Variously characterised as an American art cinema, a B-division of Hollywood, and a marketplace of talent and ideas, the US ‘independent’ sector has inspired a good deal of stimulating debate and speculation since its inception. In this decade in particular, independent film has been the subject of analysis for a number of brilliant and original studies looking at the dynamics of power at play in American cinema. John Berra’s wide-ranging book is not one of those studies; rather, it serves to synopsise some of independent cinema’s characteristics (in terms of production, style, cultural capital, and so on) and contexts (Hollywood, ‘New American Cinema’, international cinema) while making some familiar-sounding observations about the necessarily compromised nature of filmmaking close to, but not quite within, the American mainstream.
One of the main problems with Declarations of Independence is a tendency to make assumptions with too little evidence and too few references (the footnotes and bibliography suggest that one intended readership is academic). For example, one of the objectives Berra sets out in his introduction is: ‘To disprove the popular assumption amongst commercial journalists and consumers of popular culture, that cinematic works that have been declared as, or critically assigned the status of, ‘independent’, are autonomous of corporate sponsorship, or influence from other forms of popular media’ (10). To which one might respond: are journalists or consumers really so naïve? Certainly it is possible to argue that audiences’ awareness of the industrial machinery of the independent sector is increasing, especially after a book like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures (New York; London: Simon & Schuster, 2004). Whatever the situation, Berra cites no press coverage or commentary by way of evidence.
Berra also underestimates the existing body of academic work on the subject, claiming that the industrial dimension of independent cinema has been ‘generally overlooked by scholars’, with the partial exception of Nicholas Garnham and Janet Wasko, who have discussed the subject only ‘as an aside or a footnote to a bigger picture’ (11). This is a woefully uninformed view, especially given Berra’s focus: do Geoff King (American Independent Cinema, London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005), E. Deidre Pribram (Cinema and Culture: Independent Film in the United States, 1980-2001, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002) and Yannis Tzioumakis (American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) not even warrant a mention? As it is, the book often seems to be doing work already accomplished in other recent studies, and there is a general air of redundancy to several of the chapters.
Aside from some sloppy grammatical errors and the odd awkward sentence, the prose is smooth enough, and Berra is good on niche marketing, the romanticised and saleable image of the independent filmmaker (essentially the image of the book’s front cover: a solitary young man with a handheld camera), and, particularly, the differences between the US independent scene and the UK one. Berra’s most original piece of research comes in the final chapter, which includes an ethnographic study of arthouse cinema audiences. The reception side of independent cinema deserves more investigation than it has so far received, with Geoff King’s recent book Indiewood, USA (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009) providing one of the very few analyses to ‘test’ ideas about audience targeting and indie film style against viewer responses. Berra’s research in this area is thus original and welcome; unfortunately, it is not of a high enough standard. Again, a lack of rigour is his downfall: samples are small, with just three individual screenings cited in the analysis of audience demographics, and crucial methodological details are missing (how many viewers were questioned at these screenings?). When a study of independent viewer ‘types’ is based on the interviews of just four individuals, it’s hard to see its conclusions as having much value. Declarations of Independence is on firmer ground when it is covering more familiar subject matter – but then there are other books that have already essayed this territory, and often to more stimulating effect.
Sebastian Manley is a PhD candidate in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia.
Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent ProductionJohn Berra, (2008), Bristol; Chicago: Intellect Books, 224pp., ISBN: 9781841501857 (pbk), £19.95