What does it mean to be part of the “underground” cinema today? I have met and know a number of filmmakers working outside of Hollywood and even outside the international film festival circuit. But the production processes of these filmmakers vary diversely, thus negating any clear unifying label. For instance Isaac Ruth who co-manages Truly Brave Films here in Philadelphia makes his films with a modest budget of a few thousand dollars with an emphasis on fluid spectacle and genre function. However another local film director, Marc Dickerson, creates lo-fi fantasies in garages and friends’ homes that have all the whimsy of Stanley Donen and the decadence of Rossellini. Yet, despite the astronomical difference in cost and crew sizes both Dickerson and Ruth play their films in similar venues such as cinematheques and film festivals. So the question remains whose films are truly underground?
The answer could simply, as I believe it to be, be that the underground
simply does not exist anymore as a cohesive movement of subversive regionalist cinema. If one only skims Jonas Mekas’ book Movie Journal or even Warhol’s Popism one cannot help but acknowledge that all of the film artists working in New York during the sixties were taking part in a conscious and coordinated inverse of the Hollywood studio model. In fact, it was this movement and these artists that labeled themselves underground, imbuing the term with a sociological responsibility and a sort of political agenda that is absent in the relationship between artists like Marc Dickerson and Isaac Ruth who are related only by the coincidence of their mutual geographic location. So in today’s context “underground” simply indicates that a film or a film artist exists beyond the mainstream consciousness, an artifact lost in the limbo of regional cinema culture. Therefore the function of the underground must be fulfilled by a new cinematic movement.
The answer to filling the void of the classic or proper “underground” is a cinematic movement of DIY film artists working in collaboration. A good model for this is Shooting Wall here in Philadelphia. Artists with a diverse sense of cinematic aesthetics, like Joshua Martin, Marc Dickerson, Emma Arrick, Karl Starkweather, Dan Dickerson, and the like, are fulfilling all of each other’s production needs, often serving multiple functions on a production, and generally doing everything themselves. The communal aspect of this kind of operation is exactly what sets this group apart from the more widely acknowledged and far less unified “underground” as it is popularly known.
On my most recent film, tentatively titled A Debauched Little Rogue, I served as director, producer, cinematographer, sound recorder, and editor. This is how things have always worked at Zimbo Films. Collaborators typically enter a production, just as they do on a Marc Dickerson or Emma Arrick film, as composers commissioned to score the film, designers to supply compelling title sequences, as well as the artist’s friends who provide their homes and workplaces as locations. This is a more democratic approach to the cinema than one typically sees on a larger production.
There is, however, a steady resentment and condescension from the rest of the film community against such artists. My own films have often been ridiculed for their persistence in utilizing hand-held camera techniques, forgoing complicated light set ups, and for a general emphasis on reality over the superficiality of spectacle. This gets to the issue of priorities between DIY cinema and the wider whole, not to put this in terms of “us and them”, but its often the case that DIY artists such as myself prize content over technique, even if that preference is born out of necessity.
While shooting A Debauched Little Rogue I shot a ten-minute rape scene using natural light and never breaking a single close-up shot of the girl being raped. Already I anticipate the criticism of this shot for neglecting the attacker and that the shot itself is a bit too shaky at times. These hypothetical comments negate not only the intent of the scene, but also the aesthetic necessity dictated by that intent. My only interest was that the audience be forced to confront the emotional violence of assault; brutally, honestly, and unrelentingly. If I cut to the assailant, then he would be the subject. If I shot it from a wider angle the audience could be tantalized by the victim’s body and thus fetishize the attack. I admit that it’s a scene that will make audiences uncomfortable, but I believe that is the responsibility of the film artist working outside of the mainstream. It may just be a Romantic inclination, but subversion of cinematic expectations has always been a hallmark of those working outside of the mainstream, whether it is Robert Kramer or Nick Zedd, the most important films of this ilk remain those that pushed boundaries.