Indie: An American Film Culture

My book has been published! Woo hoo! It was on the table of the book room at the recent Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans, where at least eight people got to take a copy home. I'm told the date retailers can sell the thing is April 12, though they are taking orders. If you want to buy it directly from CUP, follow the link above and use the promo code INDNE for a 30% discount.

Columbia UP's publicist emailed me to see if I can help promote the book by posting to listservs, alerting my social networks, etc. Yes I can do that!

This post is going to take you BEHIND THE SCENES of the thrilling production process of an ACADEMIC MONOGRAPH!!! I have been saving some of these tidbits for years, carefully guarding them until this day.

-The idea for the book was suggested to me circa 2002 by my graduate school advisor, David Bordwell at a restaurant in Madison called The Saz that no longer exists. I wanted to write a dissertation about narrative theory and in particular about character, and he thought independent cinema would offer a good body of work within which to explore my ideas. These things take time. The dissertation was completed in 2005, and in the meantime I had a child and found my interests expanding into television and new media and taste and cultural studies. I have found that parenthood is a great motivator. I waste much less time when someone else is looking after my kid while I'm supposed to be working. People think having a baby around must kill your productivity, and maybe it's my male privilege speaking, but I have found it to be the opposite.

-The title changed a few times. When I proposed the book to CUP it was to be called Indiewood: Storytelling in American Independent Cinema. I changed it when I saw storytelling becoming only one aspect of the work rather than a singular central focus. I also didn't want the book to have the same title as Geoff King's Indiewood, USA, and I saw "Indiewood" as too specific a term, leaving out what some see as the "true" indies. My wife, Elana, suggested the title Indie. I'm pretty sure the An American Film Culture part was mine. At one point I wanted to rename the book Home is Where the Art Is, which is the title of a chapter about film festivals and art house theaters and a headline from a NYT article about independent cinema from 1989. My editor at the press thought it was a bad idea, and I think she was right.

-As in any long-simmering project, this book is the product of an abiding personal interest and a connection with many events in my life. In some ways this is the ultimate expression of my youthful cinephilia, which in most ways I have outgrown. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was eager to be initiated into the world of serious film passion. The first film I ever saw at a film festival was Jarmusch's Mystery Train, at the 1989 Toronto festival with the director and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in attendance. I worked managing the candy counter of the Carleton Cinema around that time, where Do the Right Thing and sex, lies, and videotape were playing (along with Jesus of Montreal, 36 Filette, The Little Thief, as well as some more popular titles like When Harry Met Sally...). After moving to New York in 1994 I became a pretty passionate follower of independent film, regularly spending weekend afternoons at the Angelika. In some ways the book is an effort to make sense of one kind of cinema that was part of what made me want to become a film -- later media -- scholar. I have never thought of myself as a fan of independent films per se, and I have probably been a bigger fan of studio-era Hollywood and some foreign cinema (at times, Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, Ozu, Kiarostami, 1980s Hong Kong action films). But having seen so many of the canonical indie films, the ones like sex, lies and Pulp Fiction, at an impressionable age, the centrality of this form of cinema to my conception of artistic film practice was pretty important. Later I would see this in a context of a film culture producing distinction for its elite audience, but having a critical perspective on indie's social functions hardly diminishes my feeling for some of these films.

-Maybe some processes are quicker and easier, but my revision process was slow and painful. Between proposal and proofs stages, there were at least four readers who wrote reports. The shape of the project shifted as my interests developed toward more of a concern with social issues and less with narrative. I like how it turned out, but it took a long time to get there. One thing I'm especially pleased with is how Indie balances two senses of culture: as works to be analyzed, and as social ways of knowing and experiencing. A film culture functions in both of these senses, and I try to combine an analysis of indie's value as a cultural category, and its coherence as a body of films calling on a coherent set of expectations about form and meaning. When I say film culture, I always mean both of these things.

-I am pretty pleased by the cover. I suggested images from Lost in Translation and Juno, and for various reasons the press preferred Juno. One reason I like seeing her on the cover is that Juno is both a film I liked a lot, and a great example of the contentiousness of indie as a cultural category. As I discuss in the final chapter, Juno is an example of a movie that some members of the indie community sought to de-authenticate, to remove from consideration as indie because of its heavy marketing by Fox Searchlight, its mainstream appeal, its lack of indie bona fides. One of my central claims about indie cinema is that it's a slippery, contested category, and that it can only be understood as it is used within indie film culture. I would not exclude it because it is so widely thought to belong, but the efforts of some critics and bloggers to distance themselves from Juno (and of many people I have talked to personally) reveals much about the values sustaining independent cinema. I suggested handwritten for the type but the designer did it better than that, and gave it more of a DIY scissors cut-out look.

This is the Lost in Translation image I had suggested. Pretty but not really fun. Related: I use the term bokeh in the chapter where I discuss Lost in Translation to describe the effect of out-of-focus abstract shapes of lights like we see in this image. That's one of my favorite words in the book, just cuz.

-Some people have asked how it feels to have a book published. It's kind of like asking how it feels to be 39 years old. I knew it was coming for a long time, and it's not that different from before. But publish means to make public, so now I have this sense that what I have done is out there and outside of my control, and I like that. It means my work is done. It belongs to you now.


Christopher Lucas said...

I love this, thanks - and I've very much looking forward to reading the book. That summer of 1989 really was some kind of watershed for those of us of a certain age! Absolutely that was when I felt like my eyes opened to cinema as an art form and as a culture and social force and I started going hunting for the other 1980s output of those filmmakers. Besides the films you name, I associate Drugstore Cowboy and Powwow Highway with that moment. Also Matewan, although it came out a few years before - somehow I think I saw it that year.

jason sperb said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and congratulations.

Yes, I suspect the 90s post-Sundance moment in Hollywood inspired quite a few media scholars (for better and for worse), even though as you note most eventually move far past it. For me, befitting my age (33), it was more five years later, with Pulp Fiction. It was the first time I really noticed that films could *do* something besides entertain (a ridiculously naive statement now, of course). So, I guess I grew up on more on the second wave of filmmakers.

At the same time, that initial cinephiliac impulse is so strong that it worms its way into scholarship. So that, ten years later, you're still writing through it--as much to be able to let go of it as anything else.

But then the final irony is that, though interests have changed, its what you'll now be known for now, thanks to the book. The flip side of losing "control," I suppose.

michael z. newman said...

Thanks for these comments. In addition to the films I mentioned, which are really more the famous ones rather than my favorites, I would list Slacker as an early eye-opener. As much as the film itself, the posters plastered around the student union made an impression. I liked Dazed and Confused much more. It was around the time of Pulp Fiction that I became more aware of independent cinema as a cultural force, as it became more visible in mainstream pop culture. The films I remember most fondly from the Angelika days are Smoke, Before Sunrise, Safe, and Kids, though initially I didn't like either Safe or Kids. The important thing was they engaged me passionately.