The Expanse of the Outside

*I don’t know about you, but Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is essentially the default channel on my television - whenever I turn the set on, that’s the network I see. You know what’s on tonight at 2:15 AM? Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter. I have to ready for things like that at a moment’s notice. And I know there’s a few of you like me out there, so you may have caught this past Wednesday’s debut of the channel’s first entirely in-house produced documentary -

Edge of Outside

The difference between a good whore and a bad whore is very simple: one makes you think it’s important that you stay alive, and the other makes you think that you’ve wasted your money. I’m a good whore. I’ve been taught by experts.”

- Sam Peckinpah

The topic is ‘independent’ filmmaking.

If that sounds like a tough one, well, you’re spot on. Nobody seems to be able to agree on what the term even means, and Edge of Outside, a one hour (or so) production, seems to know this. Indeed, it devotes its opening procession of comments by assorted names (and there are many of them throughout the production, including filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee, Darren Aronofsky, John Sayles, Arthur Penn, and Peter Bogdanovich) to hashing out a number of individual definitions as to what exactly ‘independent’ filmmaking is. No firm, unified answer appears, but that’s ultimately fitting - the documentary as a whole does succeed in propagating an expansive view of things, at least, abjectly refusing to consider developmental elements like major studio backing and budgets (low or otherwise) in gauging a film’s independence, and championing a perspective based on directorial individuality, an apparently holistic appraisal of the clarity of vision on display among each filmography - “a vision of seeing the world.”

Thus, the film can gladly encompass Peckinpah’s view of his work, as one needs not define the ‘independent’ as free from the shackles of compromise, or even commercialism. The man behind Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch might well see himself as prostituting himself, and that is fine. Alfred Hitchcock is briefly championed, as is Charlie Chaplin, both of them men who specialized in lucrative, crowd-pleasing entertainments, yet injected with an eminently individual worldview. Compromise? The system? We’re given Orson Welles, a legend oft bedeviled by studio interference, perhaps ruined by his inability to accept the views of others. Welles is seen by many as a legend, but his path need not be the only one, and great artists need not always starve.

And even then, the documentary’s conceptual generosity does not yield - we delve into the silent era, where filmmakers like D.W. Griffith were essentially forced by virtue of the medium’s immature state to become challengers of what could be counted on from the flickers, and where top clowns like Buster Keaton would be (temporarily) left to their own devices in crafting amusements, each laff inevitably doused in the soul of the creator (and his crew - Keaton rarely directed anything on his own, yet his touch is apparent in so many of ‘his’ works, and it is thus acknowledged that the cinema’s collaborative nature does not stand in opposition to independence). It’s mainly a US-focused production, but we peer into the formative influences of Italian Neo-Realism, and the French New Wave. We even get a tiny peek into the world of the drive-ins and grindhouses, its hunger for trash insatiable and its overhead low, conditions sometimes ripe for a Doris Wishman or an H.G. Lewis to pop out by (again) the sheer necessity of restriction, though mainstream-approved Roger Corman is the only one named. When I look to films like Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 Killer’s Kiss, and absorb their grimy splendor and bargain-basement ingenuity, I’m struck by how much they evoke what’s often only found in the Something Weird catalog.

Kubrick is another creature of the studio system, usually game to utilize big stars and decent money, yet unquestionably an individual. He’s one of six filmmakers here to receive relatively extensive examination, and probably the most divisive of the lot - at least one commentator does not appear to be at all impressed with his output. And sure, Kubrick’s films were hardly universally beloved by critics at the time of their releases (2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining prompted some particularly ugly reactions, the latter even scoring a pair of Razzie nominations at year’s end), nor did many of them become financial hits, and almost all of them were based on some preexistent source material - but a Stanley Kubrick film is more often than not a Stanley Kubrick film, and that is enough at the end of the day. Different flavors of independence are tasted through the works of Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes, and the aforementioned Welles and Peckinpah - these being the other people profiled in a certain depth - but all are joined under Edge of Outside’s mighty tent.

It’s not the cleanest documentary, structurally - you’ll see the occasional section title, and note the presence of a few obvious topics of focus (financing, individual visions, etc.), but themes and bodies of work tend to drift into one another, which is probably inevitable given the exceedingly wide view taken by the project. Frankly, some might see said view as so expansive that it defeats the utility of the very term ‘independent’ in filmmaking, relegating it to the ghetto of synonym, perhaps one for ‘good,’ though it’s useful to note that the documentary implicitly acknowledges that anonymous or strictly formulaic or workmanlike films can be excellent as well, in its effort to set aside so many commonly accepted classics under the banner of independence. And even then, there is still Kubrick, whom clearly not everyone even sees as excellent.

There are other qualms to mention. Quite a few directors beyond the big six are briefly discussed, a certain pinball effect occasionally discernible as we jump and jump. There’s a silly recurring pantomime bit depicting a frustrated fellow knocking things over as he stares at clippings of his filmmaking heroes, meant to afford the project some sense of structure though mostly making me wonder why the guy’s so mad (I guess he’s an angry young director himself, though maybe he’s just pissed because he ripped up his books of photos). Certainly there’s no room for intensive depth, and even the basics of cinema history get a shade jumpy as we near the present - apparently after Jaws and Star Wars muscled into world wallets, major US studios started cracking down on individual voices in the chase for assured riches, leading to a restrictive Sundance-fueled redefinition of what American ‘independent’ film ought to be (as Peter Biskind notes of the early days, “Nobody ever died in a Sundance film unless they died of AIDS, or died of boredom or old age.”), but then Quentin Tarantino saved our souls by being fun, or something. But the project doesn’t really hold itself out as comprehensive, preferring to exist as a rambling source of information and anecdote, maybe spurring interest within the viewer to conduct a more, er, independent study.

And it’s never an uninteresting ramble, with some nice stock interview footage of the profiled directors included, along with generous clips from notable films and chat by younger directors on their influences. Don’t expect to come out of this thing knowing everything, but it’s a fair enough start, or a fair enough collection of tidbits for fans, like the anecdote regarding Welles advising a certain filmmaker to ensure his crew’s cooperation with difficult shots by simply telling them they’re shooting a dream sequence, psychologically freeing them from the ingrained demands of filmic realism. Which is only what’s come before, after all.

TCM ought to be showing this thing next on July 19th, at 11:00 PM EST. They’re also bolstering the production with a month of tributes to independent films, including something from all six ‘big’ subjects, like the above-mentioned Killer’s Kiss (July 19th, 9:30 PM EST), plus such acclaimed specimens as The Conversation, Nashville, and Raging Bull, and even a great-looking July 12th pair of back-to-back classics by silent legends, Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (8:00 PM EST) and Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (9:30 PM EST). I haven't seen those, so I'll know when to switch on my television.