The Cinefamily is spinning ’80s nostalgia into its best possible form with its new series Underground USA, a screening of more than 40 American independent films from from the 1980s over the course of March and April. The lineup has almost no duds among its ranks, and if the independent movie theater’s retrospective on the work of director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Lone Star) was any indication, this much wider-ranging event is destined for greatness.
Underground is one of the most exciting pieces of repertory cinema programming to hit L.A. this year. The ’80s saw a boom in indie filmmaking in America, and Cinefamily’s event draws selections across a broad range of genres, directors, and popularity. Well-known works like Errol Morris’ seminal The Thin Blue Line, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, and the Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple stand alongside much more obscure picks. Several of the screenings will be accompanied by discussions with the films’ directors or other figures (think John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, a guide to the decade’s films).
Here, we’ve highlighted some of the program’s more unusual, lesser-known, or most interesting events—even though almost all of the movies screening as part of Underground USA are worth checking out.
3/2 – Seventeen (1983, Dir. Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines)
This was originally meant to be the final installment of PBS’ groundbreaking documentary series Middletown, which explored the lives of the people of Muncie, Indiana. However, Seventeen was pulled from broadcast, as producer Peter Davis was unwilling to make the cuts requested over the film’s “profanity…use of drugs, and explicit sexual discussion.” Following high school seniors being typically awful teens, The Atlanta Constitution called Seventeen “more frightening than ‘The Day After’ [a TV movie about nuclear war].”
3/9 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Dir. Rob Epstein)
The Oscar-winning biopic Milk essentially copied this documentary beat-for-beat—to a much lesser effect. The Times of Harvey Milk follows Milk’s political career, as he was one of the first openly gay elected officials in American history. The doc covers everything from his early days of activism through his abrupt assassination, which made him a martyr. It’s a landmark LGBT film.
3/11 Smithereens (1982, Dir. Susan Seidelman)
Susan Seidelman is one of many female directors of the indie boom to make early hits which, for some reason (cough, cough: industry sexism), didn’t translate into continued career security the way the work of her male counterparts did. But the punk-rock Smithereens was the first American indie to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan is also part of the series, screening March 12.
3/13 – Sherman’s March (1985, Dir. Ross McElwee)
No modern cringe comedy could hope to compete with the inexplicably riveting romantic woes that documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee captured when he turned his camera on himself. Somehow, a film that was supposed to be about General Sherman’s Civil War campaign became an entirely different kind of epic, a two-and-a-half-hour travelogue through one dating disaster after another. It’s a classic. McElwee will be there in person for the screening, and some of his early short films will be playing at the theater on March 12.
3/19 – Walker (1987, Dir. Alex Cox)
This anti-western turns Manifest Destiny on its head and then kicks it in the rear. An acid-soaked “biopic” of little-known American conquistador William Walker (played by Ed Harris), who invaded and briefly ruled Nicaragua in the 1850s, director Alex Cox forever squandered the industry goodwill he earned from Sid & Nancy with this notorious flop. But it is a satirical masterpiece, skewing details from different time periods together to make it clear that American imperialism is evergreen. Cox will be at the screening for a Q&A as well as for a screening of his other beloved cult film, Repo Man, on March 18.
3/19 – Bless Their Little Hearts (1983, Dir. Billy Woodberry) / 3/20 – My Brother’s Wedding (1983, Dir. Charles Burnett) and Illusions (1982, Dir. Julie Dash)
These films, curated from the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s series on the L.A. Rebellion movement which ran last year, highlight the work of black independent filmmakers who came out of the UCLA Film School between the late ’60s and the late ’80s. Rough-and-tumble productions even by the standards of independent film at the time, these movies utilize searing realism in their portraits of their characters, from a family struggling in poverty to a woman observing how Hollywood of the ’40s depicts her race.
3/24 – Vortex (1982, Dir. Beth B & Scott B)
If you couldn’t tell by their monikers, Beth B and Scott B were part of the avant-garde scene in New York—specifically, “no wave” cinema, which was marked by nihilism and purposefully off-putting film construction. Vortex, a riff on film noir tropes in which a private detective stumbles upon massive corporate malfeasance, was their final collaboration.
3/25 – Born in Flames (1983, Dir. Lizzie Borden)
Radical feminism becomes literally radical in this mockumentary as disparate feminist pirate radio crews come together to perform some extraordinarily direct action against a world trying to stomp women down. That director Lizzie Borden (who will be at the screening) named herself after an axe murderer should tell you all you need to know about her artistic sensibilities.
3/25 – Eating Raoul (1982, Dir. Paul Bartel)
Like Sweeney Todd for the post-hippie set, this cult favorite follows a sexually repressed couple who begin luring in and murdering rich would-be swingers for their money. It’s a savage satire of Hollywood (the locale, not the industry) at the time. Actress Mary Woronov will be on hand to help introduce the film.
4/15 – Suburbia (1983, Dir. Penelope Spheeris)
The outlands of Downey and Norwalk become a pre-apocalyptic wasteland in this cult classic. Spheeris populated soon to be demolished vacant housing tracts to make way for the 105 with actual kids and punk musicians. They play an army of young runaways squatting their lives away. Spheeris will be present both for this film and for the screening of her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years on April 16.