This isn’t an actual review of the classic text by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum per se, especially since it was published 24 years ago, and I even read the original and not the 2001 reprint. But I just wanted to mark in time and space in public when I read this book, and yes it’s one of the most awesome books I’ve ever read, and talk about why I picked it up now. First up, a nice little surprise:
As I briefly mentioned before, since re-launching/re-formatting/re-purposing the Underground Film Journal about a year ago and started focusing so much attention on modern underground film festivals and filmmakers, I’ve been wondering where the term “underground film” came from anyway. According to a lengthy Midnight Movies footnote in Chapter 3 “The Underground” (page 40 of the edition I read):
Although critic Manny Farber had published “Underground Films: A Bit of Male Truth” in the November 1957 issue of Commentary, his “underground films” were the culturally disreputable action flicks of then obscure directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. In 1961, [social satirist Stan] Vanderbeek gave the term its better-known meaning when he wrote a manifesto, “The Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground,” for the summer issue of Film Quarterly. The filmmakers he discussed included Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Morman McLaren, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Ed Emshwiller, Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage, many of whom (as well as filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos and Harry Smith) were members of the older film avant-garde with roots that extended back to the 1940s. Throughout the 1960s, “underground movies” were synonymous with all avant-garde or “experimental” films.
So, there’s my answer, granted if I don’t run into contradictory information down the road, which I’ll share if I find it.
Midnight Movies is a book I used to pick up somewhat frequently when I was going to film school at the Rochester Institute of Technology (’88-’92), but I never actually read the damn thing in its entirety. Chiefly I’d just flip through and look at all the crazy pictures and just get a vague idea about the films they were from. It’s funny, if you were to sit me down in a room filled with 1,000 books about comic book history and analysis, I’d do my best to read each and every one of them. But I’ve never gotten into books on film like that.
It’s not that I don’t like movie history. I love it. But, I guess in film’s favor it’s so easy to come across this information in a casual manner and work up a fairly cohesive chronology in one’s own head. Especially in today’s world with so many self-referential documentary films and TV shows being produced and with the treasure trove of information to be found on the internet.
But that’s a totally slackass thing to do.
So, having fond memories of Midnight Movies, I decided to check that out first in my new re-edjumacation on underground films. Now, thanks to a sweet bibliography in the book and the totally awesome Los Angeles public library system, I’ll be on a film book reading kick that I’ll probably return to annoy people with on the Underground Film Journal.
This is still such a beautiful book to start with, too. In the back of the book, Hoberman and Rosenbaum discuss their regrets that they focus so much on New York film culture, but I think that “limitation” lends itself to a much more exciting reading experience. For a fan of cult films and the like, this books makes you want to jump into a friggin’ time machine and experience these movies like the original audiences did. By portraying the NYC film freak scene as a vibrant, thrilling and evolving creature, makes the book all that more engaging to read. Even the chapter on the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I really don’t care about, makes that scene sound like fun
Really, the only part of the book that seems a bit of a letdown is the chapter on John Waters, but that’s only because it cribs so much from Waters’ own unbelievably awesome book, Shock Value, which I’ve read several times. But, if you haven’t read that, the chapter’s probably fine. And, as smarmy and know-it-all as I think I am at times, Midnight Movies includes plenty of filmmakers — even in that dang footnote I posted above — that I need to look into. Dang. Gotta get crackin’…