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.

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