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September 2008
Deathtripping
by Jack Sargeant
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a group of radical New York artists created a cycle of low-budget, ferociously avant-garde independent films that absorbed the influences of punk rock, exploitation movies and the underground films of Andy Warhol and John Waters to create a new kind of confrontational cinema.
The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s Online
by Lea Jacobs
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Film historian Lea Jacobs sets the record straight in The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, a groundbreaking examination of a pivotal turning point in American cinema. As Jacobs sees it, that turning point is the shift in taste that occurred when movies began to be critiqued on the same standards as literary naturalism, standards that saw realism as a virtue and sentiment as an old-fashioned drawback.
The Power Filmmaking Kit: Make Your Professional Movie on a Next-to-Nothing Budget Online
by Jason J. Tomaric
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The digital revolution has led to an exponential increase not only in the number of low-budget films being made, but also in the number of books on how to make them. 

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Deathtripping
by Jack Sargeant
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a group of radical New York artists created a cycle of low-budget, ferociously avant-garde independent films that absorbed the influences of punk rock, exploitation movies and the underground films of Andy Warhol and John Waters to create a new kind of confrontational cinema. Labeled the “Cinema of Transgression” by its most prominent practitioner, director and provocateur, Nick Zedd, it was a movement that stood in stark opposition not only to other films of the time but to the culture of Ronald Reagan’s America as a whole. Films by Zedd and other filmmakers such as Richard Kern, Tommy Turner and Beth B addressed issues of gender, race, religion and politics head-on, often including sexually and violently explicit material purposely designed to shake the viewer out of his or her complacency. 

This unique but relatively forgotten period in independent film history is the subject of Jack Sargeant’s Deathtripping, a book that pulls off the tricky feat of being as valuable to fans of Zedd and his peers as it is to newcomers unaware of their work. This is because Sargeant is both concise and thorough — the efficiency with which he describes the films and their makers allows him to address the Cinema of Transgression from every conceivable angle, offering plenty of background for neophytes as well as many new insights for cultists.

The book is simultaneously intellectual and gossipy; Sargeant takes the films seriously, but he also offers up plenty of entertaining stories about the personal lives of their makers. Zedd, in particular, comes across as a remarkably complicated figure, a man equal parts artist and opportunist whose commitment to his craft is counterbalanced by his inability to sustain successful personal or working relationships. Zedd’s story, and that of his peers, is told from multiple viewpoints via lengthy interviews with him, Kern, Turner and many of their collaborators.

Sargeant also includes a handful of chapters by outside contributors such as Jeri Cain Rossi (herself an important trangsressive director) and Duane Davis, adding to the volume’s breadth of perspectives. Yet for all the points of view, the book remains remarkably coherent, thanks to the author’s ability to contextualize the material. He surrounds the interviews with his own commentary and manages to make his book comprehensive without being overwhelming by integrating production history, cultural context and interviews to give a clear, complete narrative of the rise of transgressive cinema.
Although the chronology isn’t always linear (appropriate for a book celebrating a film movement that opposes traditional Hollywood narrative), it’s never confusing. Sargeant supplies excellent synopses of all the films under discussion, and his skill at describing the visual, aural and thematic elements of the movies really helps them come alive for readers who have not seen them. This 2008 edition of Deathtripping is the third version Sargeant has published (though the first American edition), and he brings his history up-to-date with a consideration of the legacy of the extreme underground, a movement likely to have continued influence in the age of digital tools.

Sargeant’s analyses of the films’ political and cultural meanings are well argued and incisive, though he tends to let the filmmakers off the hook a little too easily, arguing that the misogyny and homophobia that characterize some of the movies are justified as just another form of challenging the status quo — though who or what is being challenged is never exactly clear. The author acknowledges criticisms that directors like Kern are sexist and homophobic, but dismisses them on the rather flimsy argument that Kern collaborates with women and gays on the films, which is a little like saying that A Birth of a Nation can’t be racist because it has minority actors in it. (Ironically, Kern admits to having been homophobic in his interview.)

Yet just as Sargeant forgives his subjects for their negative aspects because he values the void they fill, it’s easy to forgive him for occasionally overreaching in his defense given that he’s illuminating a greatly ignored episode in American film history. And as a piece of history, Deathtripping is dense and well researched: It’s one of those rare film books in which one feels as though there isn’t a question left unasked or a story left untold. Sargeant’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, combined with his enthusiasm and talent for interviewing (the book is worth buying for the Q&A sessions alone) make this the definitive history of the New York underground film movement.

Soft Skull Press
$18.95 paperback

The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s
by Lea Jacobs
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The last 10 years have seen a multitude of books, most notably Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Ryan Gilbey’s It Don’t Worry Me, that chart the seismic shift in filmmaking sensibilities that took place in the post-Easy Rider period of the early 1970s. These books all make essentially the same argument — that the collapse of the studio system ushered in an era of more adult, sophisticated movies that eschewed the sentimentality and pat resolutions of prior Hollywood releases.

The notion that American movies finally “grew up” in the age of The Last Picture Show, The Godfather and Five Easy Pieces has really taken hold in the 21st century, thanks largely to the high profiles of such filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and George Clooney, all of whom have emulated the style of the 1970s and share an intense nostalgia for the period. Yet, as great as many of the movies of the 1970s were, to see them as the first of their kind requires a fairly myopic view of film history. Indeed, as early as the 1920s directors such as Erich von Stroheim and King Vidor were presenting visions of American society and its people that were every bit the equal of works by Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Alan Pakula in their harshness and moral ambiguity.

Film historian Lea Jacobs sets the record straight in The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, a groundbreaking examination of a pivotal turning point in American cinema. As Jacobs sees it, that turning point is the shift in taste that occurred when movies began to be critiqued on the same standards as literary naturalism, standards that saw realism as a virtue and sentiment as an old-fashioned drawback. She’s concerned less with overall popular tastes (which, of course, still value sentiment and fantasy to this day) than with the changing attitudes of the press and the industry itself, attitudes that greatly influenced the kinds of films that were made.

In the early and mid-1920s, trade papers such as Variety and Moving Picture World began applying a new criteria to certain kinds of films: Influenced by the rising respect for chroniclers of social reality such as novelist Theodore Dreiser and journalist (and later screenwriter and director) Ben Hecht, entertainment reporters praised films such as Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle for their sophisticated handling of adult subject matter. Conversely, simplistic melodramas that would have garnered praise a few years earlier began to be seen as hokey and contrived.

A Woman of Paris and The Marriage Circle were lauded for ushering in a new kind of mature filmmaking, and Jacobs’ book traces how the reportage on these and other films (including Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a movie that was less well reviewed at the time but had a lasting impact on the art form) affected the industry. She begins with an examination of the trade press and distribution practices of the era, then moves on to chapters on four key genres that, in various ways, address questions of what is old-fashioned. These chapters trace the evolution of the sophisticated comedy, the male adventure, the seduction plot and the romantic drama, four types of films that were influenced by the transforming critical standards of the time — and which looped back to influence those standards as the movies themselves evolved.

Jacobs’ meticulous devotion to historical detail and her astute visual analyses of the films allow her to create a highly complex study of how cinematic sensibilities evolve. It’s a study that works equally well on two levels: as a broad statement about the decline of sentiment in 1920s film, and as a series of incisive assessments of key works. Within her framework, Jacobs takes time for close readings of individual films, and her insights into the techniques of Lubitsch, Sidney Franklin and others are as valuable as her overall message of the decade’s significance in defining film aesthetics.

Jacobs’ thoroughly researched arguments make her thesis as convincing as it is original — a thesis that has continued relevance today. At the end of 2007, Variety columnist Peter Bart and others commented that the favorites of critics and award ceremonies that year were movies that eschewed sentiment in favor of darker sensibilities. And indeed it’s easy to see No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood as the children of Greed and The Big Parade.

The Decline of Sentiment pinpoints the historical moment at which the nuanced approach to narrative and moral issues favored by the Coen Brothers and P.T. Anderson became accepted industry practice, a moment during which filmmakers introduced not only new attitudes but new techniques with which to express them — techniques that favored understatement and economy of expression over melodrama. The legacy of Chaplin, Lubitsch and the lesser known Monta Bell continues to affect films and the way we read them today, making Lea Jacobs’ formidable achievement all the more valuable and fascinating.

The University of California Press
$65 hardcover, $27.50 paperback
 

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The Power Filmmaking Kit: Make Your Professional Movie on a Next-to-Nothing Budget
by Jason J. Tomaric
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The digital revolution has led to an exponential increase not only in the number of low-budget films being made, but also in the number of books on how to make them. Few beginners’ guides are as thorough as Jason J. Tomaric’s The Power Filmmaking Kit, a book-and-DVD combo that benefits from the author’s experience as an award-winning independent filmmaker. There are no wasted words in Tomaric’s 400-page tome, which concisely summarizes each facet of the director’s craft while keeping the limitations of a first-time project in mind. Though many of Tomaric’s premises are applicable to movies of any budget, his book’s greatest value is its acknowledgement that most people reading it will be forced to make their debut features with minimal resources.   

Tomaric opens with a section on screenwriting that offers good tips for writing within budget restrictions, though a number of his generalizations are a bit peculiar and unsubstantiated; for instance, his argument that artistic expression and commercial success are mutually exclusive is just one of his many assertions that’s hardly substantiated by reality. In addition, the author’s somewhat formulaic approach to structure and his limited view of what a writer does (he takes the philosophy of “write what you know” to slightly ridiculous extremes) are best taken with a grain of salt by beginning scribes, who would be better off referring to a more comprehensive screenwriting manual before returning to Tomaric’s book for its more helpful perspective on production and post.

Once Tomaric leaves the writing process and gets into the nuts and bolts of independent filmmaking, his book begins to yield a bounty of helpful information. He takes readers through the stages of moviemaking with accessible, thorough descriptions of the tools and principles budding auteurs need to be familiar with. Beginning with preproduction and ending with distribution and marketing, The Power Filmmaking Kit is impeccably organized and gives readers each piece of information at exactly the moment when it makes the most sense — the result is that the overwhelming task of directing a film is broken down into manageable components.

The book’s greatest asset is its comprehensiveness; Tomaric provides chapters on aspects of production, like hair and makeup, that are vital but often ignored in introductory filmmaking manuals, and even more familiar topics are given a fresh spin by Tomaric’s first-person point of view (he supports many of his points with examples from his work). It’s difficult to think of a step in the process that Tomaric fails to address, and each section is lavishly illustrated with stills that simplify technical concepts for the novice. Though details are sometimes sparse, each chapter provides Web sites and additional information on resources readers can utilize to supplement the information on the page.

The Power Filmmaking Kit comes with a DVD that contains examples of forms and contracts as well as visual demonstrations of many of the concepts covered in the book, with additional demonstrations to be found on Tomaric’s own Web site. The DVD also features Time and Again, an hour-long movie Tomaric claims to have shot for just $2,000, and a commentary track in which the director reveals some of his cost-cutting tricks. Although many of these boil down to the same basic lesson — shoot outside of a big city and take advantage of people’s enthusiasm about filmmaking to get them to work for free — it’s still valuable to watch Tomaric’s film and see the principles of the book in action. The Power Filmmaking Kit is a little light on the more creative aspects of filmmaking (for those, beginning directors should check out Gil Bettman’s First Time Director) but in terms of outlining the logistics and technical elements of the craft, it’s useful reading for any filmmaker about to embark on his or her debut project.

Focal Press
$39.95 paperback
 

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