Friday, January 14, 2011

Film snobbery in the digital age

“When I first came out here [to Hollywood], in the late '60s, I met guys like Richard Brooks and Billy Wilder who … would invariably talk about what shit was being produced then. I thought, These guys who made films that I thought were astounding, are totally out of it today. How can this happen? … Now … I feel like Wilder and Brooks, an old nag. And, like them in the early '70s, I think that most of the films being made in this country today are garbage.”
--William Friedkin, 1996

“It’s communication. I’m all about the conversation. It’s not about filmmaking … I’m not a filmmaker, I’m some weird [bleep] hybrid of something. And right now, film isn’t even the primary conversation for me. For me, I’m way more interested in being on stage, or [podcasting]. And film is like, as much as I love it, it’s just one way to talk to the audience.”
--Kevin Smith, 2010

The Smith quote is from an interview I'll mention later. The Friedkin quote is pulled from page 414 of Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a history of the wild adventures of the 1970s generation of maverick Hollywood directors.

Flipping through Biskind's book to search for that half-remembered Friedkin quote caused me to become transported back to the New Hollywood era. OK, I wasn't really around for that stuff at the time, but 1970s filmmaking was still very potent, and its directors still considered role models, when I was a film student in the 1990s.

The general attitude then was that that the 70s was the last time movies were actually good, and that anyone who wanted to make real movies should look back to that time for inspiration. A major reason why Miramax films such as Pulp Fiction were so celebrated in their day was precisely because they seemed like a throwback to the rawness, innovation and edginess of that earlier time, before movies became soulless and formulaic.

But here's the catch: What a control-freak grownup finds soulless and formulaic, an adventurous young person might find supercool and awesome. “The 1970s were better” version of film history almost always ends by demonizing Star Wars in particular, and genre filmmaking in general, without regard for the fact that the generation after them is loyal to those films above all others.

What I loved about the sci-fi and fantasy films of the 70s/80s was that they put original, never-before-seen worlds and visions onscreen. The films of George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and others showed that 70s/80s genre filmmaking was no less creative, no less “auteurist”, than the dramas of the 60s/70s.

In turn, big-budget fantasy films and action movies seemed to get toppled in the 1990s, with the rise of independent film as we know it today. You could feel a real generational shift happening as grunge and rap took hold. There was a growing dissatisfaction with regular Hollywood product, and a growing demand for films that were edgy and different and personal. But indie films – and dramas in general – have since lost the “it” factor, now that fanboy-friendly remakes and franchises have taken over.

Obviously, every generation eventually hits the age where its values are no longer a heroic challenge to the old guys, but a stuffy status quo being threatened by the young guys. Once that happens to you, it's time to make a course correction if you want to survive.

I've started thinking about all this for several reasons. As I ponder where to send Saberfrog next, I am forced to evaluate what I hope to gain by giving the film more exposure. The cultural landscape has changed multiple times since I first fell in love with filmmaking as a kid, and as George Santayana put it, “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” The recent return of Tron has also been pause for thought, but I'll get to that soon. (I've been working on this post since before it came out.)

Re-reading the anecdotes in Biskind's book reminded me just how passionate people used to be about filmmaking and film-viewing. There was something tactile and sensual about the whole process – carrying bulky film equipment to far-flung locations, like heroic explorers of a new continent … threading and splicing celluloid in an editing room, grease pencil ever ready to mark an important frame … and sitting in a darkened screening room, as cinematic dreams unspooled on a clackety projector.

It was still like that when I was a student. But several things have happened since then.

Films have become more accessible, if not downright disposable. There are a gazillion channels showing movies, and the few that aren't easily available on DVD can probably be pirated somewhere off the Internet. Also, technology has made it easier to produce footage and share it with other people. There's just not the reverence for the moving image that there was even ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty.

Equally important is the fact that other art forms have caught up with cinema. Television, comic books and video games were each considered junky time-wasters once upon a time, but in recent decades they've made massive leaps forward in form and content. They also allow fuller explorations of a fictional world, and the characters who populate it, with greater length and depth than a single film could, often on lower budgets that allow for more risk-taking.

In trying to catch up with newer trends in indie film, I've attended workshops such as Lance Weiler's DIY Days and Jon Reiss' Think Outside The Box Office, and a common buzzword that keeps coming up is “transmedia”. This basically means extending a property and its story across multiple platforms, so that the world of your film continues into other media such as the Internet, computer games, and phone apps.

There's already a word for this. That word is “franchise”.

Star Wars is transmedia. There are the movies, which are fine. But over the last 33-plus years there have also been novels, action figures and games, all of which let the consumer explore particular aspects of the Star Wars universe in greater detail.

Monty Python is transmedia. Beyond the TV series, you had books, films, albums and stage shows, each of which had material not featured on the show, and each of which played with their chosen medium as mischievously as the TV sketches – for example, the Matching Tie and Hankerchief album was an LP with not two, but three sides; and the Big Red Book actually had a blue cover.

Lord of the Rings and Dune, even in their original book forms, were transmedia. You had the main stories, but you also had maps and glossaries – which you could consult at any point during the main story, to understand their created worlds more fully.

Increasingly, Hollywood films are no longer works of art in their own right, but are the extension of a brand that generated its loyalty elsewhere, just as films get converted into TV shows or video games. All these different media are interconnected now, and as much as the film purist in me might want to complain, this isn't changing any time soon.

Besides, I'm not really one to talk. I went to the midnight opening of Tron: Legacy, rather than waiting for a more convenient time to see it in the theater (let alone wait for home video), because of the strength of my life-long loyalty to Tron as a brand. While the new film is clearly designed to stand on its own, many aspects of the new movie – including its very existence – will be more meaningful to those of us with prior knowledge of the world, characters, themes and backstory.

Which made me think a little more about the whole “death of film criticism” issue that's been such a hot topic among film buffs in the last couple years. Many people (including film critics, natch) lament the decline of serious intellectual debate regarding films, and the decline in appreciation of film as a serious art form. An alternate view, however, was summed up well by Kevin Smith in an IndieWire interview back in July:

“I used to read [reviews] to see if anybody got it … And back in the day that was the only way you could know, because there was no [bleep] internet. You know, you could see people at a screening and they would tell you how much the movie meant to them or what it did for them and stuff. But, generally all you had to go by was the critics … Then into that world was introduced the Internet and suddenly everybody can give you their opinion on movies, which is what I was always chiefly interested in. So, I’m getting opinions from not just the same 100 people … I don’t dislike critics, I’m just like, why are these 100 people any more valid than the people that, I don’t know, the 1.7 million on Twitter, or whatever it is.”

For Smith, then, connecting with audiences who “got” his movies is more important than impressing cultural gatekeepers. Regular readers of my blog (all four of you) will have heard me complain about all the remakes and adaptations, and also about the fan types who don't care whether a film is good or not unless it's faithful to the original material. But seeing Tron: Legacy made me appreciate two things more deeply:

1) When it's something you're a fan of, you have different priorities than someone who's only judging it as a stand-alone movie.

2) Critics know about films (especially dramas) and are purist about film as a separate art form with its own history; they don't necessarily know much about other art forms, and thus don't always have the most useful insight when a film is based on something with a larger history.

The original Tron, for me, was a gateway to the life and career I'm in now. I first saw the film as a kid, thinking it would be about arcade games, and it turned out to be an introduction to the then-new world of computers. Like William Gibson's Neuromancer, it was an analog production that showed the potential of a digital future. So when I glance at Rotten Tomatoes and see reviews from critics who not only disliked the new movie, but thought the original Tron was a silly flop that never merited a sequel anyway, I thought, They don't get it. It seems an obvious thing to say, but Tron: Legacy wasn't made for fans of Citizen Kane or Casablanca; it was made for fans of the original Tron, and fans of computers and digital imagery.

Even the smarter critics are running aground in their failure to recognize the evolving relationship between film and other art forms. Roger Ebert's reluctance to consider video games an art form has received scorn even from his dedicated fans, to point where he finally recanted; and his negative review of Tyler Perry's debut feature, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, provoked angry responses from Perry fans scolding him for his unfamiliarity with Perry's earlier theater work. (The latter example suggests that these cross-media disputes don't solely affect the geek community.)

It's an almost deadening clich̩ to point out that we're living in a digital age, and that our lives and our culture are being changed by Facebook and Twitter, by YouTube and Netflix, by Google and Wikipedia, by the iPad and the Kindle. Yet certain nostalgic attitudes die hard, even though some of these attitudes Рif we stop to think about it Рhave perhaps outlived their usefulness.

Glancing through Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was a melancholy experience, because it chronicles a romantic attitude towards film – and filmmakers – that is just plain gone. Yet two things need to be said to put the freewheeling 70s film counterculture in perspective. One is that – at least by Biskind's account, and judging by what they say about each other in the book – these guys were assholes. As enthralling as their war stories are, most of the directors covered by Biskind come off as out-of-control egomaniacs who dug their own graves, then tried to blame others for their own demise.

The other thing is that many of the issues these guys fought for are simply outdated. Biskind's introduction praises these artists for producing “work that was character- rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily.” Admittedly Biskind's book is itself over a decade old now, but all of these qualities are quite commonplace in the storytelling media of today. And “technical correctness”, far from being a “tyranny”, is not only craved but demanded by the film and media buffs of today, and is also within reach of any consumer- or prosumer-level media maker willing to put in the effort to learn how to use the tools.

I get the sense that, when it comes to art – in any format – there are two broad schools of thought. One is that art must be “real” – that it should be truthful to real emotions and real experiences. The other is that art is artifice – it is imaginative and imaginary, an escape from humdrum reality.

Supporters of the former always criticize the latter, on the grounds that stories which amuse or distract us are a brainwashing diversion from the real world. But the core assumption there is that “real” always means grim, angst-ridden or defeated … the assumption being that anything positive, optimistic or constructive is always a lie.

But I'm a lifelong science fiction fan, and have come to learn the SF philosophy from authors' essays and filmmakers' interviews. I'm far more drawn to the idea of art and storytelling as a venue where you can create something better, promote new possibilities, envision things that haven't happened yet, propose better models for how things could be.

The existence of computers strikes at the very heart of this debate. Many people condemn anything digital as a bad thing, on the grounds that computers and virtual worlds aren't “real”, and are highly reluctant to understand how much power these new tools give to people who are willing to embrace them.

This contrast between introversion and misery on the one hand, versus extroversion and confidence and willingness to make something happen, is probably the most important divide in our culture, and people who embrace modern media are firmly in the latter camp.

While I was in college, I was given the assignment of reading the Beckett play Waiting for Godot for a liberal-arts class in the history of theater. At the same time, I happened to be reading – for pleasure – Medea: Harlan's World, an odd book that resulted from SF author Harlan Ellison inviting several of his fellow writers (with some input from a seminar audience) to collaboratively create an alien world and write some short stories set within it. The book consists of a transcript of a panel where the authors thrashed out their ideas, followed by individual treatises on various aspects of the invented world, and finally the short stories (a couple of them quite moving) written by individual authors.

I couldn't help but notice the contrast. Beckett's protagonists were passive, helpless victims who couldn't even work out what day it was. Ellison and his colleagues, on the other hand, were pooling their imagination, intelligence and cleverness to create something that wouldn't have existed if they hadn't worked to make it so. Medea: Harlan's World, though forgotten today, was a completely unique kind of book, and perhaps just as mold-breaking as Godot but for completely different reasons that I found far more inspiring. By working together to create stories in a shared world, Ellison and his writers were creating – to all intents and purposes – a little mini-franchise.

However, there still have to be people with the vision to create a franchise in the first place, not just perpetuate one created by someone else. I do still believe in creating original work, and the only way to do that is by having a passion.

That passion is easier to tap into when you're young, and haven't been weighted down by disappointments and setbacks. It gets harder with age; you have to resist the temptation to play it safe, and continue to be as determined and adventurous. Filmmaking is a drug. And as Paul Schrader says in Biskind's book, “In your forties, you really have to want to be a drug user, because it's so hard to keep the hours.”

So why do it? Because you must. Not for fortune or fame, but because you have a vision you believe in. It's important to learn from your experiences, but also to keep your youthful vision and not let experience deaden you or trap you in the past.

“I had the confidence of ignorance. Not knowing anything about it, there was no basis for fear. In other words, if you're walking along the edge of a cliff and you don't know it's the edge of a cliff, you have perfect confidence. And I didn't discover the cliff in the theater or in films until after I'd been in it for a while.
“Then you have to be careful not to listen to anybody. You have to remember your old ignorance and ask for the impossible with the same cheerfulness that you did when you didn't know what you were talking about.”
--Orson Welles

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010: In Memoriam

Well, here we are at the start of another year. I spent the first day of 2011 hanging out with John Karyus, who's in town for a couple of weeks; we recorded a commentary track for Saberfrog, then went to an encore showing of the locally made feature film The Beast Pageant, which I blogged about some weeks ago.

So now it's back to the ol' grind at work, but before we get too caught up in business as usual, I'd like to pause to mention some people who we lost in 2010. This isn't everyone famous or noteworthy who passed away last year, just the ones that had some impact on me at some point.

As an independent filmmaker, I should probably start with DENNIS HOPPER. It's easy to get sick of hearing about the hippie generation's past glories, and yet I still have admiration for the artists of that time. My own generation is so timid, so insulated behind irony and sarcasm and knee-jerk hatred, so imprisoned by junky childhood nostalgia, that I think it's important to remember a time when filmmakers had balls and ambitions, and were willing to go and lose their minds in the jungle or the desert and then come home with an amazing film. I should therefore also mention documentary filmmaker GEORGE HICKENLOOPER, who immortalized that time in his film Hearts of Darkness, which showed both Hopper and Marlon Brando losing their minds during the making of Apocalypse Now.

Hopper eventually went straight, of course, and reinvented himself as a crazed villain in films like Blue Velvet and Speed, and his career invention is matched only by that of LESLIE NIELSEN, an earnest, square-jawed veteran of film and TV whose ironic casting in the parody Airplane! gave him an entirely new career as a comedy villain. This was a tough year for Airplane! fans, as we also lost PETER GRAVES and BARBARA “I speak jive” BILLINGSLEY.

Nielsen wasn't the only 50s actor to be ironically cast in 80s comedies; KEVIN McCARTHY is best known to genre fans as the star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but was better known to me for his roles in Joe Dante films such as Twilight Zone: The Movie and the underrated Innerspace, one of my favorite sci-fi comedies from a decade full of them. 80s fans also had to say goodbye to Poltergeist's ZELDA RUBINSTEIN; Beetlejuice's GLENN SHADIX; Dune producer DINO DI LAURENTIIS; and MAURY CHAYKIN, who had a long and distinguished acting career but who I still remember best as the guy in WarGames who said “Mr. Potato Head! Back doors are not secrets!”

From the world of TV, we lost STEVE LANDSBERG, one of my first nerd heroes as the deadpan Sgt. Dietrich from Barney Miller, and GARY COLEMAN, who spent his life as a human punchline but made the most of his precocious comedy talents as a child actor on Diff'rent Strokes.

French director CLAUDE CHABROL was the father of the French New Wave, and thus of indie filmmaking in general. A less celebrated, but equally prolific, director was ROY WARD BAKER, whose credits included the film Quatermass and the Pit and several episodes of The Avengers.

Standing halfway between these two in terms of combining critical and fan acclaim is IRVIN KERSHNER, who was in his late 50s when one of his former USC students, George Lucas, chose him to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Reading online obituaries of Kershner made me realize how little clue people have of what a director actually does; fans praise Kershner for making Empire “dark”, even though all the examples they refer to are things that would have been in Lucas' storyline or Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay. What Kershner did bring to that film was to inspire good performances from the cast (the famous “I love you” / “I know” occurred when Kershner encouraged Harrison Ford to adlib) and to create visual atmosphere. Another Star Wars alumnus who passed away this past year was ALAN HUME, the cinematographer of Return of the Jedi.

Since I'm a filmmaker, my list is dominated by film/TV artists, but I should also mention a few artists in other media: comic book artist HARVEY PEKAR, who I got to see in person at the George Eastman House when he presented the film version of American Splendor; MALCOLM McLAREN, the controversial former manager of the Sex Pistols; and fantasy artist FRANK FRAZETTA, whose work graced many a pulp novel and album cover.

Two other people who actually died in 2009, but who I'll mention anyway because it's my damn blog and because their work has meant a lot to me, were: BARRY LETTS, producer of Doctor Who during the early 1970s, whom I got to briefly meet at a convention a few years ago; and DAN O'BANNON, beloved by genre fans as the writer of Alien and the director of Return of the Living Dead but who will always be, for me, co-star and co-creator of one of my all-time favorite films, John Carpenter's Dark Star.

Writer HARLAN ELLISON is actually still alive as far as I know, but he announced this past year that he is dying and that he has attended his last convention. Since he has made his farewell to the world official, I will mention him here. I will also mention the late ROBERT CULP, who starred in Ellison's Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand”.

All of these people are somewhat famous. But I will mention two other names who are probably not well-known outside of Rochester.

In 1999, fresh from college, I was searching for a suitable subject to tackle for my first attempt at a full-length movie. Digital video was brand-new then, and promised to make low-budget filmmaking simpler and easier. But I was still wary of being too ambitious, and thought I would be on safer ground by adapting an old public-domain book, rather than an overambitious script of my own making. Inspired by a film version of Orwell's 1984 that was actually made and released in the year 1984, I did some research to find out if there was an old sci-fi novel set in the once-distant year 2000. I discovered Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward and, though I didn't really like the novel or its politics, its small cast and emphasis on dialogue seemed to make it a good filmmaking challenge, just as the old studio directors had to learn to cope with material that was not their own.

Looking Backward is a film that I've kind of buried, though it was a tremendous learning experience. I mention it now only because two people who helped me to make it – over a decade ago – have recently died. DICK MULLANEY was one of the lead actors; he had appeared in many RIT student films, played George Eastman in a PBS documentary, and had been a radio performer earlier in his life. He had a mischievous sense of humor and was great fun to work with. I last saw him when he came to my father's funeral, over three years ago; before that, the last time I saw him was at his own adult son's funeral. Dick died last month, age 86, and will be missed.

One of the scenes in Looking Backward was a religious sermon being broadcast on TV. The lead actress, Meghan Haines, knew someone who might let me film the scene in his church. That person was REV. RAYMOND GRAVES, known to the Rochester community as a political activist, but to me he was just a guy that let me borrow his church for a few hours. Rev. Graves died last month, age 82.