The films of American independent cinema, such as those by John Cassavetes, Barbara Loden and Kent Mackenzie, are undoubtedly some of the most confrontational, atmospheric and affective to emerge out of the US industry. Their place in this industry, and the means and modes of their production, forms part of this new book. It also identifies a more recent period of independent cinema in America, relying on naturalistic acting and extensive dialogue, sometimes known as “mumblecore”.
Murphy’s project is to demonstrate the significance of the screenplay in these movements towards independent film-making, or rather the insignificance of it: the contention is that American indie film is characterised by spontaneity and improvisation, and departure from rigid adherence to scripts. Happy to include the occasional accidental incident, and making use of non-professional actors, the films aim to convey human beings as they really are, rather than the more familiar performers and stars of classical Hollywood. It is wonderful to see the work of Barbara Loden and Shirley Clarke discussed here: two film-makers who certainly merit more attention.
The author repeatedly states that there is slippage between real life and fiction in the indie films, although the idea that it may be difficult for viewers, or even the actors themselves, to clearly demarcate fictional work from their real-life relationships is usually avoided in film studies. The person onscreen is not the same as the actor, even if they appear to be “playing themselves”. Investigating this urge to merge the two would have served the book well; as it is, Murphy suggests that psychodramas allow offscreen matters to appear onscreen, without analysing the problems with this suggestion.
Murphy takes Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) as playing out Harvey Keitel’s psychodrama and cites in evidence improvised moments, including the sexual assault on two young women. Similarly, Dangerous Game (1993), Ferrara’s follow-up, also with Keitel, is seen as “pushing the actors to extreme psychological states that mirrored their personal lives”. The ethics of this type of direction are not investigated, but there is a maelstrom of abusive behaviour contained in Ferrara’s work, and indeed Cassavetes’, that would not stand up to examination in the #MeToo era.
The work of Gus Van Sant is an apt forum to explore, particularly his poetic style and collaborative working in Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003). In the mumblecore movement, Murphy finds a group of film-makers whose work supports his thesis that independent cinema contains both improvisation and psychodrama. Digital technology and a blurring of the lines between character and performer are features that can be found throughout the work of Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig and others. Murphy describes how many indie film-makers are “mining the intersection between documentary and fiction”, in accordance with their belief that real life is more interesting than anything that can be written in a script. This reflects the spirit of a time in which people document and share their lives on social media platforms, and ostensibly points to a democratisation of the film-making process. The blurring of the line between reality and image, however, is a dynamic that always demands careful explication and ethical analysis.
Lucy Bolton is senior lecturer in film studies at Queen Mary University of London. Her latest monograph, Contemporary Cinema and the Philosophy of Iris Murdoch, was recently published by Edinburgh University Press.
Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay
By J.J. Murphy
Columbia University Press, 360pp, £81.00 and £27.00
ISBN 9780231191968 and 9780231191975
Published 16 April 2019