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Book Review: The History of Independent Cinema by Phil Hall

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As a devoted film buff curious about the form's unsung heroes and their triumphs, I'm pretty sure I'm the target audience for Phil Hall's The History of Independent Cinema. And on most counts, it's a satisfying read. Hall, an accomplished film historian currently serving as a contributing editor for Film Threat, has compiled a comprehensive — if somewhat dry — account of the American independent film's evolution from its early silent years to the current age of digital productions made on the fly by anyone with enough money for a camcorder.

One theme runs throughout every era of independent cinema: Its creators are met with resistance and hardships at almost every turn. The book is at its best when discussing the early indie filmmakers, the restless individuals who first sought to break free from the confinements of the studio system. Sure, D.W. Griffith gets his due, but Hall also spotlights comparatively unheralded figures such as Oscar Micheaux, whose questionable artistic merits are outweighed by his innovations as an African-American filmmaker. He also reminds us that big names like Walt Disney, Frank Capra, Orson Welles, and Charles Chaplin either started out as independents or were driven there by studio interference.

But the book begins to lose a little of its drive when it gets to the underground film movement. After discussing a couple of interesting films like Manhatta and The Salvation Hunters, two slow-moving mood pieces that served as the first  underground films in America, the chapter begins to list off numerous underground filmmakers and their accomplishments in a way that feels as lively as an encyclopedia. Not surprisingly, another of Hall's books is indeed The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies. His knowledge is inexhaustible, but his writing grows staid.

Elsewhere, though, he manages to make the history of educational and industrial films surprisingly engrossing. At first, they seem like little more than ephemera; really, who wants to read about corporate propaganda or old reels about the dangers of smoking reefer? But Hall reveals the unexpected pedigree of so-called "non-theatrical" productions, including Buster Keaton and Fred Zinnemann. It turns out there can be more to advertising and teaching than simply putting across a message and letting it lie there. Plus, how cool is it to learn that the first onscreen use of the word "vagina" happened in a Disney cartoon?

Perhaps the niftiest things in the book, though, are lists by various film figures at the end of each chapter highlighting what they believe to be the ten most important American independent movies of all time. The lists are diverse, to say the least: Film historian Charles Pappas drops The Thing from Another World, while film editor Matthew Sorrento includes Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger's surrealist pop short about a homoerotic biker gang. The lists serve as terrific primers; I'd be surprised if you didn't want to slot even one of their titles into your Netflix queue.

That goes for the entire book, too. Hall mentions so many interesting films, be they bizarre, obscure, underappreciated, or sometimes all three, that you feel like rushing to your nearest video store. It's because of this book that I've finally decided to watch Robert Flaherty's pioneering 1922 docudrama Nanook of the North after hearing about it for years. If The History of Independent Cinema is sometimes imperfect, and not always a page-turning read, I think that Hall should still feel some pride at the amount of frenzied DVD-renting his book is going to cause among its readers.

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