollywood features. Let me give you filmmakers out there a word of advice. If you have a shoestring budget, be creative. Even if you want to be Jerry Bruckenheimer, show me something I never saw before. You’ll have a much easier time selling out after you get some festival awards.

First of all, I’ve seen Sonic Youth at many a stadium-size venue (most recently the Hollywood Bowl). Otherwise, I have little to say in response to your counter point other than: Testify Brother!

It is the artist’s duty to not be commandeered by the crooked drug dealers that cut their work with so much baking soda; or glamorized by the commerce vampires that drain the soul for dirty blood that is interchangeable with any other willing victim. With this analogy, I speak of the crumbling machine that is Hollywood. If your intention is to audition for the tired old structure, I say good luck – don’t let the revolving door hit you in the a*s.

If just at the moment when all the dead ends have technologically transformed into superhighways, your narrow vision prompts you to run back into the burning house… Well, I’m thankful to believe in evolution and my favorite part is extinction.

For those of you who are not here to be just another log in the jam on the bathroom wall of the world, I implore you: re-invent. Find a way. Noel and I come from a generation in which it was nearly impossible to even get a camera out the door of a rental house. The resources are now laid out for you on a silver platter! Never since the dawn of cinema has there has never been opportunity like this in our medium.

Cinema is the art form of the new century. Revolution is mumbling. I want it to scream.

Don’t forget – Film is young. Compared to other art forms, a mere century is still infancy. If it was all figured out, if all had been done, then we (and cinema) would cease to exist.

Explore man!

The underground filmmaker’s credo!

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  1. Doug Brunell says:

    This was an excellent piece. Let the debate continue …

  2. Alexander Rojas says:

    I love your site. Ioved it since 1998. Yes, since I was a freshman in film school. For real, for real, for real… what’s it going to take to get at least a review on FilmThreat? My vimeo page has two short films that premiered at Slamdance (Cushion in 2005) and (Tripp in 2008). Any chance you can help a Chicago filmmaker out? Could use the help… Chicago isn’t exactly a supportive film community… sucks though, there’s so much talent here.

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