I don’t think I’ve made any secret that I’m a child of the 80s. But I was a teenager during the 90s, which really did a lot to shape me as an adult. Music and television had a lot to do with that, as my playlists and inability to go a day without throwing out a Simpsons reference will attest, but I remember the epiphany that came with my introduction to 90s indie movies.
Reservoir Dogs and Clerks in particular.
Being as these were those ancient days long before the internet, one only learned about new cool things by word of mouth, and I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about each of these. The former was when some of the cooler kids (but by no means cool) in high school started writing quotes from Tarantino’s masterwork on the blackboard to be found the next period until the teachers discovered it. The latter was when one of those kids dressed up as Silent Bob for Halloween and then refused to speak for the rest of the night, including answering who he was dressed up as.
In both of these cases there was a sense of subversion, of having to step outside the safe mundane world to discover what had everyone so excited, which I think encapsulates the spirit of these films. They were not the pretty, high-gloss and tropey movies from the 80s. They were rough, and ugly and unpleasant.
But they were also both off doing their own thing in no uncertain terms.
And that DIY ethos that infused both these films (and especially Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi) was an amazing breath of fresh air at the time. They were rebellious and gave a sense of “well if the establishment won’t make the movies we want to see, then we’ll just make them ourselves.” And if you can think of a more appealing mindset to a teenager, you should probably bottle it and sell it for millions.
I’ve read that this departure from the studio norms originated in the 90s because this was the first generation raised by VHS. Before the era of video tapes, the only way you could watch the classics was when they were randomly released in the theaters/ on TV. So if you really wanted to study them by watching them over and over, you had to go to film school, where you were taught the “proper” way to do things.
But this generation was self-taught by watching VHS on their own and forging their own ideas as to what would be appealing, so it’s no wonder that Tarantino worked at a video store (along with Roger Avary, who wrote the middle section of Pulp Fiction and Killing Zoe) or that Kevin Smith’s Randal rents VHS tapes to the ignorant masses in Clerks. Both these directors (and Rodriguez) were unbound by conventions, and so what they crafted was unique and intriguing in a world where everything felt the same. Both of them were doing their own thing off alone in the wilderness, and instead of trying to please everyone, they made the movies they personally wanted to watch to engage with a smaller niche.
Again, you can see why this was appealing to the teenage mind. And also to the indie author to come.
Less obvious was the fact these two filmmakers blended genres. Because they were both fluent in all the genre conventions, they could not be constrained by them. I don’t have the quote on me, but I believe Tarantino stated that one of the biggest influences on him was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein because it blended horror and comedy. So it’s no wonder that he wrote From Dusk Till Dawn (directed by Rodriguez, which blended horror, thriller, western, comedy, and maybe some exploitation film aspects. Smith’s Dogma tackled religious mythology and blended it with Smith’s own distinctive comedy stylings.
In effect, these two filmmakers were early adopters of the MMA ethos in that they took whatever worked and discarded the rest.
And finally, the protagonists in both these auteurs’ films were unapologetic nerds, the type of guys who read comics, obsessed about classic soul music and obscure foreign films, and discussed at length how many contractors might have died when the Death Star was destroyed. These were the template for the 90s indie hero in that they did not care if the rest of the world thought they were uncool for displaying their idiosyncratic interests, which in turn made them cool.
At least to other nerds that is, which dovetails back to being introduced to both these filmmakers by fellow nerds who used these films as flags they publicly unfurled. Upon doing so, they could see who else saluted; who else “got it.” This gave us nerds something to gather around and, to a certain extent, aspire to since these protagonists were portrayed so lovingly by these directors.
In the end, these three aspects of 90s indie films: their unconstrained natures, blending of genres, and putting nerds on a pedestal, turned out to be a double edged sword (the negatives of which I’ll probably tackle another time, but a hint for now—they helped lay the groundwork for hipsters), but both these filmmakers were hugely influential on me and deserve quite a bit of praise.