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.