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Four Books on the History of Independent Cinema in America


To celebrate the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, here is a list of my four favorite books detailing the spectacular rise of independent cinema in America.

Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes

Pierson traces what is for many the definitive guide to the independent film revival in America. He reduces the most important independent arc to a single decade. His often-cited time-line begins in 1984 with Stranger Than Paradise, is bisected in the middle by 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, and ends in 1994 with Pulp Fiction. This is a much, much shorter time-line than most other guides to independent cinema, some of which reach as far back as the 1900’s to include D.W. Griffiths (whom Pierson does acknowledge). Pierson’s rigorous time-line is a great relief, providing a window into the golden era of American independent cinema, when it was still blindingly new, both widely maligned and celebrated. Pierson has a fluid style and endless anecdotes, making the book both addictive and illuminating.

Richard Linklater in his own 'Slacker' (1991)

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The Sundance Kids

Taking a cue from Pierson (and picking up almost immediately after), James Mottram’s book focuses primarily on the ‘Sundance generation’– Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Kimberly Pierce, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez (among a few others). His time-line begins even later, starting in the middle of Pierson’s arc with sex, lies and videotape. Mottram gives Soderbergh his due, emphasizing the cataclysmic importance of his debut and its effect on the way independent films were received and distributed. While the book occasionally becomes bogged down in personal opinion about the films, allowing it to overshadow the narrative being woven (and includes sometimes questionable choices ), the book provides a solid history of post-slv independent cinema and its difficult but often productive relationship with the studio system.

Steven Soderbergh's 'sex, lies and videotape' (1989)

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American Independent Cinema: Sight and Sound Reader

Strangely enough, several of the best books and articles on the American independent film scene have come from England. Sight and Sound was a British film monthly, eventually handed over to the BFI (British Film Institute), that documented many of the great achievements of the American independent scene during its 90’s rise. Exhaustively comprehensive in some areas (I was thrilled to see a number of essays dedicated to the achievements of Andy Warhol as a filmmaker) while strangely silent on others (Steven Soderbergh is nearly absent from the reader, as is Robert Rodriguez), the Sight and Sound Reader is far from comprehensive, but each essay is nonetheless a sharp and invaluable piece of criticism from the day.

Andy Warhol's 'Vinyl' (1965)

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100 American Independent Films

There are at least a dozen books like this, claiming to contain the fifty, or one hundred, or five hundred, essential independent films. Most are straight-forward and contain roughly the same list of films, and BFI’s guide is no exception. It’s simply the one I return to most often when I want to watch a new independent classic. (Equally useful, if slightly more limited, is The Rough Guide to American Independent Film). BFI’s guide includes all the usual suspects, old and new, from Cassavetes’ Shadows to Caouette’s Tarnation while including a few rarely-included gems like Reichardt’s Old Joy and Shainberg’s Secretary. While it makes extensive reference to Pierson’s Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, it draws the majority of its references from magazine archives, most notably Sight and Sound and the Monthly Film Bulletin, making it an excellent bibliographic resource.

John Cassavetes' 'Shadows' (1959)

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This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are many more fantastic books on American independent cinema, and I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. (Other recommended, but unread, books include Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film Making, Midnight Movies, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Cinema of Outsiders and The Other Hollywood.)

By Britta R. Moline  2/23/11

For more on independent American cinema:
Five Things They Don’t Tell You About the Sundance Film Festival

I Am the One and Only: Source Code, Moon and Duncan Jones’ Identity Crisis

For more essential reading:
Essential Reading

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