The Fiercely Independent Films Of The 80s Get A Massive Cinefamily Showcase

By Samuel B. Prime

The 1980s are often thought of as a low point for American filmmaking. The story goes that the financial and critical disasters of overly ambitious productions like Heaven's Gate and One From The Heart made the major studios take fewer chances, effectively marking the end of the mythological "New Holllywood" revival of the 1970s.

The vast Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s series—presented by L.A. institutions The Cinefamily and Cinespia—proves this wrong, celebrating American independent cinema's formative years from New York's deliberately lo-fi "no wave" cinema to the West Coast's academically-fueled L.A. Rebellion movement, to all the like-minded, unrepentantly rebellious, and savagely creative filmmakers in-between. This series unites these filmmakers and artists under a quintessentially American banner of grassroots guerrilla filmmaking, and even showcases the humble beginnings of major American auteurs like the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, and Errol Morris. Spanning two months, projecting several films on glorious 35mm, and featuring guest appearances from the likes important figures like John Pierson, Allison Anders, and Ross McElwee, Underground USA is a rare opportunity that no movie nut can miss.

March 4th and 5th's 20th anniversary celebration of John Pierson's enormously influential book on independent cinema—Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes—stands out as one of the hallmarks of the series. Coinciding with screenings of Spike [Lee]'s She's Gotta Have It (1989) on Thursday and Mike [Moore]'s Roger & Me (1989) on Friday, Pierson is set to deliver an opening keynote to christen the series. From his privileged perspective as the shepherd of both films in question, Pierson's speech will no doubt echo the insights from his book that chronicles the radical transformation of the American cinema landscape to an independent mode from the 1980s into and through the 1990s.

"[These] films... spoke directly to audiences—African-Americans, gay, lesbian, Asian, auto-assembly workers—that had not seen themselves represented on screen," Pierson told LAist.

Representing Underground USA's non-fiction portion, American film essayist Ross McElwee's hypnotizing Sherman's March (1985) screens on Sunday, March 13. Initially started as a documentary about Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman's "March To The Sea," a traumatic breakup in McElwee's life winds up turning Sherman's March into a personal essay film intertwining life, love, and the American South. "Sherman's March was released midway through the 1980s—an exciting time for U.S. independent filmmaking of all kinds," McElwee told LAist. He went on to say, with equal parts humor and humility, "Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Sherman's March had their theatrical premieres in New York the same week in 1986, and in terms of commercial success, I've been trying to catch up to Spike ever since!" McElwee also presents a collection of rarely seen short works the day before, Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On? (1980) and Backyard (1984). McElwee added, "It's gratifying that these three films will be shown together, because they chart my early rumblings and fumblings as an independent non-fiction filmmaker searching for a mode of self expression." McElwee will appear in person for both screenings.

Cinefamily advisor Allison Anders is also in the Underground USA line-up with Border Radio (1987, co-directed with Dean Lent and Kurt Voss) screening Friday, March 18—incidentally just before fellow UCLA alum Alex Cox's cult favorite Repo Man. Both Anders' Border Radio and Cox's Repo Man in retrospect appear as pioneering punk rock explosions on the Southern California landscape—mushroom clouds of youthful energy lay waste to the cinema of yesteryear and defining their own rules, rights, and expectations.

Highest possible recommendation goes to the Easter Sunday evening of March 27 when two rarely screened gems directed by Sara Driver—You Are Not I (1981) and Sleepwalk (1986)—play as a double feature. Driver's films boast a mesmerizing fairytale logic that renders their surroundings filled with dark, mysterious magic. The New York City of Sleepwalk comes alive at night so that even the strangest occurrences—spectral dogs, ancient cursed manuscripts, looming Frankenstein's monster-like figures—suddenly seem somehow inevitable. Surreality aside, the widescreen cityscape of the East Village in the Eighties is its own stunning special effect. "These films were made with grave limitations. They are interesting not only as time capsules, but also as films that were made just out of passion instead of out of the hope that it would lead to a career," remarks Driver. Sleepwalk must be seen to be believed and the restoration of You Are Not I is an absolutely perfect aperitif.

Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s continues through to the end of April, with more titles and shows to be added. With over 40 screenings comprising the diverse and rarely-screened lineup, there is unquestionably something for every filmgoer. Whether you are the casual kind or a full-on indie freak, this is one of The Cinefamily and Cinespia's most impressive cumulative achievements in a long time.

Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s runs through April 29 with screenings at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. 611 N Fairfax Avenue, (323) 655-2510. Tickets $12-$15, but free for members. Why not take this opportunity to join?

Samuel B. Prime is a film advocate, motion picture archivist, writer, and producer who has helmed high-profile events for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and UCLA's Melnitz Movies. He has a B.S. in Theatre and Film from Northwestern University and a M.A. in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA. He deeply admires Dick Cavett, his all-time favorite Sonny Chiba movie is Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope, and he regularly blogs at LA Ciné Salon.