Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Submitting to Festivals, Part One

Phase Two has officially begun. I have started submitting Saberfrog to film festivals.

Three upstate screenings, two major holidays and a serious case of burnout prevented me from sending the film out before now, even though it's been officially finished for three months. This meant that I missed some sweet deadlines, including Slamdance (which would have been a long shot anyway) and SXSW (which bothers me quite a lot, as Karyus said several times that the film would be an ideal fit).

But with a new year upon us, and the birth pangs of the movie finally subsiding, I have no more excuses. Time to send this sucker out.

Today I sent the film to 360|365 (formerly High Falls Film Festival), the most prominent film fest in the Rochester area; and the Knickerbocker Film Festival in Albany, which I hadn't heard of until a friend from that area suggested it to me. The UK festival Sci-Fi London has been bombarding me with email bulletins since the last time I submitted a film to them, so it seemed only fitting to send them a copy of Saberfrog (that'll teach 'em).

This time around I'm going after more interesting, off-the-beaten-path film festivals. Getting into the likes of Sundance, TIFF or Cannes used to be the dream of every independent filmmaker, but it's a new and more fragmented film world now, and I've already popped my first-public-screening cherry anyway. Going forward, any other festival that gets a copy of Saberfrog will have to meet one of three criteria: 1) cheap or free to enter; 2) has a theme that indicates a good fit for the movie; 3) has a wacky name.

Wish me luck!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Amherst screening

This past Wednesday, Saberfrog had its third public screening, this time in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo.

This screening was held at the Screening Room, a location I've gotten to know as the site of Buffalo Movie-Video Makers (BM-VM) meetings. It wasn't a huge turnout, but I once again turned a profit. Much of the audience was made up of BM-VM club members or friends.

Each of the public screenings has been for a different audience, and each time there have been differences in the audience response. The Rochester screening generated laughter from beginning to end. The Buffalo screening at Squeaky Wheel seemed slower to warm up to the film, but were laughing a lot by the end.

Both of those screenings were for a presumably arty/culty/nerdy audience, who weren't fazed by the film's multi-layered narrative or its shifts in tone and genre. The Screening Room audience seemed less “extreme”, and so certain elements of the film played differently.

The Canadian references seemed to get a stronger reaction this time. A throwaway reference to a Canadian actress had never gotten a laugh from any other screening, public or private, that I'd had for the film – but it got a huge laugh from one viewer this time. By contrast, John Karyus' final line of dialogue got no audience response at all, which was unusual.

Watching the film this time was a strange experience. I was now far enough from the events of the film – both the production experience, and the real-life experiences that inspired the script – that I was able to view the film fresh, as if it was made by someone else. For perhaps the first time, I realized what a truly strange film it is, and how bold some of the story twists are during the climax.

The post-screening Q&A was fun, as the audience was a small group who mostly knew me and had heard about the film during its long development. One viewer told me how (pleasantly) surprised he was by the amount of seriousness in the finished film, considering how the trailer (which I'd shown at BM-VM meetings a couple times) had been largely comedic. He was also impressed by the number of themes and story threads in the film, which also weren't hinted at in the trailer. I explained that I chose the film's most easily-explained aspect – Josh's quest to find his friends – as the focus of the trailer.

Both of the Buffalo-era screenings were attended mainly by friends or friends of friends, a clear indication that the flyers I'd been putting up along Elmwood and Main were not effective advertising in terms of drawing the public's attention. Putting up those flyers was a fun excuse to hang out in arty sections of Buffalo during the past week or so, but they obviously weren't doing the trick.

Getting the film's debt finally paid off has changed my priorities a bit; I'd like to have more screenings of the film, but I don't have to. I'd originally planned to roadshow the film in other cities and states, but without the hometown advantage of Rochester and Buffalo – or the ability to attend or promote screenings in person – I would need to find a new approach to publicity. For each of these three screenings I was scrambling just to get the word out in time, and while I've always got the film mentioned in event listings, I'd never had time for the extra step of getting real press or reviews.

With the year drawing to a close, and winter weather kicking in, I think I'm ready to take a break from public showings of Saberfrog and start submitting the film to festivals. It's time to let the rest of the world, not just Rochester and Buffalo, see the film.



Friday, December 10, 2010

About Katie Goldman

This past Wednesday was the third public screening of Saberfrog, and I plan to report on that soon, but there's something else I want to get to first.

Today was Proud To Be Me Day, at least at one particular grade school in Evanston, Illinois. This came about after 7-year-old Katie Goldman, a big Star Wars fan, got teased by boys for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. You can read the CNN story here, but the upshot is that Katie's mom, Carrie Goldman, blogged about it, and subsequently received a lot of positive and sympathetic attention from many readers – including the cast of the Clone Wars TV show, who sent her some Star Wars merchandise; and the online retailer ThinkGeek, who sent her a toy lightsaber.

Katie's story has received a fair amount of media attention, inspiring her school to celebrate Proud To Be Me Day to “wear something that shows what they're interested in, whether it's princesses, sports, animals and anime”, while Facebook users decided to wear Star Wars gear today in support.

For me, this story raises several issues that I would like to talk about a bit more deeply.

Those who've never been bullied seem to believe that it's the antisocial, misfit kids who do the bullying. Anyone who's actually been bullied knows that it's the complete opposite – bullying is a weapon of the popular and powerful, used to crush anyone who doesn't fit in. Looking back at my own youth, I can't think of many “popular” kids between 12 and 18 who didn't deserve to be fed to piranhas (or at least thrown in jail, where they probably would have ended up anyway).

As a boy who preferred intellectual and creative pursuits over anything athletic, I endured more than my share of crap growing up in a small town where even the girls had mullets. I like to believe that things have changed since then; the digital age and the modern boom in sci-fi and fantasy seem to have made being a geek more acceptable now. But several highly publicized teen suicides in the past year have drawn a lot of media attention to bullying as a continuing problem.

Katie's mom asks, in her blog, “Is this how it starts? Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers? Must my daughter conform to be accepted?” To which the sad answer is: yes, yes, and – at least until high school ends – yes.

The CNN story indicates that Katie was already a misfit for being adopted, being Jewish, wearing glasses, and wearing an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye. That her classmates might give her a hard time for being Jewish and/or physically imperfect would seem to speak volumes about her classmates. Let's just say that my classmates had roughly similar values, even though our grandparents had fought a world war specifically to prevent that attitude from catching on.

That's probably too melodramatic of me – neither the CNN story nor Carrie Goldman's blog entry choose to go there. We are talking about little kids here (at least in Katie's case; my classmates were still like that through high school and thus have no excuse). Besides, it seems little Katie usually played happily with these other kids; it was really just the Star Wars water bottle she was getting a hard time about.

Much of the media support for Katie Goldman so far seems based on geek pride. I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this topic, particularly the notion that people who like sci-fi or fantasy are still targets of widespread scorn. “Whole genres of pop culture are devoted to ridiculing them,” claims the author of the CNN article, a statement I find totally baffling. What genres are those, exactly? I've seen far more pop culture in which the nerdy misfit is the hero, while jocks, gym coaches and bullies of every stripe are the villains. Even back in the blow-dried Reagan years, teen comedies encouraged us to root for the embattled nerd, not the high school quarterback trying to pummel him. Besides, how many gazillions of dollars have been made off of Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, et cetera? How are these things not “popular”?

While I certainly got picked on for nerdy interests as a kid, it wasn't necessarily the interests themselves, but the depth of my obsession, that made me a target. For example, my childhood interest in dinosaurs coincided with the rise of new theories declaring that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, intelligent and agile. I remember an incident back in sixth grade, when a close friend insisted to me that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and stupid, then laughed as I angrily corrected him. Only when I remembered that incident some twenty years later did I realize what should have been obvious – that he knew I was easy to provoke on this subject, and was just having a laugh at my expense.

That combination of over-sensitivity and self-importance is what makes so many nerds a target, and there are many who, regrettably, never outgrow it as adults. Everyone other than nerds has realized this; the stereotypical sci-fi fan is no longer the cheerful enthusiast who wears a Starfleet uniform in public and has a house full of merchandise, but the surly Comic Book Guy who insists on announcing his disapproval in the belief that hostility and negativity are a sign of intelligence and sophistication. (I've had too much interaction with people like that to fully identify with Gen-X fandom ever again.)

Getting back to the main topic, though, it doesn't seem that this was Katie Goldman's problem. Apparently, her classmates weren't mocking her for being a sci-fi geek. Her classmates mocked her for carrying a Star Wars water bottle because, to them, Star Wars was for boys. It wasn't that Star Wars was uncool per se; she was mocked because she was a girl acting like a boy. This was a gender-role issue.

I have to admit that this, too, is a fraught issue with me. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't the most macho kid growing up, so I know how bad it is to be pressured into being something you're not, and to be told that there's something wrong with you for not being like everyone else.

Yet the spontaneous public sympathy for Katie Goldman indicates the other side of the coin. Look how cute she is with her blonde hair, her glasses, and her little toy lightsaber. How could anyone be mean to her?

Now imagine if that was a boy, with those same glasses and that lightsaber. You'd probably be thinking, “Little creep. I hope he dies.” OK, you personally might not think that, but I'm sure there are loads of people online who would. Comparing the Star Wars Girl (as Katie Goldman is becoming known) with the Star Wars Kid says it all.

As kids, we are all vulnerable to insecurities and peer pressure, which potentially makes us targets for bullying. However, the degree and type of sympathy we can expect from our elders depends very much on whether we are male or female.

We can't just blame this on society. I believe we are all hardwired with the idea that men should endure danger while women should be shielded from it, and that we naturally instill this idea in our children.

It's not the healthiest lesson for boys or girls. Boys learn that they should silently endure pain, and that they can expect no sympathy from anyone. Girls learn to expect other people to come to their rescue and solve their problems for them. (Even feminists, who claim to oppose traditional sexism, often seem to embrace its core premise that women are helpless victims, and that they deserve to be protected from the adult world's difficulties, rather than being expected to cope with them as men are.)

I guess what I'm getting at is that whatever ribbing a 7-year-old girl might get for liking Star Wars is as nothing compared to what a boy might face for having an interest in something girly.

And in that event, he wouldn't get much sympathy. Boys who get bullied are told, in effect, that being afraid to go to school builds character. That they should face, on their own, threats that would be a police matter in the adult world.

Katie Goldman's story is heartwarming and seems to have a happy ending. But there are many other kids who are not so fortunate, who tragically destroy themselves or face a lifetime coping with emotional scars. What can we do about this?

Kids need to know that they are loved and supported, and that they have someone to turn to when things are bad. They need to have self-confidence and self-worth instilled in them. As a kid I had the support of my parents, and – because I was a bright and creative student – from my teachers as well. Without that support, things could have been so much worse.

I think kids also need to somehow understand that their dumbass friends are not the whole world, and that there are other, better values besides peer pressure. Once I had my heart set on going to film school, I stopped worrying about high school bullshit because I had a better life to look forward to. I think I somehow realized that if I applied myself, my current classmates would be the dumbest people I would ever have to deal with in my life.

But the most difficult lesson, I think, is how to become a person who can cope with bullying – or better yet, not invite it in the first place. Bullies are like dogs – they smell fear. The hard reality is that, even with all the anti-bullying programs in the world, sometimes respect has to be earned. Think of all those macho action movies where two guys start out hating each other, but by the end have earned each other's respect and become friends.

Kids do have to get socialized to some degree. There are rough guidelines for how you're supposed to talk, walk, act and dress, and even if you disagree with those standards you do have to learn them in order to survive. The trick is to survive long enough to gain confidence and know how to play the game, while still holding onto your identity.

I'm sure Katie Goldman will make it. I hope everyone else does too.



Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Saberfrog trailer shown in New York City (and other adventures)

PART 1: THANKSGIVING WEEKEND

I spent the weekend after Thanksgiving in New York City, visiting my old NYU classmate Greg Draves. It was the first time in a while that I'd managed to make it down to the Big Apple, as the demands of my day job have kept me from traveling much.

There's something about New York City that toughens a person up. I don't exercise much at home, but I have no hesitation about running like hell to get from one destination to another in NYC, even if it's many blocks away. NYC traffic also gets me to drive like a cabbie, which I would never do at home.

On Friday, November 26, I got to show the Saberfrog trailer at Millennium Film Workshop. Millennium has a monthly open screening of short films, and the holiday weekend presented a rare opportunity for an out-of-towner like me to participate.

The other films in the program that night were a mixture of formats – film and video, Super-8 and 16mm, sound and silent. A technical problem that evening unfortunately resulted in all of the videos being shown in black-and-white.

Most of the shorts being screened that evening were abstract and experimental. I saw films of shaky street footage, and videos of abstract computer-generated patterns.

One of the few narratives was called Erica Wexler Is Online, and was presented as a fake documentary consisting of staged interviews. It told the story of a college student who had died, but whose Facebook account is still active and still sending and receiving messages. None of the interviewees can say for certain whether the messages are being sent by a hacker, a family member or someone else, but most seem to prefer to believe that Erica is still there somehow, still participating in their lives.

The other narrative was an erotic cartoon – actually a series of still images, like a comic book – depicting a scantily-clad female demon being fought over by two scantier-clad male demons, to the tune of Duran Duran's “A View to a Kill” (“Dance into the fire...”). Interestingly, the projectionist was the director of this particular film.

The Saberfrog trailer was the final work to be screened. Several shots in the trailer (mostly flashbacks) are in black-and-white for dramatic effect, and it was unfortunate that the impact of this was lost by the entirely black-and-white projection. But these things happen.

My memories of NYU film school, plus the fact that all the other films that evening were experimental, led me to expect that a New York crowd might be unsympathetic towards a genre comedy. But the trailer got several laughs, and a couple people told me they looked forward to seeing the whole movie at some point.

It wasn't a huge turnout that night, but knowing that an arty Manhattan film-buff audience had watched and/or heard J.D. Edmond, Reuben Tapp, Wendy Foster, Liz Mariani, John Karyus, John Sindoni, Jahaka Mindstorm, Mary Criddle, Jesse Conklin, Val Perkins, Jes Gonzales and myself (plus Derrick Petrush if you looked quick) was definitely cool.

On Sunday it was back to Rochester, and time to promote the next showing of Saberfrog, this time at the Screening Room in Amherst.

PART 2: THE WEEK AFTER

The Thursday after Thanksgiving, I drove to Buffalo to do some advertising, and to see if the latest issue of Artvoice carried a listing for the screening (which it did).

It was a long way to drive just to put up a few flyers (I made it to the Market Arcade theater, Guerrilla Gallery and Just Pizza before it got too late), but I was lucky to do even that much, as the Thruway (Route 90) was partly shut down due to a huge amount of snow.

Then, on Friday, December 3, I reached a milestone: I PAID OFF THE CREDIT CARD DEBT from the movie. That only took two-and-a-half years ...

This past Saturday, December 4, I returned to Buffalo to post more flyers on Elmwood Ave and Main St, and also got to have coffee with Liz Mariani, who I hadn't seen since the October screening. From there I drove to Toronto to view a program of films at a space called CineCycle.

I've been researching various offbeat spaces that might be open to showing the movie, and CineCycle was one of several spaces in Toronto. That night, CineCycle was playing host to a curatorial group called Pleasure Dome, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to check the place out. I had no idea what kind of film I'd be seeing … and there was no way I could have predicted what I got.

If you've ever been to a modern art gallery, you're probably used to seeing some placard basically explaining at length what the artist intended and what s/he was trying to say. Sometimes, whatever aesthetic pleasure you get (or don't get) from the art itself is contradicted by the political statement hammered home in the artist's statement. I kind of got that feeling watching this show. The program notes seemed to threaten a lineup of dull political propaganda, but the films themselves were actually quite entertaining.

This particular show consisted of two longish short films, Home 2 and Blondes in the Jungle, plus the seventh and eighth episodes of a British video series called Paul and the Badger.

Created by a cheery bloke named Paul Tarrago (who also stars), Paul and the Badger seems to be a parody of children's puppet shows – sort of like Pee Wee's Playhouse, but done in the more deadpan style of Wallace and Gromit. It's proudly low-tech – the sets are blatantly greenscreened, and the puppets are clearly puppets – and I found it very enjoyable. In fact, it's one of the most creatively inspiring productions I've seen in some while. It made me go “Yes!!! I want to make something like that!” (Warning: I just might.)

Home 2 (a 2007 sequel to a 2004 film Home, according to the program notes) was a 30-minute mockumentary about a lanky, curly-haired, overenthusiastic American doofus visiting many foreign locations and making a fool of himself. Imagine a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Borat, but a lot more hyper.

This character, played by Brian Kerstetter, was never given a name onscreen as far as I recall. He had weird beady eyes that, according to the program notes, are contact lenses meant to suggest his “inability to truly see and understand his surroundings.” This, and other statements in the program notes, imply that we're supposed to condemn the character as a boorish Ugly American, but I must not be that politically correct because to me the character's joy and awe at the world around him seemed quite infectious. The on-camera locals seem to enjoy his antics, so it's hard to fully buy the idea that it is he who is exploiting them.

It's also hard to be sure how many of the locals might, in fact, be actors taking part in the joke; there's one scene, in which the hero pretends to kidnap four Arabs, that was almost certainly staged. If the main character is actually meant to be culturally insensitive, it raises the question of whether the filmmaker – jaunting around the world to provoke on-camera reactions from local people – is in any position to judge.

Anyway, the film was quite funny, since the protagonist is clearly out of his mind and never seems to calm down at any time during his journey. The variety of location work was also quite impressive – the bulk of the film takes place in Papua, New Guinea, but various (equally goofy) flashbacks show the character in other locales such as Japan and Switzerland. The audience was still chuckling for some time after the film finished.

Blondes in the Jungle was made last year and shares Home 2's theme of “honky fools in the Third World”. Set in 1987 and filmed in the Honduras, this film follows three American adolescents (two male, one female) on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. A fourth character, looking and acting like the Harold and Kumar version of Neil Patrick Harris, also makes sporadic and not-really-explained appearances.

Whereas Home 2 used a handheld-vacation-video approach, Blondes in the Jungle was shot more conventionally; the celluloid photography and slower pace went a long way towards selling the 1987 setting. This film was also more condescending towards its childish protagonists than Home 2 was, and their relentless dumbness (while true to my memories of the 1980s) got old well before the 48-minute running time was up.

The film did have one killer line, though. During the night, the girl in the group has a sexual dream, and in the morning she deduces that she was visited by a Mayan jaguar god. When the two guys express alarm at this, she mocks their fears: “Gods don't have AIDS!” I don't remember the last time I heard an audience roar so much at a line of dialogue in a film.

What follows is a spoiler for anyone who thinks it's remotely likely they might get to see this film at some point, but … our heroes finally find the alleged Fountain of Youth, and go swimming in it. What happens to them next can only be speculated upon, since the remaining half of the film consists of the previously glimpsed Mayan jaguar god giving a John Cleese-like anthropology lecture to the camera.

Again, the program notes hint that all of this is a political statement – this time about the Reagan era – but the possibility that the filmmaker was simply eating coke by the spoonful should not be entirely discounted.

In fact, the oddness of this entire program was quite impressive. I've been slowly resigning myself to the idea that truly idiosyncratic filmmaking was dead, and that everything now was just remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations. Yet these films were not only defiantly weird, but comedic as well, which made them entertaining rather than pretentious.

After the screening, I gave a DVD of Saberfrog to one of the Pleasure Dome curators, in the hopes that they might be interested in screening the film at a future date. We shall see. Until then, there's still the showing at The Screening Room - tomorrow!



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Doctor Who: 47 years of cheapo genius

47 years ago today, the very first episode of Doctor Who aired in England.

What to say about good old Doctor Who at this point? Once the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of sci-fi shows, now a global phenomenon. November 23 doesn't have many hours left in it (it's been a long, hard day at work), so I'll have to keep it brief.

I'd heard of Doctor Who as a kid, but didn't actually try to watch it until mid-1989. As part of a pledge drive, PBS station WXXI-TV showed the documentary “Doctor Who's Who's Who” as a lead-in to the season premiere “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and I was hooked immediately by this rumpled, misfit hero. Unlike the macho high school purgatory I lived in, in Doctor Who-land you could be the hero simply by being smart, interesting and funny.

After the pledge drive, WXXI started over with the very first black-and-white episode, and spent the next three years crawling forward through all surviving installments of the entire series. I watched in rapt attention, not knowing that this would be WXXI's last-ever complete run of the entire series, or that the next new season of Doctor Who (which aired in Britain later in 1989) would be the last for 16 years.

But somehow, that was part of the magic of Doctor Who back then, at least from an American point of view – it was this ancient, foreign artifact that few people seemed to know about, and episode guides were hard to come by. The only way you could catch up on all that lore was to collect the novelizations, peruse the few reference books available in libraries or comic book stores … and, of course, watch the show every Saturday night at 11 pm, usually with little or no knowledge of what was going to happen next. (Pleasingly, WXXI has given that exact timeslot to reruns of the new series.)

The continuing DVD releases of old episodes has allowed me to watch these shows in a new light. Some episodes that I enjoyed as a teenager haven't held up, while others that failed to impress me back then have turned out to be highly enjoyable. The old version of Doctor Who (by which I mean the first 26 years' worth of episodes up until its 1989 cancellation) is notorious for its shot-on-video cheapness, with flimsy sets, Halloween-mask aliens, and unconvincing special effects. But I still find those episodes enormously inspiring as a low-budget filmmaker, and many of those episodes were ahead of their time – or at least, far more sophisticated than audiences of the time would have noticed.

If you can get past the creaky production values and slow pace, there's a huge range of material in those old shows – comedy, horror, action, fantasy, surrealism, high-concept sci-fi, and various combinations thereof.

Most fans have a favorite Doctor (as fans know, the alien hero's ability to “regenerate” allows the part to be recast several times) or a favorite era. I came in with Sylvester McCoy (the seventh and last of the original Doctors), followed quickly by the early William Hartnell episodes, so those two will always be sentimental favorites.

Coincidentally, I've had the chance to revisit my two “first” Doctors quite recently. I've been watching a group of Hartnell stories on DVD in broadcast order, and “The Chase” jumped out at me as a particular gem. The Doctor and his trusty time machine, the TARDIS, are pursued through the space-time continuum by his archenemies – the tanklike cyborgs known as Daleks – through a number of cheap-but-charming locales including a desert planet, a sailing ship, a haunted house, and a jungle planet with killer plants and a gleaming abandoned city a mile high. It ends with the genuinely moving farewell of Ian and Barbara, two of the Doctor's original travelling companions. “The Chase” has a poor reputation among Doctor Who fans, so I was surprised to myself enjoying it so thoroughly after all these years.

Meanwhile, one of the first Sylvester McCoy stories I ever saw, “Silver Nemesis”, has recently come out on DVD. This one is also considered a clunker by fans, but it was only the third Doctor Who adventure I ever saw and at the time I loved it. It seemed to blend together every genre I liked, combining sci-fi, fantasy, action and comedy; and it introduced me to the Doctor's other cyborg foes, the more humanoid Cybermen.

For sheer quality, though, the pinnacle for me would be the “Key to Time” season of 1978-79, during Tom Baker's lengthy run as the Doctor. The quality of the stories and dialogue is uniformly high in this season, with each alien world imaginatively developed and populated by memorable guest characters. Tom Baker is at the top of his game, enjoying terrific screwball chemistry with his latest co-star, Mary Tamm (as Romana, an aloof genius belonging to the same Time Lord race as the Doctor himself).

The most recognized formula for Doctor Who (which the new show conforms to) is to have a young and na├»ve Earth girl traveling with the Doctor as he battles alien invasions of present-day Earth. But my favorite overall period of Doctor Who abandons this approach almost entirely. From about 1976 through the early 80s, the show takes a leap into pure space opera. Instead of a modern-day “audience identification” character as the Doctor's companion, we get a series of nonhuman or off-world characters as bizarre as the Doctor, and exotic, high-concept alien environments that are worthy of his penetrating intelligence. Doctor Who just seemed smarter and more imaginative during that period.

That the shoestring budget of old-school Doctor Who could deliver jungle planets, planets petrified by radiation, swamp planets where transportation is possible only by boat, planets ruled by giant insects, invisible planets, vampire planets, planets made of pure mathematics, planets that eat other planets … not to mention antimatter universes, lands of pure fiction, and so much else ... makes it somewhat disappointing that today's big-budget Doctor Who so seldom stretches beyond modern suburbs and council estates. Developing genuinely original alien environments may require a slower and more atmospheric pace than is permissible today, even with the best CGI money can buy. While executive producer Russell T Davies and his successor, Steven Moffatt, have been wise to ground the modern series in contemporary reality, I often crave the more adventurous, carefree spirit of the old series.

But today, anyone with a camcorder and a computer can make sci-fi that is at least as technically competent as old-school Doctor Who. And those old episodes showed that you didn't need huge budgets if you had a clever script, a good cast, and a lot of imagination. This is why the show continues to inspire me, two decades after I first watched it, and nearly half a century after it first aired.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Legacy of Tron

One month from today, Tron Legacy will open in theaters.

It's only recently that I've fully realized what a huge impact the original Tron had on me as a kid. I saw the film when it first came out and don't recall being that impressed, but I got to know the film well on home video, and became quite obsessed with it.

Whereas Star Wars inspired me to be a filmmaker, Tron almost singlehandedly triggered my interest in anything digital, from computer animation to game design to programming.

The depth of this hit home when I attended a screening of the film at the George Eastman House earlier this year. When Bruce Boxleitner is first shown sitting at his cubicle working on a software program, I realized with a shock that I now had the same day job as this character. I was looking at myself, even though I had no ambitions in that direction when I first saw the film 28 years ago.

I wonder if anyone else was similarly influenced, since Tron came out quite early in the history of personal computing. One of the ironies of Tron is that, back when it was made, even imagery that was supposed to be perceived as digital had to be largely created through old-fashioned analog means. (In the 21st century, of course, it's completely the opposite; digital technology is regularly used to create images that are supposed to be accepted as real.)

I remember being a bit confused by the movie when I first saw it. I was obsessed with video games as a kid, and was under the impression that Tron would be a video game movie. It more or less delivered this for the first half, then seemed to get more abstract and confusing. But after repeated viewings on video, my young brain came to appreciate that the film was less about video games than about computers: it helped introduced me to users and programs, input and output, bits and bugs.

Set in a self-consciously artificial world, Tron is (perhaps inevitably) simplistic in its story and characters, and gets a bit slow and meandering once the two lead characters, Flynn and Tron, are separated from each other by the plot. But it creates a unique and imaginative world with its own strange rules. It's a purely conceptual universe where programs are living, thinking humanoids that have the same likeness as their creators – “our spirit remains in every program we design,” says one elderly programmer early in the film.

The audience doesn't need to be told that these characters glow brighter when they're emotional and fainter when they're weakened, or that when they die their particles disperse and are reabsorbed into the environment. (I also like the subtle touch that the older, more obsolete programs have hand-drawn, hieroglyphic-style patterns on their costumes, as opposed to the circuit-like patterns worn by the younger characters.) This is visual storytelling, and the fact that these exotic and esoteric concepts are so easily communicated in the guise of a straightforward summer action movie may actually qualify as a kind of genius.

Other themes that may have been intended by the filmmakers were less obvious to me as a kid. On one of the DVD extras, writer/director Steve Lisberger claims that the film depicted the conflict between the personal computer and the mainframe – the idea being, presumably, that characters such as Flynn, Tron and Clu represent individual will and freedom, while the Master Control Program represents authoritarian control. Like its precursor Star Wars, Tron champions freedom, creativity and innovation while itself being an example of these values.

I haven't paid too much attention to the viral marketing for Tron Legacy (well, apart from a six-hour round trip to Toronto with my friend Scott just to see the two-minute trailer when it was first unveiled). I'm trying not to watch the increasing amounts of footage that Disney has been putting online, because I want to be surprised by the finished film. From what I have seen, the visuals appear to be more impressive than the writing, but then that was true of the original Tron as well. It's been a while since I went to a midnight movie opening (I'm still kicking myself for not attending the earliest screenings of Grindhouse or Snakes on a Plane), but I ain't gonna miss this one.



Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Beast Pageant and other Rochester films

The day after my premiere screening of Saberfrog at The Cinema, another Rochester-produced film made its debut at the George Eastman House. That film was The Beast Pageant, a surreal feature by Eastman House employees Jon Moses (who also starred) and Albert Birney. It looked amazing from the online trailer, but unfortunately the debut screening conflicted with rehearsal for an RIT student film I was in (more on that later) and I had to miss it. Fortunately, the film was scheduled to be shown again this past Friday at the Little Theater.

I was fully intending to be out of town this past Friday. The organizers of the only film festival to accept my previous feature now had a film of their own playing at another film festival in Ottawa, and I was planning to go there to support them, but a second chance to see The Beast Pageant was a tempting alternative. When the workload at my day job prevented me from traveling on Friday anyway, it meant I could see The Beast Pageant after all.

Since there were two showings, I was able to attend the later show and still go see another movie – Beyond Gotham, a documentary about upstate New York's hip hop scene that was playing at the Baobab Cultural Center. (That there were two locally made independent films to choose from that night seems like a healthy sign for the future of filmmaking in Rochester.)

Beyond Gotham was a low-tech production covering the hip hop scenes in Kingston (the director's hometown), Albany, and most of all Rochester. I'm neither a pop music expert nor a great judge of documentaries, and though I enjoyed the film well enough I found the director himself far more inspiring. Going by the handle of “Juse”, he explained that hip hop wasn't just music, but a grassroots, DIY movement and lifestyle that was being embraced by artists of every ethnicity, across the country and around the world. It made me feel that independent filmmaking was also, in a sense, hip hop.

Then it was on to The Beast Pageant. It was a very hirsute audience I saw the film with, and unusually for a Rochester film event there was almost no one there that I knew personally; it was good to know that there was a large indie/art crowd in Rochester beyond the tight community I usually interact with.

To sum up this movie as best as I can, a guy named Abraham works at a fish processing plant, and comes home every day to a lonely apartment where his only roommate is a giant machine with two talking-head personalities: a droning-voiced woman who provides companionship, and a bearded man who offers him instant access to consumer goods. One day Abraham develops a parasitic twin – a tiny singing cowboy (presumably representing Abraham's repressed soul) who grows out of his stomach. After this happens, Abraham leaves the grim nameless city he lives in and ends up in an outdoor realm, where even stranger things happen.

A rarity among low-budget indie films today, The Beast Pageant was shot on black-and-white 16mm stock, using a Bolex camera that was (according to the film's website) salvaged from a dumpster. This film looks and sounds amazing. The handmade sets, props and costumes are detailed and imaginative, and the music and sound design are simply incredible. The film was entirely post-dubbed (and the minimalist dialogue and slow line readings seemed designed to facilitate this), but this gave the filmmakers full reign to create an entirely new, layered soundtrack that is absolutely striking. A minotaur-like creature who appears late in the film is made genuinely fearsome by the thundering soundtrack created for it, and the computer's disjointed female voice saying “Welllcomme hoooome Aaaabraahaaammm” still echoes in my head days after seeing the film.

In the post-screening Q&A, the directors said they were influenced by Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer. While I can see both of those influences in the film, I was surprised they didn't mention David Lynch's Eraserhead, which The Beast Pageant was reminding me of even before the weird crying baby showed up; there seemed to be parallels not only in the general theme (urban factory worker dreams of escape) but in the moody black-and-white photography and the attention to sound design. However, The Beast Pageant is much more whimsical and comedic.

Even at 74 minutes the film is a bit slow at times (the early scenes establishing Abraham's dull job seemed to go on longer than necessary), and I found it jarring any time a clearly produced-on-video image (such as the goofy animated commercials viewed by Abraham on his computer) intruded on the grainy 16mm mood that otherwise predominated. Despite these quibbles, The Beast Pageant is a unique achievement. Birney and Moses could have made a straightforward genre film or a small-scale drama, but instead chose to make something bold and bizarre. Definitely check this one out if it screens near you.


My weekend of Rochester indie cinema didn't end on Friday, though. The next day I went to RIT to see student films being screened, including the one I'd starred in. I didn't stay for the entire program, but I stayed long enough to see a good variety of movies – some clearly trying to look like Hollywood productions, and some following their own strange mutant path.

Sweaters Over Plaid and A Kitty Cat (formerly titled Jerry And His Cat, a title I personally liked better) went over well with the audience. While the character of Jerry was nerdy and unflattering, I'd taken a page from my friend John Karyus' book and fully embraced the role as a chance to make a fool of myself on-camera. The resulting performance got laughs, and even applause at one point.

A film I enjoyed even more, though, was Thr33 Men & A Zombie, a doofusy fake sitcom about college dudes putting up with a zombie roommate, intercut with cheesy fake commercials for nonexistent shows and products. While the faculty seemed to find the film lowbrow and foolish, to me this was exactly the kind of warped slacker comedy that embodied the spirit of RIT student filmmaking. (I also liked its synopsis in the program book: “Two people who have nothing in common said they both kinda liked it.” Even better, though, was the synopsis for a film I didn't stick around to see: “This is my thesis. There are many like it but this one is mine.”


I had just enough time to get a quick dinner before going to Visual Studies Workshop for another show of weird and wonderful old 16mm films from the proverbial vault. This month's selection of films had a “drug” theme, and organizer Dan Varenka provided appropriately themed snacks – brownies, red-and-blue candy, donut holes with powdered sugar, and little bags of potato chips.

Two films stood out for their star power. Stand Up For Yourself: Peer Pressure and Drugs (1987) got a surprised laugh from the audience by starring an uncredited but unmistakable Cuba Gooding Jr. I'm 90 percent certain that Cirroc Lofton (the kid who played Jake Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was also in the film. After this, The Perfect Drug Film (1971) lived up to its title by starring Beau Bridges as a suspiciously mellow host.


The day after that, Sunday, I went to Buffalo to hang out with my peeps at the Buffalo Video-Movie Makers group. I also booked another Buffalo-area showing of Saberfrog – this time at The Screening Room (3131 Sheridan Drive in Amherst) on Wednesday, December 8th at 7:30 pm. Admission is $6 unless you worked on the damn thing, then it's free!



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A cheerfulness manifesto

Yesterday was the final day of shooting for an RIT student film in which I had a starring role. I played Jerry, a neurotic oddball obsessed with his cat, and the film was called (with admirable Snakes on a Plane bluntness) Jerry and His Cat. This was the second RIT student film I got to act in during the last year or so (the previous role being a zombie in the student-made feature film Project Nine).

It's been fun to be part of the RIT filmmaking scene again, more than a decade after graduating. For one thing, I've had a chance to observe the advances in the school's film equipment. Digital SLRs have replaced the Bolex and the CP-16; card-based digital audio recorders have replaced Nagras and even DATs.

I've also gotten to observe a slight change in the student culture as well. The RIT film department was a haven of eccentricity and insanity when I was there, and ex-classmates John Karyus and Dan Didsbury have regaled me with tales of the foolishness and hijinks that went on in and out of class. But while the young crew of Jerry and His Cat were certainly irreverent, they weren't crazy. They were competent, and cheerful, and didn't seem to be wracked by inner demons compelling them to screw everything up.

This is a huge generational shift.

I sometimes hear old fuddy-duddies (and sadly this includes many people my own age) complain that millenials, aka Generation Y, are silly and shallow, just because they have actual social skills and don't spend every waking hour complaining about their miserable lot in life. Jeff Gordinier's book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking seems to sum up this attitude; it's an amusing read but an irksome one, since its overall thesis seems to be “How dare people younger or older than me exist?!”

Frankly, I think the millenials' attitude is a refreshing change. I'm tired of the cloud of resentment that seems to follow every Generation X-er through life. A couple years ago I was in Greenwich Village, near where I went to college, and as I observed the local students walking past me while talking on their cell phones, I noticed a behavior that I seldom saw back in my “day”: They were smiling.

The children of the 80s/90s seem to have a much healthier attitude to life than those born in the 70s. While I get tired of the ongoing hype surrounding social media (did our forebears take this long to calm down about telephones?), there's little doubt in my mind that the Internet, and digital technology in general, have made it much easier for people to connect with each other and gain access to culture. People are less isolated, and more able to express themselves.

Yes, there is a dark side to all this – it's easier for people to spread abuse and misinformation. It's hard to read the comments section of any online news article without thinking that the veneer of human civilization is disintegrating. But I'd rather have too much speech than too little.

Once in a while we do need to step away from the online chatter, catch our breath, and regain our perspective. Jon Stewart spoke for thousands, if not millions, this past Saturday in his plea for sanity, dignity and cooperation; it may be the most important speech of our fragile new century, even if it took a talk-show jester to deliver it.

In some recent posts I've been expressing despair about the kinds of audiences who resist originality and complain incesssantly about irrelevant trivia. But there are plenty of people out there who are a bit more open-minded, who aren't so relentlessly possessive and intransigent. And I've decided that theirs is the world I will travel in from now on.

After the RIT shoot, I wandered over to the campus bookstore. Flipping through a book I found in the film/TV section, I found a passage in which the author explained why Hollywood is dominated by remakes and sequels right now – because something original would be too big a financial risk.

I sort of suspected that. But seeing it spelled out like that, as a cold hard fact in black-and-white, gave me pause. The book went on to point out something else that I did already know – that the independent film industry, at least as we knew it in Miramax's 1990s heyday, was dead.

When I shot Saberfrog two years ago, I was laboring under two key assumptions. One was that you could still make a cheap movie on credit cards, get it into a festival, and expect a distributor to snap it up and make you a star. The other was that there was still a huge mass audience that craved indie filmmaking as an alternative to formulaic Hollywood, and was still eager to be challenged and have their view of the world expanded. These were slightly outdated assumptions, but I'm glad I didn't know better; if I had, I might not have made the movie.

I used to hear sci-fi fans complain about the lousiness of Hollywood movies, but the movies they complained about were always hack action movies based on video games or old TV shows. This always used to strike me as hypocrisy – they claimed to care about quality, yet only watched the worst movies they could find. When something came along that was worthwhile – such as the Sam Rockwell movie Moon, for example – they would say “Oh … I wanted to see that, I heard it was good.”

But now I realize that what audiences really crave today, far more than quality, is familiarity. When entertainment choices are limited (as they used to be), you crave diversity and novelty. When entertainment choices are infinite (as they are now), you choose the entertainment that best supports the tastes and values you already have. From an artist's point of view, it might be less about creating an audience and more about finding an existing audience that matches.

In that case, what audience do we, as filmmakers, want to attract?

I have some future movie ideas in the proverbial drawer that used to appeal to me because they were moody, atmospheric, edgy, angsty – in a word, “dark”. But I've decided that I don't need to continue in that direction. Between script and completion, Saberfrog evolved from a comedy-drama into just a comedy … and is a much better movie for it. Somehow that seems to point the way forward.

Saberfrog came out of my own personal issues about the direction my life was headed at that time, and transformed those issues into wacky humor. It was a summation of the themes that had defined my life up to that point.

But my next project will come from a different place. It's a new world. Other people can cling to past hurts if they want to, but I'm moving forward.

There are many people who are content simply to complain about the world. Many of them seem to regard the Internet, and digital filmmaking tools, as yet more avenues for voicing their complaint. But deep down, I regard creativity as a positive force, and the creation of art as a positive act. The filmmakers (and artists in general) that inspired me most are the ones who set a better example, who showed that there was something more to life.

Today is Election Day. A lot of people are mad right now, and tomorrow the madness will probably continue. But just because everyone around you is telling you to be crazy doesn't mean you have to obey.

You can set a better example.

You can lead a better life.

You can do good works, and be happy.




This has been a public service announcement.



Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I'm skipping Halloween this year

(Warning: I wrote this post after enduring a long and painful week at work that left me in no mood to deal with depressing things or depressing people. It was a gloomy weekend that forced me to think hard about what I really cared about. A couple days later I felt better, as you'll see in the next blog post after this one.)



The Little Theatre, Rochester's beloved arthouse, continued its Halloween tradition this year of hosting a 24-hour movie marathon of horror movies, preceded by a zombie walk. Whereas last year's marathon seemed devoted to well-worn chestnuts such as Night of the Living Dead, this year's lineup was a much newer crop including Shaun of the Dead, both Grindhouse movies, and The Human Centipede.

I was kind of looking forward to this, but when the date arrived, I found that I just wasn't in the Halloween spirit. The thought of walking down the street on a freezing October night making a spectacle of myself, covered in zombie makeup that I'd have to wash off when I got home, didn't sound all that fun. I didn't even feel like going out to see the films either, or doing anything else Halloween-related this weekend.

Paul Cornell, the acclaimed Doctor Who writer, once observed that when you're young, you love stories about darkness and sickness and tragedy because these things haven't happened to you yet; as you get older, and have actually had to cope with pain and loss and disappointment, you're not as amused by such themes in your entertainment.

I know what he means – as an adolescent I found it thrilling to discover films like Eraserhead, A Clockwork Orange, and Pink Flamingos, and so my younger self would probably have been game to see the Rochester premiere of The Human Centipede, a recent cult film in which three people are surgically forced together, ass-to-mouth, so that anything the first person excretes must pass through the two hapless victims behind him. But my adult self just isn't interested. In October 2010, it seems silly to pay $5 to submit to that kind of degradation when there are enough forces in the real world that will degrade me for free.

But there's a bigger reason why I'm kind of giving the whole Halloween thing a pass this year, and that has to do with how the world in general has changed.

The usual armchair-Freud explanation for our love of Halloween is that it's an escape from our ordinary, humdrum existence. Once a year we get to indulge ourselves, wear outrageous costumes, eat candy, and generally let ourselves go. Horror movies – which go with Halloween like peanut butter with chocolate – allow us to indulge our worst fears and our most forbidden desires.

Except that nowadays, the stuff we usually associate with Halloween is with us all year round. Pop culture is pretty much all about vampires, zombies, and serial killers, no matter what month it is on the calendar. Go to Vertex, or whatever the equivalent Goth club is nearest you, and you can see people in cloaks, capes and armor 52 weekends a year. There are several dozen sci-fi, horror, comics and gaming conventions all year (several within a day's drive of Rochester) that encourage cosplay. If you live in that world all the time, Halloween is just another unbirthday.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and trendiness breeds snobbery. I saw the Twilight movie with my vampire-loving ex, and like so many others I laughed out loud at the scene where Edward glitters in the sunlight. The reason I laughed, though, was because it was such blatant fan service to a female audience – he's the perfect man because he sparkles like a diamond, and as sexual fantasies go that's probably the equivalent of Rose McGowan being half-machine-gun in Planet Terror. But I gave Stephenie Meyer credit for coming up with a creative twist on the vampire premise – in her universe, vampires avoid sunlight not because it kills them, but because it exposes them as nonhuman.

To many horror fans, though, this is such an unacceptable violation of vampire lore that “vampires don't sparkle” is fast becoming as widespread a meme as “Han shot first”. This attitude strikes me as absurd – there is such a wide range of vampire fiction, with individual authors and filmmakers feeling free to pick and choose different aspects of vampire lore and modify it to suit their own dramatic needs, such as deciding whether vampires are affected by sunlight at all (the ones in BBC's Being Human aren't), whether garlic and crosses have any actual effect in their universe, where vampires came from in the first place, how new ones are created, and whether they have a supernatural or scientific explanation.

I don't actually care about Twilight one way or the other, so it's weird to find myself in the position of defending it, but I don't get why horror fans are clamping down so hard on this one infidel when the other 99% of fictional vampires who don't sparkle are still out there for their consumption.

I'm also sick of the silly arguments about whether fast-moving zombies are acceptable, or whether the infected folks in 28 Days Later or Pontypool should be classified as zombies. Once again, the fan mentality seems to be “Damn these original thinkers! Don't they understand that our genre is about cliches and conformity?”

Never mind that the original vampires of folklore were basically reanimated corpses, and that our romanticized concept of a vampire is mostly a 19th-century literary creation. Or that the zombie is a voodoo concept that was given a secular reinvention by low-budget filmmakers.

As much as horror aficionados try to define themselves as picked-on, marginalized monsters, to me they're seeming more and more like the torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob who set out to destroy anything that's different. Their obsession with enforcing often-corny “rules” (just like the mainstream they claim to despise), rather than judging individual works on their merits, has, for me, leached a lot of the fun out of horror.

Is horror even supposed to be fun anymore? I often hear people rail against the mere existence of PG-13 horror films, as if the very idea of a horror movie that most high school kids could see in the theater without a parent is a bowdlerized abomination. One could point out that Poltergeist, a classic according to anyone I've ever met, was rated PG in 1982, or that older films from Nosferatu to Psycho still entertain fans today, or that many grown adults will admit that they were terrified of the Viacom logo, the 1970s Doctor Who theme, or the trees in The Wizard of Oz. One might also suggest (if one was especially brave) that their real objection to teen-friendly horror films stems from an unwillingness to a) admit to being old, and b) allow the next generation to have a childhood too.

But such arguments would miss the point somehow, because apparently horror films don't necessarily have to be frightening anymore; they only have to be “extreme” or “hardcore” in their graphic imagery, so that instead of being entertained you can just look down your nose at other people whose stomachs aren't as strong as yours.

It's possible to make a movie that's scary and gory, and it's equally possible to make a movie that's scary without gore. But I guess I still cling to the idea that the “scary” part is what actually matters, and that gore is just a stylistic choice, to be used as much (or as little) as an individual director deems fitting. To many modern horror fans, though, it seems to be the opposite – gore is what really counts (well, that and obeying the genre rules), and whether the movie is actually dramatic at all is not to be discussed.

We're living in the Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, in which twisted freaks define what's normal and acceptable, and anything potentially beautiful or distinctive is considered deviant. I guess that's what it really comes down to for me – it no longer seems enjoyable to play with the dark side once a year. Not when we're forced to live on the dark side all the time, ruled by people whose only taboo is against fun.

Maybe next year I'll feel differently. But right now, Halloween asks me to celebrate all the things that I spend the other 364 days of the year losing interest in.

(Yikes! Fortunately I worked through these issues; click here to find out how.)


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buffalo Premiere

Yesterday – October 23 – was the Buffalo premiere of Saberfrog, held at Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center, a fitting choice since it had been the shooting location for the finale of the movie, filmed on Day 2 of production.

I'd spent the previous two weekends plastering Buffalo with flyers, and also promoted the film at the Buffalo Comicon convention and at the monthly Buffalo Movie-Video Makers meeting. In doing so I encountered a lot of enthusiasm for the movie, based on the premise and the flyer, and based on this I was looking forward to a big turnout.

Saturday evening turned out to be grim and rainy, however, and this probably kept a lot of people away. The showing was still a modest success – enough people showed up that I made back the cost of renting the space, plus a (tiny) profit.

The film's two lead actors, Liz Mariani (now back in the States) and Wendy Foster, were present at the showing. Several friends of John Karyus were also there, including a mutual friend from RIT. Overall, the audience – though less raucous than the Rochester audience – seemed to really dig Saberfrog. Of all the scenes in the movie, Terrance's one-man play and Bert's online video mashup got the biggest laughs.

The Squeaky Wheel projectionist, Mark, complimented me on the film afterwards, and said that there were other competing events going on in Buffalo that weekend that might have kept the turnout from being higher. He also said it was refreshing to see a low-budget film that put some care into the sound. This was something of a relief to hear, as the quality of location audio had been wildly uneven and I'd worked long and hard to fix as many audio problems as I could during production. While my jaded ear can still hear the remaining flaws, casual moviegoers seem not to notice them.

I'm planning to continue four-walling theaters and alternative venues for the movie, but the farther away I get from the film's home “base”, the harder it's going to be to promote screenings, let alone attend them in person. Promotion of the Rochester and Buffalo screenings was very grassroots – putting up flyers, spreading the word among friends and friends-of-friends – with emphasis on the film's local origins. Drawing a crowd in other cities is going to require much more aggressive marketing, including traditional media – news articles and print/radio/TV interviews.

A much simpler approach would be to just get the film into festivals, although the cost of getting rejected at multiple festivals is comparable to the cost of renting a space yourself – and if you rent a space yourself, you can charge admission and make at least some of that money back. Still, the film has proven itself as a crowd-pleaser, so maybe I'll have some halfway decent luck on the festival circuit.

I'm already working on future screenings, though, and I'll let you know what happens next …



Wednesday, October 20, 2010

16mm awesomeness in three cities

When I was a kid, we used to watch short films in class, generally prefaced by a title card that said “from the Reynolds Collection of the Rochester Public Library” or words to that effect. Many of these were educational films of the sort so often parodied in commercials and comedy shows. But some were just … odd. They may have been comedies, or art films, or animations, or various combinations thereof, but the purpose of showing these films in class seems elusive in hindsight.

The most famous of these was Hardware Wars, which had a decent afterlife on cable and video, but many of the others are now obscure. Some I can still kind of remember if I think about it enough, while others have largely faded from my memory.

These kinds of films showed up not only in class, but in more public settings as well. The Rochester Museum and Science Center's Eisenhardt Auditorium had weekend shows of kid's movies (I remember seeing animated films based on the Paddington Bear books and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat). A robotic-dinosaur exhibit that came to the RMSC in the mid-80s was accompanied, in one room, by a set of dinosaur-related films, including Will Vinton's famous Siskel-and-Ebert parody Dinosaur and a more realistic stop-motion film from the National Film Board of Canada. (I – or, more likely, my mom – actually videotaped these films from the audience with our giant camcorder, back in the days when no one thought to object to such behavior; maybe I can still find that tape if I dig through enough boxes.) When my family traveled to Toronto to see the Ontario Science Center, my favorite “exhibit” was a small booth that showed the stream-of-consciousness clay-animated film Clay, Or The Origin of Species.

I can remember when a local library branch put on a little animation festival in a room upstairs. The films themselves included Jiri Trnka's stop-motion film The Hand, in which a stop-motion puppet is relentlessly pursued by a marauding human hand; an art-film parody called The Critic, in which the voice of Mel Brooks heckles an abstract film in humorous proto-MST3K fashion; and a Disney adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. There were two other films whose titles are unknown to me – a time-lapse movie of a building under construction, which I guess counts as an animated film; and a film about an urban family attending a funeral, seen from the point of view of the youngest family, and depicted in a constantly flowing art style that was probably created using finger paint. [Update: I've since seen the latter film again: it's The Street by Caroline Leaf.] Those are the five I can still remember, over a quarter-century later; whatever other films might have been in the program are now long-forgotten by me.

The 70s and (early to mid-)80s must have been the boom time for such things; back then, you would still see obscure short films padding out the running time between movies on cable, and of course Sesame Street and The Electric Company had their share of whimsical, borderline-experimental animation. Yet I seldom seemed to meet people from other areas who had similar memories of seeing oddball animated films in class or elsewhere. This left me wondering if the Rochester area – or perhaps my grade school in particular – was somehow unique in exposing its students to oddball short films that seemed to come from nowhere. Even as the home video boom made movies more accessible, and the Internet made it easier to dig up information on even the most esoteric topics, these obscure 70s/80s films seemed to drift into the dreamlike haze of fading childhood memories.

But these films had a huge impact on me as a kid. They always looked handmade; anyone who owned a home movie camera with single-frame capabilities could theoretically make one. The fact that these films were made by no one you'd ever heard of, and shown in environments other than regular movie theaters, must have also intrigued my young brain somehow. I credit these unsung films with inspiring me to make my own films.

Some time in the late 90s/early 2000s, the Rochester library donated its 16mm film collection to the Visual Studies Workshop, a school/art gallery (associated with SUNY Brockport) which also played host to the occasional underground film event. Yet except for a single multimedia show early on (in which old industrial films were played as background), the VSW never seemed to do anything with that vast and mysterious collection for years afterward.

My interest in “ephemeral” films (as I guess they're called now) was rekindled a couple years ago when Skip Elsheimer, manager of the AV Geeks film collection, came to town to put on a show at the George Eastman House. Lo and behold, here were exactly the sorts of weird and wonderful films I saw as a kid, even if the particular titles were new to me – such as Shake Hands With Danger, a workplace-safety industrial film whose title song has become an Internet phenomenon; and Malakapalakadoo, Skip Too, a truly bizarre clay animation intended to encourage children to use their imaginations. When I later went to the AV Geeks website and browsed their list of films, I found titles that I did recall from back in the day, such as The Wave (a film about students forming a paramilitary clique) and an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. I slept better at night knowing that films like these were still out there, still remembered, and still loved.

Why am I writing about all this now? Well, such is the revival that these films are enjoying that I have been able see such films as they were meant to be seen – on 16mm in an alternative venue – in three different cities over a seven-day period, without even realizing it until later.


BUFFALO

The adventure began on Sunday, October 10, when I went to Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo to see a show of experimental animation that was being presented as part of the Buffalo Film Festival. Squeaky's website explained that this was actually a traveling animation show, separate from the Buffalo festival, and co-managed by Larry Cuba, who did the computer-animated Death Star plans for the original Star Wars. Cuba would be at the event in person, and showing three of his own experimental films from the 1970s/80s.

That the event had such low attendance is a measure of how far the arty world and the geek world have drifted apart from each other. This was a free event, and the equation of “free event” plus “guy who did special effects for Star Wars” probably could have draw every fan within a 200-mile radius if only that audience had heard of the event and/or had any taste for abstract animation. It's too bad because, in my brain, the two worlds still seem linked somehow. George Lucas' background was in experimental filmmaking before he went down the Power-Of-Myth road, and to me there's not really a big difference between an abstract 1970s computer animation and, say, Pong or Asteroids; it's all pioneering stuff from the early days of digital imagery.

I'd lost my appetite for purely abstract films after being force-fed too much of it in college, but I still dig the 70s ones, partly because they have a certain innocence to them (with none of the anger or pretentiousness that seemed to take over in later years) and partly because they tend to have groovy soundtracks. Cuba's three films, and some other old-school animations that he also screened, were an enjoyable blast from the past.


TORONTO

A mere five days later – on Friday – I decided to hoof it to Toronto for an evening to catch a film screening or two. I'd received Facebook notices about a couple different screenings going on that evening. One was a film festival event, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to network and spread the word about Saberfrog. The other was the regular Friday-night screening at Trash Palace, an industrial building (apparently used as a small press during the week) that screens 16mm films on Friday night. It was the latter that I ended up attending.

I'd been to Trash Palace once before, for the same reason – there were a couple different screenings I wanted to go to in Toronto, but Trash Palace was the only one I could make it in time for. Last time they were presenting what was supposedly a show of rare early student films from people like Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Lasseter – a bit misleading, as these turned out to be live-action student films made by someone else, but gave minor credit (art direction or “Thanks to”) to Lasseter et al. Nonetheless, I got a taste of the Trash Palace experience and enjoyed it immensely, especially since other people brought their own 16mm student work to screen, which meant films I knew I would not have heard of and would never see again.

This time, the main event was a 1970s crime flick called Puppet on a String. The best way I can think of to describe this film is to say that it was like a blaxploitation film with an all-white cast. The film took place in Amsterdam, the main character was an American born in Holland (played by an actor with a Dutch-sounding name), and the cast seemed to generally be Brits (particularly the hero's obligatory you're-not-playing-by-the-rules superior), yet the film was full of Shaft-style badass music and fight scenes, including a rather impressive motorboat chase through the streets of Amsterdam.

The film was preceded by some pretty cool 1970s kung-fu trailers, with titles like The Chinese Professionals, Triple Iron, Black Dragon, and Black Samurai (those last two may have been the same film under two different titles).


ROCHESTER

I returned home to Rochester, and attended a 16mm screening the very next day at Visual Studies Workshop. Yes, VSW has finally begun unleashing its sweet collection of celluloid obscurity onto the public.

This was the second of what promises to be a monthly show at VSW; the first had had a specifically education/classroom theme, whereas this one was entitled “There Is No Reality” and was devoted to some of the more surreal and out-there films in the collection. Yeah.

The films included two Norman McLaren animations about moving lines (not quite as dull as it sounds, and actually quite hypnotic); the music video for the Dr. Demento-approved novelty song “Fish Heads”; and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down, a Richard Lester-esque film about a guy sitting in a bathtub on a New York pier and having various Magritte-like adventures.

Two of the films in the program were slightly familiar to me: K9000: A Space Oddity, a goofy animation about a dog who's captured by scientists (or whoever they are) and sent into space in a rocket ship to encounter a bunch of weird crap; and Why Me?, a National Film Board of Canada cartoon about the stages of acceptance faced by the terminally ill. Stills from both of these had been featured in the late-70s edition of Kit Laybourne's The Animation Book, which was a bible to me as a teenager; in fact, that book used storyboards and other development materials from Why Me? as examples. This was actually the second time I'd seen Why Me?, though I can't remember if I saw it in college or on cable TV.

The finale of the program, a 1970 film called Hello Mustache, was far more obscure; in fact, the guy curating the show said that he had been able to find out almost nothing about the film, “except that we have a copy.” This was a black-and-white, dialogue-heavy film about a hippie male (complete with poncho and brimmed hat) and a square female. Well, supposedly square, since she's wearing an outfit I didn't know was ever considered ordinary – a loud necktie with dress shirt, a vertically striped miniskirt, and white go-go boots. (I quite liked that look, though, and hope that it comes back; it didn't hurt that the actress wearing it was extremely cute.)

Both characters were Jewish New Yorkers, and it seemed like the film was trying to be a surreal/whimsical look at relationships in an Annie Hall-esque manner, but somehow ended up less like Woody Allen and more like David Lynch. This was partly due to the shadowy black—and-white photography, and partly due to the sheer strangeness of the dialogue. The opening scene of the film was just a black screen (with a small, moving white blob that may or may not have been just a scratch on the print) accompanied by a lengthy offscreen phone conversation between the two leads; I thought at first that the entire film would be like this. The ending of the film is equally memorable – the lead actress standing in the doorway of her apartment, at the end of a dimly hit hallway, forlornly calling the hippie – “Alan … Aaaaalaaaaan...” – like a mythical siren.

The sexual themes in both Hello Mustache and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down made me realize that there must be even more strange films in the Rochester library's collection than the ones I saw in class as a kid. Somehow I'd always assumed the films in that collection were all educational or otherwise kid-friendly, simply because those were the ones I would have seen. But clearly there are even deeper waters to be explored.

The enigma of Hello Mustache was as fascinating as the movie: Who made it, and why? Was this a theater piece that someone decided to commit to celluloid? Was this a student film, or funded by a grant? Did these people ever make any other movies? Where are they now, and are they even still alive? How did the Rochester library come to possess a copy – was it donated, or did they purchase it, and in either case how did the library come to know about the film in the first place? Was any of this at all unusual for the time, or was 16mm filmmaking (complete with optical sound) as common back then as, say, YouTube postings today? So many tantalizing mysteries.

The other great thing about seeing 60s/70s curiosities like Hello Mustache and K9000: A Space Oddity is that it reminded me why I was attracted to filmmaking in the first place. Nowadays, it seems, both Hollywood and the audience (now narrowly defined as the ComiCon audience only) seem to have mutually concluded that any new movie must now be based on something you already know before you even set foot in the theater – it must be a remake of a movie you've already seen, or a novel you've already read ... or a comic book, or a video game, or an old TV show … and must contain absolutely no artistic, creative or personal stamp.

But twenty, thirty, forty years ago, it was the opposite. Film was the medium where anything was possible.



Saturday, October 2, 2010

1 Week Ago: World Premiere at the Cinema

September 25, 2010

Well, this blog is just about caught up to the real world. One week ago, Saberfrog had its world premiere at the Cinema Theater in Rochester, NY.

I booked the screening a couple months beforehand, then scrambled to get the movie finalized in time, so I didn't devote nearly as much energy to promotion as I should have. I'd left flyers at the George Eastman House and the Little Theater (the latter only the week before), and also put up flyers at various arty venues and coffeehouses on East Ave, University Ave and Park Ave. I'd also made a special flyer to put up at the RIT film department, promoting the film's RIT connections; John Karyus and I had both been students there, and John Sindoni and I had both acted in Project Nine, a zombie anthology feature film made by RIT students.

The film was preceded by a short promo for vue, an iPad stand developed by my friends at Tango Design. I didn't have any merch to sell at the screening, so I invited them to promote their product and hopefully ship a few units.

I made a few glib opening remarks, and then the film began. The digital projection looked great, and the sound – which I thought wouldn't hold up – was also good, barring a few minor flaws that I hadn't quite been able to fix.

The screening drew a pretty good crowd. The film's animator, Frank Kielar, helped me run the box office, and we sold over forty tickets. Most of the main cast and several supporting actors were present, including J.D. Edmond (Josh), Reuben Tapp (Terrance), Wendy Foster (Aymee), John Sindoni (Garrison), Mary Criddle (Leopold), Diane Conway (Sondra), Jesse Conklin (Josh's boss), makeup artists Tom Gleason and Lance Kazmark, and extras Shawn Gleason, Derrick Petrush and Howard Golove. Sadly unable to attend were John Karyus (Bert), who was in LA, and Liz Mariani (Laurel), who was in Vancouver.

To my relief, the audience laughed pretty much all the way through. Not surprisingly, scene chewer John Karyus got a lot of the biggest laughs, though Reuben was a definite runner-up. The temp agency scene shot on Day 22 played like the studio taping of a sitcom – the audience laughed on cue at all the right places. The notorious record store scene from Day 9 also went down very well.

The post-screening Q&A was a little slow to warm up, but soon people were full of questions about where the movie was shot and how long it took to make. When asked what I was planning to do next, I got a laugh by saying that I was thinking about actually writing the fictitious novels that the main character is obsessed with. It wasn't a joke, though; I am actually working on it.

A trio of audience members, at least one of whom came from Monroe Community College (and luckily was one of the few to find a flyer at the Little), seemed to particularly enjoy the movie. One of them asked me about the true location of the college scenes. “Are you asking where those scenes were shot?” I asked coyly. No, he was wondering if the film's portrayal of academia was based on anyplace or anyone. I just smiled and said, “Let's just leave it there.”

The same audience member asked me if the movie was available for sale. I'd burned as many DVDs as possible the night before so I could give them to cast and crew, but I'd made more DVDs than there were cast and crew in attendance, so I ended up selling several copies of the movie.

The screening was a big success, especially considering the relatively small amount of publicity I'd done. I'd put out some flyers, and the cast and crew had invited their friends to attend, but due to lack of time I hadn't done any real press. The movie was a hit despite this, and there were many people who were unable to attend but asked me if there was going to be another screening. As a result, I am strongly considering another Rochester screening in the near future, since there seems to be a bigger audience that I could reach out to now that the movie is actually freaking finished.

After the screening, I went out to dinner with fellow filmmaker Adrian Esposito and his mom Kristina, along with Frank, J.D. and his wife Laurie. I hadn't seen J.D. and Laurie in over a year, so it was great to see them and catch up. As if on cue, Karyus called me, and I let him and J.D. catch up.

Seeing the finished film with an enthusiastic audience was an out-of-body experience. I'd spent four years writing and rewriting the script, getting actors and locations, juggling a complicated shooting schedule, and editing and re-editing until almost every blemish was gone and every dead spot was tightened up. It was an autobiographical story in a lot of ways, too, that just bubbled out of me during a turbulent period in my own life, so it was somehow liberating to see the whole thing play out as just a wild, fun comedy.

The next scheduled screening is in Buffalo on October 23, 7 pm, at Squeaky Wheel. Admission is $7, or $5 if you're a Squeaky Wheel member. Be there if you still haven't seen the movie, or if you just can't get enough.



Friday, October 1, 2010

No one is forcing you to see Star Wars in 3D

(December 10 note: From an early age I've been obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. This inspired me to become a writer and filmmaker myself, and also to enter the field of computing.

Somehow, I thought the imagination and complexity of SF was similarly inspiring to others. Over the last four or five years, however, I've felt increasingly alienated from nerd culture and “fandom” – or at least fanboys.

I've always admired and identified with filmmakers and creative people. Fanboys don't. They regard film as a second-class art form that exists only to create adaptations of other art forms (comic books, TV shows, old novels) or to perpetuate aging franchises. They are passive consumers of mainstream pop culture, yet somehow believe that hating the stuff they're passively consuming is enough to make them smart. They seem less interested in seeking out the good stuff than in focusing on stuff they can complain about and sneer at.

I finally realized that, if you aspire to be in any way creative, clever or imaginative, these guys are not your audience, nor are they your peers.

The latest round of bitching about
Star Wars gave me a reason to vent about all this once and for all. While some of my words below are harsh and perhaps overly emotional, these are things that I had to get off my chest.

In the 90s it seemed everyone was aspiring to be an artist. Today, being a sneering fan/consumer is what's cool, and I'm determined to resist this. Doing so makes me a heroic defender of highbrow aspirations, or an out-of-touch snob, or both.)


“If it hadn't been for the self-discipline … my [school] work would never have gotten done. I felt there were a lot of kids that never figured that out, and they just sort of whiled away their lives and woke up one day to find out they were thirty-five years old and hadn't amounted to much.”

--George Lucas on how he made it through college, in Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock



I'd like to take a break from talking about my own movie, Saberfrog, to talk about another movie – or rather, a set of movies – that seems unlikely to fade away any time soon.

Just when it seemed like my generation had managed to go a whole week without complaining about George Lucas, predictable nerd outrage has greeted the news – long talked about, now confirmed – that the six Star Wars movies would be released in 3D in the next few years, in numerical order, starting with The Phantom Menace.

While I'm as big a Star Wars fan as anyone else my age, I have to confess that I'm a little tired of Star Wars as a topic, no matter what the context. And I'm especially tired of listening to my generation foam at the mouth about the new films.

So thoroughly did Star Wars make the future safe for itself (to paraphrase Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) that no one – at least, no one currently under forty – can quite remember why the original film was such a big deal when it first came out. Geek culture has taken over so completely that no one remembers why Star Wars was such a breakthrough in the depressed 70s, nor how disreputable sci-fi was before then. Fans take for granted the idea that every cantina creature and background robot has its own identity and backstory, forgetting that sci-fi movies and TV almost never had that level of detail before George Lucas – inspired by his love of Japanese films that felt no need to spell out their rules for a Western audience – decided to apply the same strategy to an invented universe.

When I was a little kid, it wasn't yet possible to waste your entire life watching the Star Wars trilogy over and over on home video. Instead, there were TV specials and magazine articles that detailed the making of the movies, showing how puppets, miniatures and stop-motion animation were deployed to make an imaginary world come to life.

Most of all, there was Dale Pollock's 1983 book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, which detailed the man in plaid's rise from teenage misfit to film-school prodigy to world-famous filmmaker. It covered Star Wars' painful journey from concept to completion – Lucas' two-year struggle to write a decent script, the sandstorm that destroyed his sets early in the shoot, his struggles with the English crew, the studio's horror at the incoherent rough cut, and ILM spending half their budget with just a handful of effects shots to show for it. The book not only inspired me to be a filmmaker, but demonstrated the amount of persistence, determination and stamina required to make your aspirations come true.

Though written when Lucas was at his popular and creative peak (Return of the Jedi was still in production when the book was written), it also gave voice to many criticisms of Lucas that were common even then – that he wasn't very good at writing dialogue or directing actors. But his determination to succeed even in areas where he wasn't naturally gifted is still an inspiration to me.

Lucas apparently never had the quitter attitude that so many of my generation have embraced. Even in film school, when his classmates complained about lack of resources, Lucas' attitude was: “If I got sixteen feet of film [about half a minute of 16mm], I made a sixteen-foot-long movie. Nothing could stop me.”

My theory on writing is that people who regard themselves as powerless, who can't imagine anything they do having an impact, are the ones who write a page or a paragraph and then get stuck, because they can't envision their protagonist actually doing anything. By contrast, Lucas has written or co-written the screenplays for over a dozen completed feature films, including all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films – a resume of admittedly varying quality, but not so bad for someone who “can't write”. Whatever his weaknesses with dialogue, he is capable of constructing plots, which is perhaps the hardest and most challenging aspect of writing, an aspect that many people never master.

The Star Wars movies have always explicitly been about taking a stand and making moral decisions, perhaps because Lucas – according to most Star Wars-related interviews I've seen or read, even those that predate the original film's release – was trying to communicate positive values to a generation otherwise growing up without them. That's quite a noble goal, even though – judging by how the Star Wars generation has turned out – it seems he failed pretty spectacularly.


“[T]he behavior of the children, that is, the fans, does not resemble the noble ideals set forth in the writings and pronouncements of the parents, the writers … For them, courage and rational behavior are alien concepts only to be read about in slambang space operas. Such concepts do not impinge upon their miserable lives in the real world.”

--Harlan Ellison, “Xenobiogenesis” (1990)



The Star Wars style of special-effects fantasy – along with much else that symbolized the 80s – faced a stern backlash in the grunge era. By the time I was in college, everything was about Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino and the culture wars; it's stunning to remember that Lee's Malcolm X opened to the same kind of hype and anticipation as The Phantom Menace would just seven years later. I became familiar with – if not quite agreeing with – the orthodox account of film history, which stated that Star Wars had had a terrible effect on movies by dumbing everything down with action and special effects.

By the end of the 90s, though, people were lightening up a bit. Even though I'd kind of moved on from Star Wars, and had become a fan of many other things – Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg and Harlan Ellison – it was kind of cool to have the Star Wars saga finally resume, something I never thought would actually happen.

I saw The Phantom Menace opening night, and had mixed feelings but didn't hate it. It took too long to get going, and the final battles weren't as stirring as they should have been, but I enjoyed most of it at the time. It's aged badly, neither delivering the thrills of the original trilogy nor setting up the darker direction of parts II and III, but I certainly didn't think I'd seen a film that would one day be considered synonymous with evil.

My own life took some rough turns in the years spanning Episodes II and III – I'd given up on my filmmaking ambitions for various reasons – so I found a lot of resonance in the story of Anakin Skywalker, a guy who seemed to have so much potential but ended up blowing it. I completed a programming degree on the eve of Episode III's opening, and vividly remember finishing my last degree requirement in the morning before work, then going to the movies that evening to see Anakin complete his transformation into a machine-creature.

My friend John Karyus theorized that once all six movies were on DVD, people would marathon them all in story order and start to find unexpected connections between the films, so one weekend I sat down and put John's theory to the test. I wrote pages of notes about my thoughts and feelings, and based on those notes I'm tempted to make a series of blog entries about the experience.

Yet a large part of me just wants to let it drop. I've grown so tired of this entire subject. I know what Star Wars means to me, and am fed up with having to listen to other people's hostility on the matter.


Digression: I collect old Doctor Who episodes on DVD. A year or two ago, I went to Borders looking for the most recent release, and when I couldn't find it I asked a clerk for help. When he found the episode for me, another (female) clerk observed us and asked, disapprovingly, “You're not buying Colin Baker, are you?” referring to the sixth actor to play the Doctor. It actually wasn't a Colin episode, but something about the cover made her think that it was, and she started explaining to me how she didn't like his version of the Doctor, apparently hoping I'd agree.

Some months later, I (thoughtlessly) went back to the same Borders for another old Doctor Who, and this time it was a Colin episode I was purchasing. When I got to the checkout desk, there were two clerks … and one of them was her. Oh please no, I thought. Please let the other one call on me instead. No such luck. Fangirl called me to the desk, I gave her the DVD, and she briefly lit up – “Doctor Who!!!” – before immediately sneering, “Oh. It's Colin.” Again she started in with her Colin-hatred, all the while smiling and trying to get me to agree with her, when all I wanted to do was just buy my DVD and get the hell out of there.

People like that make me realize how Nazi Germany came about. She was sweet and smiling and charming, she clearly was pleased to meet another old-school Doctor Who fan and wanted to bond with me. And yet, what she wanted to bond over was how much she hated something about it, and how much she disliked someone who had actually worked on it.

This is what I've seen again and again from the nerd mindset. It's not about genuinely loving and enjoying something. It's about finding something to hate, because – as every bully knows – bashing something you hate is a satisfying shortcut to self-esteem, especially when you have nothing else going for you.

There's something pathetic about people who are entirely dependent on mainstream, commercial pop culture for their identity when they don't even like it. The reason Lucas continues to infuriate the nerds so much is that he's a drug they can't wean themselves off of. No matter how much they grow to dislike his work, they cannot bring themselves to think about or talk about anything else instead.

I guess I just don't relate to that kind of passivity. To me, Star Wars was always something that somebody made, not some holy religious text. It's the product of a flawed but industrious human being, who'd made his most celebrated films by age 39, and who is now being bashed by people who have reached a similar age with much less to show for it.

I feel strongly about all this because I'm a writer and filmmaker myself, and have spent my life developing my craft and trying to get better at it. So my sympathies are with the people who do the work, not the people who complain. That's the real distinction – not between people who are cool or uncool, but between people who do the work and people who don't.

If there's anything that I am bitter about regarding the prequels in general, and Phantom Menace in particular, it's not so much the films themselves (which are certainly flawed, but also quite ambitious in their scope and themes). It's the effect they had on my age group as a whole. To a generation that otherwise seemed to value nothing but their own sarcasm, Star Wars was the one thing you were somehow allowed to like. It was the one thing you could sincerely enjoy without snobby nerds or contrary hipster dillweeds giving you a hard time. Today it's the opposite; Star Wars is the one thing you must absolutely never bring up in polite company unless you're prepared to risk being subjected to an angry ten-minute diatribe. If Phantom Menace had been a better-paced, better-acted movie, I don't think there would have been such a backlash; Episodes II and III could have been exactly the same as they are and would have been viewed more favorably. But still ... it's an 11-year-old movie! It's the same age now that Return of the Jedi was when Clerks came out. When are we going to move on?

Why is Star Wars so important? I know what it meant to me as a filmmaker, but what did it mean to all these angry fans and ex-fans, who continue to spew venom any time it's even mentioned? I'm sure that if you were to ask them, their responses would always contain the two words that make my skin crawl when I hear them uttered in a petulant tone from the mouth of a thirty- or forty-something adult:

“...my childhood.”

That's it. That's what Star Wars means to so many trolls born in the 70s and late 60s. Star Wars means clinging to the past, and avoiding responsibility or risk-taking. Pretty much the opposite of the characters in the movie, then.

When Phantom Menace first came out on video, Entertainment Weekly's Marc Bernardin wrote a review that has always stuck in my head:

“To do its job as a prequel, The Phantom Menace has to provide only three pieces of information: (1) introduce Anakin Skywalker ... and Amidala ...; (2) establish Obi-Wan Kenobi ... as Anakin's teacher; and (3) let us meet Palpatine ... before he becomes the evil emperor. We don't need to know anything about Gungans, senatorial chancellor elections, podraces, droid armies, or midi-chlorian levels.”


There are many criticisms of Phantom Menace I would agree with, but that isn't one of them. Bernardin isn't really criticizing Gungans or pod races per se. What he's actually saying here is: This movie shouldn't have had anything new in it. It shouldn't have had anything we didn't see coming. It should have consisted only of continuity references to films we've seen. It should have been predictable.

In this regard, Bernardin speaks for all the nerds who only go to movies that are remakes, or adaptations of familiar material from other media, even if it's just to complain about how wrongly they were done. New ideas, new styles, anything that might surprise you … these things are to be avoided at all costs.

I used to get mad when film snobs accused Star Wars of turning people into mindless, passive consumers. I used to think they were wrong. I'm not so sure anymore.

Will I be seeing the Star Wars movies in 3D? Maybe, maybe not. I might see Phantom Menace out of mild curiosity, to see if Lucas fixed anything (hopefully he at least replaces that cross-eyed Yoda puppet with CG) but otherwise … why? I've seen these movies already. Many times. And I own them all. In multiple versions, and multiple formats. I can watch them any time I want. Hell, I can watch the old ones in my head just by closing my eyes.

If you're planning to see the 3D versions when they come out, I hope you have a blast. If you're not, that's okay too; if you don't want to go see them, then don't. Just stop making such a goddamned fuss about a theatrical release that no one is forcing you to attend.

“I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned,” said Alec Guinness the last time Star Wars was re-released. I hear ya, Alec. I hear ya.