by Jessica Winter
(New York: Rough Guides/Penguin, 2006)
Reviewed by Dr.
October 5, 2020
if rising from the burning wreckage of the American dream," observes
Jessica Winter in this well researched, captivating volume, 1968's
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD presented "an apocalyptic vision of flesh-eating
zombies rampaging through the heartland." She then quotes film critics
J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who asserted that this low-budget
production "was not only an instant horror classic, but a remarkable
vision of the late sixties-offering the most literal possible depiction
of America devouring itself."
George A. Romero's landmark zombie picture is just one of Winter's
fifty "essential indie films." Other movies that comprise her "canon"
include THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, BOYS DON'T CRY, DO THE RIGHT THING,
EASY RIDER, ERASERHEAD, KIDS, EL MARIACHI, MEDIUM COOL, MEMENTO, PULP
FICTION, ROGER & ME, SHADOWS, SHOCK CORRIDOR, and SLACKER. Winter
provides a perceptive introduction to each of these fifty canonical
pictures. Moreover, she offers an adept discussion of "the icons,"
the leading writers, directors, and actors in the world of American
indie film, including such notables as Steve Buscemi, Joel and Ethan
Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Harvey Keitel, Parker Posey, Christina Ricci,
John Sayles, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Lili Taylor, Gus Van
Sant, and John Waters. Considering Jarmusch's 1989 release, MYSTERY
TRAIN, for example, Winter observes: "Sharing its name with an Elvis
Presley record…this multi-strand comedy spends 24 non-consecutive
hours in Memphis, where a young Japanese couple, a bereaved Italian
woman and a few seedy types all converge on a hotel where blues musician
Screamin' Jay Hawkins presides at the front desk. Loose and strange,
the movie revels in Jarmusch's usual deadpan absurdism and weird Americana."
| Another fascinating
section of Winter's text, "Conduct Unbecoming: The American Underground,"
explores the "horror, porn, midnight movies and their otherwise weird
or sleazy brethren [that] comprise an important chapter in the American
independent story." In this segment, she addresses the films of such
directors as Kenneth Anger, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, and Andy Warhol.
Lone Star cinema enthusiasts will be pleased to know that Winter discusses
several Texans in her volume, including filmmakers Wes Anderson, Richard
Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez. She describes the Houston-born, UT-educated
Anderson as "a heartening rarity: a young, idiosyncratic auteur endorsed
by the studio system." In spite of "his anti-blockbuster sensibilities,"
he "became the beneficiary of studio largesse. Made when Anderson
was in his early twenties, the 16mm short BOTTLE ROCKET caught the
attention of powerful producer-director James L. Brooks, who helped
pave the way for its expansion into a feature for Columbia Pictures
in 1996, with novice actors Luke and Owen Wilson remaining in the
lead roles. BOTTLE ROCKET made feeble returns at the box office, but
then-Disney honcho Joe Roth was such a fan of the movie that he ensured
Anderson's follow-up, the wistful, loopy love triangle RUSHMORE (1998),
was born under the sign of Mickey Mouse."
Cinephiles, particularly fans of indie film, will enjoy Winter's engaging