The North American Underground

The rise of Nazi fascism made many of the leading European artists and film makers flee to the USA. Following this, the centre of cultural gravity shifted decisively from Paris and Europe to New York and the USA. This was not just an effect of the World War, the size of the unified North American free market economy made it a magnet of irresistible force.

The west coast of America was as energised as the east. Hans Richter was organising his 'Art in Cinema' screenings in San Francisco in 1946. These brought together the "avant garde classics together with new films by the US'ers Maya Deren... and Kenneth Anger" (Rees, 1999, p.55). Deren and Anger together with a recent Lithuanian immigrant, Jonas Mekas, were soon to be the leading lights, both writing and shooting a 'New American Cinema'. This was to merge with the literary Beat Movement of the late 1950s and find an extraordinary moment of radical popularity with the youth led 'counter culture' of the 1960s and early 1970s.[1]

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

(Allen Ginsberg Howl 1956)

A key moment for the underground filmmaking community followed a general outrage at the rejection of the Stan Brackage film 'Anticipation of Night' by one of the key art cinemas in 1960 (see David Curtis in James 1992 p256).[2] The gathering of filmmakers at the funeral of Maya Deren then led directly to the founding of the Film Makers Co-op, led by Jonas Mekas in 1961. This was an autonomous artist-run library and distribution centre for experimental film. Mekas's Film Maker's Co-op had a policy of no selection and it was this powerful egalitarian gesture that was copied by the London Filmmakers Coop of the late Sixties and Seventies and echoed in a new form by the Exploding Cinema of the 1990s.

Jonas's co-op was unlike any that had preceded it in its unique undertaking to distribute all works submitted to it, and not engage in individual promotion. The 1989 catalogue is remarkably matter-of-fact about this: 'Film-Makers Cooperative is a film-rental library open to any film-maker wishing to place a print on deposit for a rental fee set by its owner. Films are accepted without any viewing or evaluation by the Cooperative' (Film-Makers Cooperative Catalogue 1989). This is neither an invitation, nor a caution. The benefits of doing things this way are assumed to be self-evident. David Curtis in (James 1992 p255)

Filmmakers also wrote their own catalogue notes and took the major part of any rental income.  Mekas's reviews in Village Voice were important. His fullsome encouragement catalysed a rapid growth and opening out of experimental filmmaking activity. There is no equivalent of either the Village Voice or a champion critic like Mekas for the London underground filmmakers of the Nineties. And this difference may be crucial in their relative cultural impact.[3]

In 1930 Hollywood had developed The Motion Picture Production Code (The Hayes Code) which controlled the decency of films and was meant to protect the American Public from its own base desires. Underground culture laid siege to this hypocritical middle class morality. In the face of this activity and mounting consumer pressure the code was finally abandoned in 1968.[4]

The counter culture which arose from the massive anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s embraced the beats and became infused with a revolutionary libertarian ideology and an associated lifestyle - an ideology which was articulated in cultural terms rather than political. Left politics in the USA had been destroyed by the House of un-American Activities - when the repressed bounced back 20 years later it was in cultural rather than political form.




1This counter culture developed against a background of the 'House of Un-American Activities'. This witch-hunt of communists and socialists in every part of American culture didn't make an exception of the Film Industry. See, The Inquisition in Hollywood: politics in the film community 1930-1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund (Berkeley 1983)


2 "The MPPDA's Production Code stated: 'No picture will be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience will never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment shall be presented". Quoted by Richard Maltby in his Popular Culture in the Twentieth Century (Grange Books 1994 p108)


3 "The sheer diversity of works of the 1960s as well as other filmmakers now forgotten, makes Dixon's project an important work of historical excavation." Back cover of Exploding Eye by W.W. Dixon (S.U.N.Y. 1997)

4 See R. Maltby (1994 p106-109)