Witness to the Indie Explosion
Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes
Earlier this year, while reading a biography of director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), it struck me: the indie film explosion that brought Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh to the fore is already history—a period that can be bracketed for convenience with start and end dates.
The thought kept returning as I read the newly released paperback edition of one of that historical period’s key eyewitness accounts, John Pierson’s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes (University of Texas Press). Pierson was a producer, agent and mentor-buddy to the filmmakers he chronicled in the ‘90s, and if he was trying to make a buck, he also seemed, like the old-time Hollywood moguls, to love the business he was in for its own sake rather than just the profits.
Needless to add, Pierson is a player on virtually every page of Spike, a lively and highly personal account that begins by reminding readers of what was already thriving before 1989, the year indies broke big with Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. Pierson and many of his colleagues came from the rich subculture of film appreciation that grew on college campuses in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was not the only devotee of L’Aventura to find his way into distributing and exhibiting European art house as well as non-Hollywood American productions, including but not limited to the Russ Meyers-John Walters midnight crowd.
During the ’80, before anyone had heard of Spike Lee, much less Tarantino, adventurous moviegoers could find excellent independent features such as John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet, Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. Blockbusters had seized the high ground, but in the shadow of Hollywood filmmakers with other aesthetics continued to work. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984) was a milestone,” identifiably European and quintessentially American at the same time,” and cast with people who inhabited “characters not unlike their everyday personalities.” Jarmusch moonlighted in punk rock bands while attending NYU’s film school. Like punk, Jarmusch maintained, underground film “wasn’t about virtuosity. It was about having something to say with feeling.” Pierson adds that, as is almost inevitable, “Jim developed deft filmmaking skills” over time.
Then along came Spike Lee’s groundbreaking She’s Got to Have It (1986), and next, Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989), which opened Hollywood’s eyes to the possibility of fostering a commercially viable alternative to big studio commercialism.
Pierson inserts a running conversation with director Kevin Smith (Clerks) through the book. The cheeky discussion brings up at least one important item—how the home video revolution of the early ‘80s largely supplanted the movie house culture that sustained Pierson and his cohort, and plausibly had a deep effect on the way an emerging generation of filmmakers conceived their work.