If you live in Los Angeles you’ve probably seen it many times: the caravan of white trucks parked along the block and around the corner, diesel generators roaring, cables strung along the gutters, piles of lights, rolls of cables, racks of costumes, makeup trailers, bored extras, bored crew members, bored motorcycle police, and fascinated passersby.
That’s all you need to see to know that something mainstream – feature film, TV show, or commercial – is being made.
But what’s an underground film?
Bad Lit, my favorite site devoted to underground film, has an article about the problem of defining something as slippery as ‘underground film’ in which several definitions are offered by different people. Mike Everleth, the site’s editor, defines underground film this way:
Essentially, I believe it is a film that is a personal statement by one person and a film that dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three. However, that dissension can take on any number of forms.
I agree with that, but would add the requirement of hostility. There should be an element of combativeness which attempts to counter a much larger established force. There must be some rebellion in the work. It can be very subtle – nearly imperceptible – but it’s usually there somewhere. In fact, I think the hostility should even tend to include the general culture surrounding the filmmaker/s. Dissent, by itself, can be rather subdued, soft-spoken and shy. I think underground film requires a willingness not only to dissent but to kick apart.
While thinking about all this mainstream versus underground stuff, I went searching around on YouTube for something that might fit the discussion. I found this peculiar British documentary film about filmmaker Donald Cammell who co-directed, along with Nicolas Roeg, the 1968 film Performance. The film is one of those odd mixtures of underground and mainstream. It features Mick Jagger and involves a lot of mind-bending drugs, sex and criminal underworld shenanigans. It’s actually impossible to forget once you have seen it.
This film contains adult subject matter, language, nudity and sexual situations.
The documentary, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, describes a time when a group of intensely creative artists from various disciplines could operate on the fringes of the mainstream to create an essentially underground film with something resembling support from a mainstream production company. It’s a scenario that does not exist today. If you watch all 7 parts of the film, you will be immersed in that strange hybrid world of the ‘popular underground’ that defines much of what was happening in the 1960s and 70s. Today, if it cannot be jammed into a mall and sold with Sour Patch Kids, it won’t get any money. That holds as true for ‘independent’ films as it does for summer blockbusters.
Watching this documentary makes me wonder why so many filmmakers seem to have such trouble making the films they really want to make. After all, one can purchase a cheap camera and make exactly what one wants regardless of what one’s career and money-earning responsibilities might be. Tormented filmmakers who are battling studois for creative freedom should simply make films with video cameras during their spare time. This would not only foster a healthy underground, but it would quite possibly prevent a few tragic endings.