Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An inspiring video for 12-12-12

Yup, it's 12-12-12. If I was really clever I would have posted this at 12:12 pm, but oh well.

To celebrate, here's a video that I'm very happy with, that I've contrived to give a “12” theme:

These are the man-on-the-street interviews that I recorded during my road trip. I asked several creative people questions about art – why we make it, why it's important, and how to cope with pressures not to do it.

I asked these questions because they were questions that I, after several years of ups and downs with this movie, found myself struggling with. But while I'd been finding these problems to be increasingly unsolvable on my own, everyone I interviewed had upbeat and articulate answers.

I presented a rough assembly of the footage at a Buffalo Movie-Video Makers meeting, but the editing still needed work. I then tightened it up to 10 minutes so it would fit nicely on YouTube.

What motivated me to refine it further, however, was a call for submissions for short videos to screen at a holiday party at Squeaky Wheel. Videos needed to have either a “December” or “12” theme, and I reasoned that since I asked 5 artists 7 questions, I met the “12” criterion.

I'd already gotten it down to 10 minutes so it would fit nicely on YouTube, but Squeaky Wheel's length restriction was only 5 minutes. So I edited tighter and tighter and tighter, until the video said everything in 5 minutes that it had said in 10.

While the video didn't get accepted (they liked it but didn't think it fit a party mood), it gave me a reason to trim it as tight as possible, and I'm happy with the result. In fact, this video is probably the greatest souvenir I took home from the trip.

Even while reviewing my earlier 10-minute cut, I realized that I had gotten a pep talk from five strangers. Whenever filmmaking – or any other creative enterprise – starts to seem like too much hassle for too little reward, I can now rewatch this video and be reminded why I should press on. The realization that I even got such enthusiastic input from five strangers – after years of considering myself an introvert – is a shot in the arm as well. Whenever I'm at risk of letting bitter, small-minded, unadventurous, unimaginative people get to me, I can watch this video and be reminded what it's all about.

Also, I'm finally sending out review copies of the movie, to get some press and maybe even some distribution nibbles. This is something I should have done earlier, but with everything else going on in my life lately it never quite made it to the top of my to-do list. However, I'm motivated to do it now, because I want to start 2013 with a fresh project. It might be a spin-off project related to Saberfrog, or it might be something completely new and different.

My goal is to take everything I've learned from Saberfrog and build on it. Moviemaking is a form of communication, and I'm ready to get the conversation going again.

So thank you to John, Calvin, Cynthia, Vanita and Caitlin for your inspiration, and for making the journey worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Learning from Kevin Smith

Well, Saberfrog is finally for sale at my website. I also need to somehow put the movie online for sale somewhere, and also send out review screeners. All of which I probably should have done ages ago, but I have a job and other things to do with my time, which to me are major obstacles to being any kind of social-media butterfly.

You've certainly heard by now about the new Star Wars movies that have been announced. There's nothing I can say about this that hasn't been well-said by online critic Outlaw Vern (and, in the comments below, by his fellow Ain't It Cool alum Mr. Majestyk). For better or worse, people now have even more reason to keep voicing their thoughts about Star Wars. The unending kvetching about that franchise and its creator gets me down sometimes, because I think artists should be allowed to take risks and make unexpected choices, even if the results are variable.

But people are possessive about Star Wars in a way that they aren't about anything else. Also, in the age of the Internet there's not really consensus anymore – while some people have greater access to the media or go to greater lengths to make their viewpoint known, almost nothing is universally loved or hated. As Kevin Smith once observed, every movie is someone's favorite movie.

Speaking of whom, a friend and I went to see Kevin Smith perform in Buffalo a few weeks ago. By chance, I got to ask him the first question of the evening. I asked him about an interview he'd given a while back, in which he said that he was tired of the online negativity he'd endured – not only criticisms of his work, but personal attacks on himself and his family.

I asked him how, in the face of such negativity, he maintained his faith that there might still be an audience out there who was receptive to his work.

Smith said that, at age 42, he'd learned to overcome his fear. He talked about how, when he was younger, he was always afraid of getting in trouble, but now he realized that there was little as an adult that he would do that would genuinely get him in trouble. He recited a quote he'd learned: “Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”

More than once over the years, Smith has expressed the philosophy that he creates things and sends them out in the world, to find out if anyone else gets it. That approach has worked for him. One might argue that Smith's career began at a time when people were less obsessed with franchises and more hungry for individual, personal versions. Over the years, though, Smith has nurtured an audience and developed his own brand, so he's in a position to be able to create more personal work secure in the knowledge that there would be at least some audience for it.

That's the challenge facing most artists these days.

Before I set out on my Saberfrog tour, I was asked “What did you learn about yourself making this movie?” I didn't have a good answer to that, but I did learn some important things from the trip itself.

You have to know where your audience is, and how to reach them. That's the lesson I've learned from making Saberfrog.

When I was developing the movie, I was proud of the fact that it was a hybrid of genres, and that it represented a particular viewpoint on the world.

But how do you market that, when there are so many entertainment options that the only way for a consumer to filter it all is to limit yourself to the stuff you know you'll like?

You have to be a salesman. You have to make yourself and your project seem appealing to people. That's another lesson I've learned.

During my traveling showings of Saberfrog, I interviewed some people that I met in the different cities that I went to, asking their thoughts about why we make art and why it is important. I did this so that I would have something to show for my travels in case the screenings weren't well-attended, and also because I myself was seeking answers to these questions.

I showed a rough assembly of this interview footage at a Buffalo Movie-Video Makers meeting, and one attendee said that this was a measure of how “pure” I was as an artist – that this was what I chose to do to promote my movie, rather than thinking like a businessman. He didn't seem to mean it as a criticism, exactly, but it was a valid point.

Because I'm an introvert at heart (or because I grew up in a world where caring about something other than sports was kind of frowned upon), I'm still getting used to the idea of being able to share my creative passions with other people. My nourishment was more solitary – it came from books and obscure films and foreign TV shows, all of which seemed to come from a better world than my own, where people were smarter and more inventive and more thoughtful. There wasn't a social connection between artist and fan, only a philosophical one. So I'm still adapting to the idea that art is not solely a means of personal expression, but of communication. And not just artist-to-audience communication, but interaction.

Obviously the film scene has changed unrecognizably in recent years. This article has really rammed home, more than anything else I've heard lately, how film as we knew it really is on its way out – and that well-known, widely released films that came out when I was in college are already becoming unshowable in their original format.

We're only going to have digital copies of varying quality (depending on how much money gets devoted to transferring them) that may not even last very long. For lower-budget filmmakers like myself, obviously a DVD or Blu-ray is going to be the public screening format of choice most of the time. But to go to a public screening of a Hollywood movie (including ones that aren't even 20 years old) and basically be watching them on a big-screen TV … what is the point? If it's basically what you could watch on your entertainment center at home, why go to a theater?

To have a group experience, that's why. That's the one thing that still matters. Having something to share, and talk about, with other people.

That's what it's all about.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Saberfrog Road Trip-Final Report

So this was it. It was time to re-enact the fictional road trip depicted in the movie.

On a Saturday afternoon, I left Rochester to drive to Hartford, Connecticut, the starting point for my road trip. The drive was beautiful, and it always feels good to get away from home and hit the open road.

I had wanted Josh, the main character in Saberfrog, to be living in a fairly middle-class and corporate area before he goes on his quest to find himself. After some research I decided to pick Hartford, Connecticut as the city from which his journey begins.

When it came time to research venues, however, I discovered that Hartford actually had more of an art scene than I expected. Real Art Ways was an art gallery / movie theater that seemed like an ideal choice, but I ended up going with the more economical choice of The Outer Space, a smaller venue in nearby Hamden. However, I decided I would pay a visit to Real Art Ways while I was in the area.

There I watched a documentary called Reality is Embarrassing, about an impish artist best known as a puppeteer on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. It seemed fitting to see that film, since I was making a documentary – or at least a video diary – of my own as part of the trip. Before leaving Real Art Ways, I was able to record my first interview. I happened to be there on the projectionist's last day working there before taking another job near Boston, and he was an aspiring filmmaker himself. This was a ridiculous stroke of good luck, and he proved to be a great interview subject.

While I had been very determined to book a showing in Baltimore, I had been unable to find a venue that was both affordable and available in the time frame I was looking for. But for the sake of my trip, I wanted to visit the city anyway.

In the film, Baltimore is where Josh's friend Terrance has made a new life for himself. My prior knowledge of Baltimore was pretty much limited to its status as John Waters' hometown, and in real life I found the city agreeable funky.

Again I went to a movie at a venue I'd considered – this time it was The Charles Theatre, and I decided to go see Liberal Arts, a comedy-drama about a thirtysomething trying to reconnect with his own college-age optimism. Despite its quasi-pretentious title, I'd read a couple interesting reviews that made me decide I should check it out, and I'm glad I did. The film touched on a number of the same themes as Saberfrog, and though reviews have apparently been mixed, I found that the film spoke to me deeply. In an age of so much bitterness and sarcasm, here was a movie which showed people still yearning for beauty and meaning, while struggling to come to terms with the past and moving forward with their lives. I loved it.

I'm not sure Liberal Arts ever opened in Rochester, so seeing it at The Charles would have been enough to make the trip to Baltimore worthwhile. But as luck would have it, Creative Alliance at the Patterson (another venue I'd investigated) was holding an open screening the very evening that I was in town. And I just happened to be carrying with me a DVD of the Saberfrog trailer and two short promos of myself and John Karyus, a DVD which I'd prepared for my presentation to the Buffalo Movie-Video Makers group some weeks earlier.

So in a limited sense, I did get to have a Baltimore screening after all. My videos were well-received, and one of the audience members turned out to be a friend of Rochester-area filmmaker Chris Seaver, and recognized Karyus from his roles in Seaver's films.

I also got to record two more interviews, one with a filmmaker working on a documentary about an irreverent priest that he admired, and one with a woman who worked at the Patterson as a bartender but was also a singer in an R&B band.

In each city that I visited, I tried to investigate the local arts scene as much as I could in the time that I had. When I originally wrote the script, I knew very little about Pittsburgh and really only associated it with George Romero zombie films, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover what a thriving arts scene it seemed to have. The Pittsburgh portion of the movie was filmed in Buffalo, at a club called The Shadow Lounge, and I was amused to discover that the real Pittsburgh also has a place called The Shadow Lounge!

Saberfrog was booked at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which is an awesome place – by Rochester/Buffalo standards, it's like Visual Studies Workshop, Squeaky Wheel and the Little Theatre all rolled into one. The venue houses a cafe as well as a screening room, and offers filmmaking classes, equipment rentals, and screenings of classic movies.

While in Pittsburgh, I tried to go to the Toonseum, which seemed to be a museum devoted to cartoons and/or animation. I never actually got to go the Toonseum, unfortunately – I couldn't find a decent parking space anywhere near it – but along the way I got to see the gorgeous architecture in downtown Pittsburgh.

This would prove to be something of a theme during my trip – not completely succeeding at my original mission, but having positive experiences along the way that I would never have had if I hadn't made the attempt. While I sold a few copies of the movie on DVD, neither the Hamden screening nor the Pittsburgh screening drew the crowd I was hoping for. This took the wind out of my sails a bit, somewhat hampering my efforts to publicize the remaining screenings.

The Cleveland showing at Cedar Lee Theatre was competing against at least two events I knew of – a Browns game and a local stage performance of the Rocky Horror Show, so both jocks and nerds would have had other things to do. The Buffalo showing at Hallwalls, though it turned out to be on the same night as an election debate, gave me the chance to reconnect with an old college classmate who came to the show.

Toronto seemed like the biggest canary in the coal mine as far as the status of independent cinema. The Toronto Underground Cinema – an alternative venue that I've always wanted to visit – announced back in August that they were closing their doors. The Bloor Cinema, apparently due to financial struggles, has been taken over by the Hot Docs film festival and been rebranded as a venue mainly for documentaries, meaning that the kind of cult film showings I'd so often enjoyed there (including Troll 2, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Poultrygeist) will now be much more rare. Most surprisingly, the NFB Mediatheque – a viewing center that I only just discovered in my previous visit to Toronto a couple months earlier – has also shut its doors and is now open by appointment only.

Fortunately, a few alternative film venues still survive. One of these was Trash Palace, which shows 16mm film prints on Friday nights. I went to their showing of an old black-and-white film called Stakeout. One of the attendees was an aspiring filmmaker himself, who said out loud what I'd been forced to realize – that the ease of access to moviemaking tools has somewhat devalued the status of low-budget films, and that you now have to be more creative in order to put on a show that people will attend.

While in Toronto I also encountered a group of stilt-walking street performers, two of whom I got to interview. They too were articulate and enthusiastic in explaining why art is important to them.

Saberfrog screened at CineCycle, a funky hole-in-the-wall venue that typically shows experimental films. It strangely fit the Canada-set finale of the movie (which I won't spoil if you haven't seen it). Each time I watched the film on a big screen one more time, it seemed more and more like a film made by someone else. It started to feel like a movie that belonged in the world, not just in my own head.

I'm glad I went through the process of trying to self-distribute a movie. It was a learning experience, and an opportunity to try and create the kind of underground film screenings that I always used to go to when I was a student. But I think the era for this kind of event may be nearing its end. People now expect to be able to consume media where and when they want, and when you commit to a single showing you're competing against whatever else might be going on in town at that time … which can be a difficult thing to know about weeks or months in advance.

I originally wanted to book these kinds of screenings over a year ago, when the film was newer, but as usual I had ups and downs in my own life (including a new job) that made this impractical. Failing that, I should have booked these shows a few months earlier than I did, so that I could have spent more time and effort on publicity, but there too I had some events in my personal life that put me behind schedule. Having all the shows so close together in time was possibly a mistake – although it made the trip seem more like a continuous journey (despite being spread across three weekends), it gave me less time or energy to promote the individual shows separately.

The biggest thing that I learned the hard way, though, is that I wasn't prepared for the amount of self-publicity that would be required. I became a writer and filmmaker specifically because it was a more indirect way of expressing myself. But in the social-media age, you're supposed to be an aggressive self-promoter, which takes me somewhat outside my comfort zone. I'm of the older school where the artist stays remote – it's the work that's important, not the author. That older approach is, depending on your point of view, based on shyness (“I don't want to put myself out there”) or arrogance (“I will only deign to communicate with my audience on special occasions”) or both.

In a previous post, I said that when I see a film, I hope to see something that will blow my mind. But having that kind of epiphany is an inward, solitary journey. Art – as maker or as consumer – is no longer a solitary journey of discovery. It's supposed to be social. You have to “engage with your audience” in order to make friends, so that you have someone to invite to your show!

When I was a kid, oddball short films would play on 16mm in classrooms and libraries, and as filler on cable TV. Those obscure, eccentric films played a large role in inspiring me to become a filmmaker myself, but I think this road trip helped me to finally close the door on that obsession. In the age of YouTube and streaming, perhaps there's no longer anything really underground about making movies. The idea of making something unique and original and personal still appeals to me, but you can't afford to think of yourself as a unique snowflake. You have to think like a salesman, and aim at a specific audience.

I'm also ready to let go of the 90s nostalgia which seems to permeate the indie film scene currently. It may be a while before that scene consists of newer guys who are fully at ease with how things are now, rather than struggling to unlearn outdated expectations from the Miramax era.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit from this trip was the handful of interviews I conducted with artists that I met on my journey. I asked each of them what I personally found to be highly challenging philosophical questions – why do we make art, how do we justify the sacrifices required, how does one balance the inner compulsion to be an artist against conflicting responsibilities? To my surprise, each person I interviewed had clear and articulate responses to these questions.

I guess the biggest thing I've learned is that I can no longer afford to be a loner. When I was young I felt like a loner, and it was that sense of alienation that drove me to become a filmmaker. But after the experiences and accomplishments I've had in my life, I'm not that person any more. I have to come to terms with living in a more socially connected world.

When I got home from this trip, I thought for sure that I was done with filmmaking, that I could divide my entire life into before and after Saberfrog. But within days of coming home, there was a networking event and a “how to promote your film” seminar (both at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo), neither of which I wanted to pass up. And I still have ideas for the tie-in novel … and another screenplay … so I guess I just can't turn it off.

I do feel that I've raised the public profile for Saberfrog just a little bit, and met some new people. And the trip forced me to finally complete a decent DVD. So on a personal level, the trip has been a (qualified) success. Now I just need to do what I should have done earlier – send the film out to various websites to get it reviewed, and get the film online so that it's commercially available.

The Saberfrog road trip may be over, but it seems the Saberfrog journey is just beginning.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

People who like more than one thing

I started writing this blog entry on September 17, while sitting by the waterfront at FDR Drive and East 23rd Street in New York City. I was attending IFP's Independent Film Week, and an outdoor film screening was about to begin, of excerpts from various feature films that indie filmmakers were making through the organization. I've been attending this conference for several years in a row, and while I continue to find its panels and lectures to be informative, I've found that having the opportunity to network with other filmmakers is even more beneficial.

This year I got to meet one-on-one with a respected advisor in the field of independent filmmaking and self-distribution, who acknowledged the steps I'd taken so far – a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, a YouTube trailer – and gave advice on additional steps to take.

Fishing for constructive criticism, I asked if there was anything that I was currently doing wrong. With a slightly pained expression, she brought up this very blog, saying that it read more like a diary than a film production blog. I couldn't really argue with this. Much of the past year has been slow behind-the-scenes, so I took to writing about other things that crossed my mind – movies, culture, philosophy. For me, though, these topics were at least indirectly related to the themes of the movie, or to experiences that had influenced its creation.

In the world of indie film and self-distribution, I've repeatedly heard two pieces of advice which seem to contradict each other. One is that a filmmaker should concentrate on filmmaking, and leave the publicity and marketing to someone else. The other is that you, as a filmmaker, know your film better than anyone else and that therefore only you truly know how to market it.

For me it's been tricky because Saberfrog is a warped comedy that resulted from the uneasy mental state I was in when I wrote and directed it. In other words, Saberfrog is a personal film. And in order to truly understand the film and its potential audience, I had to understand the fool who made it.

About a week before going to the IFP conference, I made a somewhat shorter trip out of town to discuss my upcoming screening tour at a meeting of the Buffalo Movie-Video Makers. During my Q&A, I was asked: “What did you learn about yourself while making the film?” That was a pretty profound question, which I don't think I quite managed to answer, even after several years spent nurturing this nutty project.

I think the answer lies with something that John Karyus said when I interviewed him for a promotional video. I asked him who he thought the target audience was for Saberfrog, and he said, in part: “People who like more than one thing.”

To some degree, he was referring to the film's combination of elements from different genres, saying that it would appeal to people who like both character-based drama and B-grade horror movies. I thought that was an insightful statement, but I also think it runs deeper than either of us realized at the time.

One of the themes in Saberfrog is the tension between following your heart and following your conscience, between being a fulfilled person and being a moral person, between being a child-at-heart and being a responsible adult. Most people seem to believe that only one of those two paths is the right one, and that the other is false and delusional. But I guess I'm a yin-and-yang kind of guy, because I'm only truly happy when I'm fulfilled in both areas. I think it's important to do what pleases you, but I also think it's character-building to do the things that you don't feel like doing, or don't think you're good at.

A lot of people don't seem to think like that. The Internet age is all about niches and cliques, and finding the community of people just like you while shunning (or trolling) everyone else. Many people are happy to belong to a clique, whether it's based on politics or music or what have you.

But I've never happily belonged to any one clique. They each have their different prejudices, which go unchallenged if you only fraternize with people just like you.

Maybe you know the feeling of not quite belonging in any one place, to any one group. You might be a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. You might be a Christian Goth, or a small-government atheist, or a Black Republican, or something else entirely that doesn't even have a name yet.

In fact, that's how every movement starts. Someone sees things differently. Someone says and does the things that no one has thought to say or do before, but which seem completely obvious afterward. Or someone says and does the things that no one else dares to do, because it seems so against the grain … and once they do, it becomes clear that other people secretly felt the same way and were just waiting for someone else to say it out loud.

Not everyone starts a movement, but I'm sure there are many restless souls out there who don't accept the shortcuts and easy answers that other people are content with.

So if you care more about seeking answers than following rules ... then this film is for you. This film is definitely for you.

And if you like foul-mouthed comedy, the movie has that too.

So come see Saberfrog.

How's that, Sheri?

Sunday, September 30 - Hamden, Connecticut. The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St, 3 pm.

Monday, October 1 - Baltimore, Maryland. No screening scheduled, but I'll be in town!

Tuesday, October 2 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave, 8 pm.

Sunday, October 7 - Cleveland, Ohio. Cedar Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 2 pm.

Thursday, October 11 - Buffalo, New York. Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Ave, 8 pm.

Saturday, October 13 - Toronto, Ontario. CineCycle, 129 Spadina Ave, 8 pm.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saberfrog Road Trip – Tour Dates!

An idea came to me one day, for a movie that I had to make. A story about a guy named Josh, who goes on a road trip across several cities, to find old friends and recover his own past.

I thought I'd left my filmmaking dreams behind me, but this story came from my soul and demanded to be made. It would be full of comedy and drama and weirdness and deepness.

I got the film made, and the film had some showings in Rochester and Buffalo (the two cities in which it was filmed) and it got into a couple of small local festivals. But the demands of normal life could only be kept at bay for so long, and the film was sidelined once more. For a while.

But you can't make a movie just to leave it on a shelf. Films are meant to be seen, and shown. And I feel a need to complete the journey I began.

So I'm re-enacting the journey that Josh takes in the film. I'm going from Connecticut to Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Buffalo to Toronto. Along the way, I'm going to show the film, talk to people, make new friends, and come home with a record (and a video diary) about the experience.

Sunday, September 30 - Hamden, Connecticut. The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St, 3 pm.

Monday, October 1 - Baltimore, Maryland. No screening scheduled, but I'll be in town!

Tuesday, October 2 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave, 8 pm.

Sunday, October 7 - Cleveland, Ohio. Cedar Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 2 pm.

Thursday, October 11 - Buffalo, New York. Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Ave, 8 pm.

Saturday, October 13 - Toronto, Ontario. CineCycle, 129 Spadina Ave, 8 pm.

So if you're in one of those cities this fall, I hope to see you, and I hope you enjoy the movie!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Me and my big mouth, huh?

It's been a frantic few months since my last post, when I boasted about being back in the saddle. Of course, my day job and personal stuff ended up occupying my time and energy. Well, it sort of gave me time to think about some bigger issues.

When urgent priorities need to be dealt with, I tend to get very single-minded and deny myself the little pleasures in life. I'm starting to realize that this is not the best coping strategy, and that one needs these little perks and pick-me-ups in order to stay balanced. So I've been letting myself go to the movies – particularly independent movies – a little more often lately.

On August 16 I drove to Buffalo for an animation festival in Buffalo River Fest Park, hosted by the fine folks from Squeaky Wheel. It was a good mix of comedies, dramas and experimental work, and it also reminded me how much I love seeing films in non-traditional venues, especially outdoors on a nice night.

This past Sunday, I saw a couple of the films in Project 5, the Little Theatre's mini-festival of films in limited release. The Color Wheel was a smartmouthed comedy-drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a struggling twentysomething actress and her slacker brother. It was shot on old-school grainy black-and-white film, which made it seem like a nostalgic throwback to films like Clerks and Stranger Than Paradise ... but with the more fluid shooting style of a modern movie, instead of the camera being nailed to the floor in a medium shot. I can only assume that titling a black-and-white film The Color Wheel was an act of conscious irony.

There seems to be a mini-boom in indie writer-actresses recently. To the club that so far includes Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) can now be added Carlen Altman, who not only plays the female lead but also co-wrote the script with Alex Ross Perry, who (it gets better) plays her brother in addition to directing the film.

I enjoyed the snarky machine-gun bickering between Altman and Perry, when I thought that it was a reflection of the strained life-long relationship between two siblings. It seemed to get a little one-note once I realized that all the other characters in the film (especially Altman's professor ex-boyfriend) talked in the exact same manner. There is also a Neil LaBute-worthy shock twist at the end that left me more disgusted than amused by these two characters. It's the kind of twist you almost expect in an indier-than-thou movie like this, despite writer-star Altman's character constantly expressing her worries about doing something cliché. Despite these quibbles, the film was funny and a breath of grungy fresh air. I enjoyed seeing a film that felt real, rather than slick and packaged.

The other Project 5 movie I saw was the Canadian sci-fi/horror film Beyond the Black Rainbow. I've been wanting to see this one ever since a friend posted a link to the trailer, which made clear that the film was a stylistic throwback to 1983, the year in which it was set.

Imagine if Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento had teamed up in 1983 to do a remake of THX 1138, and you might have some idea what this movie is like. Artfully shot and deliberately paced, and designed with lurid reds and yellows, this is basically a film about a teenage girl trying to escape from a futuristic research lab/psych ward, with some cutaways and flashbacks depicting the Alvin Toffler-esque guru who's been trying to control her.

The film's claustrophobic setting and relatively small cast, plus its uncanny retro atmosphere (the vast sets and lurid red-and-yellow color scheme give an uncanny sense that this was really filmed in the 70s or early 80s) combine to create an overpowering feel of dread and menace.

The pacing sags a bit in the middle, and the tone of extreme melodrama had the audience openly laughing at some points. A 1966 flashback, seemingly meant to provide an origin-story, left me utterly baffled (though it was gorgeously – and appropriately – shot in extreme black-and-white). A lowbrow scene with two horror-movie-victim hick campers was so hilariously out of sync with the Eurotrashy art-house tone of the rest of the movie that I genuinely don't know whether it was meant to be as funny as it was. Overall, though, I found the film mesmerizing and mind-blowing. I can't imagine how such a strange and unique film got made (and it can't possibly be as expensive as it looks), but I'm sure glad it did. And I hope to hell there's a soundtrack album of the score.

I've always liked it when indie art films and dramas have a sci-fi or fantasy element. That might be my favorite type of film, and I'm glad that subgenre seems to be making a comeback. I guess I have to mention Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and Ruby Sparks again, since they seem to be part of this recent trend, along with Safety Not Guaranteed and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Speaking of sci-fi and fantasy, some weeks ago I finally joined the rest of the world and saw Joss Whedon's The Avengers. Like many people I find superhero movies a bit played out (and many indie film buffs are coming to loath them – check out almost any IndieWire article or editorial in recent months), but Whedon's film put the fun back in the genre.

It was such a relief to see a superhero movie without the “society won't accept me” subtext that's been kind of bringing the genre down recently. I get that there's a big chunk of the comic-book audience that can relate to the idea of being considered a social outcast. But if superheroes really existed, why would they be persecuted? Wouldn't they be considered pretty awesome?

Fortunately, Whedon felt the same way. His Avengers aren't being beaten down by the Man – their biggest enemies are themselves and their own egos. Well, that and the alien armada they have to fight off. As one might expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this was a film about characters who are empowered – which superheroes really ought to be anyway.

Seeing all of these movies – after a long drought when I wasn't keeping up with movies at all – really refreshed my love for the medium. And it also helped me to realize where my passion lies.

There seems to be kind of an internet rivalry recently between nerds and hipsters – between the kind of guys who are into sci-fi and cosplay, and the kind of guys who are into garage bands and vintage clothing. I've heard it argued that nerds are sincere in their interests, whereas hipsters are ironic and mocking and therefore fake. But I'm not sure I see it that way. Nerds seem to be sarcastic and angry a lot of the time, and highly obsessed with the pop-culture of the past (because it represents their childhood). Hipsters, on the other hand, seem to be genuinely seeking out what's new and not-yet-mainstream.

I used to feel the opposite. When I had to read Waiting for Godot back in college, I was coincidentally reading a different book for fun: Medea: Harlan's World, an unusual book that resulted from Harlan Ellison gathering some fellow SF writers together to collaborate on an invented universe, then write some short stories taking place within it. While my college-age self considered Godot a pointless exercise in ennui and defeatism, Medea represented intelligent and creative people pooling their geek talents to actually accomplish something.

The geek/nerd world and the arty/indie world each have aspects that appeal to me. As at least one columnist has put it, the two culture are yin and yang. But I used to think that the two cultures kind of overlapped. 2001: A Space Odyssey was admired by hard-SF engineering types and pot-smoking hippies alike. David Cronenberg has horror fans as well as arthouse fans. Monty Python, Doctor Who and Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy were as appealing to PBS-watching Anglophiles as they were to LARPers. Even George Lucas was influenced as much by Akira Kurosawa as by Flash Gordon.

But in recent years, the two cultures have split away from each other, like the Skeksis and Mystics in The Dark Crystal. I'd rather not have to choose between them, but if I must, then I'm afraid that these days I side more with the hipsters. Whereas nerds are largely concerned with group loyalty (everything always has to be pleasing to “the fans”), hipsters are at least trying to be individuals, and I guess that speaks to me more.

I want to have my mind blown. I want to see and read things that expand my horizons. I thought science fiction was by definition about that – Captain Kirk exploring strange new worlds, Duke Leto saying that without change, something sleeps inside us – but maybe that's changed. Nerds like to see already-established worlds and familiar characters. That's why there are so many sequels and remakes nowadays. Nerds like to explore, and master, the worlds that are created by others. Which is fine. But as a writer and filmmaker, I'd much rather create worlds and characters and stories of my own, as all of my cinematic heroes have done.

I still like superheroes and aliens and so on, but not to the exclusion of everything else that movies are capable of. It seems the media is always arbitrarily deciding where the most important culture currently lives – from the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, to the punks at CBGB's, to the grunge rockers in Seattle – and now they've settled on Comic-Con as the epicenter of everything. In a few years it might move on to something else. But in the rush to cash in on these subcultures, it can get forgotten that there are other cultures and other tastes that shouldn't be overlooked.

The blessing and curse of the Internet is that every kind of culture is out there, but you won't find it if you don't think to look for it. It's too easy to get stuck in a rut, visiting the same handful of sites and listening to the same trollish arguments, because you don't know what else is out there. You can lose touch with other cultures that could expand your horizons. It's easy to complain about the culture you find on the Internet when you haven't even looked around to see what alternatives are out there. Lord knows I'm guilty of this.

I feel like, after far too many years trapped by nostalgia, I'm finally opening my eyes to the possibilities that are available in life. Maybe I'm reaching an age where things seem clear, after years of things seeming to get foggier. You have to let go to move forward.

I've continued to work on an itinerary for my road trip of screenings, and I'm very close to announcing it. I hope to have it up before the end of the week. Stay tuned ...

Saturday, June 9, 2012


I've been trying to write a new blog post for a while, but have thrown out two previous drafts as a result of new thoughts and experiences I've had recently.

I spent much of May pitching in on the production of Adrian Esposito's film Bury My Heart With Tonawanda, a period film about a young man with Down's Syndrome finding acceptance in a Native American community. On a couple of days I was asked to fill in as cameraman, which I never considered my strongest skill as a film student, but which is now an area where I feel more confident. It's been a very ambitious project, marshaling the talents and enthusiasm of many people from inside and outside Rochester, and I look forward to seeing its completion.

I've had other personal experiences and insights in recent weeks, which I was going to yammer about at great length – in fact, there are two previous drafts of this blog entry where I did just that. However, a recent family near-emergency caused me to rethink my priorities and whether my own crap is that important or not, so I'm gonna keep it brief.

On Memorial Day weekend, I visited my friends Greg and Misha down in NYC. They were throwing a kind of mini sci-fi convention for friends at their home, and I was invited to be a Fan Guest of Honor to give a presentation on Doctor Who. The presentation was well-received, and folks asked many questions during and after the presentation. I saw how much social capital there was in having knowledge of something that other people were interested in.

It was a great experience, and a further step towards recharging my faith in fandom. I've let the especially shrill fans of a different franchise – the Franchise That Shall Not Be Named (which had its thirty-fifth anniversary last month) – blind me to the acceptance and friendliness that can still be found in the larger fan community. I've complained enough about That Franchise's possessive fanboys, and doing so probably made me just as possessive as they were, and therefore not really any better than them.

While there is much in later installments of That Franchise that I would still defend, I think part of the continuing dispute is that its plaid-clad creator keeps clinging to an older expectation of the relationship between artist and audience. Basically, he's still trying to be Stanley Kubrick in a Joss Whedon world.

Once upon a time, a person who was into the arts – either as an artist or as a fan – tended to be a loner or an outcast. When you read interviews with 1970s directors like Spielberg or Scorsese or Coppola, they always seem to talk about growing up as the weird kid with asthma who had to create a rich fantasy life to compensate for the lack of outlets in their own life. Every subcultural movement, whether political (feminism, black power) or artistic (punk, grunge, rap), comes from a similar need to transform enforced separateness into an identity. Having a personal vision and trying to get it out there – whether the mass audience understood it or not – was why people wanted to become filmmakers in the first place.

That separatist attitude may explain why most artistically acclaimed films tend to be about alienation, victimization, loneliness, lack of emotion, lack of connection with other people. Or they tend to be protest movies about how society and the masses are dumb. Critics praised these films for being challenging and uncompromising.

Science fiction, in particular, went for these kinds of separatist themes again and again. The dystopian future that only the disaffected hero has the courage to defy. The mutants who are born special in a world that fears and persecutes specialness. The androids who struggle with human concepts such as empathy. The Gandhi-like aliens who force humans to consider how cruel and careless their own society can be. All of these played to a crowd that saw themselves as being deprived, marginalized and wronged.

But the culture has changed. In spite of all the manufactured rage you find on the Internet and on talk shows, to me the world seems friendlier and more accepting than it did when I was younger. It's much easier to find a welcoming community that shares your interests. Geek culture seems a lot more cheerful now. Which is as it should be, because humans are social creatures and we are meant to interact with each other. When I was younger, I wanted to run away. But now, I want to belong.

I feel like I've come full circle on this point, because as a kid I just wanted to make cool, fun movies. Perhaps years of studying film has made the role of the defiant artist seem more alluring, to the point where the kinds of movies I used to love – that I used to aspire to make – now can seem too easy, too safe, too mainstream.

Fandom also has a certain seduction, which part of me resists. It seems safer to obsess over something outside yourself – that objectively exists in the world already, that other people already know about – than to spend time digging inside yourself to produce something new, that needs to be promoted from scratch. It's easier to be a fan than to be an artist.

I do still have a desire to see something odd and different now and again, and I do still lament the way that established brands are replacing original visions. If you want to make a movie based on a story and characters you thought of yourself, it does seem that you need to steer a bit more towards an indie hipster audience rather than a genre fan audience. But just because an audience doesn't know they'll like something doesn't mean they won't like it once they actually see it. And if expectations for movies seem more limited nowadays, expectations for other storytelling forms have continued to grow. And you can't resist that. You can't be a separatist.

All this has been on my mind as I consider where the Saberfrog journey has taken me – from writing, to production, to the steps I'm now taking to find a wider audience for it. It really seems like the main character's journey in the film has mirrored my own progression. Josh starts out as a lonely, alienated nerd in search of meaning in his life, with only his obsession with a sci-fi franchise to give him solace. By the end of his journey, he has learned some life lessons and formed a connection with other people in the wider world.

That's what I'm trying to do now. After months or years of huddling in my shell, waiting for the storm to blow over, I'm ready to venture out into the world and connect with an audience again.

I'm finally putting together an official Saberfrog DVD, which I plan to have for sale by the end of the year. I'm also looking into setting up online streaming of the film at some point. I've even managed to write the first of the novels that Josh is obsessed with (though it could still use another draft).

But on top of all that, I'm planning to take Saberfrog on the road later this year. The film is a road movie, set in several different cities (if not actually filmed there). So I've decided it would be a good idea to actually go to those places – and maybe a few others – and screen the film for an untapped audience.

It might not happen. I might run out of time, or the venues in those areas might not be affordable. And the publicity and logistics could be challenging. But I've had the idea since April, and I'm finally announcing the goal here and now. God knows I've had some dark and despairing moments with this movie, but you can't make a movie and just shelve it. It needs to be seen.

I'm back, baby. And so is Saberfrog.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

RIP JN-T, 10 years later

May 2002 was a pretty crappy time for me. I'd become involved in an arts organization I will not name, thinking it would be a great experience as well as a step forward in my film career. Instead it was one of the grimmest experiences I've ever had, due to some very ugly personal politics that arose.

I'd been promoted to a high position in the organization because some officers above me were not getting along with a colleague and suddenly quit. I thought I could sort out the resulting mess, and I was wrong. I wanted to leave the organization in better shape than I found it, but by the end of May it became clear that this was not going to be possible.

By the end of that month, I found myself thinking of John Nathan-Turner. He was the producer of Doctor Who during the 1980s, and played a large role in promoting the show in the US. Doctor Who was still near the peak of its popularity when “JN-T” (as he was widely known) became producer in 1980. By 1989, the show had been canceled after years of declining ratings and viewer dissatisfaction, for which JN-T was often blamed.

I didn't know a huge amount about the show's behind-the-scenes history at that point. But from the few available books I'd read on the subject, I got a sense that JN-T stayed aboard the sinking ship longer and longer, thinking that if he fixed one more crisis he could leave the show in good health … and ended up still in charge when the show was finally canceled, thus forever taking the blame for its demise.

I decided I would learn from his example, and not make the same mistake. As much work as I had put into the organization, and as much as I cared about its continuing success, I decided to resign my post and let it become someone else's problem. I eventually cut my ties with the organization entirely. It was a painful and devastating decision, but necessary for my mental health.

I then found out that JN-T had passed away on May 1, at a relatively young age. Doctor Who Magazine published a tribute issue in memory of the former producer, and when I read it it hit me hard. The issue described at length the personal attacks JN-T had endured during his time on the show, from both colleagues and fans. Friends praised him for keeping his chin up, continuing to do his work as best he could, and not sinking to the level of his attackers.

Misery loves company, so the saying goes, and I took great consolation in reading about the ups and downs of his time on Doctor Who, feeling that I'd walked a mile in his shoes. Disturbingly, I knew that this story was seeing print only because of his passing – to some degree, I owed my sanity to the fact that this man died exactly when he did.

But I never met the man. Over the years I've seen and read interviews with various people who worked with him, and certain themes have emerged. People seemed to like him socially but not entirely trust his artistic judgment, feeling that he didn't have the greatest understanding of scripts. Worse, he apparently felt a need to be the boss at all times, and would lose his temper if he thought someone was challenging his authority. So at least some of the criticism he endured may have been justified.

JN-T craved the approval of fandom, and made a number of personal appearances at conventions and on talk shows. By putting himself so much in the spotlight, he may have made himself a target. Years before the Internet was widespread, Doctor Who was the first geek franchise to allow the fans to have a say in the show's creative content. JN-T gave fan Ian Levine the unofficial role of continuity advisor, letting him insert references to old episodes as well as select old clips for use in flashbacks. Some fan-made artwork was also used in the show itself, including lapel badges worn by the Doctor himself (as played Colin Baker in the mid-80s). It's now felt that this emphasis on fan-pleasing in-jokes was detrimental to the show. It's a cruel irony that the historians asserting this view are probably the very fans who were demanding that kind of fan service back in the 1980s.

Perhaps the lesson is that fame is fickle, and that by putting yourself in the spotlight you make yourself a target. Some people have a knee-jerk assumption that anyone who reaches a position of fame and authority couldn't possibly be flesh and blood like you and me, but must be evil robots whose sole purpose is to add to the sum of human misery.

As an aspiring young filmmaker with big dreams, it never occurred to me that becoming successful and achieving your goals could make one a target of hostility, often from people you don't even know. This has become even more true in the Internet era, when an offhand Twitter remark can provoke a firestorm and wreck a career.

A more recent Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffatt, said in an interview that you can try to be a pandering crowdpleaser, but if the audience isn't surprised enough then they'll get bored. Whether John Nathan-Turner learned this lesson is hard to say – by his last couple of seasons he had apparently begun to cut himself off from fandom, and the episodes from those last two years are often considered to be among his best.

So the greater lesson might be that you can't please everyone all the time, and that all you can really do is maintain your integrity and do what you think is right, even when it would be easier not to.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Filmmaking and the Way to the Village

A journey of discovery, in three parts


When I was developing Saberfrog several years back, I'd been out of the filmmaking loop in a while, so I started attending independent filmmaker conferences in the NYC area in order to get caught up.

One of these conferences was DIY Days, which was probably where I first heard about the now-much bandied concept of “transmedia.” This year's DIY Days was last month, and I almost didn't go. I'd had a busy week at work and wasn't sure I was still up for the trip. But my recent trip to Los Angeles had so regenerated the geek side of my brain that it seemed fitting to do the same for the artist side of my brain.

DIY Days is a conference devoted partly to filmmaking but mostly to interactive media, with the philosophy that art which isn't interactive will be left behind. “The most valuable thing in the 21st century,” said one panelist this year, “is creating participatory experience.” Another panelist said that in the future, “Movies are going to have to have interactive elements, or people will stop watching them.” There were more talks and panels than I remembered in past years, divided up among different rooms so that you had to decide which ones you were going to and which ones you were going to skip. One room was devoted specifically to allowing attendees to discuss and present their projects to an audience.

I went intending to simply listen and take notes, as I was used to doing. Instead, two of the seminars I attended required audience participation. We weren't just being lectured about interactivity – we were expected to be interactive ourselves.

In hindsight, I should have spent less time at the lectures and panels expressing ideas I was already becoming familiar with. I should have spent more time networking, participating in creative activities, and learning about specific projects that people were working on.

Also, because I'd delayed the decision to attend the conference, I was able to get neither transportation nor time off work, so I ended up driving down very early in the morning, finding street parking, and then going to the conference. The experience caused me to realize how much my ability to cope with the streets of New York have improved since I was a college freshman.

The biggest thing I really learned was how much I'd learned already.


A couple weeks later, I finally saw Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a film that – despite its acclaim – I actually knew little about except that silent-era fantasy filmmaker Georges Melies was portrayed in it. What I didn't expect was that Melies was one of the main characters, and that his personal issues were at the emotional center of the film.

As someone who'd always been fascinated by Melies pioneering work in special effects, I had my doubts about the way Hugo portrayed him. According to this movie, Melies' career ended because the outbreak of World War One hardened audiences against the power of fantasy. I'd always heard a slightly different story – that Melies' career ended because he didn't develop creatively, that he was still making simple, stagey trick-films even as the film medium was becoming more sophisticated in its directing, editing and storytelling. WWI may indeed have been the final nail in the coffin for Melies (he did have to melt down many of his films in order to sell their chemicals, as the film depicts) but fantasy films continued to be made through the silent era and beyond.

Yet Hugo – like the recent The Muppets – asks us simply to mourn the fate of the poor forgotten artist, and not ask how he allowed himself to drift into obscurity. As Hollywood struggles to adapt to the social-media age, and grows ever more dependent on rehashing old brands established decades ago (before the Internet and audience fragmentation) rather than creating new brands, Hugo seems like special pleading for a bygone age, when the cinematic art was put on a pedestal, the individual auteur was revered, and the theatrical experience had little competition.

This aspect of the film hit a difficult nerve for me, as did the portrayal of Melies as someone who suppressed his filmmaking dreams for several years due to personal setbacks. I've been trying damn hard to get a grip on the new media landscape, and to escape the nostalgic view of film as a precious and sacred art form rather than one of many modern entertainment options. What really gnawed at me, I guess, is that Scorsese is such a gifted filmmaker – and made such a superb, heartwarming, emotional film – that his traditionalist view of entertainment felt all too persuasive. I guess it bugged me that he managed to manipulate my heart into accepting what my brain no longer believes.

I also found it ironic that Scorsese – who snob critics always hail as a “real” filmmaker while condemning fantasy filmmakers as escapist hacks – should get to be the one to celebrate the power of cinematic dreams and magic. It's either vindication, or the final insult.


For better or worse, I've developed an increasing wariness toward nostalgia. As a filmmaker and former film student, I've grown particularly resistant to the continuing emphasis on the 1960s / 1970's era of filmmaking (the era, of course, from which Scorsese hails).

I'm resistant to it because I understand it all too well. The modern era's emphasis on geek franchises and Internet haters often leaves me pining for an age that seemed warmer, more soulful, and more hospitable to creativity. My heart yearns for it even as my head strains to live in the present. I recently passed up an opportunity to see Midnight Cowboy on the big screen – even though I've never seen the film and have always been curious about it, I decided that I just wasn't in the mood. At least two generations of aspiring filmmakers have spent their lives in thrall to that “turbulent” counterculture era, and I just felt like it was time to be strong and cut the cord.

Yet certain filmgoing experiences still exert a nostalgic hold over me. As a kid I used to see obscure short films in a variety of venues – on 16mm in classrooms, libraries and museums, or as TV filler between movies in the early days of cable, or in traveling animation festivals at the Little Theatre. Those films seemed to come from nowhere – and because I don't remember most of their titles, I'll probably never be able to track them down – so I still remember them fondly for being mysterious and underground.

So when I read the event listings in City newspaper and saw an unheralded weekly film series taking place at the University of Rochester, my curiosity was piqued. Weekly showings of two films a night, presumably shorts, with no description other than their titles and the year they were made. But they were on weeknights, and I was often busy, so my curiosity went unsatisfied.

Finally, on the third week of the series – while still recovering from the kind of stomach bug that leaves you questioning your entire existence – I had the evening free and decided to check out one of these screenings for myself.

According to City, the screenings were held at Hoyt Auditorium. When I got there, however, there seemed to be a class about to begin. I asked one of the students if she knew about a film screening taking place here. She said this was a housing event, and suggested I ask one of the staff at the front of the room. I did so, and the staff person directed me to a campus events office.

Following the directions I'd been given, I went to the office and asked if there was a film screening taking place anywhere. I didn't have a City newspaper on me for reference, so I didn't know what the event was called. The girl behind the desk saw that there had indeed been a film screening scheduled in Hoyt Auditorium that evening, but had no explanation for why it wasn't taking place.

I began to wonder what I was doing here. Part of me felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, following a signal that spoke to him and no one else … but mostly I just felt like an idiot. I was sure no one else from off campus had just showed up randomly based on a cryptic listing in the paper that turned out to be false. I thanked the woman for her time and left.

With nothing better to do, I looked at the flyers posted on a curved bulletin-board thing near the door, curious as to what else was happening on campus. By chance, one of the flyers was for the very event I was looking for … and listed that evening's event as taking place in a different room, Meliora 203.

Armed with this vital new clue, I returned smiling to the office I had just left, and got directions to Meliora 203.

By the time I finally found my way to Meliora Hall and located room 203, I was more than 20 minutes late. I entered a dark classroom, where the familiar whirr of a 16mm projector was audible. The room had uneven brick walls, an old blackboard with math equations written on it from a previous class, and the smell of history.

As I took a seat, I was hit with the sense memories of countless similar screenings at nontheatrical venues throughout my life – in grade school, at libraries, at RMSC's Eisenhardt Auditorium (where they showed kid's films on weekends when I was little), at Visual Studies Workshop, at University of Buffalo, at NYU, at RIT. I remembered the squeaky chairs in the classroom where I once took film classes at SUNY Brockport. I felt like I was in a time warp. Here I was in 2012, sitting in an old, dark, cavernous classroom watching a 16mm film – that familiar sharp picture, framed by those familiar blurred edges and the obligatory hair.

Because the City listing gave the years of production for tonight's two films, I went in knowing I would be seeing films from the early 1970s. This led me to expect a film with grubby, faded, Super-8-ish colors. But the film currently playing was black-and-white, which was slightly less funky than I was hoping for.

The film was in Japanese with subtitles, and showed a Japanese film crew discussing their efforts to make a film, with much philosophizing from the director. Having missed the beginning, I had no idea what the film was about and struggled to determine its tone. Was this an improvised, arty drama about filmmaking? Was it a behind-the-scenes documentary? I finally worked out that the film they were making was itself a documentary … so this was a documentary about making a documentary. Was this supposed to be some kind of avant-garde deconstruction of the process? Or just an instructional film about how to make documentaries?

One of the first scenes I saw was of the crew demonstrating their equipment to the audience – their Eclair film camera (which the cameraman found heavy and difficult to hold), their Nagra sound recorder, their microphone on a homemade boom pole. I found myself being given a lesson from the past about how to use equipment that had been state of the art 40 years ago.

I sat there, and thought … Why am I here? Why am I watching this? Even after turning down a widely acknowledged classic like Midnight Cowboy, I still went above and beyond to find a semi-secret film screening so I could watch ... this? I don't even know what this is!

At that moment, I remembered something old, and learned something new.

What I remembered was that, when I was a film student, I actually kind of hated arty films from the 1960s and early 1970s. I sort of grew to respect the era they represented, after having them rammed down my throat by professors and film history books alike. But the actual films were another matter. Their navel-gazing plotlessness, unfunny attempts at whimsical humor, and pointlessly defeatist endings, not to mention their punishing overlength, made many of them a tough slog for my adolescent self to sit through. Somehow I'd forgotten that. I remembered the few gems, and forgot the many lumps of coal.

I also remembered my annoyance at the way that film schools (and probably art schools in general) treat the past as more important than the state-of-the-art. The emphasis is always on history, and there's always a trench at least twenty years wide that separates Then from Now, permitting no link between the two. Somehow nothing is worth understanding unless it's dead and buried. A leaf is only beautiful when it's fallen and pressed inside a book, not when it's still on the tree. This attitude almost seemed designed to convince you that nothing in your own lifetime could possibly matter, and that nothing you could produce will ever make it into the Canon.

So what was I so nostalgic for, that I was so willing to jump through hoops to attend a campus screening of a film I knew nothing about? I realized it was the experience I missed, of sitting in an unusual venue that had a certain feel and smell, and not knowing what you were about to see. Those oddball screenings were a lottery, and you might see something boring, or you might see something that you remembered forever. I wasn't sure I was enjoying this Japanese doc-within-a-doc, but it had been a while since I saw a film that was a challenge to make sense of.

Also, when I was younger, I was much more inexperienced and isolated, and for me film was a way of connecting to a larger world. Watching this old film about Japanese documentary filmmakers (and the film after it, Les Blank's “Spend It All”, about French-speaking Cajuns in Louisiana) forced me to realize that, as a younger viewer, I actually hadn't been that interested in other people or cultures. I wanted to expand my own mind, through movies and books.

But now that I'm a little older, and have done more and seen more and read more ... what really matters now is forming connections with other people.

At the screening, I got to chat briefly with other people about the films. And really, that's what matters. After mythologizing the experience of going to a hole-in-the-wall film screening, and thinking it's some magical lost art, I realize it's basically a college thing. As long as projectors and spare bulbs exist, screenings like this will continue. For them to continue to mean something, they should inspire not just thought, but discussion.

As you get older, you can lose your openness to new experiences, and try in vain to cling to what you're familiar with. That's always been my generation's trap – X-ers have spent their entire lives trying to crawl back into the womb, or at least the childhood TV room. But sometimes trying to recapture an old experience can lead you to have a new experience instead.

Like my excursion to New York for DIY Days, this screening was an opportunity to reflect on how much I've grown since I was a student, and how much the world has changed around me as well. Also like DIY Days, it helped me let go of the idea of art as solely a means of self-fulfillment and self-improvement, and to see it instead as a means of interacting with others.

The Japanese film was called “Filmmaking and the Way to the Village”.

Not a bad title.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happy Cronenbirthday

Today is film director David Cronenberg's 69th birthday. Cronenberg's work was a big influence on me as a film student, and an even greater influence on Saberfrog.

I saw two of his films –
The Dead Zone and The Fly – on TV as a kid, but I didn't know who he was yet. To me those films were just a Stephen King movie and a remake of a 1950s movie, respectively. But a bizarre promo clip of his William S. Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch caught my attention on MTV, and so I later watched the making-of documentary “Naked Making Lunch” (made as an episode of the UK arts series
The South Bank Show) on Bravo.

Well, I say “watched”, but in those days if you didn't subscribe to a pay channel (which Bravo then was) then you could still hear the sound but the picture was scrambled. But since Bravo was still an arts channel back then, there was a lot of content that was worth listening to (and getting the occasional garbled glimpse of).

So I sat, fascinated, absorbing this distorted version of “Naked Making Lunch”, intrigued by the philosophical musings of Cronenberg, Burroughs and their collaborators. I was a big sci-fi nerd back then, but was also (like many alienated, artsy teens) fascinated by alternative and “subversive” ideas and intellectual concepts, and Cronenberg seemed to combine both of those interests.

When Naked Lunch finally came out on video, I found it “challenging” but also loved its emphasis on the power of writing, and its surreal, metaphorical portrayal of writing as a way of creating realities and reporting on the world as you see it. When I finally read Burroughs' original novel (which was more specifically about sexuality and drug addiction, and not so much about creativity), I didn't like it at all and found it very difficult to get through. Everything I had liked about Naked Lunch was Cronenberg's invention.

But while I was an admirer of a specific film he had made, I didn't become a big fan until 1996. That was the year that some RIT classmates and I drove to Ottawa for an animation film festival. While I had visited Canada on family vacations several times as a kid, I think that trip was when I really felt that I learned something about Canadian culture, and saw how much reverence Canadians seemed to have for their artists.

Leslie Nielsen had by that point been typecast in Hollywood as a comedy buffoon, but on the streets of Ottawa there were endless plastered posters for a dramatic play he was appearing in. Cyberpunk author William Gibson had a new book out at the time, and the local chain bookstore (Indigo or Chapters, I forget which) had a massive display for it, as if he was Stephen King or John Grisham. Coincidentally, Cronenberg's Crash (based on the J.G. Ballard novel, and no relation to the Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock movie) was in Canadian theaters at the time; while its U.S. release had been postponed due to its content, in Canada it was actually getting television ads.

Anyway, while we were there I snapped up a remaindered copy of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, a book-length interview by Chris Rodley, and read it avidly. I might have read half of it before we even got home. I found Cronenberg's artistic philosophy – his thoughts on censorship, on the media, on the role of the artist as a moral explorer – fascinating. As an American, I was also fascinated by his perspective on Canadian culture. At one point in the book (I don't know what page), he points out that American culture would rather move in the wrong direction than stand still, but that Canada would rather stand still. While American liberals tend to stereotype Canada as a haven of artistic freedom, Cronenberg had interesting things to say about the challenges of being a genre filmmaker in a country that has traditionally favored documentaries and dramas.

So I began to seek out his films. I still haven't seen his earliest films (the horror films that made him so infamous), but have now seen everything from The Brood onwards, as well as his earlier Shivers. But the two I enjoyed most were
Scanners and Videodrome, for the way they balanced grotesque, disturbing imagery with stimulating intellectual concepts. Many fans still see Cronenberg as a horror director (the term “body horror” was pretty much coined to describe his work), but by the time I discovered him he had a greater reputation as an arty director and so I've always been drawn to the philosophical aspect of his work.

How well that aspect of his work holds up is not for me to say. While I have had the chance to watch “Naked Making Lunch” properly (it's an extra on the Criterion DVD), I haven't watched Naked Lunch itself in many years. I'm kind of reluctant to. I caught the beginning of it on cable several years ago, and was amused by a scene in which Judy Davis, explaining why she's injecting herself with bug poison, says, “It's a very literary high, a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.”

I found that line hilarious in its freshman-English-class pretentiousness. A “Kafka high”? Who talks like that? But I'll bet my younger, pretentious, college-aged self loved that line.

So there's a part of me that finds Cronenberg's intellectual solemnity more amusing than I used to. And I've also learned that some folks in Canada are kind of sick of hearing about Cronenberg (and other alleged national treasures like Atom Egoyan and Margaret Atwood) and are much more mocking of arty work that they find pretentious, humorless and dull.

But I can't mock Cronenberg for producing work that appealed so directly to my alienated, bookwormy younger self. The reality-warping, artistic musings of his Naked Lunch were a big influence on my previous feature, Curse the Darkness. And the combining of psychology, media, and bodily mutation in Scanners and Videodrome – as well as his own philosophizing in Cronenberg on Cronenberg – were all huge influences on Saberfrog, even if my own take on these themes was much more wacky and irreverent.

Cronenberg seems to have more or less left his sci-fi/horror days, becoming a respected director of dramas such as the excellent A History of Violence and the recent Freud/Jung biopic A Dangerous Method. But there's still a possibility that he may return to the genre that made him notorious. To quote one of his own lines – which has become a catchphrase in its own right, with most people not realizing it's from his remake of The Fly – Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Regeneration (or, how a failed TV pilot restored my faith in art and humanity)

It's been a couple of months since I wrote a proper blog entry. A far cry from the early days of this blog, when I was posting every day. Back then I was recapping which scenes were being filmed 25 months ago on that day, as a way of promoting my then-imminent world premiere screening of Saberfrog.

This past October I started a new day job, which I guess is always a big life change. It's a great job that fully uses my skills, but it has also kept me very busy. I found myself having less and less inclination to keep up my writing or to really do anything with Saberfrog.

I began to develop a theory (which I'm sure someone else has also thought of) that we create art only when we are dissatisfied. I remembered that it was a much younger and more alienated me who went to film school in the hopes of becoming a writer-director. And I also thought about how much less magical the movies seem to be today – the bankruptcy of Kodak, the hiatus of Rochester's 360|365 film festival, and the fact that Hollywood executives has so little faith in their own industry that they think movies have to be based on an established brand from another medium (comics, TV, board games, etc) in order to convince people to go see them.

So weeks went by without me writing anything. At the end of 2011, I was going to post something about two people who passed away that year: Ken Russell, director of Altered States, and John Neville, star of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, two films that had a huge influence on Saberfrog. But I was busy and that never happened. I was even going to write a blog entry announcing that I was done with the blog, and that maybe I was done with filmmaking as well.

But all that changed this past weekend, when I went to Los Angeles to attend the Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One.

I had gone to Gallifrey a few times in the early-to-mid 2000s and enjoyed it, but financial and relationship-related constraints caused me to stop going. (And disillusionment with fandom caused me to stop going to genre conventions of any kind anyway, a point I'll return to later.)

But I went this year because William Russell, one of the original cast members – now in his late eighties – was scheduled to appear, and as a longtime Who addict I decided that was not something I could bear to miss.

The last time I'd gone to a Doctor Who convention was around 2006 or so, when the modern series was still new, and the lovably grubby old show was still the main draw. This time, I was immediately struck by the vast majority of people dressed as characters that hadn't existed the last time I went to this convention.

The crowd was now younger and more female, and for the first time I saw with my own eyes a trend I'd previously only heard about – that of women going to conventions dressed as customized female versions of male characters (i.e. with a skirt or dress instead of pants, and maybe a girlier tie or jacket). After years of learning to associate fandom with grumpy middle-aged goons bemoaning their lost childhood, I was struck by the sight of fans expressing (gasp!) creativity, and having the same curiosity and excitement that I had when I first discovered the show.

I was struck by the genuine joy and enthusiasm for all aspects of Doctor Who. No character was too obscure or unpopular not to merit a fan-made costume. (The most obscure was surely the Doctor as depicted in Scream of the Shalka, an animated web series that was meant to be an official continuation of the old series before being swiftly buried once the new live-action series was greenlit.)

I did indeed get to see William Russell in person. I also got to chat with Steve Roberts, one of the wizards behind the restoration of old episodes for DVD release. I also met the guys behind BroaDWcast, a New Zealand-based website devoted to archiving the history of Doctor Who airings around the world (amusingly, they seem to have used my blog as a source for their WXXI entry).

But the highlight of the weekend was surely a screening of the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie (made as a pilot for an American series that never happened), with live commentary provided by its stars and producer, all of whom were guests at the convention this year.

It was one of the greatest movie screenings I've ever attended.

Sometimes it's fun to watch a movie on its own terms, as a work of entertainment. Sometimes it's fun to listen to a DVD commentary, and listen to the creators tell their anecdotes and war stories. And sometimes it's fun to watch a movie with friends who talk over it and laugh with or at it. Impressively, this screening managed to entertain on all those levels at once. The producer and stars spoke just enough to be amusing and enlightening, and just little enough that you could follow the movie on its own. They and their film had a huge audience, laughing and cheering from beginning to end.

And still, that's only part of what made this screening so great to me. To explain the rest, I have to backtrack a bit …

The week before leaving for Gallifrey, I happened to visit YouTube, and one of the featured videos was of someone reviewing the Star Wars novel Darth Plagueis. The reviewer gave the book a glowing review, saying it made him think a lot about philosophy and politics, and that it helped explain certain plot details in the Star Wars films.

I haven't read this book, but the reviewer spoke with an intelligence and insight that I'd stopped hoping for in Star Wars fans, at least the ones in my own age group. He seemed to be interested in larger concepts and ideas, as well as fleshing out his knowledge of the Star Wars universe. (The book's title character does not appear onscreen in the films, but is mentioned in dialogue in Episode III.)

I thought about how reading, viewing, and storytelling habits have changed in recent years. People complain that movies are all sequels, remakes and franchises now, and I've been foremost among them. But there is something to be said for creating a world, story and characters across multiple installments and multiple media, secure in the knowledge that a committed audience will be able to keep track of it all and will make the mental effort to form it all into a whole.

During my trip to Los Angeles, my friend John and I managed to squeeze in a screening of the 3D rerelease of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I've always had mixed feelings about this film – while I never hated it the way my contemporaries did, I've always found it a flawed film that could have gotten a better response simply by being better-paced and less confusing. I was on the fence about seeing it again, but knew that if I did, it would have to be in Los Angeles, not Rochester; and that I would have to see it with John, who's slightly younger than me and more of a fan of the film.

Seeing it on the big screen again, and in 3D no less, I was pleasantly surprised. The bold, CGI-heavy visuals and convoluted plot don't seem so jarring today. The last 13 years of TV shows, novels, comics and games have trained audiences to follow complex narratives with multiple characters. Even the slow spots were enlivened with colorful background detail. And of course, unlike the original films, Episode I was surely made with the knowledge that there would be books and games to explore all of its nooks and crannies. (Bounty hunter Aurra Sing, who appears very briefly onscreen during the pod race, went on to play a larger role in the Clone Wars TV series.)

The famous Red Letter Media fan review of Episode I seemed to argue that the earlier films were better because they were more straightforward and easier to follow. But there's now a younger, smarter, more media-savvy audience who doesn't need things to be made easy to follow. Episode I was made for them, not for the slacker generation who still cling desperately to their own 1970s childhood (when pop culture was a lot dumber, as Steven Berlin Johnson has argued).

All of this put me in exactly the right frame of mind to watch the Doctor Who TV movie with an enthusiastic crowd of fans. Since its 1996 debut, this film has struggled to shake off its reputation as merely a failed TV pilot. It was considered too glossy, mawkish and Americanized to properly “count” as Doctor Who in the eyes of established fans, while being too saddled with continuity and backstory to have a prayer of appealing to mainstream viewers.

But like Episode I, the Doctor Who TV movie seems to have been made for a future audience with different expectations. In 1996, both Doctor Who fans and indie-slacker types had a stifling distrust of anything that appeared to be competently made or decently financed. But now there's a new audience who got into Doctor Who through the new series. To them, there's nothing wrong with lavish production values, a soaring orchestral score, or hints of romance between the Doctor and a human woman – that's all the stuff they like about Doctor Who to begin with!

Far from being dumbed down, the TV movie is fast-paced and funny, full of action and spectacle, with throwaway jokes and colorful supporting characters. The supposedly garbled plot was surprisingly easy to follow, and the high stakes (Earth and a big chunk of the universe are in danger, and the Doctor's time machine is out of power!) justify its position as “Doctor Who: The Movie.” I know fans objected to the fact that the film contained a shootout and a motorcycle chase. But it's a very old-fashioned, Gen-X attitude to think that a franchise must never, ever do anything it hasn't already done yet.

And any complaints that the TV movie relies too heavily on audience knowledge of Doctor Who can at last be dismissed. It may have been a misstep in 1996, but the world has caught up. People do know about the Doctor and his universe. They know the TARDIS is alive (a recent Neil Gaiman-scripted episode dwells on this at length), so why shouldn't a surgeon like Grace Holloway be able to repair her? (That might not be what the script had in mind, but fan culture is interactive – you can draw on your own knowledge and imagination to fill in any gaps.) And the Paul McGann-performed Eighth Doctor, seen onscreen in this movie only, has (like Aurra Sing) led a full life in other media, enjoying a loyal and passionate following.

The TV movie's producer, Philip Segal – who struggled for seven years to bring Doctor Who back from oblivion, only for the result of his labor to be ignored or condemned – must have felt validated at that screening. If I ever again hear the question “If you could switch places with someone famous, who would it be?” that will be my answer – to be Philip Segal on the afternoon of February 19, 2012. I can only begin to imagine how it must have felt to see your long-maligned kid get crowned homecoming queen like that, in the company of the family who helped you raise her.

That screening, and the weekend overall, was the latest and biggest sign that it was finally time to leave the bad old days behind.

For more than half my life – since “Generation X” first became a thing – I've felt poisoned by the relentless assumption that anything true or “real” has to be despairing and angry and mean-spirited.

I looked to sci-fi and fantasy as a respite, as a sign that things could be better. Name authors such as Asimov and Bradbury talked about the strength and inspiration they found as young writers entering “fandom”. But I eventually concluded that they belonged to an older world, when people were optimistic and visionary, and set themselves positive goals to strive for.

The fans closer to my own age, that I actually knew, seemed defined by resentment and jealousy. The fact that they'd been unpopular in high school, or had problems at home, was to them universal proof that everything, everywhere, was contaminated. To them, life's obstacles were something to be complained about, not overcome. And I slowly came to notice that the way fans of my generation defined themselves was in opposition to someone else. To bolster their own puny self-esteem, they needed to find someone else to pick on, just as they had been picked on.

My first indication of this came in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was hanging out with aspiring sci-fi authors. Devotees of sci-fi literature had (and maybe still have) an intense hatred of sci-fi movies and TV shows, so much so that – as a filmmaker myself – I sometimes felt like a closet Jew at a neo-Nazi rally. When going to conventions, I saw that no panel topic was too broad or specific that it wouldn't immediately devolve into bitching about movies and TV.

At one such panel, while listening to someone ramble about how much they hated Star Trek: Voyager, I thought: How did we get here? I thought fans were the smart guys, the cutting-edge guys, the guys who lived in the future sooner than everyone else. If they can't even cope with the existence of a mediocre TV show, how are they going to cope with the sweeping social and technological changes that sci-fi is supposedly preparing us for?

But because I still identified with fandom, I tried to overlook this. I tried to overlook the tendency of literary-SF authors and readers to condemn every medium but their own. I tried to overlook the tendency of Doctor Who fans (in those days) to hate anything made after the early 1980s (or after the mid-1970s, in the case of extremists). I tried to suppress my growing suspicion that these weren't the smart guys – that these were the dumb guys, who couldn't cope with new styles or approaches, who resented “kids” who were in fact older than they'd been when they'd become fans.

But the constant, unrelenting moaning about the Star Wars prequels, and the smug personal attacks on George Lucas, was the last straw for me. That's when it occurred to me that Generation-X fandom, with their constant bleat of “my childhood!”, is about keeping your own maturity and comprehension levels as low as possible, to the absolute exclusion of anything new or different. I don't agree with everything Lucas has done, but he was one of my biggest inspirations as a young filmmaker – his own example proved that a small-town kid with limited social skills could overcome obstacles and learn to be a writer, a director, and a businessperson – so I always take those insults kinda personal.

And it's not just Star Wars. Whenever I hear Gen-X nerds criticize anything (even something I don't like either), it makes me want to ask: How are you smarter than a person who made something? How are you more accomplished than the person who wrote a script, finished a novel, drew a comic book, devised a TV story arc? If you know so much more about the craft than the people who do it for a living, why do you have nothing to show for it, even in an age when the tools for creating and distributing stories have never been more widely available? Not to play the old-man card, but 20 years ago people still had to do things the hard way – they loaded film cameras and typed on typewriters – and still managed to create art, instead of just having resentment and jealousy towards the people who did.

In the 1990s I sometimes saw interviews with indie-type filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Terry Gilliam or Spike Lee, in which they would bash Hollywood or other directors (often gratuitously) ... but at least when they did it, there was the implication that they themselves were aspiring to do something different, that they wanted to be part of the solution.

I sometimes encounter people who would rather make nothing at all than gain experience making something bad. I disagree with this attitude. Making something bad requires the ability to make something. And making something requires knowing the craft to at least a basic degree, and it requires the ability to complete a project. It's also a learning experience; you develop new skills and, hopefully, figure out how to do better next time. Every time I make a film, I'm a different person at the end of it. And I'd like to think that other people are similarly capable of personal growth, but multiple encounters with bitter idiots had caused me to abandon any such hope.

It took Gallifrey 2012 to strip away that armor of cynicism that I'd built up in recent years. There's now a younger generation that is a hell of a lot more fun. They don't have the same allergy to anything bright or cheerful, or that girls might like. And I find that I can actually stand to be around them. I can't say for sure what caused this cultural shift (I'm sure the Internet is a big part of it), but I think I can at least say what the shift is.

For the past century or so, art was seen as an act of defiance. The way you proved that you were an artist was by criticizing society, or corporations, or the government, or by showing how depressed and alienated you were. And if you weren't an artist, the way you proved you were sophisticated was by appreciating things that were depressing or alienated, to the exclusion of anything more light-hearted. Even in more populist artforms like film and/or sci-fi, the way something gets hailed as “art” is by being cold and depersonalized, or satirically despairing of the direction in which things are headed. And if you ever have a craving for something a bit less dull or depressing or hectoring … well, that just means you've been brainwashed by The System and need your consciousness raised. Or it means that you're one of the bad guys, oppressing everyone with your bourgeois aesthetics.

While sci-fi fans only rarely overlap with the tweed-jacket-and-goatee stereotype I just described, they have often seemed to carry a similar attitude that the whole world is their enemy. So many of geek culture's iconic characters – Spock, Data, Ripley, Han Solo, almost any superhero – are defined by their outsider status. They either don't have normal human emotions, or have been made tough and stoic by experience. Many genre characters (superheroes in particular) are suffering martyrs, designed to appeal simultaneously to the high self-importance and low self-esteem of those fans who grew up in less tolerant times.

That brooding attitude makes a certain amount of sense when you're struggling to navigate the labyrinth of adolescence. But personally, I think you're eventually supposed to stop being fifteen, and develop the capacity for emotions other than jealousy and sarcasm. The newer generation seems to be a lot more confident and a bit more interested in what they can do, not what they can't.

But, but … you may say. But what about the economy, and the environment, and the Republicans/Democrats, and reality TV, and

There will always be bad things. Emphasizing them, and using them as an excuse to give up on achievement and happiness, does not make you wiser than other people. The wise people are the ones who try to do something to make the world better. Either by volunteering, or by creating art, or just by being good at their job and good to their loved ones.

In a world of cynics, it takes courage to like something, and no courage at all to hate something.

And besides, sometimes the thing you hate is the thing someone else loves, and bashing it will just make you look like a dick. Some reality TV shows are good. I liked L.A. Ink (especially Hannah).

I guess all of this is just me de-toxing, and getting the bad stuff out of my system once and for all, so I can move forward as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a person.

P.S. As I was sitting in Starbucks finishing this post, the loudspeaker started playing Iggy Pop's “Lust for Life.” This might be meaningful. Or not.