BAM’s ‘Indie 80s’ Celebrates the Reagan Era’s Alt-Cinema Boom


“It’s not about art. It’s about sequel.” That sage bit of advice is from Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), a still-hilarious (for being still all too accurate) send-up of the pathetic roles that the movies offer to black performers; the words are delivered by a star who’s made a mint playing Batty Boy on TV’s There’s a Bat in My House! to an actor desperate for the lead in Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. Batty’s counsel would be borne out by the numbers: All but one of the ten highest-grossing films from the decade that saw the release of Townsend’s debut feature were either the first installment in a series (Batman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Back to the Future) or a second or third chapter (Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.). But BAMcinématek’s vast “Indie 80s” program, co-presented with Cinema Conservancy, reminds us of the parallel moviemaking that was flourishing in this country at the same time that franchises were taking root. Boasting more than 60 titles and kicking off with Hollywood Shuffle, the retrospective showcases the intimate works, often made on a shoestring budget, that constitute the very best of U.S. independent cinema during its most fertile era — before “Amerindie” became almost as tarnished a term as “reboot.”

Also indisputable is Laura Dern’s brilliance.

BAM’s series includes the inaugural features of several directors now long enshrined as auteurist paragons: Joel and Ethan Coen’s mordant neo-pulp Blood Simple (1984), Gus Van Sant’s New Queer Cinema precursor Mala Noche (1986), and Spike Lee’s boho-Brooklyn sex comedy She’s Gotta Have It (1986), to name just three. (Lee’s movie, along with Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980), Jessie Maple’s Will (1981), Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982), and St. Clair Bourne’s In Motion: Amiri Baraka (1983), are all welcome reprises at BAM, having been highlighted earlier this year at the Film Society’s revelatory “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986.”) Yet perhaps the most emblematic debut of the decade is Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989): The unexpected box office success of this bracing, impeccably observed four-hander about desire and deceit played a large role in transforming that once-sleepy Sundance Film Festival into an orgy of hype — and spawned countless inferior imitators.

“I think sex is overrated,” the unhappily married wife played by Andie MacDowell confesses to recovering fabulist James Spader in Soderbergh’s movie. Several titles in “Indie 80s” set out to explore the anxiety so often bound up with carnal wishes, especially those of teenagers. A loose adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates short story, Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985) centers around Connie (Laura Dern), who spends the summer before her sophomore year in high school ogling boys (“Look at those buns!”) at the mall with her besties before advancing to make-out sessions with suitors picked up at the local hamburger joint. Simultaneously emboldened and terrified by her own desire — “Stop, I’m not used to feeling this excited,” she pleads to one stud before fleeing his car — Connie soon becomes the fixation of the older Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), a predator who coos creepy come-ons through her screen door. What happens between them is deliberately left ambiguous; what’s not is the adolescent’s hard-won understanding of her own agency. Also indisputable is Dern’s brilliance in the film — still a teenager herself at the time of Smooth Talk‘s release, she perfectly conveys insolence, invincibility, and insecurity. (A year later, Dern plumbed a sunnier, if much more inscrutable, teen character in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, also in the BAM lineup.)

You might sense a cinematic sisterhood between Connie and the real-life Lynn, the recipient of the most screen time in Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s clear-eyed documentary Seventeen (1983). Originally scheduled to be aired on PBS in 1982 as the final installment of Middletown, a six-part series on life in Muncie, Indiana, the film was ultimately banned by the network, too jittery over all the drinking, drugging, cursing, and interracial dating among the seniors at Southside High School. We follow Lynn, a hardened Hoosier Dorothy Hamill, and various members of her working-class orbit in home-ec class (led by an ancient instructor who bleats, “I’m not only teaching you regional cookery but also how to be a good citizen”), in the library (“Ever heard of that book Wifey? It’s supposed to be dirty”), at basketball games, at carnivals, and at keggers. DeMott and Kreines spent months with their young subjects, earning their trust and creating an absorbing vérité chronicle of Reagan-era American life that’s the antithesis of John Hughes treacle.

Although fiction, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986) also teems with intimate details about place, time, and milieu: specifically, creative-class gays in their twenties and thirties in Manhattan at the height of the AIDS pandemic. (Sherwood’s film, the sole project he completed before dying from the disease in 1990, was released the year before ACT UP was founded.) Opening with the central lovers — Michael (Richard Ganoung), an editor and aspiring writer, and Robert (John Bolger), an international-health-organization worker soon to leave for an assignment in sub-Saharan Africa — frolicking at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Parting Glances tracks 24 hours in the Upper West Side couple’s life. The two men bounce from dinner party to surprise going-away fete to wee-hours dancing (grooves courtesy of Bronski Beat) at the Limelight, flirting, squabbling, and making up along the way. Their interactions with an expansive network of friends and former flames — Michael often checks in on his HIV-positive ex-boyfriend, new-wave nihilist Nick (a baby-faced Steve Buscemi) — reveal the film’s smart, witty, and warm dialogue. As Vito Russo noted approvingly in The Celluloid Closet, Sherwood’s is a movie in “which nothing happens and everything happens” — high praise, and an apt description of many of the finest films from three decades ago.

Indie 80s
July 17–August 27