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Underground film

Parent categories: underground - film -

See also: art film - avant garde film - banned films - counterculture - cult films - drug films - experimental film - exploitation film - erotic films - film - grotesque film - paracinema - pornographic film - transgressive cinema

Although critic Manny Farber had published "Underground films: a bit of male truth" in the November issue of Commentary, his "underground films" were the culturally disreputable action flicks of then obscure directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh [pointing to some "trash aesthetics"]. In 1961, [Stan] Vanderbeek gave the term its better-known meaning when he wrote a manifesto, "Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground", for the summer issue of Film Quarterly. The filmmakers he discussed [...] were members of an older film avant-garde with roots that extended back to the 1940s. [pointing to some "high-art aesthetics"] --Midnight Movies (1983). page 40.

People related to American "underground" film: Stan Brakhage - Andy Warhol - Jonas Mekas - Jack Smith - Amos Vogel - Bruce Conner

Connoisseurs: Stan VanDerBeek - Manny Farber - Parker Tyler - Jeffrey Hoberman - Steven Jay Schneider

Eraserhead (1977) - David Lynch [Amazon UK]


The first use of the term "underground film" occurs in a 1957 essay by American film critic Manny Farber, "Underground Films." Farber uses the term to refer to B-movie auteurs like John Ford who made artistically valid works essentially on the sly while seeming to churn out workaday products.

In the late 1950s, "underground film" began to be used for pockets of early independent film makers operating first in San Francisco, California and New York City, New York, and soon in other cities around the world as well. The movement was typified by more experimental filmmakers working at the time like Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, George Kuchar, and Bruce Conner.

By the late 1960s, the movement represented by these filmmakers had matured, and some began to distance themselves from the countercultural, psychedelic connotations of the word, preferring terms like avant-garde or experimental to describe their work.

Through 1970s and 1980s, however, "underground film" would still be used to refer to the more countercultural fridge of independent cinema. The term was embraced most emphatically by Nick Zedd and the other filmmakers associated with the New York based Cinema of Transgression of the late 70s to early 1990s.

In the early 90s, the legacy of the Cinema of Transgression carried over into a new generation, who would equate "underground cinema" with transgressive, ultra-low-budget filmmaking created in defiance of both the commercialized versions of independent film offered by newly wealthy distributors like Miramax and New Line, as well as the institutionalized experimental film canonized at major museums. This spirit defined the early years of underground film festivals (like the New York Underground Film Festival and others), zines like Film Threat, as well as the works of filmmakers like Craig Baldwin, John Moritsugu, and Bruce La Bruce.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term had become blurred again, as the work at underground festivals began to blend with more formal experimentation, and the divisions that had be stark ones less than a decade earlier now seemed much less so. If the term is used at all, it connotes a form of very low budget independent filmmaking, with perhaps trangressive content, or a low-fi analog to post-punk music cultures. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_film [Aug 2005]

see also: experimental film - avant-garde film - independent film - underground - underground film

UK Underground Film 1966-70 [...]

In 1966 London counter culture was gearing up for the revolution....the mods were mixing it at the coast, the radical student movement was beginning a cycle of sit -ins and occupations, drug use was becoming a form of rebellion, there was a steady influx of militant draft dodgers from the U.S. and liberational movements were coalescing around radical feminism, black power, gay liberation, ecology, squatting and the commune. --http://www.filmwaves.co.uk/Filmwaves_files/01_14/undergr.htm [Mar 2005]

Cult films versus underground films

The term "Underground film" is ocassionally used as a synonym for cult film. Though there are important distinctions between the two, a significant overlap between these categories is undeniable. The films of Kenneth Anger, for example, could arguably be described as underground, experimental and cult. However, a studio film like, say, Casablanca may have a cult following, but could not be accurately described as an underground film. [Feb 2006]

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_film [Jan 2006]

Stan VanDerBeek, Lewis Jacobs and Manny Farber

“Underground film was a term originally used by critic Manny Farber to describe low-budget masculine adventure films of the thirties and forties. But in 1959 the term began to have reference to personal art film. Lewis Jacobs, in an article called “Morning for the Experimental Film” in Film Culture (Number 19, Spring, 1959), used the words “film which for most of its life has led an underground existance”. And film-maker Stan VanDerBeek says that he coined underground that year to describe his films and those like them.”

-- Renan, Sheldon, The Underground Film op. cit., pag. 22.

See also: underground - underground films - Manny Farber - collage - American cinema

Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground (1961) - Stan VanDerBeek

An unidentified collage animation by Vanderbeek.
Image sourced here.

Stan VanDerBeek (1927 - 1984) was a gifted and inventive theorist and writer, and he left a wonderful collection of written work. In his Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground (1961), he explained the raison d etre of the underground cinema movement:

Film is an art in evolution. It is the dark glass for the physical and visual change in motion about us. How is it then that we are suffocated with the cardboard cut-out poetry of Hollywood?

The mind, eye, and heart of the artist will find a way through the dilemma: the making of private art that can be made public, rather than the public art we know, which cannot be made private.

But now the most revolutionary art form of our time is in the hands of entertainment merchants, stars, manufacturers.

The artist is preposterously cut off from the tools of production. The vistavisionaries of Hollywood, with their split-level features and Disney landscapes have had the field to themselves.

Meanwhile, what of the artists, poets, experimenters in America, who must work as if they were secret members of the underground?

They conjure what they hope will be explosives vivid enough to rock the status quo: weapons as potential as fusion, for art can be as important as politics, the artist's hand more important then armament!

They use any ingredient that comes to hand.

(Excerpt. The entire work is reprinted in Film Quarterly, Volume 14 (4) Summer 1961).

--http://www.hfac.uh.edu/MediaFutures/vanderbeek.html [Feb 2006]

See also: underground cinema - experimental films - collage - American cinema

Underground Film : A Critical History (1969) - Parker Tyler

  • Underground Film : A Critical History (1969) - Parker Tyler [Amazon.com]
    This text evaluates the underground in general and the seminal films in particular, covering the history and scope of the genre.

    A masterpiece of cinema literature, Tyler has evaluated the Underground in general and the seminal films in particular, covering the history and scope of the genre with insight and verve. "Indispensable for anyone interested in contemporary filmmaking, its history, personalities, and rationale."--Publishers Weekly. 67 film stills and frame enlargements.

    Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon (2002) - Steven Jay Schneider

  • Underground U.S.A. - Xavier Mendik, Steven Jay Schneider [Amazon US]

    Whether characterized in terms of the carnivalesque excesses of Doris Wishman, the arthouse erotica of Radley Metzger, the subversive horror of George Romero, or the narrative experimentations of Abel Ferrara, underground cinema has achieved an important position within American film culture. Yet despite its multiple definitions as “cult” and “exploitation,” “psychotronic” and “independent,” very little academic consideration has been given to the modes of production, exhibition, and audience reception of the American underground. Equally, little research has been undertaken to explain how the social, sexual, and cinematic representations of such cinema diverge from—and offer alternatives to—the traditional, and ideologically conservative, structures of the Hollywood machine.

    To date, only a few volumes have been produced which critically explore aspects of the American underground scene, including J.P. Telotte’s (ed.) The Cult Film Experience (University of Texas Press). However while employing a number of pertinent examples, these volumes tend to restrict themselves to case studies of various cult and avant-garde texts, rather than providing suitable methodologies which examine their historical, economic, and cultural emergence within American cinema.

    Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon will extend the important aspects of such books, while more fully addressing nascent debates in this still under-theorized area of film culture. The volume brings together leading film theorists and critics, as well as emergent scholars in the field. In a series of specially-commissioned essays, these writers will situate the various strands of American underground cinema as a powerful and subversive medium functioning through a fragmentation of official/normative modes of production and distribution. The book takes as its focus those directors, films, and genres typically dismissed, belittled , or (worst of all) ignored by established film culture. Directors to be looked at include David Lynch, Harry Smith, Radley Metzger, John Waters, and Doris Wishman. Specific film- and genre- studies will include Report (Bruce Conner, 1967), The Crazies (George Romero, 1973), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986) and The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1990), alongside an analysis of 1950s teen “chick” movies and an investigation into the aesthetics of 1970s American porn.

    Wherever possible, interviews with directors or key cast members involved with the texts under discussion will be included as appendices to the accompanying essays. An extended introduction by the editors will for the first time provide a firm basis for defining the historical, social, and cultural characteristics and development of underground cinema in America.--Steven Jay Schneider

    Whether defined by the carnivalesque excesses of Troma studios (The Toxic Avenger), the arthouse erotica of Radley Metzger and Doris Wishman, or the narrative experimentations of Abel Ferrara, Melvin Van Peebles, Jack Smith, or Harmony Korine, underground cinema has achieved an important position within American film culture. Often defined as "cult" and "exploitation" or "alternative" and "independent," the American underground retains separate strategies of production and exhibition from the cinematic mainstream, while its sexual and cinematic representations differ from the traditionally conservative structures of the Hollywood system. Underground U.S.A. offers a fascinating overview of this area of maverick moviemaking by considering the links between the experimental and exploitative traditions of the American underground. This text evaluates the underground in general and the seminal films in particular, covering the history and scope of the genre.

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