We’re used to seeing glossy Hollywood blockbusters on our screens, but the dark underbelly of US cinema is much more fascinating.
When we think of American movies, it is easy to think of Hollywood, Disney, Dustin Hoffman, Liam Neeson, Will Smith, Rambo and Will Ferrell. It is easy to assume that there is little more to American cinema than a wholesome ‘good always triumphs’ message. Let’s not forget that this is a moralising nation built on Old Testament values; values which contaminated the cinematic output. It was America that refined the rigid, stale screenplay template. They refined the editing template, too. Back in the 40s, the producer had complete control. If there were things he didn’t like in the edit, he would write a 20-page document listing all the things he wanted changing. If they weren’t changed, he would change them himself and fire the 9-5 editors.
There is more to American cinema than Hollywood, Disney and John Rambo, but some would say it is a disturbing, strange alternative
American filmmakers fell behind their European counterparts, who had much more freedom, until their Motion Picture Production Code was belatedly abolished in the late sixties. Until this point, a man and woman couldn’t even be seen kissing for longer than six seconds in a single take. The abolition of the Motion Picture Production Code coincided with the rise of counterculture, and suddenly there was an explosion of violent and unconventional American movies that summed up the change. Films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde shocked a nation.
There is more to American cinema than Hollywood, Disney and John Rambo. There is an alternative. Some would say it is a disturbing, strange alternative. We’re not talking David Lynch here. Lynch is, after all, a moralist himself, with his films, although often bizarre and unnervingly odd, displaying the ‘good always triumphs’ maxim. American independent cinema is the real blot on Hollywood’s landscape. Filmmakers such as Vincent Gallo and Harmony Korine are largely ignored by the masses. But when their films are seen, the audiences don’t know how to react; they feel scared, they feel angry. They may watch Trash Humpers and remark, “this is not the America I have come to known.” They say it’s demented, hellish; it doesn’t show them New York City in all its fast-talking, coffee-swigging, yellow-cabbing glory.
A lot of us have never been to America. Our perceptions of it are not formed through experience, but through propaganda. For years we have been fed pictures of both its natural and urban beauty. We have been told that it makes dreams come true, and that what happens in American movies actually happens in real life. In America, we are made to believe that every day is like living in a movie.
Harmony Korine’s work is different to everything we expect from America. He spits on your popcorn, takes a leak in your seven-foot-long coke
But what kind of movie? Pulp Fiction? Goodfellas? Ghostbusters? American indie cinema tells us a different story, and offers a glimpse into a disturbing version of Americana; a version which may be more true than any other, yet which is ignored because of how different, how gloomy, how abjectly normal it is. Harmony Korine, with his film Gummo, shows us a different America. He shows us its ugliness, its disappointments. He shows us what they don’t want you to see. Moreover, he does it with a maverick filmmaker’s intuition.
This is not some snotty kid given a camera for his 15th birthday making a movie, haphazardly messing up the framing – this is a man who knows what he is doing, and he is doing everything within his means, honestly, unflinchingly. A portrait of the America he knows to be disturbing, yes, but also true. Yet Korine’s films are largely chastised by the masses; people react with horror at this filmmaking style, which is so different to everything they have come to expect from America. Harmony Korine spits on your popcorn, he takes a leak in your seven-foot-long coke. People sit in the audience and say, “this is not America, and this is not American movies.”
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America gave us counter-culture. It also gave us the Beat movement in literature, with writers such as Jack Kerouac and the wonderfully perverse William S. Burroughs offering an alternative to Melville and Whitman. In fact, American writers have gone largely against the grain in general. Perhaps because they have had a lot to react against. Mostly, they are ignored by the general public. But American indie filmmakers are treated a lot differently, most likely because cinema is so universally popular. Everyone watches movies. People go on IMDb and score their favourite movies. Because of this, the derision for indie filmmakers such as Korine and Gallo is more glaring, more apparent. A lot of people will never have their vision of America destroyed by William S. Burroughs, because they never have to confront his work.
Some US indie productions, like Half Nelson, have an honesty that we rarely associate with America, the land of make-believe
The biggest point to make here is that America is largely known for its so-called ‘plastic’ culture; for Madonna, J-Lo, and Spring Break. People either love it or hate it. Those who hate it are not always aware that there is an alternative, that there are artists in America who can rival their European counterparts. World cinema is elevated by purists above American indie cinema. Give America a chance – delve deeper into the heart of their movies. Some, like Half Nelson, have an unflinching honesty that we rarely associate with America, the land of make-believe. Others, like The Puffy Chair, have that raw minimalism that we never think America is capable of.
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Featured image: Lions Gate Films
Inset images: Drag City; Axiom Films