Volume 4 : Movement Column




FLYING SAUCERS OVER H O L L Y W O O D FILMS ON THE MARGINS: AN AMERICAN MODEL

Ariktam Chatterjee

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We should neither be naive nor cynical and despairing regarding the actual constraints that can plague an alternative system of film-production and distribution and filmmakers who aspire to work within its framework. The legendary stories of filmmaking may make for interesting reading and daydreaming, but in the long run an informed scholar is better placed to assess, understand and effectively function in the alternative sector. I want to undertake a brief study of the independent sector in American Cinema vis-avis that great capitalist institution of Southern California that churns out two hundred odd films a year and is universally revered and hated for dictating aesthetic and economic terms of movie making: Hollywood. It reveals a most interesting pattern. It provides us with a possible model of alternative distribution strategy, given that the dominant distribution system back home is no less powerful or, depending on the way one looks at it, insidious, than its American counterpart.

Back in the 1920s, apart from the 'United Artists' cofounded by Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford outside the Hollywood studio nexus to exercise more creative and economic control over their productions, Oscar Micheaux, an African-American enterpreneur, author, and filmmaker produced about one dramatic film a year for exhibition in theatres serving black communities.

At the begining of the 20th century, movies mirrored an American society that was strongly divided. In particular, one group of Americans, African Americans, were portrayed only through the eyes of the white majority, and thus left out of defining themselves in the fledgling motion picture industry. Although movies did not invent the stereotype of the American Black as irresponsible, lazy, and cowardly, the popular movies contributed greatly to reinforcing and enhancing it. Oscar Micheaux reacted to the need for an industry that served the African American community, and that would remedy the negative stereotypes of African Americans portrayed in motion pictures.

Oscar Micheaux, tried to ''uplift the race'' and create unity within the black community. The rising motion picture industry's stereotypes and Micheaux's response were the beginning of a new movement inspired by technology: the movement away from a divided society. As this era unfolded, and as early movies hardened the stereotypical lines between racial groups, Micheaux first personally overcame this, and then used the medium of the motion picture to communicate his ideas, and to portray African Americans with dignity and respect. In recognizing how powerful film was, his impact was felt in the African American community, white community, and in the motion picture industry. Micheaux did not just direct films; he directed society away from resolute divisions. In early films, the black man was portrayed as subservient and happy-go-lucky. White actors had been imitating blacks since the first minstrel shows in 1840, and even before them in monologues and dances. For over 75years, whites played blacks in ''black face'' by putting on thick black makeup. Many whites in the North saw the stereotypes of African Americans in the movies, and believed them.

In early films, black played jungle natives, such as when Selig hired Pullman porters in Chicago to play ''authentic'' Africans in one of his most famous movies, Big Game Hunting in Africa. Many blacks also played comic buffoons or servile positions of maids and domestic help.

In an effort to repudiate these stereotypes, African American enterpreneurs, eager to see an accurate reflection of their race on the screen, began to produce their own films. These were known as ''race movies'' and were often low-budget and technically inadequate. Yet African American moviemakers took on complex issues of the black community, including racial prejudice, poverty, and light versus dark skin. African American studios appeared around the nation, in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Lincoln, Nebraska, but Chicago became the center for enterprising independent black filmmakers. Jazz acts and vaudeville performers passed through Chicago, creating a mixed talent pool. The initiation of black cinema was a tool of unification for the black community.

Oscar Micheaux responded to the desire for unity within the black community as well as to the stereotypes in early films. He was the first African American man to produce a ‘‘talkie''. He was the only African American to produce films in both the silent and sound eras. Later in his life, he was the first filmmaker to use technology to invent certain film techniques that had never been seen before. Micheaux's mission is confirmed in this statement: "The appreciation my people have shown my maiden efforts convinces me that they want racial photoplays, depicting racial life, and to that task, I have consecrated my mind and efforts."

In 1915, Micheaux lost his homestead due to financial problems resulting from a drought. Struggling to continue with his undertaking, he moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Company. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to door. Meanwhile, in Lincoln, Nebraska, George and Noble Johnson read The Homesteader. They had been producing films for black audiences through their Los Angeles based Lincoln Motion Picture Company. The Johnson Brothers wanted to buy the rights to Micheaux's novel but Micheaux demanded that if a motion picture were to be made of his book, he must direct it. The Johnson’s turned him down because he had no experience in filmmaking.Micheaux, recognizing a perfect opportunity, reorganizied the Western Book and Supply Company into the Micheaux Film and Book Company and opened up an office at 538 S. Dearborn in Chicago. He began to raise money for his own film of The Homesteader. He went to the white farmers and small businessmen around Sioux City, Iowa where he also maintained an office, asking them to buy stock in his new company. In the end, he raised enough money to begin production in Chicago. The film turned out to be an eight-reel feature, first exhibited at Chicago's 8th Regiment Armory on Thursday, February 20, 1919. An advertisement in the Chicago Defender described The Homesteader as "destined to mark a new epoch in the achivements of the Darker Races … every Race man and woman should cast aside their skepticism regarding the Negro's ability as a motion picture star, and go and see, not only for the absorbing interest obtaining therein, but as an appreciation of those finer arts which no race can ignore and hope to obtain a higher plan of thought and action." It christened the film as " the greatest of all Race productions." Over the next ten years, Micheaux produced over thirty films, all but two in Chicago, and became the most successful African American film producer of the era. His success was truly miraculous-Micheaux overcame racial and financial difficulties in order to gain independence, stray from the stereotypes he was born into, and make remarkable changes in the film industry, African American community, and American society. Similarly, in New York in the 1930s Yiddish films growing out of the Yiddish theatre were ragularly produced for a special subculture. The man who had the greatest impact in this genre was Edgar G. Ulmer. Edgar Ulmer, worked in both the Yiddish and black film industries in the '30s and '40s. Above all, time and money were of paramount concern in creating such Yiddish films as A Brivele der Mamen (Joseph Green, 1939), The Girl from Poltavka (Ulmer,1936), Grine Felder (Green Fields)(Ulmer,1937), and many other impassioned but impoverished works. Hoberman convincingly demonstrates that these films, the legacy of a culture that has resolutely refused to be extinguished despite the Holocaust and a lack of a "mass" (in the conventional Hollywood sense) audience, are both accessible and important for modern audiences and should be incorporated into the existing canon of films.

Ulmer was forced to return to the East Coast to get any film work over the next few years. There was still a movie industry of sorts in New York. Very few talented hands from Hollywood ever made the trip east, and Ulmer, with his experience both in Hollywood and in Germany ( and a hit Hollywood movie under his belt), was something of a find for anyone producing movies in New York. He, in turn, found a place where he could continue his career, making films in Yiddish for producers aiming at that audience (which was considerable, right up to the advent of World War II), and also documentaries such as the venereal disease educational/exploitation movie Damaged Lives, and, later still, movies with all black casts for the theater circuits catering to black communities. It was during this period that Ulmer began making his reputation – with a lot of help from Shirley Ulmer as a screenwriter and script editor – as something of a cinematic magician, who could make good ideas work on screen for very little money. Having experienced the worst side of big studio politics in a particularly personal way, Ulmer was said to have preferred working for smaller studios, where he could earn a decent living (if only a fraction of what directors were earning in Hollywood) and embrace the challenge of making incredibly inexpensive movies come out well.

Once established, Ulmer chose his films on the basis of their worth as ideas, scripts, and the degree of independence that they allowed him. He infused all of them with passion, vibrancy, and inventiveness, all of which belied their miniscule budgets and breakneck shooting schedules.

The 1930s also saw the emergence of marginal market out of the Depression. 'Exploitation' films exploited this new market and the trend continued well into the 1940s. The horrors of drug addiction, aspect of prostitution and sexual disease, childbirth and other post-war anxieties were successfully documented in these films. 'Exploitation' is the name given to genre of films, extant since the earliest days of moviemaking, but popularized in the 1970s. Exploitation films typically sacrifice traditional notions of artistic merit for the sensational display of some topic about which the audience may be curious, or have some prurient interest.

Classic Exploitation films made in the 1930s and 1940s were sensationalist fare at the time, and are now valued by aficionados for their nostalgia and irony value. The most famous example of these is Reefer Madness.

Throughout the '30s and '40s, the major Hollywood studios owned the vast majority of theaters in America. This arrangement, called vertical integration, ensured that Hollywood product would fill movie screens around the country – and excluded non-Hollywood product. Independent theaters had the opportunity to show Hollywood movies but only after the movies had already played for several months, even years, at the studio-run theaters.

To help boost revenues, independent theaters frequently turned to movies produced outside of the Hollywood system. These movies capitalized upon salacious, sensational topics – such as drug abuse, prostitution, polygamy, and venereal disease. They provided scenes that no Production Code approved Hollywood movie would ever provide. In Damaged Lives, a group of fun-loving women strip naked and go skinny dipping. In Because of Eve, a doctor educates a young couple on the joys of reproduction by showing them documentary footage of a real childbirth. In Slaves in Bondage, prostitutes share a good time by spanking each other. And in Reefer Madness, arguably the most famous of all exploitation films, partying teens freely indulge in marijuana and turn into giggling maniacs.

Ed Wood was the chief American figure in the 1950s to operate outside the mainstream. Wood was a vessel into which all of Hollywood's aberrations poured. He was very "American"– ex-soldier, buoyant, creative, charismatic, resourceful, and above all, able to get things done, characteristics that attracted fame-starved personalities like Vampira, Criswell, Bela Lugosi, and others. Wood's willingness to accept and embrace – and display, in his movies – these odd ducks made them seek him out, before they knew he had his own little secret: cross-dressing. Many in his entourage were notorious queens of the day – Bunny Breckenridge, Criswell – who brought their own camp personas to his life and work.

Glen or Glenda (1953) is perhaps his "greatest" work, certainly his most striking in its depiction of the glories of transvestism and its unfair censure by straight society. Made in 1953, a "Screen Classics Release", this was not only Wood's threadbare attempt to capitalize on the Christine Jorgensen story, but also his personal plea for tolerance. It's filled with self-conscious acting; stiff, seemingly undirected scenes; preposterous interpolations of Bela Lugosi as a " science-god" (Wood's term) overseeing the action from outside the plot, delivering cryptic messages about gender directly to the audience: "Snips and snails and puppy dog's tails and … brassieres?" The film has cheesecake and bondage scenes that hint at Wood's standing in the soft-core world of that time. The director plays the title role, and he gives himself the best scenes, of course, including a famous one where he tells his girlfriend about his fetish for women's clothes; she pauses in thought then takes off her angora sweater and hands it to him with a dramatic look.

Wood's best-known film makes every critic's (and most audiences') 10-worst list: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). The "ninth plan" of the title is "resurrection of recent dead," according to drag queen Bunny Breckenidge, who plays the chief alien with royal aplomb. Most of the scenes occur in a dime-store graveyard, with inept cops being chased by easily eluded reanimated corpses. The arrival of the aliens is heralded by hubcaps with wires being yanked in front of a painted backdrop, with a loud voice booming: "Flying Saucers Over Hollywood!" Critic Danny Peary calls this film subversive, and it's true that Wood's script attacks backward thinking: "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" alien Dudley Manlove screams about parochial earthlings. (The aliens come to Earth because our scientists are about to explode our own sun.) If we can't agree entirely with Peary's view because we're distracted by the paper mausoleums, the bored drag queen actors, the day-night shot mismatches, the substitution of a blond chiropractor for Bela Lugosi's character when Lugosi died, and so on, we can at least credit Wood for making an extremely personal, entertaining film – classic naive art.

British films like 'Kind hearts and Coronets' (1950) or 'The Lavender Hills' (1950) also found a market in American arthouses. These movies, produced out of shoe string budgets and limited technological applications successfully managed to find a parallel market outside Hollywood's big releases. But what happened in the 1960s was quite unprecedented. The sixties witnessed the emergence of a new generation of independent filmmakers who constituted an American New Wave, often identified as the New American cinema. The movement ranged from short, visually complex experimental works through cinema-verite documentaries (Endless Summer, 1966; Point of Order!, 1964) to unique dramatic features. As the Vietnam War expanded and America's "baby-boom" generation came of age, the underground was superseded by the "counterculture" – a youthful amalgam of radical politics, oriental (or occult) mysticism, "liberated" sexuality, hallucinogenic drugs, communal life-styles, and rock 'n' roll that was sufficiently wide-spread (and even organized) to see itself as a movement.

From the onset, the counterculture was a powerful force in the marketplace. Beginning with independent rock documentaries (Don't Look Back, You Are What You Eat, Monterey Pop), post-Blow Up evocations of "swinging" London, and appropriately American International drive-in flicks (The Trip, Wild in the Streets, Psych-Out), youthoriented films flooded the market. Within two years, The Graduate had been followed by I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, Three in the Attic, Skidoo, Last Summer, Easy Rider, Chastity, Alice's Restaurant, Hail, Hero,and countless others. Mainstream releases (Chappaqua,Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Head,Yellow Submarine, Midnight Cowboy, Medium Cool) assimilated the techniques and themes of avant-garde films, while quasi-underground comedies like Brian De Palma's Greetings and Robert Downey's Putney Swope were considerable commercial hits.

Among counterculture intelligentsia, the fragmented poppolitical meditations of Jean-Luc Godard reached the acme of their prestige. Meanwhile, ever inventive Hollywood was experimenting with suburban wife-swapping sitcoms, homosexual comedies of manners, and even an elaborate biopic of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. Perhaps in response to the combination of porn sleeze and counterculture commercialism (not to mention the escalating social chaos of American life), the film avant-garde retreated from the populism of the early and mid-sixties into a rigorous involvment with issues of film form. Between 1966 and 1971, many of the most vital and innovative works of the New American Cinema – such so called "structural" films as Tony Conrad's The Flicker, Michael Snow's Wavelength,Ken Jacob's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, as well as those of younger men like Paul Sharits and Ernie Gehr – were austere explorations of film's specific qualities as a medium, closer to art-world minimalism than underground movies.

Andy Warhol aside, there were two other major avant-gardists who were temperamentally suited to address the new hippie subculture. However, Stan Brakhage's intensely subjective, visionary home movies proved too demanding for the youth audience, while Kenneth Anger was unable to finish Lucifer Rising, his occult ode to the Age of Aquarius, when his original footage was stolen in San Francisco by Bobby Beausoleil.

A close look traces this immense creative and economic success of the 1960s to Hollywood's inability to adapt quickly and effectively to changing culture, baby boom demographics and economic changes. The independent filmmakers got hold of precisely these in-between spaces; an endeavor that continued well into the 1970s.

The counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970: Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, and Nicolas Roeg's Performance raised the youth film to new heights of artistic pretention: The Strawberry Statement and a half dozen other vision of campus revolt escaped from Hollywood; Woodstock and Gimme Shelter established the opposite poles of the ecstatic rock documentary; Fedrico Fellini's Satyricon displaced the counterculture to the pre-Christian era and remade Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures in Roman drag; Michael Sarne's Myra Breckinridge repackaged "camp" for the American heartland; exploitation films took on the perverse topicality of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and John Avildsen's Joe; Paul Morrissey's Trash apotheosized the underground comedy.

Still, the "movement" which had first captured national media attention during San Francisco's 1967 "summer of love" was already in retreat; its momentum halted by the bullets of Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State in the spring of 1970. In its waning days, however, the counterculture was to seize upon an obscurely mystical and grotesquely violent film by a peripatetic forty-one-year-old Latin American avantgardist and, in so doing, invent the ritual of the midnight movie. The film was called El Topo, and its director was called Alexandro (Alejandro) Jodorowsky.

It is notable here that as the social situation stabilized in the 1980s, Hollywood regained its control over the distribution system more effectively than before.

The conclusion is clear: Even though independent films may aesthetically vary from the Mainstream industrial products, they still work within the logic of the dominant system, occupying relatively freer areas of the margins and in-betweens of the conventional industry. In the United States there are about 26,500 movie screens in about 10,000 houses. Half of those screens are effectively controlled by major Hollywood studios. This, coupled with aggressive marketing and high financial stakes make Hollywood quite a formidable force. And therein lies its weakness. An industry as large as that cannot by its very nature be totally rationalized in all respects. Rather, in the course of their evolution they present new (often temporary) options, gaps that can be filled successfully as the survey clearly shows. The bigger the industry, the more numerous such gaps within its matrix. I guess any projected alternative sector here needs to take stock of these gaps rather than go in direct competition with the studio biggies in order to be successful.


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