Indie 80s: A Celebration of Small Moving Pictures

(Graphic: Darian S. Harvin/TueNight)

I saw my first indie film when I was nine years old. Clutching my homemade lunch in one hand and my movie ticket in the other, I entered the dark theater at 8:30 a.m. that morning, the bright glare of sunlight still dazzling my eyes.

I don’t remember what theater it was, only that it was between the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum (where my dad was a curator) and the office where my 18-year-old sister was working for the summer in 1964. She’d dropped me off, and I settled in to watch The Beatles cavort in A Hard Day’s Night.

Five times.

Me, the empty theater and the Fab Four. A Hard Day’s Night wasn’t a big studio movie but a small, special gem of a picture made with love and affection for its topic.

The theater was the only place near our home in Maryland, 40 miles away, that the indie “mockumentary” was playing. And my parents and sister didn’t think twice about leaving me there all alone, completely unsupervised, from morning till night.

It was glorious. By the time my sister picked me up, the experience had cemented my lifelong love of film in general — and of indies in particular.

As I grew up in Maryland, my movie-loving friends and I knew all about that state’s most famous indie filmmaker, John Waters. The Baltimore native created wildly subversive low-budget 1970s movies (think Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) that were populated by the most bizarre characters any of us had ever seen. Divine, the zaftig cross-dressing star; Edie the Egg Lady; Mink Stole – those women made us sit up and giggle. We couldn’t wait for the next wacky, wonderful Waters flick to release and would run to the local art house to see what wigged-out situations he had put them into this time.

When I hit New York City at age 19 in 1974, it was already the epicenter of the indie film movement in America, the place that made them or broke them. It took two things for an independent film to get a wider distribution than just showing in one theater in New York and one in L.A.: the first was a good review in The New York Times and the second was a sold-out run in the one theater where the movie was playing in the Big Apple. Only then did most indies make it to wider distribution in other cinemas around the country.

By the 1980s, it seemed like every week there was a new indie darling — a writer, director or breakout star that we filmaholics just had to check out. It’s funny now to think of all the people we were discovering then, people whose careers were just beginning.

Many of those films and actors are represented in “Indie 80s,” a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) starting this week and running through August 27.

But my personal favorite from the early ‘80s, John Waters’ hilarious Polyester, isn’t on their playlist. When Polyester arrived in 1981, I convinced a couple of my NYC girlfriends who had never seen a John Waters film to join me at the Beekman Theater, a plush place on Second Avenue and 66th. We were all ready for some outrageousness that day, but there was no way to expect that there was a scratch-and-sniff card that went with the movie, a prop that Waters had dubbed “Odorama.”

Starring Divine and Tab Hunter as a terribly twisted suburban couple, the film told us to scratch and sniff at particular intervals. Gasoline, pizza, skunk — we laughed out loud at every whiff. We found it so funny that we decided to stay and watch it a second time, and I still have that Odorama card in a box of memorabilia.

Many of the films showing in the BAM retrospective are just as memorable, however. It was a shock to the system, for example, when we saw Blood Simple in 1984. Who were those guys who wrote, produced, edited and directed that breathtaking homage to classic film noir thrillers? Oh right, it was Joel and Ethan Coen, who are now the proud bearers of four Oscars each. They won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize that year for their freshman effort.

When I hit New York City at age 19 in 1974, it was already the epicenter of the indie film movement in America, the place that made them or broke them.

And by the way, some guy named Barry Sonnenfeld got his first “Director of Photography” title for Blood Simple, then went on to shoot the Coen’s second film, the comedic masterpiece Raising Arizona (1987). If you don’t recognize Sonnenfeld’s name, he’s also the acclaimed director of The Addams Family, Get Shorty and all three Men in Black movies.

The 1980s were a time for plenty of other nascent directors to emerge as well. Rob Reiner took us all by surprise with This Is Spinal Tap (1984), we knew him as “Meathead” from All in the Family. Then he hooked up with a bunch of other hilarious guys – Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean (we knew him as “Squiggy”) – and together they wrote and starred in the funniest rock ‘n’ roll mockumentary ever made, turning comedic filmmaking up to 11.

David Lynch had already weirded us out with that baby in Eraserhead, his first indie film released in 1977, but nobody was ready for Blue Velvet in 1986, which he wrote and directed. The mystery thriller with a sexually perverse undertone had everybody talking and rushing out to see it, too – we even knew some people, especially those obsessed with Isabella Rossellini’s perfect skin and the twisted plot, who saw that one more than once. Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, and the film took home a number of other big wins, including Best Female Lead for Rossellini from the Independent Spirit Awards.

Themes of sexual perversity among the middle class kept popping up all through the ‘80s as a gaggle of emerging male directors vied for the moniker of creepiest new auteur. There was John McNaughton’s brutal Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which introduced actor Michael Rooker and set the tone for the rest of his career (he’s pretty much always the weird, sadistic bad guy).

And sex, lies, and videotape held us all in thrall in 1989, as director Steven Soderbergh’s first film took fresh-faced stars Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo down the rabbit hole of fetish-driven sex games. It also ended up winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes, sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards and snagging a Best Screenwriting Oscar nomination for Soderbergh along the way.

Spike Lee made a name for himself in 1986 with his indie hit She’s Gotta Have It, creating a sexually charged, very funny romantic comedy about a young woman living in Brooklyn who draws sexual partners like honey draws bees. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in the movie, which was probably the first film to explore a black female’s sexual drives. It won Lee the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and set his career on fire.

Plenty of other memorable independent movies are on the BAM agenda as well, including The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi’s first flick made in 1981, and another zombie classic, George Romero’s 1985 Day of the Dead. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) began its horrific life as an indie film, though six sequels later, it’s pretty much as big-studio mainstream as you can get.

Despite all those great ‘80s movies showing in the retrospective, there are a few other of my favorites from that time that are mysteriously missing. Jonathan Demme’s early work – think Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense and Something Wild – were each great moments in the 1980s indie wave. And Martin Scorsese’s After Hours came scarily close to some of the experiences I had downtown in the ‘80s. I swear it was art imitating my life – except the film version was funnier.

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One Response

  1. ArtsBeatLA

    Great essay – beautifully expressed. I can completely relate.


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