There was a time back in the '80s when "independent" wasn't a genre of film made by young directors looking to break into Hollywood. Instead, directors like Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch took the lessons learned from the DIY avant garde of decades prior and combined them with the influences of the burgeoning film-school scene, throwing in touches of the then-dying midnight-movie circuit along the way. The goal was less about getting distribution than making the movie they felt they needed to make.
The success of indie films in the Sundance '90s forever changed the landscape of independent film. Since then, everyone who makes a narrative feature harbors not-so-secret hopes of breakthrough distribution, no matter how noncommercial the story. The reckless passion that fueled the directors in the '80s became a lottery-like hope for the golden ticket to fame and fortune. But the spirit of reckless passion didn't go away-it just shifted over to documentaries, where financial gain is the last reason to make a movie.
Documentaries have now entered a golden age, at least in terms of festival distribution and limited theatrical runs, but with the increased attention comes the hobbyists who are using the cheaper video technology to glut the marketplace in an attempt to be the next Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock. As a result, the spirit of reckless passion is once again moving-but to where? This weekend you can find out at the Northwest Film Forum, with its series The Other Indie: Dispatches from the American Underground. These are films that combine experimental impulses with documentary to create a wholly noncommercial expression of personal vision.
On Friday, June 17, Bill Brown and Thomas Comerford will be in town to present Lo-Fi Landscapes, a series of short films that form a digressive tour of the Midwest. I've seen a few of Brown's earlier films and liked them quite a bit for their beautiful images and his first-person narration that is both well-researched and highly personal.
On Saturday the 18th, Matt McCormick will come up from Portland to show his oeuvre of short films. His work is great, with a tendency to balance fiction and nonfiction with humor. For example, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001) is a funny and incisive look at how city workers create excellent examples of modern art when they paint over graffiti in industrial areas. On Sunday he's got a program called What the '70s Really Looked Like, which is described as "an archaeological dig through the Dumpster of 1970s television," where he'll show films dug out of the trash of a Portland TV station.
Also on Saturday and Sunday are showings of Ken Jacobs's six-and-a-half-hours-long Star Spangled to Death. This highly acclaimed film pulls together 50 years of home movies and found footage. Saturday is also the beginning of a mini-retrospective called Lost and Found: The Films of Jem Cohen. Cohen's 1998 Fugazi documentary Instrument starts the series, which continues on Monday and Tuesday with his latest film, Chain, a meditative and creepy piece that was shot in dozens of malls in 11 different countries. Chain will be teamed up with his acclaimed documentary Benjamin Smoke on Monday, and with two of his shorter works on Tuesday. ■