Talking to Strangers:
A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema (1989 lecture)

The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema", ARTPAPERS, Vol. 13, No. 5, September/October 1989, pp. 6-10.

The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organ­ized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Cal­ouste Gulbenkian to introduce screen­ings of a dozen recent American inde­pendent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same semi­nar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics.

It is virtually impossible to treat recent American inde­pendent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film. There are undoubtedly certain links apart from the most obvious ones (such as certain regional and historical traits and low budgets) that will become more obvious to spectators ten and twenty years from now, just as there are certainly some facets of what makes them Ameri­can that can currently be discussed. But by and large, the American independent film of the '50s exists in a sort of Tower of Babel whose inhabitants aren't always on speaking terms with one another.

Consider, for instance, three of the traits that might initially seem to bind together most or all of the dozen recent American independent films that Richard Peña and I have selected for the Luso-Americanos symposium: use of 16 milli­meter, regionalism, and a taste for marginal subjects. Rob Treganza's Talking to Strangers and Charles Burnett's My Brother's Wedding are pointedly made in 35 mm (as is Jim Jarmusch's very different Stranger Than Paradise, the best known American independent film of recent years), and by virtue of this fact alone, they occupy and address a social and aesthetic register that is distinctly different from that of all the other selections. And the most obviously regional films in the group — Mala Noche, Sherman's March. Landscape Suicide, My Brother's Wedding. Born in Flames, Talking to Strangers, and Who Killed Vincent Chin? — stand in striking contrast to the five other films, which concentrate either on a more diversified view of the United States (Jon Jost's Uncommon Senses) or on parts of the world outside the U.S.: Adynata (the Orient), Lived in Quotes (South Africa). Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen(Eu­rope and Central America), and Golub (Canada, Ireland, and Nicaragua). As for marginality, the relation of these dozen films to "marginal" subjects (such as homosexuality and illegal aliens in Mala Noche, black ghetto life in My Brother's Wedding, and revolutionary agitprop in Born in Flames) is especially am­biguous if one considers the degree to which many of them are attacking explicitly mainstream subjects, such as the media or American history, and mainstream social issues. Talking to Strangers is a particularly emblematic title because it describes not only the activity of all but the first and the last of this film's nine ten-minute takes, but also what Rob Tregenza's film as a whole is doing — as well as what most American independent films are doing in general. The absur­dist existential encounters that compose Tregenza's feature are predicated in part on the absence of a conventional hero, the coherent organizing principle of most films. Tregenza's film does have a central character, Jesse (played by Ken Gruz), who appears in all nine sequences, but we never have enough solid information about him to regard him as either a hero in the or­dinary sense or as an anchor for the other characters. His uncertainties about the world he inhabits implicitly become our own (even — and especially — if we tend to regard him as a bit of a simpleton), as well as those of the filmmaker. The fact that Tregenza insisted on shooting the entire film with a 1 to 1 shooting ratio makes his own activity a form of existential risk-taking that is quite comparable to the risks taken by Jesse and the various other characters that he encounters, as well as the uncertainties about interpretation and attitude experienced by the spectator.

Many independent films are themselves talking to strang­ers insofar as they are addressing not so much an existing community as a hypothetical one made up of lonely individu­als. (The sense of a solitary spectator is particularly strong, I think, in Adynata, Uncommon Senses, Talking to Strangers. Landscape Suicide, Sherman's March, and Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen, where the solitude of the filmmaker and/or that of the central characters suggests a comparable isolation on the part of the viewer. Even the relatively communal form of address of the other six films is limited by the fact that the implied community in each case is mainly restricted to a relative economic, cultural, and/or ethnic minority.) In like fashion, alienation of one sort or another forms the basis for many American independent films.

Adynata footbinding

In the narrative films, it is most often the alienation of the central character; in nonnarrative films, it is to some extent the alienation of the filmmakers themselves in relation to various mythic struc­tures, an alienation that in the cases of Adynata, Lived In Quotes and Uncommon Senses can be seen through the filmmakers' fascination with unreadable surfaces and illegible information. The overall procedure in each instance is to start with banal media commonplaces — travelogues in Lived in Quotes and Uncommon Senses, diverse "found" materials in Adynata — and then proceed to make them strange and alien, utterances in a foreign tongue.

In some respects one of the most radical of recent experi­mental films, Leslie Thornton's Adynata, is a film that secretes its own rules and laws as it goes. The title is a word that the filmmaker came across in a book of rhetorical terms; it means "a stringing together of impossibilities" and "sometimes a con­fession that words fail us." Both of these definitions point directly to the film's form — a stringing together of "impossibly" incongruent and incompatible materials in which verbal lan­guage — or, to be more precise, verbal language which is understood — plays a practically nonexistent role. It is a film which explicitly invites us to dream and conjure up a world of our own while making connections between Thornton's seem­ingly disconnected materials. But unlike most artworks which stimulate the viewer's creative imagination. Adynata — which originally bore the subtitle, Murder is Not a Story — also encour­ages the spectator to reflect on the implications of what he or she is imagining. Rather in the spirit of Raymond Roussel, who never left his stateroom when he "visited" Africa and whose novel Impressions d'Afrique is about the country constructed inside his head, Thornton's project is partially to construct an Orient of the imagination and to assure our own complicity in this process. This means, in effect, that one's uncertainties about what one sees and hears are not a distraction from the film's focus, but part of Its subject, revealing all sorts of ideological positions and forms of ignorance about the Orient. Thornton herself has described the film's pervasive eroticism and violence as "an uncanny cross between the narratives of Maurice Blanchot and Sax Rohmer.") The alienation created by this dialectical tension between seduction and analysis effectively makes each spectator a creative collaborator in the process that the film is engendering, but a collaborator who is essentially alone.

A comparable kind of isolation as well as freedom is experienced by the spectator in James Benning's quasi-narrative Landscape Suicide, if only because in this case as well, no strict agenda of interpretation is forced by the filmmaker. Delving into two real-life murder cases — Ber­nadette Protti's seemingly unmotivated stabbing of another teenage girl in a California suburb in 1984, and Ed Gein's even more gratuitous mass slayings and mutilations in rural Wis­consin in the late '50s (which also influenced Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, the source of Hitchcock's film) — Benning uses actors Rhonda Bell and Elian Sacker to recreate part of the killers' court testimonies, juxtaposed with the commonplace settings where these crimes took place. Boldly eschewing the specious psychological rhetoric that usually accompanies accounts of such crimes, he implicitly de-psychologizes the disturbing material, and, in the process of doing so, creates an open forum for the spectator to contemplate the mysterious vacancy of these people and these places, and their relation­ships to each other. The isolation of each of the actors within the film frame and the isolation of the various settings thus create an unsettling silence around these crimes, an ambigu­ous open space which the viewer is invited to share as well as to fill.

By contrast, a great deal of the importance of the otherwise very different Born in Flames, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, and Golub is the capacity to resist alienation, to forge links through collectivity of elements in society that conventional media contrive to keep apart through a "divide and conquer" strategy. In Born in Flames — set in a future New York City that, ideologi­cally and practically (if one considers the film's low budget), bears a close resemblance to the present — the links that we see being made are mainly between women and between diverse ethnic groups. Even though the film's narrative is partially structured around the difference between two clandestine radio stations and the announcers who speak for them — a black woman named Honey on Radio Phoenix, who espouses cooperation and community, and a white punk anarchist woman named Isabel on Radio Regazza, whose message is more negative and divisive — both women and both radio stations wind up seeming united in relation to the repressive force of the mainstream media.

In Christine Choy and Renee Tajima's Who Killed Vincent Chin?, the profound separations between the Caucasian and Asian communities of Detroit, which led to the grotesque killing with which the film is concerned, are directly contested as well as dramatized by the films dialectical use of editing, whlch juxtaposes statements from the killer of Vincent Chin (as well as the killer's family, friends, and other supporters) with statements from Chin's mother, a white friend, various wit­nesses, and members of the local Asian community. What gradually emerges is that Chin, a young Chinese man who was about to be married in two days, was beaten to death by a white man outside a topless" nightclub in Detroit because of a fight largely precipitated by the white man's belief that Vincent Chin was Japanese, and hence related somehow to the massive layoffs of auto workers in the city. While the forces represented in the film tend to be polarized around their separate interpre­tations of what happened, the film is explicitly not trying to segregate truth along racial lines, and neither the implied audience of this film nor its major spokespeople are defined strictly according to race. (Significantly, although the filmmakers, both women, are of Chinese and Japanese de­scent, the film does not ask to be read as an "Asian" statement.) As we simultaneously witness a denial of racist motives behind the crime and an exposure of racist attitudes on every level, we gradually come to realize that the film's title is less literal than it may first appear — that the who of the title (as well as the implied what) leads to questions that eventually take in the society as a whole, and therefore address the entirety of the film's possible audience.


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