Get set for a decadent culinary ride through Texas. Inspired by the US-Mexico border setting of No Country for Old Men – part of SBS's American indie film season – we serve up some serious southern comforts, from fried tacos to biscuits and gravy, with a dream team of counter pies to round off your road trip.Though the grinding cogs of the Hollywood movie machine have always been powered by the might of the studio system, the "American independent" has played a crucial role in subverting that dominance since the film industry began. Throughout the silent-film era, the collective of small-scale operators churning out the spool-and-sprocket equivalent of tawdry paperback pulp fiction were disparagingly called "Poverty Row". These vaudeville-trained money men, eager to make a quick buck, were America’s first independent filmmakers, and ran one-phone/single-room outfits like CBC Film Sales Corporation (later Columbia Pictures), Tiffany Pictures and Republic Pictures.
The formation in 1919 of United Artists, a partnership between powerful creatives DW Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, sought to wrestle creative control from the profit-driven Hollywood establishment, and was seen as an act of defiant independence. The B-movie craze of the ’50s and ’60s, which saw the explosion in popularity of such genres as rock’n’roll romances, drag-strip action and low-brow sci-fi/horror, was almost entirely borne out of the non-studio sector. This movement reached its zenith in the late ’60s, with the one-two punch of George A Romero’s 1968 zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead, and arguably the most influential independent film of all time, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, in 1969.
The modern era of American independent cinema came into sharp focus in 1989 with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It swept all before it on the festival circuit, as any year’s critical darling must do to establish marketplace credibility, but the film did something few independents had done up to that point – it made lots of money. Suddenly, every producer was pitching "the next big indie hit" and, by 1994, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction became the defining film of the mid-’90s, the independent American film had come of age. At the 1996 Academy Awards, four of the Best Picture nominees were "indies": Shine, The English Patient, Fargo and Secrets & Lies (the lone studio pic being Jerry Maguire – from that old Poverty Row outfit made good, Columbia).
Today, the American independent film is going through a transitional period, redefining itself within the corporate landscape that continues to dominate the modern movie industry. The Coen Brothers’s No Country for Old Men, a blinding slice of moody, violent nihilism, and the perfect kick-starter for SBS’s American Independent Film Season, is a distinctly idiosyncratic vision from two men who were at the forefront of the new indie movement with films such as Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. That said, it was partially funded and fully distributed by Paramount’s arthouse division, Vantage; in the wake of the 1990s indie film boom, every studio established its own "indie-themed" development and production offshoot.
The other titles that SBS is screening this month – the gritty inner-city dramas Half Nelson and Precious and the backwoods thriller Winter’s Bone (featuring an extraordinary performance by The Hunger Games’s star Jennifer Lawrence) – are very much modern independents, from their convoluted financing structures to determinedly non-conformist subject matter. All four films are certainly the by-products of a fearless strand of America’s filmmaking heritage, works that exude that unshakable belief that is required to see a singular vision to big-screen fruition.