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Underground cinema: "a creature of publicity and mutual congratulations on artistry" Pauline Kael

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Underground cinema is radical in form and usually operates out of the mainstream cinema either in style, genre or financing. It can also be defined as a social anti-establishment movement.

It started in the late fifties, and underground films were described as being independent film. At this time, the term developed as a reference to a clandestine and subversive culture beneath the legitimate and official media (absurdist movement). By the sixties, the movement represented matured filmmakers who had distanced themselves from the countercultural, psychedelic connotations of the word.

The Americans did have the pioneer role on this subject, calling the genre “avant-garde” and “experimental”. Made by a group of artists, and mainly shown outside of commercial theaters, the films are a very different kind of art or independent cinema. For some critics, using an anthropological approach rather than an art one, the films were described as primitive, taboo-breaking sexual explicitness, and obsessive with the two-sides of the American popular culture. A few names came out of a long list of so-called “undergrounders”, instigating controversies, theoretical debates, and arguments: Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, John Waters, Carolee Schneemann, Robert Downey Sr., etc. Their relationship to the social and cultural milieu in which they emerged are in relation to movements within contemporary

art such as abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism.

The term "underground film" is occasionally used as a synonym for “cult film”. It is very different but people tend to confuse the two genres. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fans evolving into an elaborate subculture, members of which engage in repeated viewings, dialogue-quoting, and audience participation (see our blog of 8 June 2022). Underground films tend to be more provocative, on the verge of indecency.

One sure thing, both are arguably noticeable and highly indisputable, and that makes them special and interesting to watch.

(from King’s College London, Studying American Underground Cinema)

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