Friday, 5 June 2009

A Conference Report on American Independent Cinema

At the beginning of May (8 -10th) an international conference on American Independent Cinema organised by Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool) and Claire Molloy (Liverpool John Moores) took place at the Liverpool Screen School. American Independent Cinema was the first conference of its kind devoted to the subject and not surprisingly it turned out to be a highly focused, intellectually stimulating and hotly contested topic that provided many friendly disagreements on what might constitute the independence of the title. If anything the debate over definitions and discourses proves what a vibrant subject area this is and no doubt will be for years to come. The conference also served to house the launch of the book series American Indies that I co-edit with conference organiser Yannis Tzioumakis.

The conference was spread over three days with parallel panels punctuated by keynotes from a roster of scholars on American cinema including Janet Staiger (University of Texas – Austin), Peter Kramer (University of East Anglia), Warren Buckland (Oxford Brookes), and Geoff King (Brunel). Conference paper topics and keynotes were diverse in their topics and methodologies from poverty row Tarzans to mumblecore, archival research, data mining, and good old-fashioned textual analysis. Most participants topics gestured towards a number of tensions and topoi upon which the future study of American Independent Cinema might find direction. The major, yet overlapping, division was between on the one hand, a perspective that sees American independent cinema in terms of art and authorship, and the other hand, one that sees American Independent Cinema as inseparable from industrial and institutional machinations. Of course both positions have their own merit and synthesize quite well although the latter was where the mature scholarship was mostly demonstrated. What did surprise me most was the waning of identity politics since the cultural and ideological framing that once defined independent luminaries like John Sayles and Todd Haynes (neither it turns out were mentioned) seemed no longer on the agenda therefore, nothing on New Queer Cinema, only two papers on race, a few on women and feminism; but maybe that’s because the identity issue is fairly exhausted in relation to this topic. What the conference did suggest is that there are so many different accounts of what independence means, that its not just industrial, political, and aesthetic but also epistemological since the meaning of American Independent Cinema and what constitutes knowledge about it is always shifting. In many ways the conference also proves that the concept of American Independent Cinema is a bit like the way we think of genre – a triangulated field of meaning between text, audience and industry that (depending on your position) either aligns awkwardly or monolithically.

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