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The Encyclopedia Of Underground Movies

The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies

As an “encyclopedia,” Phil Hall‘s entertaining book falls way short. As an “introduction” to the world of underground filmmaking, it’s a fun read.

Underground filmmaking is such a vast topic that anything written about it is going to reflect the specific biases of the author. Hall, a regular contributor to Film Threat, bases his entire definition of “underground” film simply on what he’s reviewed there. That’s fine, if the book were called the Film Threat Guide to Underground Movies, which I can’t figure out why it wasn’t. But if Hall really wanted to be the author of an encyclopedia, I don’t know why there’s no outside research.

My biggest personal disappointment in the book is the lack of a thorough historical background in underground film. A brief introduction covers John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol and John Waters, but only gets around to quickly name-dropping Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas without even mentioning the titles of their most influential movies or who or why they are important filmmakers. And no mention of Jack Smith and Flaming Creatures? Nor Mike Kuchar‘s Sins of the Fleshapoids? Where would Warhol or Waters have been without either of these two masterpieces?

The film festival chapter is sorely lacking as well. Hall spends most of it praising the Slamdance Film Festival to the skies because … well, because Chris Gore says it’s a great festival. Gee, thanks. Then, apparently in a specific bid just to piss me off, Hall dismisses the entire 11 year history (at the time of the book’s publication) of the New York Underground Film Festival by calling it “amateurish.” How do you write an “encyclopedia” of underground film and not include NYUFF’s Ed Halter or the Chicago Underground Film Festival‘s Bryan Wendorf? My guess is that Film Threat has a beef against these two guys for whatever reason, so Hall has decided to just completely write them and their successful festivals out of history, which is a real shame.

Despite some other painfully obvious omissions, e.g. Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and Jeff Krulik, Hall introduces us to some really interesting films and filmmakers, many of whom I had never heard of before, but some I’ve reviewed on the Underground Film Journal, like Sam Wells’s excellent Wired Angel and Josh Koury‘s controversial Standing By Yourself. Hall definitely is enthusiastic about the movies he enjoys and he shares them with us as though we’ll enjoy them too. He doesn’t get too deep into why these are great films, but after reading about them you get that, “I have to go find that film right now.”

Each chapter is broken up by genre, such as documentary, avant-garde, cult, horror, etc., and Hall picks around three to five (maybe more) films or filmmakers to describe in-depth, before launching into a comprehensive list of films that he’s reviewed in each category. The chapters then close with a long interview with a filmmaker. All combined you get a good sense what all these types of movies are about and Hall includes lots of links to websites, either Film Threat write-ups or film official sites, so that you can go find out more or possibly acquire them.

Hall also writes about the online video revolution; which is already out of date with the advent of YouTube, but that’s not his fault; and his coverage of IFILM, where I once worked, is pretty spot on. He also writes about other alternative distribution methods and the hassles a filmmaker faces pretty much from every angle. But the good news is that there are alternative ways of getting films shown, even if a particular theater or distributor is a short-lived endeavor. There are ways for filmmakers to get their work out there, although it seems that aspect of the game can be much, much harder than actually making a film.

While not a definitive resource, The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies is still a very good one and it’s nice to see filmmakers who struggle so much get the attention they deserve, even though a couple more of them could have been stuck in here.

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