Monday, May 30, 2011

Voices from the S-VHS era

I recently re-read a library book that I'd read about eight or ten years ago, Making Movies on Your Own: Practical Talk from Independent Filmmakers by Kevin J. Lindenmuth. It was comprised of advice from 25 indie directors I hadn't heard of, and it was published in 1998 by McFarland, a publisher that seems to specialize in academic non-fiction books.

Back then the Sundance-and-Miramax era of arthouse hits was still in full flower, so I found it odd that this book was so biased towards shot-on-video exploitation films (as opposed to the usual bias against such films). A few years later, though, I worked on Tom Gleason's horror spoof Enter the Dagon and as a result discovered the world of DIY straight-to-video horror, and its star system of actors and directors.

Rereading it from the perspective of an older and more experienced filmmaker, the book is a great time capsule of an unsung, half-forgotten era. An era when consumer equipment was just getting good enough that regular Joes could make technically competent movies, and film school was becoming optional. The Internet was just starting to catch on (only one of the filmmakers mentions it as a venue for selling his films), and DV was brand spanking new. Back then, when people complained about “Hollywood” it wasn't just to be a fanboy troll; the implication was that they were going to make their own films that were different, possibly better.

Lindenmuth's interviewees discuss issues such as whether to shoot on S-VHS or Betacam SP, how to get video rental stores to carry your films, and how many publicity images you can fit on a Syquest(!). All of which really brought home how long ago and far away that time now is. But it reinspired me somehow, like looking through old family photos and remembering your roots.

The late 1990s/early 2000s was probably the last era when exploitation filmmakers still had an auteurist attitude. Most of the guys in this book, even though they're making no-budget backyard videos about zombies or aliens, talk about following your artistic vision and cite directors like Scorsese and Coppola, not just Romero and Raimi (though them too), as inspiring them to become filmmakers. They also declare that even if you don't make your (self-funded) production budget back, it's still worth it just to make a film and get it seen. They seem to embody the same can-do spirit as the lucky few who struck gold making Clerks and Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi.

The directors in this book stated that publicity and self-marketing are important, but often admitted that they themselves were not strong in these areas. That's another thing that's changed. For so many indie directors – and the older directors who they looked to as role models – making films was a way of expressing yourself in ways that didn't come so easily in “real” life. Writers and filmmakers didn't have the best social skills, so they used art and storytelling as an outlet.

Being an independent filmmaker today, however, seems to mean being as social as possible. It's all about Facebook friends and Twitter followers and YouTube hits. In the indie filmmaker conferences that I've attended in the last few years, filmmakers such as Lance Weiler and Jon Reiss have been promoting “transmedia” not only as a way to extend a film's brand, but to engage the audience interactively. The idea of the artist-genius on a pedestal dispensing his inner thoughts has fallen out of fashion; increasingly, it's about real communication with your audience, and creating a sandbox that the audience can play in and customize.

All of which is challenging and exciting in many ways, but it requires skills that a generation of aging, angst-ridden navel-gazers haven't necessarily developed. Contemplating my own future as a filmmaker, I'm of two minds on how to respond to all this.

On some days, I feel like enough is enough, that I've already spent too much time and money making movies for an audience that may not even exist, especially in an age when the desire for new and original stories has been replaced by the desire to cling to a favorite childhood franchise forever. Becoming a feature filmmaker was an ambition of mine since middle school, but now I've done it more than once, and no longer feel the need to prove anything.

Yet on other days, I feel totally re-energized, like I've been through a difficult trial but have finally come out the other side stronger and wiser and more balanced, and that I've finally learned how to make movies. I've learned what to do and what not to do, and what new challenges I would need to tackle next time.

While a lot's happened in the years since Lindenmuth's book was published, one theme in the book still speaks to me. The guys interviewed in that book loved movies, and they loved filmmaking. They weren't part of a movement. They weren't straining to be fashionable or hip. They weren't motivated solely by fame or fortune. They didn't worry about the fact that they were operating far away from the major production centers. They stuck to their guns and made the films that they wanted to make, with whatever tools they could get their hands on.

I once read an old interview with John Waters from around 1987, when Hairspray was new. He talked about the guerrilla approach that he used to produce (and screen) early films such as Pink Flamingos, and then said “I think you could still do it today, but there's no movement.” Of course, just a few years later there was a movement – the movement that Soderbergh, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith were part of, among many others.

It's a curious irony that just as the tools to make movies have become cheap and widespread enough to empower every Garage Kubrick, the entertainment industry has shifted its focus to reality TV shows and to franchises based on established brands. That alone would seem to make this an ideal time to be an independent filmmaker.

Keeping up with trends is important. You can't lose touch with the audience. You can't become a bitter old guy stuck in the past. At the same time, though, you need to remember (or be reminded) who you are and why you're doing this. Being independent isn't just a matter of having a low budget or working outside the studio system. You need to have an independent viewpoint as well. The people who stand apart from the crowd, not the ones trying to get in, are the trailblazers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May the 4th be with you

Last week was the 360|365 film festival, Rochester's biggest and most prestigious annual film festival. After years of me trying to get a film into the fest, this year the festival accepted and showed two films I'd worked on: Catching the Express, an RIT student film in which I was a supporting actor, and Unmasked, a short film by Rochester filmmaker Mike Boas, for which I was cinematographer. Mike was out of town that week, so I was given his festival pass and got to attend as many of the screenings and parties as possible.

It felt like my own real-life version of 'The Five Doctors', as I encountered people from every era of my career. There were people who knew me as a writer, director, actor, crewmember, and animator. My old NYU professor John Canemaker was a guest speaker, and I spent one of the after parties encountering several of my former WXXI coworkers, as well as people who I hadn't seen since the founding days of Rochester's film office. I saw 20 years' worth of personal and professional contacts in one day.

It's somehow fitting that I find myself reflecting on a life of filmmaking today. Partly because I had a production meeting for Saberfrog three years ago today (according to my old notes), but mostly because May the 4th has been designated, for groaningly punnish reasons, as Star Wars Day. It was, after all, Star Wars that inspired me to become a filmmaker.

For a 35-year-old movie, Star Wars and the universe it spawned as proved stubbornly relevant. The forthcoming Blu-Ray release and a planned 3D theatrical re-release seem guaranteed to keep people talking about these films. And recent fan-made documentaries such as Star Wars Begins and The People vs. George Lucas prove that they are, indeed, still being talked about. No one thinks to ask why Star Wars is a big deal – after all these years it's just accepted somehow.

Five years ago at this time, I was treating myself to a marathon of all six films on DVD. I was going through a personal crisis (the same one that inspired me to write Saberfrog), and re-experiencing the saga that had had such a long-term impact on my life seemed like the thing to do. My friend John Karyus had theorized that once all the films were on DVD and could be watched in chronological order, people would start to see a method to George Lucas' madness. I put that theory to this test and took notes.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still a troubled piece of work, wildly uneven in its tone and pacing. The first half-hour alone is a mess of plot holes (how did the Jedi escape the poison gas?), baffling setup, and unfunny comedy. I can see what Lucas was trying to do with Jar Jar Binks – being nice to the silly forest creature gives our Jedi heroes access to a vast army, as in Episode VI (just as Luke's failure to put up with Yoda's antics in Episode V is supposed to be a warning). But the whole Gungan subplot seems like padding, and their final battle isn't all that exciting. Lucas' preference for understated acting clashes awkwardly with the cartoonish CGI, making all the human actors look and sound wooden by comparison.

Yet the film has as many virtues as weaknesses. The climactic duel with Darth Maul is still impressive. Lucas fills his exotic worlds with imaginative visuals and neat throwaway details (I liked the tulip-headed woman standing behind Jabba during the pod race). Sebulba is a cool creature with an awesome voice, and if he'd taken the place of Jar Jar Binks then everyone would have loved this movie.

The unsung star of the film is Pernilla August as Anakin’s mother Shmi – she communicates warmth and humanity as soon as she appears onscreen. Her farewell to Anakin is a genuinely moving moment, especially when viewed in hindsight, with the full knowledge of how the story will progress.

If Episode I went overboard in aiming at little boys, the next film seems geared more towards teenage girls. The opening scenes of Episode II: Attack of the Clones have a greater number of prominent female characters than the entire original trilogy, and that's before we see female Jedi. The romantic scenes on Naboo have been understandably mocked, but they seem to reinforce the attempt to make Episode II a more feminine and romantic entry in the series.

Episode II seems to be the forgotten entry in the saga, and in some quarters has become the most hated episode as well, which is a shame as I really dug it. It's visually impressive and full of great action, and I liked the way it added darkness and complexity to the clean-cut universe introduced in the previous film. Yoda's climactic fight scene has become an object of scorn for some joyless fans, but the audience went wild at the midnight screening I attended, and I will always remember that as one of the most electrifying moments I've ever had in a movie theater.

Lucas has admitted that he had to put a lot of padding in Episodes I and II to make them feature-length, whereas with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith he had to cut a lot out, and I think this is the main reason why Episode III is the strongest of the prequels. When there's real drama and real storytelling going on, Lucas can be as good a writer/director as anyone; it's when he treads water to indulge himself that he makes mistakes.

Padme's death is too contrived, and Vader's much-ridiculed “No!” could have been more convincing. Otherwise, as an adult I find Episode III to be my favorite Star Wars movie, heresy as that may be to some. The moral contrast between the Jedi (selfless, honest) and the Sith (selfish, deceitful) is more clearly articulated here than in the original trilogy, and Anakin's struggle to distinguish between them make this the first Star Wars movie where the dialogue scenes are more compelling than the fight scenes (which are great).

I'll never understand people who complain that Anakin goes from good to evil in the blink of an eye; he spent most of Episode II struggling to battle his demons, and I thought Episode III quite skillfully showed Palpatine planting the seeds of doubt that will finally cause Anakin to defect to the Sith. Ewan McGregor is excellent as the middle-aged Obi-wan, but it's Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine who steals the movie outright.

While the prequels certainly have their flaws, I'm still amazed at the fanboy determination to dismiss them entirely. I get the impression that Star Wars nerds want to live in a simplistic world without any children, romance, politics, or pregnant women. But a major appeal of the original trilogy was it presented a simple, innocent world where good and evil were clear-cut, and I think this is a core reason why so many fans found the prequels – with their murky ethical conflicts – hard to accept.

Watching the original trilogy as a continuation of the prequel trilogy was an interesting experience. While the tinnier soundtrack and cheaper-looking costumes immediately identify Episode IV: A New Hope (aka the original Star Wars) as a much older film, it's impressive how well the end of Episode III links up visually with IV. The spaceship set, the robots, the stormtroopers and Vader are all images that pick up where Episode III left off.

There are some striking moments of unintended retro-continuity in Episode IV. It now seems that the stormtroopers wear white because they were originally the good guys, and that Luke stares at the twin sunset because he has a twin out there somewhere, even though these thoughts probably never occurred to Lucas back in 1977. The slow reveal of Obi-wan's hooded face seems as if it's meant to ease the viewer into accepting a new actor in the role previously played by Ewan McGregor.

There are, however, other moments in Episode IV where it's obvious that the epic backstory depicted in the prequels and sequels had not been conceived yet. Now that we know Vader is the Emperor's right hand man, it's strange that he's the servant of a governor here. And the Force has no moral dimension in this film; it's something cool to have on your side, but not something you have to take responsibility for. (Obi-wan's reference to being “seduced by the dark side of the Force” would have been an unexplained throwaway in 1977.)

Watching the films in story order, Luke is the first character in the saga to be unfamiliar with the Force (even Jar Jar seemed to know about it), and Han is the first one not to believe in it – a sign that we've left the pseudo-Biblical era of the prequels and entered a modern, secular age (which is quite a leap considering that episodes III and IV are only about 20 years apart in story terms).

The Imperial briefing room scene is well done, with great characters and interesting camerawork – it's a shame that the prequels couldn't handle their political exposition sequences as well. The rescue of Princess Leia, and the charming ineptitude of our heroes in the process, seems to sum up everything that viewers found lacking in the prequels.

Yet my adult eyes now find some problems with Episode IV. The film can't decide whether Han is a jaded, seen-it-all badass or a comedy buffoon. I now wonder why – after escaping the Death Star – the Falcon doesn't just go into hyperspace instead of sticking around to battle the TIE fighters. I also notice that we're never given any clear indication of what the Rebellion actually stands for other than being anti-Empire. (But then, this was the 1970s, so being anti-authority was probably considered good enough.)

The original Star Wars trilogy is usually considered politically liberal, with the Rebels as 60s/70s counterculture and the Empire as either America or the British Empire (and, by extension, Western civilization). But all the ship battles seem to be based on World War II movies, so it might be more accurate to read the Rebel Alliance as the Allied forces (or the French Resistance) and the Imperials as Nazi Germany. In which case, Han's refusal to join the final battle makes him kind of a draft dodger. (An oft-overlooked detail of Episode IV is that Luke originally just wanted to go to college; it's only after his family is killed that he decides to join a religious order and enlist in a war.)

The fact that there's a ticking clock (the threat of the Death Star destroying the Rebel base, an idea added in post-production) gives the climactic space battle an urgency that was missing in the battles at the end of Episode I. But this final battle feels like a switch to a completely different movie. Episode IV spends its running time rounding up a big gang only to sideline most of them at the end, leaving Luke with a bunch of new characters who all get killed off.

Episode IV is still a fun movie, but it feels kind of lightweight when viewed immediately after Episodes II and III. The destruction of the Death Star feels like a minor payoff, not a major victory. Luke is a one-dimensional character whose triumph seems unearned – the death of his aunt and uncle is nothing more than a stroke of good luck that lets him finally go and have fun – so his journey doesn't seem to have much emotional depth.

It's quickly obvious that a different director was in charge of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, because the quality of the acting jumps enormously compared to the “previous” four films. Even a minor character like Rogue Two gives a good performance, and the hallway argument between Han and Leia is worthy of The West Wing. It's noticeable that in this film, and this film only, is Vader the fearsome, laconic demon of popular memory, rather than a mopey bulldog bossed around by someone else.

Episode V is beautifully directed by Irvin Kershner, with great photography and fine performances (Carrie Fisher, in particular, is terrific throughout). But there are some strange plot holes as well. Why does Vader arrive on Hoth with the troops? (Is he looking for Luke?) And why does the massive Imperial starfleet pursue the tiny Falcon instead of going after the Rebel fleet? (Maybe they're trying to capture it to use as bait for Luke, but they seem to be shooting to kill.) The Emperor sequence, as reshot with Ian McDiarmid for DVD, now suggests that Vader didn't know Luke was his son even though he knew of Luke's existence, which is confusing unless Vader is deliberately playing coy. It's really not clear how far in advance Vader is planning his trap for Luke.

There's a thematic element in Episode V (and VI) that doesn't quite come off, and is only made visible by comparison to the prequel trilogy. It's supposed to be a threat that Luke might fall to the dark side as his father did, but this threat never feels tangible because Luke is too much of a goody-goody. He's not “reckless”, as Yoda claims (though neither was Obi-wan, admittedly), and a result there's no apparent reason for his constant refusal to believe anything Yoda tells him. Luke's desire for revenge against Vader seems like it could have been developed more (and he seems only interested in avenging his father, not his aunt and uncle, who unlike Anakin's mom get completely forgotten). Only after seeing Episode III is it clear that using the Force to overthrow authority (as Vader encourages Luke to do to the Emperor) is supposed to be a one-way ticket to the dark side.

Lando is an interesting character. Even before we meet him, Han's verbal description of him seems to promise another Casablanca-style hero, like Han himself. In fact, the Casablanca parallels are stronger with Lando, who actually owns a neutral establishment that's put in peril when the Imperials/Nazis come along. If Han represents Francis Coppola (as has been suggested), then Lando might represent Lucas himself, a self-made businessman dealing with supply and labor difficulties and trying to maintain his independence from the Empire (Hollywood) and the guilds. (Usually Luke is the character considered to be a Lucas surrogate, but notice that Luke and Lando never talk to each other in the same shot!)

The carbonite slab encasing Han is a clever image. When upright it looks like a gravestone, and when horizontal it looks like a coffin. I never spotted that before. Han's capture is clearly an old-school cliffhanger, and even as a kid I never got the overwhelming sense of darkness and defeat that everyone else got from Episode V. The final scene is a pretty blatant declaration of optimisim and hope, and practically pummels you into understanding that everything is going to turn out OK in the next film.

Which leaves us with Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The title gives away the ending, which sums up one of the overall problems with Episode VI – at every point we're told what's going to happen, and the viewer can only wait for it to happen. Around the point of the speeder bike chase, it becomes clear that Luke's confrontation with Vader, seemingly the dramatic point of the whole movie, is going to be some time in coming, and that there won't be much to do until then but look at your watch.

While Episode VI was always considered a letdown compared to its two predecessors, it plays even worse as a conclusion to the whole six-film saga. Perhaps I know too much about the behind-the-scenes problems (Lucas wanted to wrap up the story quickly and cheaply, with an obedient journeyman director, in the hopes of getting back to normal domestic life), but while Episodes IV and V are the work of a filmmaker determined to fight for his vision, Episode VI reeks of contractual obligation and “let's just get this the hell over with”.

Even as a prequel apologist, I find it hard to think of many positive things to say about Episode VI after rewatching it as an adult. Bib Fortuna's a nicely sinister character, and Luke wears his newfound Jedi authority well in the Jabba sequence. But that's about it.

Luke's plan to rescue Han seems overly dependent on luck and coincidence, Han's sarcastic comedy asides have become corny and lame, and Leia has devolved from Rebel leader to a supporting character (and why does she wear rogue with combat fatigues?). The camerawork is dull and flat, and the acting is generally awful, though this is partly disguised by the relative lack of dialogue scenes between two human characters. (It's hard to imagine that Lucas might have made the acting in Episode I intentionally bland in order to bookend Episode VI, but I wouldn't entirely put it past him.)

While the Gungans in Episode I were criticized as racial caricatures due to their dialect, I think the Ewoks – spear-wielding, superstitious cannibals – are much more racist a concept (especially when a black-faced Ewok gets zapped in the butt by Artoo and runs away in a slapstick manner), though no one seems to complain about that. It's their cuteness that fans have criticized, and unfortunately the movie plays into this by having Han immediately regard them as harmless teddy bears, thus encouraging the audience to do the same.

When Threepio regales the Ewoks with our heroes' past adventures, I finally get the symbolism that had eluded me for over three decades – Star Wars is a story told around a campfire. Another thing I will give Episode VI credit for is that Threepio gets an unusually large role in the plot.

Since Padme was shown to have died in childbirth in Episode III, Leia's childhood impression of her now plays as an indicator of her Force abilities, rather than an actual memory. This is another neat bit of retro continuity in what is otherwise an awful scene – I had a definite sense that Carrie Fisher doesn't buy the soap opera dialogue she's expected to say. When Han arrives, his dialogue (“Hey, what's going on?”, “Could you tell Luke, is that who you could tell?”) is unintentionally hilarious, and when Carrie Fisher turns away in despair she looks as if she's trying not to laugh.

Ian McDiarmid is “still” great as the Emperor, but is not so well-written in this film. He makes no real attempt to seduce Luke to the dark side; instead, he just taunts him in a generically evil way. For this confrontation to make any dramatic sense or have any suspense, Luke should have a reason to want to use the dark side (as Anakin did in Episode III) but be struggling to resist it. The conflict between Luke, Vader and the Emperor might be a more satisfying payoff to the saga if these characters had had more interaction, in this film or in the ones leading up to it.

The action-packed finale was always considered the highlight of Episode VI, but sadly this also disappoints. The space battle, though still decent (and very impressive for its time), pales in comparison to the space battles in the prequels, and the forest battle is just embarrassing. The technologically superior Empire losing to the forest-dwelling Ewoks is supposed to be Lucas' Vietnam parallel, so why is it so limp and slapstick? Why is there no handheld camerawork, or anything to make the audience feel like they're in the middle of a war or an ambush? It seems more like a barroom brawl than a fight for the future of the Republic. If a bunch of different races united to fight the Empire, instead of just this one gang of short teddy bears, it would have been more impressive. Here it's not just one guy like Jar Jar being slapstick – it's the whole species!

When film historians complain about the 1980s as a decade of crappy special effects movies with no social relevance, Episode VI is the movie they're really thinking of. Somehow the mythic resonance is missing from this movie – this should be the big payoff, but instead it's a disposable kid's movie with no connections to universal myth, film history, world history, or anything else. It left me feeling foolish for devoting a whole weekend to watching Star Wars movies.

So what did I learn from this marathon?

I noticed certain themes and images repeating. Throughout the six films there is a frequent contrast between the ancient code of morality and honor represented by the Force, and a more cynical, amoral, secular, modern world where only money seems to matter. Several of the films depict a wise, altruistic Jedi trying to get something from a more cynical, mercenary character (Qui-Gonn and Watto, Obi-wan and Dexter, Obi-wan and Han, Luke and Jabba). The rise of a world based on money and technology, rather than moral values, seems to signal the downfall of the Republic, since it's a group of business entities – the Techno Union, the Banking Clan – who side with Dooku and the Trade Federation in the civil war.

Mass production is presented as sinister. Threepio’s reaction to the Geonosis factory is “Machines building machines, how perverse!” and in the same film we even see humans being mass-produced as soldiers. The evil battle droids all look and act identically, a contrast to the “good” droids who are diverse and quirky. The heroes are often surrounded by hostile machinery with a mind of its own that is threatening to kill them – the force fields during the Darth Maul duel, the Geonosis factory, the Death Star trash compactor, the opening and closing doors that push Luke through Cloud City.

One reason why Star Wars still vexes and fascinates is because it marks a line in the sand between two generations. To the 60s/70s generation, filmmakers were artists put on a pedestal. They believed strongly that artists should be free to follow their own vision, and not let studios or focus groups tell them what to do. The generation after them believes, equally strongly, that once a movie is released it belongs to the audience, not the creator, and if the creator doesn't do what the audience wants then he has failed, not only artistically but morally.

We forget that Star Wars was always controversial. Lefty film snobs of the 70s criticized the original Star Wars for abandoning moral complexity in favor of simple good-vs-evil. Modern fanboys criticize the prequels for the exact opposite reason. It's perhaps a tribute to Lucas that, in spite of his limitations as a writer, he has continued to create work that gets people talking and thinking. Indie guys seem to regard him less and less as an oppressor, and more and more as a pioneer of digital filmmaking. And transmedia artists still seem to cite him as the main example of how to build a universe and brand.

I'm sure I could say many more clever things about Star Wars, but Star Wars Day is now over ...