With the world population massing in herds to catch the latest blockbuster, it's no wonder our lives and perceptions are so dominated by film and television. But those perceptions are often wrong-headed or not intellectually challenging. However, the Internet and affordable equipment may be the beacon that will discover art and meaning in cinema.
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Film and television are undeniably one of the first places that we learn how to ask someone out on a date, how to kiss, how to rebel against our parents, how to act in general. Often our own experiences are best described by explaining: "it was just like the time in that movie..." To be sure, parents, peers, teachers, relatives, and even strangers teach us about the same things, and thankfully, are often on hand to tell us that things aren't quite the way they seem in our modern cinematic parables. Nevertheless, most people can point to moments from films or TV that influenced who they are and how they see the world.
I believe cinema and television to be the most powerful socializing tools available to date. A very small group of capitalists centered in Southern California control the means of distribution for this media here in the States and around the world. The expensive nature of filmmaking, due in large part to the $100 million budgets now commonplace in Hollywood, give these very same businessmen a virtual monopoly over the means of production as well. Scary. However, we are now entering what may be the first window of time where the rest of the world has access to the tools of production, and the means to distribute the films that result.
About 25 years ago, the process of film distribution in America (and hence worldwide) changed significantly. Film scholars point to Jaws as the first modern-day blockbuster. Before "Jaws," a film like "Taxi Driver" or "Breathless" would be released in one theater in each market, usually the one at which it was expected to do well. As a films press and word-of-mouth support increased, it would be brought to other theaters, creating a wave of movie-going that allowed other, more challenging films to find an audience. With "Jaws," the rules changed. Films started to be released in every theater available, and the rising budgets were expected to be made back on opening weekend. From this point on, story took a back seat to the money shots and sound bites tailor-made for the attention-grabbing, two-minute trailers that would ensure a successful run.
This isn't to say that films made before this point were pillars of moral righteousness. They were, like society itself, sometimes racist, homophobic, and sexist. But the "Jaws" model of movie making replaced the art of carefully crafting films that didn't set records at the box office. Art films with ensemble casts lacking superstars were phased out, akin to the disappearance of small-town mom and pop hardware stores after Wal-Mart comes to town. Filmmakers who were trying to address problems and issues in society in a thoughtful, critical manner found their ideas disregarded by producers and movie moguls. Those who tried to work outside of corporate control couldn't get distribution. As profits eclipsed moral responsibility, Hollywood became a playground for stereotypes and rehashed plots. This problem persists today.
Recent films like "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Dungeons & Dragons" represent regressions in the way blacks are represented in film. Go to any multiplex to find examples of weak female characters, there as mere props serving the male characters' dramatic and sexual needs. Middle Easterners, Indians, Native Americans, Japanese, gays, lesbians, and just about every other minority can point to recent films where they were portrayed negatively, stereotypically, and predictably. The irony is that these films are made by very well-educated, predominately liberal adults. As conservative politicians decry the agenda and dissenting opinion of Hollywood films from mainstream values, one shivers to ponder what they would prefer.
The obvious problem is that the films which monopolize theaters worldwide are made by committee -- a slate of producers who want to make what sells best. The visionary writer/director has been replaced by producers who have the dubious power to rewrite drama into romantic comedy. Most of the Hollywood films that come to a small town or go overseas -- arguably the places most in need of an alternative vision of American society -- have been manhandled by dozens of people. These films may have been written by one or two people, or adapted from a single author's novel, but it is not uncommon to have 20 or 30 writers work on a script. Bring in a female writer to work on the lead actress's dialogue, bring in an A-list writer to add some heart. There are a gaggle of producers, each one a bit more creatively frustrated, and more eager to add their own reinterpretation of the last entertaining movie they saw, and all possessing veto power with directors who are often expendable. Ultimately, the studio has final say as to whether the film is a go-picture, usually depending on how "safe" the film is and how closely it resembles something that has worked before.
Equally depressing is that the film industry has done to film what they never could to music -- co-opted the notion of independence. With a few exceptions, so-called independent films are as vile as Hollywood films. Seldom are they any more challenging to anyone's world view than blockbuster fare, and they are usually more violent. The popular notion of an independent film is a bunch of pretty faces swiped from the covers of Details magazine, riding across the desert with a dead body in the trunk, guns at the hip, and with a stop at the next strip joint on tap. To be sure, most of what calls itself independent film is the modern day B-movie. The major studios have all bought or started their own "art" studios -- recycling the same regressive notions of society, but adding more style. What masquerade as independent films are $5 million studio projects destined to be either a tax write-off or the "surprise hit of Sundance." One is hard-pressed to find anything encouraging on the American narrative feature landscape.
Even the latest American film movement, the ensemble actors' picture, embodied by films like "American Beauty," "Happiness," "Magnolia," and "Friends and Neighbors," has shown its true face. While these films allow actors to break from the chains of the predictable plots and rehashed scenes of more mainstream fare, one starts to see this supposed New American Cinema as little more than high production-value soap opera -- highbrow Jerry Springer; upper-class filmmakers exposing upper middle-class white America as perverted and morally bankrupt ... not exactly a news flash. It may be refreshing to see films where themes like repressed homosexuality, pedophilia, incest, and self-hatred are explored, but ultimately it's like watching a car wreck. After we've driven past, we don't gain anything, we just feel a little sick.
But there is hope. In the last few years, there have been significant developments in the digital and video technology that might allow for a significant shift in the ways movies and televised entertainment are made in this country and beyond. Part of the problem in the past was the ever-rising expense of film stock, equipment, lab processing and printing, and hard-to-find editing facilities that often end a project before it's done. Now, you can get a digital video camera that will plug right into an Apple G4. You can shoot footage, instantly download it into a bootlegged copy of the Final Cut Pro program, edit it for as long as you like, and output it back to your camera. You now have a master without any loss of quality which you can transfer to film, broadcast quality video, consumer-ready VHS, or onto the web. The whole setup, with enough tape to keep you busy for months, will cost you less than $3,000, with prices dropping and technology improving at a breakneck pace. Even better, because these components are so cheap, film schools, cable access stations, and filmmaker collectives are able to buy them in great numbers. In many cases, you can easily find access to all these components for free.
Already there is an explosion of films being made in the basements and bedrooms of America. The otherwise brilliant film critic Ray Carney asserts that this is problematic. He yearns for the time when only a dedicated painter and his minions would spend the weeks it took to make paint suitable for canvas, back when only great paintings were made. Today's corner art store with its cheap, consumer-grade paint, he argues, has created a glut of mediocrity. I would argue that a world where everyone is a filmmaker, painter, or dancer is a better world; the probability of exposing the next Cassavettes, Cindy Sherman, or Basquiat increases. Making art, even bad art, increases self-esteem, happiness, appreciation for art in general, and improves how you relate to and contribute to your community. There is no doubt that horrible, unwatchable, offensive films will be made. Some people will recycle the same regressive social trends Hollywood film throws at us, but there will also be great, challenging works of art that have until now only existed in the minds of frustrated filmmakers.
Now how are these amazing, albeit low-budget and sometimes hard to watch works going to be seen? The local mall isn't likely to open up every tenth screen in the multiplex. Even small independent theaters will prefer to show foreign films with money-making potential and challenging modest budget American work. The Internet may be the venue of the future. To be sure, this method of distribution is in its infancy. Most people who have watched video on the Internet are likely to wait a few years before they tune in again. The image is usually broken up and tends to be smaller than a driver's license. Yet we can look forward to the day where Internet video streaming fills the entire screen at a quality close to offline video. The fusion of our computers, stereos, telephones, and televisions into a central console, though a somewhat horrifying prospect, will, however, break down the current paradigm of limited options. Imagine tuning in and being able to ignore the latest crap from ABC and find endless documentaries, personal experimental films, and features, new and old, from around the world.
Already there are dozens of websites dedicated to showing films made outside the Hollywood system. For the most part, they are funny short films, stepping-stones to the next Rob Schneider film. But look a little harder, and you will find some gems. As the technology improves, it will be possible to see, for instance, a feature film from Iran that only showed at the big-city international film festivals. How profit and commerce will enter into the picture and change the landscape is yet to be determined. To be sure, it will be a struggle as Hollywood tries to
co-opt, buy out, rip off, or bury work beyond its control.
But there is a possibility that the process of finding an audience will be democratized.
In the meantime, as we wait for the Internet to catch up to its promise, independent filmmakers who are making work on their home computers may need to look no further than independent music to find a model for distribution and exhibition of their films. As films become cheaper to make, touring with them provides a realistic opportunity to recoup costs or even make a small profit. More importantly, your work will be seen on the big screen by an audience. My personal hope is that independent film labels form that could sell tapes to video stores and help book films in smaller video theaters, like ATA in San Francisco, that will hopefully continue to crop up around the country. If filmmakers can make the work that they want to make, and not feel as though they have to pander to the Hollywood notion of a film in order to eventually make money, interesting work will flourish. These labels would eventually navigate the changes that will happen with the web, and help ensure that a truly independent voice be heard in the small towns of America and the world.
The challenge for the next generation will be to see if there really are new kinds of filmmaking we haven't yet considered -- to take risks that were before unthinkable. Are there a myriad of unique voices out there, laboring in obscurity, craving to be heard, that have until now been denied access to the tools of production or a platform to reach their audience?
I don't want to discredit the amazing work that has been going on since the birth of film as an art form in world cinema, experimental film, documentaries, and the occasional Hollywood or independent film. The films that make us question film itself, our society, and ourselves are necessary for film to fulfill its promise as an art form rather than just entertainment. A challenge for the future will be to facilitate a way for this art to reach not only the converted audiences that will appreciate it, but also the unconverted that will be changed by it.
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