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What’s An Underground Film, Anyway?

The term “underground film” has never enjoyed a popular definition. Oh, some writers have attempted formal definitions, but I doubt there will ever be one that is popularly agreed upon. It’s not even a term that can be agreed upon to be used. But, it is used and I personally have billed this site “The Journal of Underground Film,” so I thought I’d give my general perception of what “underground film” might mean to contribute to an ongoing dialogue about it.

And I prefer to consider writing a post like this as contributing to a dialogue because I do not have any interest in trying to build a definition myself. However, what I can say is that “Underground film” is not a genre. Actually, what leads me to use the term “underground” is that it feels to me to be a catch-all for other genres.

Avant-garde, experimental, poem, critical, invisible. These are all terms that have been used to describe the types of films that I myself would consider underground. Out of them, the two most popular next to underground are avant-garde and experimental. What I don’t know — because I haven’t researched it yet — is where and when the terms “avant-garde” and “experimental” started being used in regards to film, but I do know the origin of the term “underground.”

I previously wrote about this in my appreciation of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essential film book Midnight Movies. That book is where I’m getting the following information:

“Underground film” was first used by the film critic Manny Farber in a 1957 article for the magazine Commentary, but he used the term to refer to action movies made by under-appreciated directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. Then, in 1961, experimental animator Stan Vanderbeek used the term again for a manifesto published in Film Quarterly. Except, Vanderbeek used the term to describe the films of his fellow avant-garde and experimental filmmaking peers, such as Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage.

Another thing I don’t know is just how widespread the use of the term “underground film” was post-1961. The underground film movement of the ’60s didn’t really kick into high gear until 1963 with the release of Jack Smith‘s Flaming Creatures. Then, in the following year, Stan Brakhage finished his epic Dog Star Man and Kenneth Anger released Scorpio Rising. 1965 and ’66 saw the release of Mike Kuchar‘s Sins of the Fleshapoids and Andy Warhol‘s Chelsea Girls. These five films can arguably be considered the most significant highlights of the movement.

While those films all do share similarities, such as all of them having a narrative of some sort or another, their actual styles and productions wildly differ, which is why “underground film” cannot be pinned down as a specific genre.

However, if there were anyone who coined a specific definition of “underground film” that I would personally agree on being the actual definition of “underground film” it would be author Sheldon Renan, who defined it thusly in his 1967 book An Introduction to the American Underground Film:

It is a film conceived and made essentially by one person and is a personal statement by that person. It is a film that dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three. It is usually made for very little money, frequently under a thousand dollars, and it’s exhibition is outside commercial film channels.

I don’t think that is a perfect definition and the inclusion of specific monetary value dates it, but it’s a workable one at least, particularly the phrase “dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three.” I think that’s where the key to what underground film is all about lies. Underground film “dissents radically” from regular commercial filmmaking, although that dissension can come in myriad ways.

However, what’s interesting is that the only reaction to Renan’s book from that time period that I know of comes from Scott MacDonald’s awesome Canyon Cinema. MacDonald reprints a review of it written by Emory Menefee that was published in the Nov. 1967 issue of the Canyon Cinemanews newsletter. Menefee gives Renan’s An Introduction a passing grade, but specifically says:

It is unfortunate that the word “underground,” with all its dark hint, has to be the one most favored by those publicizing independent films — though there is no adequate substitute …

As I said above, I don’t know just how “favored” the word underground was, but a quick survey of Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal, collecting his wildly popular Village Voice column, has him dropping it quite frequently into those columns in 1967, the year Renan’s An Introduction was published.

(And as a side note, Scott MacDonald, one of underground film’s greatest writers and proponents prefers the term “critical cinema” to “underground.”) (Another side note, this one to Menefee’s quote above: “Independent film” didn’t quite mean what it does today, either.)

“Underground film” as a movement petered out sometime in the early ’70s, sometime around when Mekas stopped writing Movie Journal in 1971, although as I’ve shown in my Underground Yearbook posts, there were still many, many films that could be considered “underground” produced throughout that decade.

The term “underground film” started to gain prominence again when Nick Zedd — using the pen name Orion Jeriko — started publishing the Underground Film Bulletin in 1984 to document what would become the Cinema of Transgression movement. (In that publication in 1985, Jeriko would craft the Cinema of Transgression manifesto.)

Then, in 1994, filmmakers Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland held the first ever New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF), which, as far as I know, was the first festival to use the word “underground” in its name. (Side note: Todd Phillips would later go on to direct Hollywood comedies, such as the recent hit The Hangover.) Also, that same year, the Chicago Underground Film Festival would be founded, officially launching the phenom of “City X” Underground named film festivals.

The centerpiece film of that first NYUFF was Chicken Hawk: The Men Who Love Boys, a documentary about the North American Man/Boy Love Association by Adi Sideman. I haven’t seen Chicken Hawk, but from what I understand, it’s a traditionally structured documentary, in that it doesn’t dissent radically in form or technique, but does so in content in that it covers a disturbing topic that most consumers of commercial cinema probably wouldn’t want to watch a film about.

That’s where the definition of “underground film” gets tricky. Stan Brakhage taping dead moths and leaves to a strip of film is a radical dissension of technique. Thus, Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) is an “underground” film. But also, John Waters‘ earliest films can be considered “underground” even though they’re traditionally structured comedies since filming acts like a transvestite eating real live dog shit in Pink Flamingos is so taboo that it dissents radically from commercial film content.

But then there are even trickier areas, such as with Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky‘s Half-Cocked, a traditional narrative film about a touring indie rock band. This particular film can really be considered an “indie” film and not “underground,” even though it did screen at the second annual NYUFF in 1995. However, the music featured in the film was and is situated fairly out of the mainstream, which would lean it towards the underground enough to be considered and programmed at that particular festival.

On the Underground Film Journal, I do cover some very traditional films, especially if they’re horror movies, such as Evilution and Basement Jack. I do that because, well, it’s my website. But, I also think they serve some value to readers of “The Journal of Underground Film” in that they are a “personal statement by that person.” It may not be obvious, but that person in these two films’ particular case is writer/producer Brian Patrick O’Toole.

So, as this post is becoming ridiculously long, what’s the answer to that initial question: What’s an underground film, anyway? Essentially, I believe it is a film that is a personal statement by one person and a film that dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three. However, that dissension can take on any number of forms.

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  • jmac says:

    Mike, this etymological question of the word,”underground,” is fascinating!

    I was perusing MOVIE JOURNAL recently, and I found an essay where Jonas Mekas defined the term, “underground,” as being a hostile label used to ghettoize poetry! :) Word up!

    I like how you describe the current definition of the term quite accurate as, “underground,” as “not a genre” and “a catch-all for other genres.”

    It seems that artists, who would like to invent new forms or explore the materiality of film or deconstruct the narrative and play with the vocab of film, are being “repressed” in the general cinematic culture, pushed literally out of consciousness or “underground.” Erudite cinema exists and thrives and flourishes, but the culture will not acknowledge it . . .

    It is impossible to analyse the Vertovian Constructivist composition and editing of a Judd Apatow movie, you know? :) Art is knowledge!

  • Thanks! Glad you liked the piece.

    If I were able to somehow make money from the Underground Film Journalt or I could find somebody to pay me to do this stuff, I’d do even more detailed research on how the actual word “underground” has been used throughout the years.

    I should read Movie Journal again in more detail. My vague recollection is that Mekas didn’t like the term, then started using it, then dropped it again.

    And I don’t know about Vertovian Constructivism, but I’ll be connecting Judd Apatow with Stan Brakhage in an upcoming post.

  • Eric Johns says:

    Wow. That was certainly a lot better than I could have done! Many of my friends (except for one who actually watches underground films and really understands them) are always describing independent films like “El Mariachi” as underground, when they are really quite conventional in everything but budget. I’m definitely going to start referring them here.

    I personally work in traditionally structured narratives, but even then in most of my (as yet unmade) scripts/outlines, the plots are rather subversive in a style that is probably closest to a mixture of the humor of John Waters and “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer”-era Sarah Jacobson (comedic yet rather political). The short I am currently working on, which I will hopefully be able to finish while I still have the rental discount, is more of an easing-into-subversion work since only one of my repertory actors really understands my ideology.

    But enough about me, I loved the article and am printing it out… NOW!

    • Eric: Glad you liked the article!

      “El Mariachi” is clearly made by a person who wants to be accepted and/or respected by the established commercial filmmaking world. And, look at the career Rodriguez has had since!

      While some people may view Rodriguez as an “outsider” since he works out of his own studio in Austin and not in Hollywood, but the types of movies he makes, while having a certain “edgy” style, are at their base very traditional.

      And one reason I decided to write this is because I started getting a lot of emails from filmmakers who would use a phrase like “I’m as underground as they come,” not really understanding that “underground” doesn’t just mean nobody’s heard of you. That sounds like what your friends think of the word.

      One other thing: I totally don’t have anything against commercial cinema. I love Hollywood movies! To me, underground films are just different, not better. I always enjoy a good, traditional story.

      And good luck with the film! Let me know when it’s done.

  • qwerty says:

    For better or worse, I think the defining characteristic of “underground” cinema has to be visibility. I mean just take the word “underground” — i.e. below the surface. Not visible. If there were a film that gained buzz by playing solely at below-the-radar* fests and events, I think it would have to be considered an “underground hit” even if it was a totally conventional film in every way.

    *And I would define “below the radar” fests and events being ones that aren’t even covered by most film-specific publications and blogs.

  • Qwerty, people may use the word “underground” that way, but I wanted to show that historically that’s not how it’s been used.

    Also, using your standard, I would prefer that the word didn’t refer to just poorly made crap that can’t find an audience. That’s not what I write about on the Underground Film Journal.

    And the good question about any film that “flies below the radar” is WHY is it flying under the radar? Many films do that because they aren’t very good — and underground films do because they don’t fit into the commercial cinema model covered by the main film press.

  • I consider ours to be an underground film. Self Helpless isn’t high art by any means, it is just a funny movie with a pretty engaging story line. The way the entire feature was conceived and created by 4 outsiders with almost no budget is what I think makes us underground.

    I guess my point is, maybe subject matter isn’t the only defining factor for what sorts of films are underground.

    • I haven’t seen your film, so I can’t judge and you can consider it whatever you want. But, my point in writing this was to show the historical meaning of the word “underground.” And that history doesn’t mean whatever you yourself happened to make up.

      However, since, as I said, that “underground” has never been popularly defined, the definition might slide into the way you’re using it as that’s becoming the common vernacular proven both by yourself and qwerty in this article’s comment thread. And that’s fine. As I also wrote in the article, “indie” and “independent” doesn’t mean what it used to anymore either.

      I can also understand why truly “independent” filmmakers, like yourself, would currently run from the word “independent” since it’s been so co-opted by the Hollywood mainstream. “Underground” filmmakers are just a subset of “independent” filmmakers.

  • Jacob W. says:

    I’m not sure the degree to which it could stand in relation to your post, but after reading through the first thing that popped into my head was from the very opening of Sitney’s The Avant-Garde Film…:

    “Can there be a history of the independent cinema? Insofar as it calls itself independent or avant-garde, admirably introducing a negative element into its epithet, it reflects back upon another cinema, itself unnamed and undefined, against the darkness of which it shines”