With Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film (Arsenal Pulp Press, 320 pages, $22.95), author and film critic David Spaner has crafted an engaging, comprehensive history of the highs and lows of independent film, with special attention paid to how it’s interacted over the years with its big brother (or evil twin, depending on how you look at it) the studio system.
Shoot It!‘s two sections—the first on the studio system, the second on independent film—cover a broad range of material, which is both good and bad. First, the good: Spaner’s far-reaching approach will introduce readers to film, directors and even independent movements that they might not have been previously familiar with. While the histories of independent film in the United States, Great Britain and France have all been exhaustively covered in other books, the same attention has not been paid to the historical context of independent film movements in Mexico, South Korea, Romania and Canada, each of which also gets a chapter in Shoot It!. The film history provided on each of these countries is fairly basic—after all, when you’re covering French film history from the New Wave onwards in all of 18 pages, you can’t go into that much detail—but by including all of them in one book, Spaner makes it easy for readers to compare the attitudes different countries have had toward indie film over the decades.
That said, that the scope of Shoot It! is so large works to its detriment, as well. When a single book starts with the beginning of the film industry and goes through nearly a century of film history—including the Hollywood blacklist, the rise of Method acting, the birth of the modern indie with John Cassavetes, the New Hollywood movement, the French New Wave, the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster and more—in a mere 320 pages, its themes and arguments run the risk of being presented as simpler than they actually are, and indeed that ends up being the case with Shoot It!.
Throughout the book, Spaner seems to present the studio system as the epitome of, not only corporate greed, but evil itself, setting up studios and the MPAA as straw men to be knocked down by the indie film revolutionaries quoted in the book. His dismissal of studio films as artless drivel extends to most all films made by (or with) a studio as a matter of principle. While very few would claim that studios have the best interests of film as an art form in mind (let’s be honest, they clearly don’t), lumping the individual directors, writers, producers and actors who make studio films into the same mold as the corporate behemoths that run them comes across as narrow-minded at times. While it’s true that a studio film, by its very definition, will never be free of studio influence, there’s still a big difference between, say, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) and Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin) in terms of the quality of the work they produce.
Shoot It! is a great resource for people who A) want a general historical overview on independent film and the studio system, or B) already have that general overview and are looking for some new moviemakers or films to explore. The wealth of quotes included in Spaner’s book are from directors, actors, producers and writers who range across decades and continents both; among the dozens of moviemakers Spaner interviewed are Mike Leigh, Gus Van Sant, Miranda July, Park Chan-Wook, Rebel Without a Cause writer Stewart Stern and blacklisted screenwriter Norma Barzman. Their insight, combined with Spaner’s historical overview, proves that the history of independent film can be just as interesting as the films themselves.