“Independent cinema” has always contended against bigger powers. From the studio moguls who left New York for Los Angeles to escape the power-hungry Thomas Edison to modern-day shoe-stringers making films deemed “Mumblecore,” independent cinema and the Hollywood studios could just as well be David and Goliath. On the one hand are vertically integrated American studios with access to big-business bank accounts and foreign distribution, and on the other are the fiscally challenged “artists.” One wants to make money while the other wants to make a statement.
Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film (Arsenal Pulp Press, 304 pages, $22.95), written by film journalist David Spaner, ambitiously explores international indie movements from the 1940s onward. The book chronicles the studios’ rise and fall during the 20th century before focusing on current international independent film scenes. The author compiles a wealth of interviews with international screenwriters, actors and filmmakers from the blacklisted Ben and Norma Barzman to American, British, South Korean, Mexican, Romanian, French and Canadian indie notables like Stewart Stern, Henry Jaglom, Gus Van Sant, Mike Leigh, Yim Pil-sung, Francisco Vargas, Cristi Puiu, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Don McKellar and Sarah Polley.
Shoot It! illustrates issues of locality and identity in independent cinema, in relation to Hollywood’s intrusion into foreign areas. Spaner uses his book to draw attention to the globalization and commodification of cultural works. “Internationalism is about diverse local cultures joining to find common humanity across borders,” he notes in his introduction. “Globalization is about worldwide homogenization. The globalization of culture has received less attention than the globalization of economies, but it is this conflict between internationalism and globalization, between the local and the global, that defines the difference between the independents and studios.”
This positioning of the independents as both local and transnational is an intriguing subject that is ultimately weighed down by its lack of a rigid focus. Though Spaner admits that his work cannot encyclopedically include all of independent cinema, the volume of information the author tackles prevents his material from acting as anything bigger than a casual introduction to the complex networks of film history.
The text is strongest when it is thorough. For example, Shoot It’s anecdotal details are intriguing. Julie Dash’s difficulty finding funding—“I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t take us to another level in making the world a better place for everyone”—helps to make the book an accessible introduction to non-commercial film. Additionally, its focus on contemporary South Korea and Romania—the former fighting for film quotas while recovering from a military-ruled government and the latter having a kind of New Wave after the fall of communism—provides readers with an insightful commentary on lesser seen film cultures. When Spaner deals with the Canadian independent situation, however, there is simply too much information to warrant only a chapter on its operations. Book-length studies such as Bill Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema have plumbed the depths of just one particular region. Given this country’s multicultural influence on cinema, not to mention its complicated relationships with American studios and co-producing bodies in France and the U.K. Spaner’s local/international project could have benefitted a narrower approach.
Shoot It! thrives when it zones in on a situation. Its surveying of contemporary independent filmmakers and their culture is important to raising awareness of local sensibilities at a time when the Potters and Transformers rule the worldwide box office. The book’s well-informed and journalistic writing makes it an accessible, if not entirely thorough, introduction to developing histories of the independent cinema in relation to large Hollywood studios.