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.