Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema (1989 lecture)

The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema”,  ARTPAPERS,  Vol. 13, No. 5,  September/October 1989,  pp. 6-10.

The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organ­ized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Cal­ouste Gulbenkian to introduce screen­ings of a dozen recent American inde­pendent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same semi­nar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics. 


It is virtually impossible to treat recent American inde­pendent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film. There are undoubtedly certain links apart from the most obvious ones (such as certain regional and historical traits and low budgets) that will become more obvious to spectators ten and twenty years from now, just as there are certainly some facets of what makes them Ameri­can that can currently be discussed. But by and large, the American independent film of the ‘50s exists in a sort of Tower of Babel whose inhabitants aren’t always on speaking terms with one another.




Consider, for instance, three of the traits that might initially seem to bind together most or all of the dozen recent American independent films that Richard Peña and I have selected for the Luso-Americanos symposium: use of 16 milli­meter, regionalism, and a taste for marginal subjects. Rob Treganza’s Talking to Strangers and Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding are pointedly made in 35 mm (as is Jim Jarmusch’s very different Stranger Than Paradise, the best known American independent film of recent years), and by virtue of this fact alone, they occupy and address a social and aesthetic register that is distinctly different from that of all the other selections. And the most obviously regional films in the group — Mala Noche, Sherman’s March. Landscape Suicide, My Brother’s Wedding. Born in Flames, Talking to Strangers, and Who Killed Vincent Chin? — stand in striking contrast to the five other films, which concentrate either on a more diversified view of the United States (Jon Jost’s Uncommon Senses) or on parts of the world outside the U.S.: Adynata (the Orient), Lived in Quotes (South Africa). Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen(Eu­rope and Central America), and Golub (Canada, Ireland, and Nicaragua). As for marginality, the relation of these dozen films to “marginal” subjects (such as homosexuality and illegal aliens in Mala Noche, black ghetto life in My Brother’s Wedding, and revolutionary agitprop in Born in Flames) is especially am­biguous if one considers the degree to which many of them are attacking explicitly mainstream subjects, such as the media or American history, and mainstream social issues.




Talking to Strangers is a particularly emblematic title because it describes not only the activity of all but the first and the last of this film’s nine ten-minute takes, but also what Rob Tregenza’s film as a whole is doing — as well as what most American independent films are doing in general. The absur­dist existential encounters that compose Tregenza’s feature are predicated in part on the absence of a conventional hero, the coherent organizing principle of most films. Tregenza’s film does have a central character, Jesse (played by Ken Gruz), who appears in all nine sequences, but we never have enough solid information about him to regard him as either a hero in the or­dinary sense or as an anchor for the other characters. His uncertainties about the world he inhabits implicitly become our own (even — and especially — if we tend to regard him as a bit of a simpleton), as well as those of the filmmaker. The fact that Tregenza insisted on shooting the entire film with a 1 to 1 shooting ratio makes his own activity a form of existential risk-taking that is quite comparable to the risks taken by Jesse and the various other characters that he encounters, as well as the uncertainties about interpretation and attitude experienced by the spectator.

Many independent films are themselves talking to strang­ers insofar as they are addressing not so much an existing community as a hypothetical one made up of lonely individu­als. (The sense of a solitary spectator is particularly strong, I think, in Adynata, Uncommon Senses, Talking to Strangers. Landscape Suicide, Sherman’s March, and Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen, where the solitude of the filmmaker and/or that of the central characters suggests a comparable isolation on the part of the viewer. Even the relatively communal form of address of the other six films is limited by the fact that the implied community in each case is mainly restricted to a relative economic, cultural, and/or ethnic minority.)

In like fashion, alienation of one sort or another forms the basis for many American independent films. In the narrative films, it is most often the alienation of the central character; in nonnarrative films, it is to some extent the alienation of the filmmakers themselves in relation to various mythic struc­tures, an alienation that in the cases of Adynata, Lived In Quotes and Uncommon Senses can be seen through the filmmakers’ fascination with unreadable surfaces and illegible information. The overall procedure in each instance is to start with banal media commonplaces — travelogues in Lived in Quotes and Uncommon Senses, diverse “found” materials in Adynata — and then proceed to make them strange and alien, utterances in a foreign tongue.




In some respects one of the most radical of recent experi­mental films, Leslie Thornton’s Adynata, is a film that secretes its own rules and laws as it goes. The title is a word that the filmmaker came across in a book of rhetorical terms; it means “a stringing together of impossibilities” and “sometimes a con­fession that words fail us.” Both of these definitions point directly to the film’s form — a stringing together of “impossibly” incongruent and incompatible materials in which verbal lan­guage — or, to be more precise, verbal language which is understood — plays a practically nonexistent role. It is a film which explicitly invites us to dream and conjure up a world of our own while making connections between Thornton’s seem­ingly disconnected materials. But unlike most artworks which stimulate the viewer’s creative imagination. Adynata — which originally bore the subtitle, Murder is Not a Story — also encour­ages the spectator to reflect on the implications of what he or she is imagining. Rather in the spirit of Raymond Roussel, who never left his stateroom when he “visited” Africa and whose novel Impressions d’Afrique is about the country constructed inside his head, Thornton’s project is partially to construct an Orient of the imagination and to assure our own complicity in this process. This means, in effect, that one’s uncertainties about what one sees and hears are not a distraction from the film’s focus, but part of Its subject, revealing all sorts of ideological positions and forms of ignorance about the Orient. Thornton herself has described the film’s pervasive eroticism and violence as “an uncanny cross between the narratives of Maurice Blanchot and Sax Rohmer.”) The alienation created by this dialectical tension between seduction and analysis effectively makes each spectator a creative collaborator in the process that the film is engendering, but a collaborator who is essentially alone.


A comparable kind of isolation as well as freedom is experienced by the spectator in James Benning’s quasi-narrative Landscape Suicide, if only because in this case as well, no strict agenda of interpretation is forced by the filmmaker. Delving into two real-life murder cases — Ber­nadette Protti’s seemingly unmotivated stabbing of another teenage girl in a California suburb in 1984, and Ed Gein’s even more gratuitous mass slayings and mutilations in rural Wis­consin in the late ‘50s (which also influenced Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, the source of Hitchcock’s film) — Benning uses actors Rhonda Bell and Elian Sacker to recreate part of the killers’ court testimonies, juxtaposed with the commonplace settings where these crimes took place. Boldly eschewing the specious psychological rhetoric that usually accompanies accounts of such crimes, he implicitly de-psychologizes the disturbing material, and, in the process of doing so, creates an open forum for the spectator to contemplate the mysterious vacancy of these people and these places, and their relation­ships to each other. The isolation of each of the actors within the film frame and the isolation of the various settings thus create an unsettling silence around these crimes, an ambigu­ous open space which the viewer is invited to share as well as to fill.



By contrast, a great deal of the importance of the otherwise very different Born in Flames, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, and Golub is the capacity to resist alienation, to forge links through collectivity of elements in society that conventional media contrive to keep apart through a “divide and conquer” strategy. In Born in Flames — set in a future New York City that, ideologi­cally and practically (if one considers the film’s low budget), bears a close resemblance to the present — the links that we see being made are mainly between women and between diverse ethnic groups. Even though the film’s narrative is partially structured around the difference between two clandestine radio stations and the announcers who speak for them — a black woman named Honey on Radio Phoenix, who espouses cooperation and community, and a white punk anarchist woman named Isabel on Radio Regazza, whose message is more negative and divisive — both women and both radio stations wind up seeming united in relation to the repressive force of the mainstream media.



In Christine Choy and Renee Tajima’s Who Killed Vincent Chin?, the profound separations between the Caucasian and Asian communities of Detroit, which led to the grotesque killing with which the film is concerned, are directly contested as well as dramatized by the films dialectical use of editing, whlch juxtaposes statements from the killer of Vincent Chin (as well as the killer’s family, friends, and other supporters) with statements from Chin’s mother, a white friend, various wit­nesses, and members of the local Asian community. What gradually emerges is that Chin, a young Chinese man who was about to be married in two days, was beaten to death by a white man outside a topless” nightclub in Detroit because of a fight largely precipitated by the white man’s belief that Vincent Chin was Japanese, and hence related somehow to the massive layoffs of auto workers in the city. While the forces represented in the film tend to be polarized around their separate interpre­tations of what happened, the film is explicitly not trying to segregate truth along racial lines, and neither the implied audience of this film nor its major spokespeople are defined strictly according to race. (Significantly, although the filmmakers, both women, are of Chinese and Japanese de­scent, the film does not ask to be read as an “Asian” statement.) As we simultaneously witness a denial of racist motives behind the crime and an exposure of racist attitudes on every level, we gradually come to realize that the film’s title is less literal than it may first appear — that the who of the title (as well as the implied what) leads to questions that eventually take in the society as a whole, and therefore address the entirety of the film’s possible audience.



The collective intelligence both behind and within Golub exists in several forms. It is present in the collective execution of Leon Golub’s painting, including the constructive critiques offered by Golub’s wife (fellow painter Nancy Spero) and the various kinds of assistance given to Golub by students. It is present in the direct route traced by the film from the work of art to the audience, completely bypassing the detour offered by art criticism, and significantly refusing to define a moment when the painting is “complete” which exists in isolation from its first appearance in a public space. It is present in the continual series of links made between the social and political world that inspires Golub’s work and the social and political world that receives it, with Golub himself functioning more as a conduit between these realms than as a final reference point. And, finally, it is present In the fact that Golub is itself a collectively made film, a collaboration of filmmakers Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn with the artist.


A feeling for a specific community in all its interactions and complexities is part of what makes Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding so special. Like his only previous feature, the black and white and more episodic Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s film is set in Watts, the Los Angeles black ghetto which comprises the whole of his fictional universe. It is a universe that he treats with an alertness, an affection, and an understanding which are in some ways comparable to the humanistic insights of the Italian neo-realists and their suc­cessors (it is worth noting that Olmi is one of Burnett’s favorite filmmakers), but in a manner that is perhaps freer of polemics than the early films of De Sica, Rossellini, and Fellini. If some of the actors lack a certain professional polish, they more than make up for it in personality and charisma, and the film loses none of its charm, its feeling for behavioral nuance, or its power when there is an occasional slippage from performance to presence, as there is in Renoir’s Toni (an important precursor to Italian neo-realism which is equally close to the spirit of Burnett’s work).


A similar tradition is evoked in Gus Van Sant’s low-budget Mala Noche, adapted from a novel by Walt Curtis and set in Portland, Oregon, although here the notion of a particular subculture is not apparent within the terms adopted by the film. For people like myself who often feel oppressed by minority-film categories such as “black films,” ‘Jewish films,” and even “independent films,” which tend to foster their own ghettos as well as validate those which already exist, it isn’t very helpful to call Van Sant’s personal effort a “gay film” or an illegal alien film.” It’s far better to say that the film’s working-class hero (extremely well played by Tim Streeter), who works as a grocery store clerk in Portland’s skid row, happens to be gay, has an unrequited crush on an illegal Mexican immigrant named Juancito (Doug Cooeyate), and ultimately has a brief affair with Juancito’s friend, another illegal alien. Strikingly shot in high-contrast black and white, with off-screen narra­tion, post-synchronized dialogue, and a short-take editing style —four stylistic attributes which might all be related to the film’s austere budget (although black and white film stock has recently become more expensive in the U.S. than color) — the film benefits from its absolute freedom from clichés, a freedom which, one might add, low budgets also make possible.

malanoche (1)

One of the most Interesting attributes of Peter Thompson’s Universal Hotel/ Universal Citizen is its rare capacity to suggest both isolation and interaction with others within the same striking form. Like Thompson’s only previous film work, Two Portraits (minimalist portraits of the filmmaker’s parents), this work comprises a diptych: not two films to be shown simulta­neously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their inner rhymes and cross-references, their dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements.  As Thompson puts it, Universal Hotel/ Universal Citizen deals with three main themes: “the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from his­torical anonymity, and unrecoverable loss.” In the first film, Thompson describes his Involved research about medical ex­periments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr. Sigmund Rascher at Dachau in 1942; photographs culled from seven archives in six countries, as well as a subjective dream set in the Universal Hotel, form the main materials. In the second film, the filmmaker’s off-screen meetings with a Libyan Jew and former inmate of Dachau who works as a smuggler in Guatemala yield a complex personal travelogue that leads us not only to the Universal Hotel (a real place, as it turns out), but also to the public square in Siena that appears in the beginning of the first film. Thompson’s family proves to be as relevant to this investigation as his aloneness with his ideas over years of reflection: the mysterious coalescence of disparate strands in a varied life is one of the many by-products of this sustained and haunting historical meditation.




Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March might be regarded as a quasi-comic investigation into certain related themes — above all, the interrelations between the historical and the personal — within a more specifically American context. While Thomp­son’s principle historical reference point is the Holocaust, McElwee’s is the American Civil War, and while Thompson’s geographical itinerary takes him to at least three separate continents, McElwee’s trajectory essentially proceeds from Cambridge, Massachusetts to his home in Charlotte, North Carolina and to points further South. Originally plotting a route which traces the one made by the Union General Sherman during the war, McElwee redirects both his efforts and the film-in-progress in relation to his project of finding a girlfriend, which leads him to the subtitle, A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.  It is significant to note in this connection that the American South is perhaps the portion of the U.S. where both old-fashioned military and old-fashioned romantic codes are held in highest esteem, with the Civil War continuing to function, after a fashion, as the main nostalgic reference point. In the course of alternately emulating and satirizing these codes, McElwee offers a provocative and sur­prisingly comprehensive portrait of his native region, from nuclear installations and survivalist strongholds to contempo­rary cultural and sexual attitudes.




Even more comprehensive and analytical Is Jon Jost’s film essay Plain Talk & Common Sense (Uncommon Senses), a kind of sequel to his Speaking Directly: Sortie American Notes made fourteen years earlier, which might be called Jost’s second State of the Union address. Like Its predecessor, it is composed of several different and relatively autonomous didactic sec­tions — in this case, a prologue, ten sections, and a postscript — each of which has its own mode and form of address. But while Speaking Directly was overtly autobiographical — beginning with Jost’s own material conditions (including his two years in federal prison for draft resistance in the mid-’60s, and the con­ditions of his career as a low-budget filmmaker), and eventually expanding to a detailed political critique of the U.S. In the early 70s — Uncommon Senses mainly inverts that process, begin­ning with a general critique, then working his way towards its more personal implications, and finally winding up with his own solitary figure. In the 70s, the targets of his critique were a good deal more visible, both to himself and to the public. Today they are harder to get at, and require new modes of perception — reflections about not only how the U.S. is consti­tuted, but equally how local understanding of it is constructed. One of the factors Jost confronts head on is the notion of multiplicity — a notion which virtually all ambitious American writers have relied on when writing about their country, from Walt Whitman and Carl Sandberg to John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe to Allen Ginsberg and Thomas Pynchon, using the rapturous catalog as their organizing principle. Consider­ing the seductiveness and contagiousness of this compulsive list-making, it probably isn’t so surprising that few American artists have ever tried to examine this habit as a rhetorical and ideological impediment, a mode of discourse that conceals and mystifies in the process of supposedly showing us “everything.” Part of the originality and importance of Uncommon Senses is that it proceeds to do just that — to critique list-making even as it employs this technique.

It is worth considering some of the more general codes of social etiquette that govern the production and reception of independent films In the U.S. One important factor is the degree to which many films are deemed independent by default rather than according to the intentions of the filmmakers. Without mentioning any names, we know that there are certain figures associated with the avant-garde and other marginal forms of filmmaking who regard this kind of work merely as a necessary way-station, and who are funda­mentally interested in making commercial, narrative 35-milli­meter films. But because they are not (yet) in positions where they can sign Hollywood contracts or their equivalents, they need the support of other independents in order to enlarge and enhance their reputations. For filmmakers of this persuasion, a recent popular term like “New Narrative” functions as a veritable godsend, because it allows these filmmakers to plant each foot in a separate camp and be, in effect, two places at once. It provides a theoretical pipeline leading from the mar­gins to the center — or such, at any rate, is their apparent assumption.

But a more generous reading of the same phenomenon might point out that generic labeling that differentiates seri­ous experimental work from “unserious” commercial work often has more to do with the institutional structures that support both kinds of work than with the films themselves. Categories play a major role before and after the making of a film — when the filmmaker is trying to raise the money to finance it and when the critic, curator, or programmer is seeking to situate it within a larger body of work. The expedi­ency of these categories shouldn’t, however, mislead the spec­tator into assuming that the work can only function in relation to its generic descriptions. In my experience as a teacher of ex­perimental film, for instance, I have often discovered that certain films regarded as “difficult” according to institutional discourse, such as the films of Leslie Thornton — films which confound many viewers who are said to be experimental film “experts” — offer fewer problems to ordinary students than to most professional” film critics, who have to locate or rational­ize their interests differently.

One of the many factors that is currently helping to abolish (or at least seriously challenge) the long-cherished distinctions between “high art” and “popular art” that have been instru­mental in establishing an institutional approach to the Ameri­can avant-garde cinema has been the relative accessibility of video in its various forms and formats. I’m thinking, for example, of the remarkable influence of music videos over the last several years on the American cinema as a whole, an influence which is equally visible in independent as well as industry films. The fragmentation of American network TV, with its constant interruptions of commercial breaks, news flashes, and other forms of discontinuity, has led to increasing amounts of narrative fragmentation in all sorts of work; it is equally apparent in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones epics and in such independent films as Adynata, Born in Flames, and Who Killed Vincent Chin?, all of which operate according to principles of constantly shifting the focus of attention, almost as if a hand were nervously tuning a TV channel selector. (The fact that all four of the latter films include substantial sections of TV footage obviously helps to naturalize and rationalize this process.)

In a curious way, American TV — and music videos in particular, as an apotheosis of the medium — literalizes one of the metaphors most associated with the U.S — the melting pot. A typical rock video runs blithely through the history of art (including the history of cinema) as if it were a shrunken preserve, wholly graspable and assimilable within a matter of seconds, and what makes this history appear to be immedi­ately accessible is the principle of the melting pot (or the meltdown): anything thrown into the pot automatically be­comes part of the stew, so theoretically nothing Is out of place there — even if, by the same token, nothing has a place of its own there, either.

The same ambiguous status is both enjoyed and suffered by all the recent American independent films I have been discussing. The discrepancies between the respective sizes of the American audiences for these dozen films is partially a matter of their relative accessibility — one would not expect films like Lived in Quotes and Adynata to have as much exposure as films like Sherman’s March and Born in Flames — but equally a matter of luck and/or the right connections. As of this writing, Talking to Strangers has not had a single New York screening. Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen has barely shown at all outside of Thompson’s native Chicago, and neither Uncommon Senses nor My Brother’s Wedding has received a fraction of the attention that it merits. Indeed, with the possible exceptions of Born in Flames and Sherman’s March (both of which have been seen fairly widely on TV), all of these films are still looking for their audiences, and, when they find them, still talking to strangers.


Jonathan Rosenbaum writes film criticism for the Chicago Reader and is currently selecting American experimental films for the 1990 Rotterdam Film Festival.



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