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BAM cinématek-Indie ‘80s Film Festival
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BAM cinématek-Indie ‘80s Film Festival

Picture of Michael McGrath
Updated: 9 January 2017
It’s hard to believe a decade that launched the careers of Gus Van Sant, The Coen Brothers, James Jarmusch, Steven Soderberg, Jonathan Demme, David Lynch and Spike Lee would have been considered a disappointment. But that’s how the critics initially thought of the 1980s; the inevitable let down after the golden era of movies, the 1970s. That stance has since softened, as the 80s are now looked upon as a critical moment in film history.

For a period of roughly twelve years, beginning in the mid to late 1960s, it was a great time to be a filmgoer of American cinema. Directors, actors and writers, inspired by the pictures they saw as students (The French New Wave and other European movements), were calling the shots in Hollywood. The output during this time was remarkable. Then four words — Jaws, Rocky and Star Wars — were introduced into the Hollywood lexicon and brought it all to a screeching halt; the golden era was over. Accountants and studio heads ruled once again. These four words marched on into the 1980s and beyond, leaving in their wake an endless glut of mind-numbing sequels, remakes and market/audience-tested products.

Early into the new decade, young, burgeoning filmmakers grew disenchanted by these developments. They sought out alternative ways of getting their films produced. The results were the birth of the independent film movement.

These new filmmakers embraced and expanded on the ideals of their ‘60s and ‘70s predecessors: Coppola, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Kubrick, Lumet, and Peckinpah. The ‘Indie ‘80s’ ushered in an exciting wave of new films. They broke new ground by offering up new genres: alternate realities, race relations, offbeat documentaries, edgy comedies and dramas, revisionist history, alternative horror and some just completely unclassifiable.

This shift reached a critical mass in the mid-1990s with an explosion of indie films. As these pictures began to attract larger audiences, they also began to turn profits, introduce exciting new talent, create more film festivals and rack up accolades and awards. Hollywood could no longer ignore them. The studios began to create distribution channels and independent film divisions within their companies.

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn Academy of Music | © Jeffrey Bary/Flickr

BAM has long played a pivotal role in the history, awareness and preservation of the film culture. They offer up the best in current art house releases, independent film festivals, artist discussions, premieres and comprehensive repertories. The Indie 80s series might be one of their most sterling examples. Starting in mid-July and running through the end of August, BAM has procured a strong lineup of films representing the best and most influential of that era. Below is a list of the some of the many highlights for this event:

Blue Velvet – David Lynch’s masterpiece is a dark journey into the heart of human nature and the world around us. Frightening, surreal, funny, profound and unforgettable. Considered by many critics as one of the best films of the ‘80s.

Sex, Lies & Videotape – Steven Soderberg’s examination of the effects of modern, personal technology on relationships. Soderberg won the top honors at Cannes and Sundance for this work.

My Dinner with Andre – Who would have ever thought watching two people in conversation over dinner in a four-star restaurant could be so mesmerizing and engaging?

She’s Gotta Have It – Spike Lee’s breakthrough comedy gave audiences a chance at something rarely seen in cinema before: an adult, African-American, relationship comedy.

Stranger Than Paradise & The Unbelievable Truth – These two break-out comedies are, on one level, about the use of language. Stranger is sparing and deadpan, while Unbelievable is crammed and adroit. The perfect bookends.

Blood Simple – Joel & Ethan Coen’s dazzling, smarty-pants debut is all about breaking the rules. Film Noir has never been so wonderfully smug. Clues that go nowhere, dead bodies that won’t stay dead, and their cinematographer’s camera becoming part of the action. An assured indie debut if there ever was one.

Evil Dead & A Nightmare on Elm Street – These two inventive, low budget films did more than use ingenuity and a whole lot of blood; they used intelligence and humor as well. Both wildly inventive on shoestring budgets. They managed to reinvent the horror genre for a new generation. For better or worse.

Sherman’s March & Roger and Me – The stars of these two documentaries are not their intended subjects, but rather the filmmakers themselves. Funny, biting, thoughtful and empathetic.

The Thin Blue Line – Errol Morris’ documentary is the Citizen Kane of the modern format. A must-see for anyone interested breaking into this field.

River’s Edge – Tim Hunter’s haunting film about apathetic, disconnected, aimless, suburban youth is one of the best examples produced on this subject.

Swimming to Cambodia – Jonathan Demme’s hypnotic film captures the late, great monologist Spalding Grey in a theater performance. Grey mesmerizes as he shares his experience as a bit player in the film, The Killing Fields, while shooting on-location in Vietnam.

This Is Spinal Tap – Perhaps the best ‘mockumentary’ ever made. Utterly hilarious with more classic movie lines than in twenty other comedies combined. It’s hard to believe many thought this was an actual documentary on its initial release.