The History of Independent Cinema Written by Phil Hall
BearManor Media; $21.95
Today, there are people who think that American independent cinema began in 1989 with Sex Lies and Videotape; or in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs; or even in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project.
Well, writer Phil Hall puts such fallacies to rest with his well-researched and readable The History of Independent Cinema, squarely placing domestic independent moviemaking in an historical context. Both enlightening and entertaining, Hall’s book traces independent cinema from the very beginnings of the film industry as we know it.
Most remarkably for a 300-page book, Hall brings together many disparate strands of American independent cinema and, if he doesn’t tie them together—who could?—delivers enjoyably rough-and-tumble stories about men and women known and unknown. Present and accounted for are the silent era’s trailblazers (Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith), those who came of age during the early talkies (Hal Roach), or those who made popular or critical hits outside the studio system (Howard Hughes, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer).
But Hall’s book is at its best when he travels down several forgotten film roads, even paths virtually impossible to follow because of the dearth of available materials or because the works themselves are of scant historic interest. Among these are “race films” made by “visionaries” like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams; or Ida Lupino, the rare notable woman director; or Yiddish-language filmmakers like Maurice Schwartz and Joseph Green. In these chapters, Hall presents alternative histories that illuminate the standard ones we all know.
There are also succinct accounts of notables who made names for themselves by going their own ways, such as Maya Deren, Roger Corman, George A. Romero and John Cassavetes. And Hall summarizes other trends, from non-theatrical and educational films to online filmmaking, which is itself so pervasive now that a book could be written on just that subject. In his roundup of documentaries, he even mentions Sunn Classics, a great lost era of my youthful movie-watching, when as a gullible teenager I ate up schlock like The Mysterious Monsters and In Search of Noah’s Ark.
Minor flaws include copy-editing errors (mostly punctuation) that crop up frequently, and a larger flaw is the lack of an index, an oversight limiting the book’s usefulness as a research tool. However, The History of Independent Cinema is a most welcome overview.