In 1967, movies were changing.
Studio executives watched as The Graduate, made for $3 million, sold more tickets than Dr. Dolittle, made for $17 million. Bonnie and Clyde, made for $2.5 million, creamed Camelot, made for $13 million.
During this pivotal year, Sheldon Renan wrote a small slim paperback which entirely sidestepped the question “what do people want to see?” by instead addressing the question “what do people want to make?” Renan’s book An Introduction to the American Underground Film was about movies made by individual artists working alone or nearly alone. While the big studios were making enormous turkeys, searching for the key to the hearts of their lost audiences, his book was about tiny movies made on no budgets by obscure artists very far from Hollywood.
Renan influenced generations of directors. The heart of his book is a series of portraits. He writes:
“Jack Smith is an anarchist, and his films break all the rules of film art. They go too far, and they do it on purpose. They are too scratchy, too nervous, too vulgar, and at times too beautiful.”
The writing glows with admiration. Who wouldn’t want to become one of the cinematic explorers Renan describes? The films he catalogs range from under a minute to over eight hours. Some use animation, some use found footage and some don’t even use cameras. Yet, all seem to have been made in response to a dare: Bet you can’t do this. Renan writes about them as an insider, but remains matter of fact, explaining that underground films are not seen because no one wants to see them:
“For good or for bad, the underground filmmaker is a man alone. But he is free to decide. This is a prerequisite to the making of art.”
At one time called “experimental,” then “avant-garde,” Renan predicted this branch of American filmmaking would next be called “expanded cinema.” (Just how much it would expand, he had no idea!) Whatever we want to call it, he says, it has always been with us. We don’t seem to be able to live without it. The diversity and unpredictability of independent, sometimes actively noncommercial filmmaking is essential to the vigor of American cinema.
James Gray, the director of The Lost City of Z, talked about this in a recent interview in Vulture:
“If the audience only gets to see Marvel, then they only want Marvel, and then if they only want Marvel, only Marvel is made. I don’t even have a problem with Marvel. The problem is not the specifics of each movie, the problem is it’s the only movie you can see now in a multiplex, and when it’s the only game in town, you’re looking at the beginning of the death throes of an art form.”
In 1970, Renan made a proposal to the National Endowment of the Arts: Why not support a network of film centers spread across the country? Why not bring a wide range of documentaries, foreign films, art films, underground and avant-garde films to regional audiences? His logic was the same as Gray’s: If we want American cinema to thrive, we have to make sure young artists see films which represent the full range of expression of the art form. Four regional film centers, in Berkeley, Portland, Chicago and Detroit, were funded through this initiative. They still serve audiences, and inspire filmmakers, today.
After his tour of duty at the NEA, Renan became a filmmaker himself, working on a wide range of projects as writer, director, producer (or all three). The Killing of America, a 1982 documentary co-directed with Leonard Schrader, was recently released on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD. His classic guide, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, can be found at archive.org.
2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, CA 94720
Senior Film Curator: Susan Oxtoby
Mission: “BAMPFA inspires the imagination, ignites critical dialogue, and activates community engagement through art and film, and other forms of creative expression.”
Affiliation: University of California, Berkeley
Year Founded: 1967; moved into Berkeley Art Museum in 1971
Theater Size: 220 seats
Admission: $7 members; $8 discounted categories; $12 general; second feature on the same day $5. Free gallery admission with screening ticket.
Hours: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays 11 a.m – 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Works With: UC Berkeley, San Francisco International Film Festival, Hollywood Foreign Press Association
Signature Programs: Committed Cinema, featuring artists whose films and videos arise out of political conviction and aesthetic innovation to explore vital and urgent issues of our times; annual Les Blank Lectures. The Film Library and Study Center is one of the major film reference resources in the country.
Signature Series: Afterimage: Filmmakers in Conversation with Film Critics; Alternate Visions (avant-garde films); African Film Festival
Past Retrospectives: Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Claire Denis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, George and Mike Kuchar, Akira Kurosawa, Ida Lupino, Guy Maddin, Chris Marker, Nagisa Oshima, Marcel Pagnol, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Raúl Ruiz, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnès Varda, Dziga Vertov
Through These Doors: Errol Morris, Steve Starkey, James Schamus, Les Blank, Guy Maddin, Emiko Omori, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jerome Hiler
Good To Know: “We often hear from established filmmakers that BAMPFA was the first venue to screen their work, so we are known for spotting talent.”
934 SW Salmon, Portland, OR 97205
Director: Bill Foster
Affiliation: Portland Art Museum
Mission: “Founded to encourage the study, appreciation, and utilization of the moving image arts”
Theater Size: 375 seats at 1219 SW Park, in Portland Art Museum
Admission: $9, $8 members
Hours: Check schedule online
Works With: Portland State University, Marylhurst University, Pacific Northwest College of Art
Signature Programs: A certificate program offering classes in video and film production, including sound recording and editing, screenwriting, post-production, animation, and stop motion animation; access to equipment, screening opportunities, and fellowships
Annual Festivals: Northwest Filmmakers Festival, Portland International Film Festival, Portland Jewish Film Festival, Reel Music Festival
Through These Doors: Gus Van Sant, Bill Plympton, Will Vinton, Joan Gratz, Jim Blashfield, Harry Dawson, Mark Gustafson, Chel White, Rose Bond, Joanna Priestley, Gus Van Sant, Matt McCormick
Good To Know: Portlandia producer David Cress studied documentary filmmaking here, with lead faculty member Bushra Azzouz.
164 N. State St., Chicago, IL 60601
Executive Director: Jean de St. Aubin
Director of Programming: Barbara Scharres
Affiliation: School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Mission: “GSFC exhibits a range of carefully curated film art in technically excellent facilities, and educates the audience, setting film in an historical and cultural context through courses, lectures, panel discussions, and publications, and through research and collections.”
Theater Sizes: 197 seats; 61 seats
Admission: $11, $7 students, $5 School of the Art Institute students
Hours: Check schedule online
Works With: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University, Columbia College
Signature Programs: Movie Club (post-screening discussions); Neighborhood Night with $6 admission; Hollywood On State (Oscar Party + Chicago Filmmaker Awards); Panorama Latinx.
Annual Festivals: Black Harvest Film Festival; Stranger Than Fiction (documentary); Asian American Showcase; Chicago Palestine Film Festival; Chicago European Union Film Festival; Festival of Films from Iran
Through These Doors: Steve James, Bob Hercules, John Woo
Good To Know: “The Gene Siskel Film Center offers theater rental during non-programming hours at very reasonable rates. Our facility is perfect for Kickstarter or Indiegogo screenings, press or publicity screenings, or even just to test the exhibition quality of your film! Special independent filmmaker rates are available for non-admission screenings during non-programming hours.”
5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202
Director: Elliot Wilhelm
Affiliation: Detroit Institute Of Arts
Mission: “Dedicated to cultivating awareness, appreciation, understanding and knowledge of the cinematic medium and its history”
Theater Size: 1,150 seats, in a perfectly preserved 1927 movie palace
Admission: $9.50, $7.50 members
Hours: Check schedule online
Works With: Wayne State University’s Department of Film and Communication Arts; College for Creative Studies; Digital Arts, Film and Television; Oakland University; University of Michigan
Signature Programs: Annual field trip to the Toronto International Film Festival; DFT Animation Club
Annual Festivals: FREEP Festival, sponsored by Detroit Free Press; Michigan Student Film and Video Festival
Through These Doors: Jerry Bruckheimer, Paul Feig, Jake Kasdan, Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Heidi Ewing, Sue Marx, Doug Chiang, Jim Burnstein, Bruce Joel Rubin, Kurt Luedtke, Elmore Leonard, Elvis Mitchell, Armond White, Mike Clark, Frank Bruni
Good To Know: The Samoan bodyguard named Elliot Wilhelm in Be Cool (2005), played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is Elmore Leonard’s sly tribute to the director of Detroit Film Theatre. MM