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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.

Buy The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies on Amazon.com!

Underground Film Feedback (10 comments)

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  • I’ll go you one more. Being very loosely connected to Hall’s inexplicably beloved Hale Manor Collective, I’ve become familiar with his criticism and, shockingly, his growing influence. Nothing provides a better illustration of the mindset of Hall (and, for that matter, Film Threat) than the complete debasement of the word “underground”. To hear it used lazily to describe b-movie crap is disconcerting in and of itself. But to witness one of the abettors of this slander being given even the smallest amount of credibility is insulting to filmmakers and intelligent filmgoers. It’s entirely possible that someday a valid “encyclopedia of underground film” will be written. This isn’t it and, quite frankly, I seriously doubt Hall is capable of writing it.

  • Chris says:

    I didn’t realize you’d left IFILM. What prompted that? (Or can you talk about it on here?)

  • Mike says:

    Oh, just another opportunity at Movies.com popped up.

  • Phil Hall says:

    Well, am I amazed: a review of a two-year-old book!

    For the record, the title of the book was originally “Never Coming to a Theater Near You.” It was jettisoned because another book with the same title was being released a few months before mine was scheduled to launch. It was never intended as an encyclopedia in the traditional sense.

    The omissions of several old-time underground filmmakers was intentional because I felt their genuine influence was a lot less important than their boosters imagine.

    I wrote positively about Slamdance because of its importance to the indie-underground scene. Chris Gore’s comment on Slamdance (which consists of a single sentence in the book) was added as an afterthought and was never the influence for that section. My opinion of the NYUFF is a reflection of the content of some of the later festival offerings; it was not a slur against the management of the festival, as you suggested.

    As for the character in your comments section who has a beef against the Hale Manor Collective, some disclosure is required. This fella created a film called “Broken,” which was one of the amateurish pieces of muck I’ve seen in ages. I had offered to review the movie for Film Threat, but did not because I stopped watching the flick after 15 minutes (had I made it all the way through, it would’ve topped my Worst 10 list). When he learns to make a professional movie, he can afford to criticize his peers.

    Thank you.

  • Mike says:

    First, I don’t understand your comment re: the title of the book. “Encyclopedia” was the only other title available? And if you knew the book wasn’t going to be an encyclopedia, why call it that at all? Why not “The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” or something? I was really expecting an encyclopedia when I got it.

    I also don’t understand your denigration of Jack Smith and Mike and George Kuchar now. They didn’t make important films? I thought it was an oversight you didn’t include their names, now I’m really shocked that you left them out intentionally.

    You can find my review of Jay Hollinsworth’s “Broken” on the site. Personally, I don’t like the slam of using the term “amateurish” to criticize a film. “Broken” is far from amateurish. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it. Calling something “amateurish” is just a cop out. Anyway, isn’t that the way the mainstream dismisses underground films out of hand and what makes them underground in the first place? A film is entertaining or it’s not, the rules of “professionalism” be damned.

  • When I “learn to make a professional movie,” will that finally qualify me as an “underground” filmmaker?

    Thanks for proving my point.

  • george renan says:

    My dad wrote a book in 1967 called AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AMERICAN UNDERGROUND FILM by Sheldon Renan. It is available on Ebay unless my dad is buying up all the copys. It is very well researched first hand at a time when underground film was really cutting edge.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks, George! I’ll have to look that up.

  • Phil Hall says:

    Professionalism in filmmaking (which includes a coherent script, capable performances, seemless editing and scenes that are competently framed) can be achieved by any filmmaker, either Hollywood or underground.

    Underground is not synonymous with amateurish work.

    In any event, why are you reviewing a two-year-old book? My new book, “Independent Film Distribution,” just came out.

  • Mike says:

    A film should be judged for what it is, not what it isn’t. Those are just your standards.

    And why not review a two-year old book? I’d only heard about it recently and since the majority of this site is devoted to underground film, I thought it relevant. Your new book doesn’t really sound like it fits the theme of the Underground Film Journal, but if you want to send a copy, I’d be happy to review it for you.