I acquired An Introduction to the American Underground Film by Sheldon Renan over thirty years ago as an unwanted donation to the old Mississauga Central Library. As with The Trials of OZ, which was another donations reject to the same location, I have finally decided to read it and weed it from my personal library. Why did I wait three decades to read these books? They were both wonderful! I suppose that with the Renan work the cover was unappealing and some of the film stills inside were a bit–dare I say–frightening. It surprised me how rapidly I got through it. I was genuinely disappointed when I finished it.
As a fan of Andy Warhol’s cinematic oeuvre, and a viewer of many of his films from the black-and-white times in the early sixties when it really was him behind the camera, I anticipated his section in the Gallery of Film-Makers chapter. This book was published in 1967 and references material up to 1966. Thus Warhol’s later work, like the infamous 25-hour movie **** from 1967, was not covered. That the book came out at a time when Warhol was still making movies was one of its appeals. I also believe that the author’s age–Renan was 26–contributed to its accessibility.
Bruce Conner, a director profiled in the Gallery of Film-Makers, gave me a double-take when I realized that a short film he made entitled Breakaway, about Antonia Christina Basilotta, was about none other than one of my favourite choreographers and recording artists, Toni Basil. As a fan of the dancer and singer I immediately recognized her full name. And this was in 1966. I wonder if Renan recognized her stage name when Basil burst into international fame in the early eighties.
Renan spent the first half of the book defining the term “underground” film, and writing about the history of the genre before this specific name took hold. Whether “avant-garde” or “experimental”, the name may have changed with the times but the end product was often the same. In the past I had always found books that talked about films to be boring reads if I hadn’t seen the films under discussion. With this book however I drank up all of the descriptions as Renan discussed experiments in film editing, speed, projection, lighting and even film manipulation through painting and scratching. The future was in computers and the catch-all term “expanded cinema”, which combined media such as television, dance, projection methods and could involve audience participation–even using the audience to project the movies onto.