The New American Cinema

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In the late 1950s/early 1960s, a group of filmmakers that among others included John Cassavetes, Jonas and Adolfas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Edward Bland, Alfred Leslie, Lionel Rogosin and Robert Frank was brought together by its distinctly anti-Hollywood approach to filmmaking. Bearing a strong kinship to movements in various European countries such as the Nouvelle Vague in France, the Free Cinema in Britain and other similar attempts for an alternative cinema in Italy, Poland and the Soviet Union, this American filmmaking movement attempted a radical break from the 'official' American cinema as this was represented by the films of the majors and of the independents (top-rank and low-end).

For these filmmakers, independence meant producing and distributing ultra low-budget films entirely outside the structure and influence of the US film industry. Writing in Film Culture, a journal dedicated to this mode of filmmaking, in 1959, film critic and later filmmaker Jonas Mekas explained that New American Cinema filmmakers sought to 'free themselves from the overprofessionalism and over-technicality that usually handicap the inspiration and spontaneity of the official [Hollywood] cinema, guiding themselves more by intuition and improvisation than by discipline.'5

Driven by their commitment to these principles, the above filmmakers (minus Cassavetes) formed the New American Cinema Group, an organisation established to support formally all those new voices in American cinema. Perhaps the most important development within the Group was the formation of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, a distribution organisation dedicated to the marketing and releasing of New American films, in April 1962. Prior to the establishment of the Cooperative, the key films of New American Cinema were either self-distributed or released marginally by small distributors, like British Lion International Films that released Shadows (Cassavetes, 1959). The Film-Makers' Cooperative was run by the filmmakers themselves who every year elected an executive committee to supervise the organisation. In distributing a film, the Cooperative retained 25 per cent of the film's gross, returning the remaining 75 per cent to the filmmaker. Furthermore, it was open to distributing any type of independently made film regardless of length, subject matter, budget or width (from 16mm to 70mm).6

Although the Cooperative distributed a number of independent films, these were mostly non-commercial, short subjects which could not sustain financially a releasing organisation, even a non-profit one. One had to wait until 1964 to see the first features released by the Cooperative, Jonas Mekas' Guns of Trees and Jerome Hill's Open the Door and See All the People. By the mid-1960s it was obvious that the Cooperative had to open up to mainstream exhibition sites and therefore take a more commercial direction. For that reason, the members of the Group created a subdivision, The Film-Makers' Distribution Center, which undertook the task of handling the more commercial films and 'expand[ing] the theatrical distribution of independent cinema across the country.'7

With the Distribution Center designed to promote commercial features, the original Cooperative was usurped by the experimental or non-narrative filmmakers who in the meantime had joined forces with the New American Cinema filmmakers as advocates of an alternative cinema. Very quickly, the Group, Film Culture and a number of the original independents led by Jonas Mekas shifted almost entirely their focus towards the avant-garde and the experimental, therefore dispensing with any concerns about commercial narrative cinema. From the mid-1960s, the filmmakers most commonly associated with the movement were Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow, Jack Smith, Robert Breer and James Broughton, all experimental filmmakers, while Andy Warhol, another important independent filmmaker, had only a tentative relationship with the Group.

Although the phenomenon of the New American Cinema was extremely short-lived (film critic P. Adams Sitney called it 'an illusion' that started with the first films of a small group of filmmakers and 'ended abruptly when they had completed them and were seeking distribution for them and financing for further projects'),8 it nevertheless exerted immense influence on the New Hollywood, and more generally on one of the routes that post-1970 American independent cinema took. The main reason for this was John Cassavetes, whose films, especially his first feature, Shadows, became examples of what many critics have called 'contemporary American independent cinema', and whose approach to filmmaking created the very powerful and romantic ideology of the lone and uncompromised filmmaker who works with a dedicated circle of friends and who goes to great lengths to see his distinct vision on the screen.

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