Sunday, July 31, 2011

Back in the saddle

Yikes, I didn't post at all in June, and almost missed July as well.

The reason I've been radio silent for the past two months is that I've had a lot to process. I've been busy with various things at work and in my personal life, and I didn't really have the time or energy to devote to Saberfrog.

There have been several times that I saw or thought of something that I wanted to blog about, but never got around to it. One was this IndieWire article about film schools which is actually a response to two other articles on the subject; one in the New York Times, the other a snarky rejoinder from Gawker.

Back in my day (he says in a grizzled 1890's prospector voice) going to film school was about the only way to get access to the equipment necessary to make a movie. There were, however, many inspirational success stories of people who made something cheap and crude and simple which got picked up for widespread distribution.

With the Miramax-era gold rush now long gone, and the tools for production and self-distribution available to pretty much anyone with a credit card and Internet access, I'm not quite sure what the allure of film school is to the current generation of students. Perhaps, in spite of all the hype about social media, having an actual real-world community of peers and mentors is still desirable, especially if you're a young person trying to find your place in the world, and your own voice as an artist.

Speaking of real-world communities, I get tired of being expected to do absolutely everything online, without any contact with an actual human. One of the great things about living in the 1990s was that there were bookstores and video stores that seemed to carry everything. Even if you had alternative or esoteric tastes, you had the luxury of being able to walk into a store, see the thing you wanted, and go home with it immediately. I felt that, if it was on a shelf for sale, it meant there were other people buying the same thing. It meant you weren't the only person who liked Red Dwarf or whatever – or even if you were, it meant there was a store that catered to you.

And there was a chance that the clerk might be just enough of a quasi-Tarantino to notice what you were buying and be able to have a conversation with you about it. In a previous post I complained about a Borders clerk who hassled me for buying a Colin Baker episode of Doctor Who. But I have to give her credit for caring.

Alas, those halcyon days of Media Play, CompUSA, Blockbuster and Borders are over. Well, there's still at least one Blockbuster in Rochester, but the two Borders outlets are now closing for good. I have many happy memories of these places. At the Borders in Henrietta, authors gave talks and book signings. A writers' group I belonged to met at the cafe there. The Borders in Victor had a cafe that was a pleasant place to sit and get work done.

Not that long ago, people really cared about real places and real human interaction. You could buy things online if you wanted, through Amazon or eBay or what have you, but the real world was still considered valuable and important and cool. Roger Ebert once declared that video-on-demand would never replace video stores because people would still want to go to a real store; he drew a comparison to Starbucks, which he said wasn't just selling coffee, but also a trip away from the office. But I think a generational shift has finally happened, and folks who grew up taking the Internet for granted don't have any such attachment to physical spaces. Many nerds seem happy to live their lives solely online, but I'm one nerd who doesn't like to become withdrawn from the world.

Some real-world experiences live on, though. Two weeks ago, the Echo Park Film Center in LA visited the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester as part of their cross-country journey showing experimental films in arty venues across the land. It was fun to see oddball short films in an outdoor setting, not a privilege I've had in a while. Most of the films were made by students, and the closing act was The Sound We See, a 25-minute black-and-white film depicting a day in Los Angeles, with each minute representing a different hour (and made by different people if I remember right).

While I always like to attend the rare underground film event at VSW, I don't think I was quite in the right mood that day. However, I appreciated it a lot more in hindsight. It somehow restored my faith in off-Hollywood filmmaking. The presenters were fun and enthusiastic, and The Sound We See (which I bought the DVD of) was surprisingly entertaining and had a great soundtrack.

As someone who grew up on oddball classroom films as well as the strange little animations that populated Sesame Street, I always had a little bit of a soft spot for experimental films, but this fondness was squashed by militant film professors (and classmates) who felt that there should only be experimental films. An aspect of the 1990s that I don't miss is the amount of negativity and hostility in the arts. It was a time of defeatism and deadening political correctness, and art wasn't considered any good unless it had the single message that the Republicans were plotting to kill us all. And yet the black-clad Eeyores of that time somehow claimed to embody the spirit of the 1960s, an era when the arts were colorful and energetic and fun, an era regarded even by those with qualms about its politics as a golden age for movies and music.

Fortunately, the Echo Park event was much truer to that spirit. The films they showed, while not all equally great, seemed to be made by people with genuine joy in what they were doing, and none of the films were so long that they taxed my patience (another common sin in experimental films). After spending far too much time online in the company of shrill, angry Internet nerds who hate movies, the Echo Park event was a reminder that there are still people who genuinely love filmmaking.

Also, I recently took an Adobe Flash class to brush up on my skills. Years ago, after being fed up with the irrationality and subjectivity of the arts, I dove into the world of programming and software development. It was satisfying to be in a world where things were true or false, where code either worked or it didn't. As I geared up to make Saberfrog, though, all my old irrational filmmaking passions came roaring back, and programming lost its appeal. Now I'm regaining those technical skills, and it is immensely satisfying. I feel like my old self again.

And where is Saberfrog these days? Well, it got another film festival rejection. I missed a few other festival deadlines I really wanted to meet, but I just wasn't up for it at the time. I do have some fun ideas for promoting the film and its universe, as well as a follow-up project using some of the same elements. I've just been too busy and burnt out to do anything about it. But I'm starting to feel on top of things again.

In just two months it'll be the one-year anniversary of the film's first public screening, so I should think about getting a proper DVD release together. Saberfrog needs to complete the journey I blindly began in 2006.

Back to that film-school article in the Times, I like the comment from the school dean who describes the current students' attitude as “I’m going to make a career that probably doesn’t even exist right now”. That attitude, while shockingly na├»ve, is also inspiring and optimistic. Being young means having that kind of confidence and fearlessness. The challenge, as an artist, is to hold onto some – if not all – of that attitude even after you've supposedly learned better.

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