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Should The Underground Attack The Mainstream?

Picture of a hand grenade

Back in the ’60s when Jonas Mekas was writing his insanely influential Movie Journal column for the Village Voice, he would write about the coming underground film “revolution” a lot. Eventually, audiences would wake up and flock to the New American Cinema, as Mekas called it then, in droves and avant-garde and experimental cinema would screen regularly at all movie theaters.

Of course, this type of attitude fit in perfectly with the counter-cultural zeitgeist at the time. Plus, it was good to have such an enthusiastic promoter in a well-respected, upstart publication. Mekas’ attitude influenced numerous young creative types to either pick up a camera in the first place, like Robert Downey Sr., or encouraged others to grow their ambitions, like John Waters.

But, clearly, that revolution never came. Movie Journal died and nothing replaced it. And the underground became more academic and art world oriented to survive.

Then, somewhat ironically, the next major underground call to revolution was the Cinema of Transgression’s rebuke to the dreary film academics.

However, every once in awhile, one comes across a young filmmaker or a filmmaking collective railing against the mainstream in the manner of Mekas, although of course not quite as eloquently. These upstarts — and I use that word as a descriptor, not a pejorative — write and speak of “the masses” as being tranquilized by mainstream and need to be shaken or woken up by alternative media.

Personally, although I’m a huge fan of Movie Journal and Mekas’ writing style, I purposely avoid trying to mimic his tone on the Underground Film Journal. The main reason being that I’m perfectly fine with mainstream media, as anyone who has seen my occasional tweets about the Real Housewives franchise may have noticed. But, also, I don’t feel that any talk of an underground revolution serves any constructive purpose. It ain’t gonna happen.

We have historical perspective. We see how culture trends. We’ve seen actual media revolutions and can figure out why they happened, which is more than likely they’re tied to economic concerns. So, or me, that’s more of a main concern than “beating” the mainstream with subject matter and style.

The reason I keep flogging the same films and filmmakers to death is that slowly, but surely, over the past five years I’ve been doing this thing, the Underground Film Journal’s daily visitors continues to grow. More and more folks have the opportunity to come into the fold and be exposed to something avant-garde and experimental and cult-ish — and I want them to spend their money on it, whether it’s buying a DVD or renting on Netflix or watching online and generally just creating demand.

Again, from a historical perspective, this seems like a fool’s errand. The underground isn’t the place to go for those involved in film — whether it’s producing it, screening it or writing about it — to make money.

However, we’re in a unique place in history where, with the internet, underground film has the opportunity to reach more audiences than ever. But, what’s more unique about the internet, is that underground film history has been marked by fits and starts. As I said above, when Movie Journal died nothing rose to take its place, mainly because where else could it go?

With the internet, we are at last afforded a continuous history. (And have the opportunity to at last fill in the past gaps.)

So, when the revolution doesn’t come — and it won’t — we don’t have to let our dreams, our goals and our history to die out. To “win” a culture war, we just have to keep plugging away to grow the fold and not have to tear anything down.


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  • I agree in general. You keep doing what you do in order to grow the fold and enjoy your art. But I think that attacking the mainstream is crucial – even if you also participate in that mainstream. The mainstream, whatever its merits might be, is always the necessary target for resistance. One may make lots of money via the mainstream and might well enjoy it for its strengths, but one must continually attack it if one is going to practice anything resembling art. Commerce glides smoothly along the mainstream, art does not.

    So I think one must be willing to sink the boat one is traveling in. Simple as that.

  • Brian says:

    Lately, I feel underground film has become more than punk rock than something you would teach in school. A lot of the newer films (both feature and shorts) are so well done and have such unconventional storytelling and it’s nice to see when something so abrasive gets into the mainstream. I think the best example this year is Hobo With A Shotgun’s ability to spill into mainstream media. Hobo was an attack on the senses but it was received well by both critics and audiences. More films like that should be made because I think those have the best chance to get into the mainstream.

    I was at a Q&A once for an experimental shorts block and I was standing with two other filmmakers and just felt they were rather self indulgent talking about their “process.” I couldn’t relate to those filmmakers because I think they wanted to be so far removed from conventional filmmaking that it made both them and their film boring to watch and listen to.

    I could relate more with the filmmakers of Hobo and other films like The Beast Pageant because their inspirations believe it or not stem from mainstream films during their youth.

    I think it’s cyclical because the new films that attack the mainstream were inspired by mainstream films of yesteryear.

    I’m all for attacking the mainstream.

  • Mike,

    Allow me to pass to you a few notes after reading your June 8, 2011, posting on badlit.com.

    First, I should thank you for your kind words regarding my Movie Journal column in the Village Voice.

    One thing about that column: it didn’t “die”: I killed it!

    It all went fine until Mr. Felker (of LIFE magazine) took over the V.Voice. Very soon after he arrived at the V.V. he began asking, at the staff meetings, why is this column there, who needs it. I never attended those meetings, I was too busy doing too many other things those days, but Andy, Andrew Sarris, did. For months he was my staunch defender against Felker’s attacks. You should know that during the early Sixties I was reviewing both, the “public” cinema and the independents. Only when the independent scene became too busy and needed more press coverage and more of my time seeing all that was happening, I decided to invite Andrew Sarrris to help me to cover the “public” cinema. So, as a good friend, he felt he had to defend my stay at the V.Voice.

    Since I am at it, I should tell you how it all started, at the V.Voice. It hapened like this. After seeing that V.V. had no film coverage, I decided to ask them why. So I went to their Sheridan Square offices and asked Jerry Tallmer, who was at that point the managing editor of V.V., why they do not cover cinema. His answer was very simple: “We have nobody here who knows cinema.” Then, after a pause, he said: “Do you want to do it?” With not a second of thought, foolishly, I said. “Yes, why not.” My first column, with a review of PATHER PANCHALI, appeared on November 12, 1958. For the next few years, including the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague, I was the reviewer and the defender at the V.V. of the “mainstream” cinema. A few years earlier, with my brother Adolfas, we had begun publishing Film Culture magazine (December 1954), devoted to both, “mainstream” and avant-garde cinema, but mostly to the “mainstream” cinema. Andrew joined us beginning with issue No. 2, with a review of THE COUNTRY GIRL.

    In all my university travels in all my interviews, I have always stressed, same as I do now, that cinema is a big tree with many branches and they all have their function, they are all equally important. As one who grew up on a farm, I know that sheep and cows and horses they all graze in the same meadow and each has its own function, be it wool or milk or plow, and so it is with all the branches of the tree called Cinema. Hollywood is one kind of animal, and the avant-garde, poetic cinema is another kind of animal, and both have a function, and if one would be missing a great part of what we are would be missing.

    The misunderstanding, those who claim that I or my colleagues of the Sixties were or are against “mainstream” cinema must have come, I think, from the fact that our generation, the generation of film-makers that began emerging around l960, came at the same time when the new cinema technologies (cinema verite, etc.) were opening new areas of subject matter, and form and style. Every new technology, every new tool comes with its own world… So of course we had many bad things to tell about the “mainstream” cinema. But it had nothing to do with being against “mainstream” cinema in principle. Telling stories has been a part of humanity since its beginnings. Our “railings” against the “mainstream” cinema had helped to bring it up-to-date.

    So, Mike, where was I? Yes, the V.Voice, When Andy told me that he had to defend the existence of The Movie Journal at the V.Voice at every staff meeting, I decided to make his life less miserable and quit the V.Voice. And so I did. My last column in the V.V. appeared on July 7, 1978.

    Keep doing your good work, Mike!

    Jonas

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