Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Saying farewell to 2013

Here's a holiday message for all you followers of Saberfrog.

Here in Rochester, New York, it's been bitterly cold. So cold that my car – which last year decided that anything under 20 degrees was not acceptable – has sometimes been reluctant to start.

So it gets to be Christmas day. The day when I should, ideally, be able to get in my car and go visit my mom, sister, and brother-in-law under my own power. But nope. The car would not start, and I had to call my family for a ride.

Frustrated and furious, I returned to my apartment to await my rescue. I found myself contemplating the many other things in my life that have not gone according to plan, and all the things that were making me feel stressed and struggling, and all the ways in which I felt constantly behind.

I turned on the TV, which was tuned to BBC America. And – I kid you not – less than a minute had elapsed before an unexpected programming interruption occurred. It was a live Christmas message from Her Majesty The Queen.

She began by talking about how she once met a man who had to spend a year in a plaster cast due to back surgery, and how he responded to his incapacitation by reading and studying. She then made the point that in this busy holiday season, we need to take time for contemplation.

As you might guess, this hit me where I lived.

If I myself wasn't in an incapacitated situation, I wouldn't even have been home. I wouldn't have had the TV on, and I might not have needed to hear that message so badly. And why was this being shown on American TV anyway? If anything, I was among the few people on Earth she wasn't talking to. Yet it felt as if she was speaking to me personally.

Then the Queen's message ended, and BBC America resumed its zillionth Doctor Who marathon already in progress. Which was somehow fitting, because it seemed like a real-life version of the episode where Wilf was spoken to directly by a mysterious Time Lord woman appearing on his TV.

Of such things are religions made, I suppose. Sometimes things happen and they seem like signs or miracles, even if logically they're not.

That doesn't make them unimportant.

Recently I've been revisiting some older projects, including an attempt at a feature-length movie that I made as a teenager. Back then, I had a much simpler and more innocent view of the world. I believed in dedication and hard work overcoming adversity.

I had not yet gone to film school, or lived in a big city. As a result, I had not been exposed to the artistic intellectual's more cynical viewpoint – that everything is bad; that being “dark” or depressed is somehow deeper than coping; that society is just a big conspiracy to keep the individual in chains, and that therefore resentment and hostility are the only correct attitudes for dealing with life. I didn't think that my entire generation, and perhaps the culture as a whole, would elevate this despairing viewpoint to the level of canon.

Rereading my scripts and notes for my teenage opus, I thought, God, I had it right the first time. And over the years, I've allowed myself to be talked out of it. Now I need to relearn things that I used to know by instinct.

I guess what I'm getting at is, you should live life like the rules work. Live like your dreams and actions count. Live like things matter.

It's easy to get frustrated. It's easy to dig the Web for horrifying news stories about something that happened far from your own community, and use these incidents to buttress a view that the world is broken beyond repair.

But there will always be obstacles and there will always be suffering. You shouldn't use that as an excuse to not try. It shouldn't stop you from aspiring to a better life.

So write that story, apply for that job, call that person you've been wanting to talk to.

The people who succeed, and are happy and stable, are the people who have a sense of balance. They know that some days are bad and some days are good. Perhaps most of all, they believe that their life and dreams and beliefs matter.

Many people who consider themselves intelligent or educated take pride in distancing themselves from religion. While I'm not a religious person either, I'm of the Joseph Campbell school that it still serves an important function. People who believe that there is an order to the universe, and that there is right and wrong, and that their actions matter, tend to live better lives. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's how we become good people.

December is an important time for many religions. It's the month of Christmas, of Hanukkah, of the winter solstice. It's a time when we should be looking ahead to better times even if the current reality is cold and dark.

Even on a secular level, it's the end of one year and the start of another. It's a time to let go of the past, and make plans for the future.

So have a happy new year. Face 2014 with hope and confidence.

And tell 'em the Queen sent you.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 5

OK, so it's obviously taken me way too long to chronicle this IFP conference, which was a month and a half ago now.

I actually wasn't around for all the panels on the final day, as I had a train to catch. However, I still managed to snag a few final pearls of wisdom.

#5. The Internet is the opposite of movies in many ways.

This observation came from “interactive art director” Jeff Soyk, one of the contributors to a panel on Hollow, an interactive website devoted to sharing stories from a struggling West Virginia community. He said that film and the Internet were “contradictory experiences,” pointing out that the web is a more information-driven medium with a shorter attention span. He added that developing the Hollow project meant getting away from the auteur approach, and developing the story as a team. (Hollow also involved giving camera equipment to the community members, and training them in how to use it, so that they could tell and record their own stories for the site.)

#4. Sound is an overlooked and underappreciated aspect of film.

This also came up during the Hollow panel. The project's creators found that sound design and music was essential in contributing a mood to the experience. One of the contributors named the addition of the music as marking the point when the project finally felt “real.”

My extreme delay in completing my IFP write-up means that this ties in with a similar point I heard yesterday at the Buffalo Dreams film festival, during a talk from Paige Davis of the distribution company Alternative Cinema. When an audience member asked about common mistakes that low-budget filmmakers make, she stressed the importance of good sound. She said that filmmakers are often so caught up in the logistics of getting the movie made that they don't give audio the attention that it needs.

You may have already heard it said that audiences will forgive a crummy picture (and even accept it as a style) but are less tolerant of crummy sound. But it's worth repeating anyway.

#3. If you've already shot your movie, think of a pitch that describes what you know you have.

Nancy Abraham of HBO Documentary Films said this during a panel on the art of pitching documentary films, but I suspect it applies equally well to narrative films.

This point is actually somewhat dear to my heart. I've met people who can come up with a catchy-sounding one-word premise, but don't know how to develop it into actual characters and scenes. Whereas a lot of my ideas come from something a bit more esoteric – a theme or mood I want to express, or a genre I want to play with – making it a challenge to figure out how to explain the story to people in a simple way that makes it sound compelling. I did several drafts of Saberfrog before getting to the point where I could easily sum up the premise of my little road movie: “An aging slacker goes on a road trip to find old friends because voices in his head tell him to.” (And if memory serves, the voices in his head weren't even in my original outline.)

#2. Anyone doing any sort of media needs to collaborate with people in different disciplines.

This came from Brent Hoff of the new Made in NYC Media Center, a venue that was on the verge of opening to the public at the time of the conference.

That point is something else I've been learning through experience. Being a filmmaker isn't just about knowing how to write a script, block a scene, or choose lenses. You need to know about business. You need to know about the Internet and social networking. You need to know about promotion. And while I've enjoyed wearing a lot of hats on my past films, I've found that not all of these areas are strengths of mine.

#1. Filmmakers should look at other measures of success besides box office and Facebook likes.

This came up during a curious talk by Debika Shome, representative of a big-data organization called the Harmony Institute panel. Shome introduced her talk by discussing several possible measures of success and impact – not just box office and Facebook likes, but also awards, critical response, and the number of press articles covering the movie.

Shome was promoting the idea that you should think about “optimizing” your work, and evaluating its effectiveness in tangible terms. This seemed to be a potentially controversial area: One audience member criticized the idea of equating impact with popularity and performing statistical number-crunching when developing a project, saying “This is what Hollywood does” and implying that this approach was incompatible with the indie spirit of doing something original and personal.

Shome responded by discussing the documentary film Waiting for Superman, about the problems in the U.S. educational system. She said that the Institute studied what “frames” and metaphors did and didn't resonate in audiences and press. If you pick an approach that doesn't resonate with the public, she said, then even a hard push might not be successful.

General thoughts …

Whenever I return to NYC for one of these events, I'm always struck by how the artistic community's attitude has changed since I was a student there in the 1990s.

The idea that being unhappy or helpless makes you deep was mercifully absent. It was smarter to be clever and to do something and make a difference.

Obviously not everyone has changed with the times. During that week (but not while at the conference), I overheard some nerds complaining – only half-jokingly – that being able to look stuff up on the Internet makes it harder to have arguments about trivial knowledge. To me that says something: some people would rather feel that they're right, rather than take the effort to learn and correct themselves. Today, I feel like the old snobbiness of “I know something obscure that you don't, I'm part of this exclusive scene” has sort of vanished in the Internet age, when theoretically anyone can know anything if they bother to look it up.

(Of course, maybe the new challenge will be to try to reintroduce value-through-scarcity. As of this writing, I am possibly the only person who has seen both the rediscovered Orson Welles film Too Much Johnson and the new Troma film Class of Nuke 'Em High Part 1, because I attended exclusive regional premieres of both.)

Everything at this conference was very positive and high-functioning. No one really gave in to the low-achiever pastime of complaining incessantly about conservatives – and those who did were motivated to make documentaries! Even the criticisms of Hollywood were fairly low-key and determined to find the silver lining – discussing what we as indie filmmakers can do, not what we can't do.

Being in NYC, among smarter and more creative people, did a lot to recharge me. Years after leaving school, I've encountered more and more people who complain about the status quo without ever quite seeming to consider that anything better could be possible. It's easier to bitch about how your favorite franchise isn't satisfying you than it is to show interest in anything new.

But it seems that younger, smarter, niche audiences do want something new. They want compelling ideas. They want community. Everyone at this conference assumed – perhaps naively? – that the web is a place where people are positive and constructive. It's only dumb “mainstream” stuff that is dependent on old or aging brands, aimed at an ever-more-arrested audience that only wants more of the same.

But maybe these themes are region-specific. In cities like New York, the emphasis is on being big and important and influential and cutting-edge. In Rochester, there's more of a middle-class culture of learning the existing rules and following them, and being grumpy when someone doesn't. In rust-belt areas like Buffalo or Pittsburgh, there's more of a gritty underdog attitude, in which artists either embrace horror and exploitation genres or become underground and avant-garde.

So it's been quite the learning journey this fall.

But now it's time to move on to what I should be doing – which is developing some new stories. November is National Novel Writing Month, and I had planned to spend it finishing the writing of these damn novels. The month is now one-third half over and I haven't had the time to do much. So time to buckle down and do some writing...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 4

Before we begin, a bit of a flash-forward. Since returning from the IFP conference I've continued to take advantage of learning opportunities back in Rochester. I've been taking some classes in how to make movies with a DSLR, how to use the animation program After Effects, how to format a book for self-publishing, and how to write a novel in 30 days. (The latter is just in time for National Novel Writing Month.)

But a couple weekends ago I reached a point where I thought – you know what? Learning and absorbing and recharging is all well and good, but there comes a point where you gotta start producing. I've drank enough and it's time to pee. (Maybe not the most tasteful metaphor, but oh well.)

There must be something in the air (hopefully not the smell of pee), because yesterday IndieWire posted this article describing filmmaker Ava DuVernay's keynote speech at the Film Independent Forum voicing similar thoughts:

“You're in info-gathering mode. You come to these gatherings and think, "Am I interested in this? Can I do this? What is this about? What is this whole independent film thing? How do I get it done?" ... I rarely meet people who tell me what they're [actually] doing. I often meet people who ask, "Can you help me?" or "How do I do this?" ... All of the time you're spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you're not spending time working on your screenplay ... All the time you're focusing on trying to grab, you're being desperate and you're not doing. You have to be doing something.”

So soon enough, I'm going to be doing something. I'm going to have DVDs of Saberfrog for sale at the Buffalo Film Expo this coming Sunday. I'm going to see if National Novel Writing Month can be an opportunity to make progress on my spin-off novels. And I'm in the early stages of getting some of my old films remastered. So I need to finish this series of blog posts that I started last month, so I can have next month clear for other projects.

So anyway, stuff I learned on Day 4 …

#5. It's now legal to raise money in the way that people have been doing anyway.

On September 23, it became legal for producers to publicly solicit investments for films. Presumably this is in response to crowdfunding, through which people have been, you know, publicly soliciting investments.

#4. Crowdfunding money counts as income, NOT as donations.

During a soft-money panel, panelist Cameron Keng raised various legal issues regarding crowdfunding that he had previously outlined in a Forbes article called “Could Kickstarter's Policies Trigger An IRS Tax Audit?” This article is well worth bookmarking, but Keng's strongest statement during the panel was that the money you raise by crowdfunding is income, not donations. You will pay tax on it, and if you make a mistake then you will get an IRS audit. If the person giving money is getting something in return, such as a DVD or a T-shirt, then it's not a donation. Even getting credit in a film can be argued as getting value.

Also, fellow panelist Dianne Debicella of Fractured Atlas, pointed out that a fiscal sponsor can hold the money for you for the next year so that you don't pay tax on it in the current year. The panelists plugged their blog, Filmonomics, where more info about the economic issues of filmmaking is available.

#3. Information about digital projection formats is actually available.

Panelist Graef Allen from Dolby Laboratories gave a panel on how DCP (the modern digital format that has replaced 35mm for theatrical exhibition of films) actually works. She said the slides from her presentation were available at Sundance's Artist Services website. I went there and couldn't find them (let me know if you can) but fortunately http://www.thefilmcollaborative.org/blog/2013/01/the-independents-guide-to-film-exhibition-and-delivery-2013/ has much of the same information.

DCP is a collection of digital files, which are shipped to theaters on a physical hard drive. A composition playlist (CPL), which is basically an XML text file, determines what combination of video, audio and subtitles to play. The drive containing a DCP can hold 4 or 5 different dubbed/subtitled versions of a movie, and the theater will play whichever version they booked.

The video (JPEG 2000 codec, aspect ratio 1.85 or 2.39) and the audio (WAV files, uncompressed, sample rate 48kHz, 24-bit depth, 5.1 audio) are separate files, with a container file in .mxf format. If you want subtitles, those are written in a separate format called CineCanvas XML.

To prevent piracy, DCPs need an encryption file called a KDM in order to play. The DCP is shipped to the theater by a courier (such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL) on a CRU Dataport HDD drive, and the KDM is sent by email.

Converting your video to DCP can be challenging due to a variety of technical issues. If your source video has an HD aspect ratio, or isn't 24 frames a second, or if the audio isn't properly calibrated for cinemas (too loud or quiet), conversion will be difficult. Also, watching the movie from beginning to end on its drive is essential for testing.

If I understood the presentation correctly, a common workflow for transferring a finished movie to DCP is going from your original format (which may be tape or QuickTime) to DSM (digital source master) to DCDM (digital cinema distribution master, where individual frames are separate uncompressed TIFF files in XYZ format) to JPEG 2000.

If you're lost by now, it might not help to add that the color space is DCI P3, mapped to XYZ. But we're all going to have to learn this stuff, since 100% of theaters are supposed to be digital-only by 2015.

#2. Artwork is important for publicity.

A panel on publicity artwork ran home the point that indie films often neglect to generate art materials, or at least decent ones. (Guilty.) You need to look at the two or three days when your actors are in costume and makeup on the principal set, and set aside half a day with a good photographer to get group shots and individual character shots. You should get shots from the front, the side, and a three-quarter view.

In addition to simply having the necessary materials, you should make sure they send the right message for the film. If it's a comedy, the artwork should be funny. You need to think about the logo, font, photographic style, and overall feel. Figure out what audience you're aiming at, and what would appeal to them visually.

#1. Again, know your audience.

A couple panels that I missed most of due to a schedule conflict had a couple good nuggets that stuck with me. David Larkin, CEO of the indie film portal GoWatchIt.com, pointed out that the much-criticized gatekeepers in the film industry are less powerful now, but the downside is that without their help you have to find new ways of finding your audience. He said “don't make the film for an audience, but know who the audience is.” One of the producers of the music documentary Sound City said that you need to consider what is unique about your film, and what are the assets that will bring it attention.

By this point in the week my brain was getting full, but I still had one more day of learning ahead of me. (Or half a day, since I had a train to catch)

To be continued ...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 3

Sorry it's taken me a while to get to part 3. I've been (you guessed it) busy. Catching up on work, and on my own writing, since returning from this trip.

Anyway, after the heaviness of Day 2 of the conference, with its emphasis on the real world and how we're all being screwed by larger forces, it was good to hear about things that are more fun. Such as …

#5. Alec Baldwin is a real person.

As I walked to Lincoln Center that morning, I passed a poster promoting a series of film screenings at the center, for which the music would be played by a live orchestra. (One of the films in the series, fittingly enough, was 2001: A Space Odyssey.) I lingered at this poster just long enough to notice that the artistic director of the series was Alec Baldwin. “Hmm,” I thought. I continued to walk around the corner toward the entrance … and happened to see the man himself getting out of a car, carrying a duffel bag and looking dog tired.

No, I didn't bother him. I figured he was on his way to work and didn't need to be hassled. And thanks to the wraparound sunglasses I was wearing, I was able to pretend I didn't recognize him. Frankly, I was surprised he was by himself. I didn't think someone that famous would have the luxury of being able to walk around in public unaccompanied.

There's not much point to this story, except I just wanted to say … I saw Alec Baldwin.

#4. Humor is still good.

The first panel of the day was basically an interview with Derek Waters, creator of the short film that became the Comedy Central series Drunk History. The moderator, Brent Hoff, had previously given an award to that film (which had already been on the Internet) instead of one of the “films about Cambodian children with diseases caused by corporations”, a decision that apparently still makes people angry to this day.

If you haven't seen it, the premise of Drunk History is simply that a (genuinely) drunk person tells a story from the history books, intercut with actors solemnly acting out the drunkard's crude account. Waters said he got the idea from noticing that drunk people always want to tell stories. So he thought of something that people would never tell when drunk – in this case history, which is often told seriously and with no passion. His theory was that there are three stages of being drunk:
  1. You're my best friend, life is great!
  2. Have I ever told you the story I just told you ten times?
  3. I'm a terrible person, life is terrible.
(He said that the second and third stages are when you need to be recording.)

He said that a brand new idea made out of something people are familiar with is what tends to be popular. Slightly contrasting this, he also advised the audience to “make stuff you believe in” and said that any time you put your voice out there it's a success, even if only ten people see it.

This panel helped buttress my belief that it's OK to do what you believe in, and that it's OK for indie cinema to be silly.

#3. You should make more material than just the film.

In a panel on building “buzz”, one panelist pointed out that “your audience has an insatiable desire to watch short clips.” Another panelist, Marc Schiller, said that filmmakers should be developing more original content for the web, but that they aren't doing this because they're just trying to get their film finished. (Though he did point out that for documentary filmmakers this is easier, since they already have more footage than they can use in the finished film.) He said that you can't make this stuff at the last minute, when the film is finished – it needs to be part of the process.

This isn't a new idea. Way back in the day, I remember reading somewhere that during the making of Jurassic Park, they filmed extra material for use in a CD-ROM. And I think they shot extra scenes during the making of the Matrix sequels for use in the tie-in video game. But I guess indie filmmakers are still catching up to Hollywood in this area.

This gets us into the area of that familiar buzzword “transmedia”. Instead of just having the film, you can have added material providing additional character development.

#2. Apparently, there are still reasons for an indie filmmaker to shoot on film.

Even as a native of Rochester, and as the child of a father whose 29-year career at Kodak put me through film school, I approached the “Want the Film Look? Shoot Film” panel with skepticism. Although I'm starting to miss the experience of watching actual film in public, I don't miss it much as a filmmaker. To me the rise of digital video cameras is the greatest thing to happen to indie filmmakers since the invention of the Bolex. When you shoot on video, you don't have to check the gate, you don't have to worry about the camera scratching or eating your film, you don't have to hope that the lab doesn't wreck your footage. As a film student, I had to worry about all of these things. Then I got my grubby mitts on a miniDV camera in 1999, and never looked back. And neither did nearly everyone else.

But the panelists had plenty of reasons not to give up on film. One is that it simply has a higher resolution than even the best video cameras. While high-definition is taking the leap from 2K to 4K, film is more like 6K, is still a reliable basis from which to create master copies, and lacks the compression issues that occur with high-definition video.

The panelists also approved of film because of the discipline it imposed. For them, the short time limit of a film reel and the unwieldiness of film equipment requires crews to be more organized and efficient.

I personally can do without the unwieldiness of film equipment – I'd rather be able to shoot quickly, and spend more time working with the actors rather than being muzzled by technical restrictions. But I can't argue with the fact that film looks better, and has remained a stable standard even as video renders one format after another obsolete.

One more point that did surprise me – the panelists said that the “video village” separating from the directors from the actors was actually slowing the process down. The ability to instantly review your footage has apparently interfered with the filmmaking process, allowing everyone to look at the last take rather than allowing the DP to maintain autonomy.

I've personally never been on a set with that kind of setup. But about a year ago, I did see a documentary about the making of David Cronenberg's recent film Cosmopolis, and was kind of shocked to see my hero Cronenberg entombing himself in a video suite in a completely different room from the actors, rather than being on the actual set when the cameras rolled. He appeared to be entirely happy with that working method, but where's the fun in that?

#1. The making of the story can be the story.

“There's an audience not just for your product, but for how you make your product,” said moderator Ward Emling on a panel about local film offices. In the earlier “buzz” panel, the documentary Our Nixon – made of old home movies from the Nixon administration – was cited as an example of how the creation of the film can be the story that interests people. The narrative of you creating the film, with you as the central actor – that has the power to gain free exposure and get audiences to identify with the film's journey.

I wouldn't have thought that that kind of auteurism was still in fashion at all. But as Marc Schiller put it, “you can only say 'go see my movie' so many times.” You have to get the audience to identify with something, and if they haven't seen the film yet, then I guess it makes sense that the filmmaker him/herself has to be the warm-up act.

While Day 3 gave me a lot to think about, Day 4 would turn out to be the real crash course.

To be continued …

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 2

The second day of panels at IFP's annual filmmaker conference was basically Documentary Day. While I'm not primarily a documentary filmmaker myself, I learned at a previous year's conference that many lessons intended for docs apply to narrative filmmakers, and vice versa. So here are five things I learned on Day 2, followed by some general thoughts.

#5. Don't wait until after the US festival circuit to contact foreign distributors. By then it's too old.

That advice came from Cat&Docs' Catherine Le Clef during a panel on international documentary sales. I don't have much to add to this, but it sounds like good advice.

Dogwoof's Andy Whittaker also had some catchy advice about contacting distributors. He said that “I'm emailing you because this film is perfect for you” is a better introduction than “Here are three films.”

#4. Pick a story that the news media is excited about, and you'll have no trouble getting press.

This lesson came from filmmaker Penny Lane, who was speaking from experience. She's the director of Our Nixon, a recent documentary based on newly unveiled home movies from the Nixon White House. Lane and her filmmaking team found that, even decades after the fact, the news media still has enormous interest in Richard Nixon because … well, because the Nixon era made heroes out of journalists.

One could argue that this lesson is a cynical one that depends on the media not being as impartial as one might hope, but it was an interesting point nonetheless.

#3. When crowdfunding, you should already have an email list of people to contact, and you should also give people a reason to care.

I personally have not yet taken the crowdfunding plunge. My previous films have been funded on the 1990s credit-card model (“debt funding” I've since learned that it's called). The main thing that even I know about it is that IndieGoGo lets you keep the money you raise even if you don't meet your goal, whereas Kickstarter does not, and for that reason IndieGoGo is considered by many to be the more appealing option.

But the Our Nixon gang helped explain the appeal of Kickstarter. Producer Brian Frye said that Kickstarter was a better-curated site, and that its purpose is not solely for raising money but also for finding an audience and teaching artists to be entrepreneurial.

Self-promotion and publicity have tended to be weak links for me, but I often hear people say that crowdfunding is as much about building an audience as it is about raising money. Frye's comments helped to clarify that point. He also pointed out that people aren't interested in your need for money; you need to have a story that they care about and want to share with others.

#2. Documentaries still have the power to piss people off.

Many artists like to think of themselves as rebels challenging conventional society and traditional modes of thinking. The history of art is full of works, from The Rite of Spring to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that pushed against established boundaries of form, language, or taste. I'm old enough to remember the furore over films like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, or Todd Haynes' Poison.

And if you're a documentary filmmaker, then you can be a muckraking journalist as well as an artist, and thus double trouble. Except that I wasn't sure anyone still cared.

By now we know that most documentaries are going to be about (as the creator of Comedy Central's Drunk History put it later in the week) “Cambodian children with diseases that were given to them by big corporations.” I guess Fahrenheit 9/11 was kind of a big deal at the time, because for a while it seemed like maybe it wasn't going to be released. Except that it was released, and most people probably knew where they stood on the issues before they even set foot in the theater. We've heard it all before. Haven't we?

A panel with the agitprop title “When Documentaries Disturb the Power Structure” addressed issues of compromise and self-censorship. The discussion centered largely around Park Avenue and Citizen Koch, two documentaries that became political hot potatoes due to their criticisms of zillionaire David Koch, a significant funder of the public television outlets where the films were intended to air. (I hadn't previously heard about these films or their controversy, but a fuller account is here.)

What made the panel especially lively was the presence of a ringer: documentarian Eugene Jarecki, who was apparently added to the panel late (his name didn't appear in the printed program). Jarecki declared that “the system knows no language but its own violence” and that “revolution is a tapestry of individuals”, and dismissed the very topic of the panel as “self-centered and stupid. With democracy under siege, so much power in central government and wealthy influence, who cares about the filmmaking community? There's a community of humans!”

But it was during the Q&A that things got really good. The first audience member to speak was in fact a PBS representative, who sarcastically referred to herself as one of the “podunk” PBS executives (as one of the panelists – probably Jarecki – had characterized them) and ended up arguing with Jarecki. She defended PBS, saying that PBS does air films on controversial topics, and asked, “Is PBS for diversity? Or is it just a venue for viewpoints beloved by this room?”

I'm not a very political person most of the time, but I know entertainment when I see it, and this was a hell of a show.

But Jarecki, for all his alarmist anger, ended on a positive note, saying that America's “hard-won meritocracy of crazy, passionate people” produces better documentaries than the BBC, who crank them out as a machine. “When you stop people from seeing something,” he concluded, “you increase the value of the moment when people see it.”

#1. The acclaimed documentary Leviathan looks like it might be a bit of an ordeal.

While perusing the calendar at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo some weeks ago, I was intrigued by the writeup for a screening – actually scheduled for this coming Thursday as I write this – of a film called Leviathan. Despite the film's potentially dry subject matter (“the North Atlantic fishing industry”), its avant-garde approach earned it glowing notices from The New York Times, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Filmmaker Magazine (which called it a “game-changer”). I read all this and thought, “Hmm, sounds like something different. Maybe I'll check it out.”

One of the hidden joys of IFP's annual conference is that people who a film guy like me might have heard of, but would never expect to see in person, are just there, as panelists. (The first year I went, Moby was a panelist during a discussion about music. Yup, Moby.) So imagine my surprise when the director of Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, gave the closing address for the day.

LC-T's speech expressed scorn for many aspects of modern documentary filmmaking – from its emphasis on 'story', to the use of editing and music to 'infantilize' the audience, to the narrator to tell you what things mean, and conversely the liberal effort to make a film's subjects into heroes or martyrs. I personally found most of these complaints a bit pretentious ... but someone in the audience went “Wow” at end of the speech, so maybe he knew his crowd.

Anyway, the cheese at the end of that maze was a ten-minute excerpt of Leviathan. “Oh cool,” I thought, “a preview of a movie I was thinking of seeing.”

Basically, Leviathan is a film shot on a fishing boat, largely at night, with tiny portable video cameras strapped to people's heads in order to capture their point of view while they're working. Based on the excerpt shown at IFP, the film seems to be based on the What the Hell Is Going On Aesthetic. The dark, grainy footage (what is this big strange furry thing moving around – oh, that's the fishing net) and poor acoustics (in which the human voice is indecipherable among unearthly mechanical noises) combined to create something suitably surreal and eerie, and made me kind of understand why Film Comment would call it “the best horror film of the year”.

However, I can't see myself sitting through an hour and a half of this, and what I saw seemed to make a mockery of LC-T's pontification just minutes earlier. If you're the kind of person who expects documentaries to inform rather than obfuscate, or at least make it possible to tell what you're looking at and what people are doing or saying, you might be too bourgeois and reactionary for this movie.

From what I saw of Leviathan, I would describe the film as The Tree of Life meets Trash Humpers. If that description tells you nothing (or sends you running from the room screaming) then you may not be its ideal audience. Still, I respect that someone out there is marching to his own drummer, whether it speaks to me or not.

General thoughts ...

The role of marketing – for the purposes of fundraising as well as publicity – was unavoidable by this point in the conference, and it kind of made me question whether indie filmmaking is really serving any kind of need. Instead of offering the original vision that people have been waiting for, you have to market to an existing viewpoint in order to be successful. You have to find an existing niche. So we all have to become studio heads in a way, whether we want to or not.

It also occurred to me that so many of the marketing strategies advocated in this community seem to assume that the audience consists of cutting-edge, social-media-savvy hipsters. Certainly there are a lot of people in the world like that, but there are also a lot of people who don't even have a smartphone. So you need to not only know your audience, but also know how they communicate. And after years of hearing about transmedia, it occurred to me that transmedia projects really depend on audience involvement and input to even exist as intended – unlike a stand-alone movie, which is a stable, tangible thing regardless of the size or engagement level of the audience.

These were all heavy thoughts, perhaps appropriately for a day devoted to nonfiction. The next day would begin on a very different note.

To be continued ...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 1

OK, last month's post was nonsense, but I was too busy to write anything more meaningful.

This month has been busy too. I went to IFP's annual Filmmaker Conference this past month, and learned a hell of a lot. While I don't know if I'll have time to write up the depth of coverage I gave last year – and you can read someone else's notes anyway – I'll share with you some of the more memorable lessons I learned on each day of the conference.

We'll start with six things I learned Day 1 ...

#6. Comedy can be challenging to sell internationally, because it's culturally specific. That's why depressing or violent films sell internationally.

And you thought foreign audiences were just these gloomy snobs.

#5. There is a film festival devoted to Internet cat videos.

It's called the Internet Cat Video Festival, or CatVidFest for short, and it's based at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Its curator, Scott Stulen, spoke about the festival, which has drawn huge crowds.

Here's their Facebook and Twitter, and their website (they're coming to Rochester in December!) and at some point I would love to listen this SXSW seminar with the amusingly alarmist headline "Is This the End of Art?"

#4. If the storytelling is good, we feel the characters are like us. If the storytelling is poor, or has an agenda, we feel the characters are inscrutable.

That's actually a quote (or paraphrase) from George Saunders' book The Braindead Microphone. I confess to being unfamiliar with Saunders or his book, but a panelist dropped that quote during a panel about Call Me Kuchu, a documentary about LGBT issues in Uganda. I'm sure the panelist brought up the quote for its relevance to documentary filmmakers, but to me it seems even more relevant to fiction writers and narrative filmmakers.

At a different panel, this one on web comedy, moderator Todd Sklar said something not entirely different. He said that a key to a successful web series is having relatable characters, so that viewers who know people like that will want to share the series with other people.

#3. There are still new stories to be told. Just not in Hollywood.

A “New Black Voices” panel of African-American indie filmmakers brought up some interesting issues. One of the panelists, director Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) said: “Even white films have trouble getting made. Nothing gets made out there unless it was on a lunchbox ten years ago.” Another panelist, director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) made a seemingly opposing observation: “There's been a shift where people don't know what happened ten years ago.”

But the moderator, writer Tambay Obenson, made what I thought was the most memorable remark as the panel ended. He commented on an article he'd read somewhere (after some Googling I think it's this Guardian piece by Paul Schrader) that complained about “narrative exhaustion” resulting from every story having already been told. Obenson said that his thought when reading this was “Maybe for you, white man. You've seen the complete breadth of your experience. But our stories haven't been told.”

I laughed loud and long at this, to the point where a black woman sitting in front of me turned around and stared at me in bafflement. But it wasn't mocking laughter. I was laughing because he was absolutely right.

I've always hated people who say “there are no new stories to tell.” Without exception, they are always people who have no ideas themselves, who have nothing to say and no stories they want to tell, and they are seeking some cosmic excuse for their own lack of talent or imagination.

But just because Hollywood keeps disinterring dead franchises, doesn't mean you have to be as dumb as they are. Tell the stories that haven't been told.

#2. People are still making original work. Just not at the movies so much.

Because I went to a big-name film school at a time when NYU- and USC-trained directors were still lionized, a part of my subconscious has been clinging to the old “get noticed by the system” model. And film buffs love to mourn the lost golden age of the film-brat 1970s and Indie-wood 1990s. But several panelists talked about the Internet and web series the same way people used to talk about independent film – as a venue for original and personal work.

It's strange. Hollywood seems more dependent than ever on old properties that, as Terence Nance put it, have already been on a lunchbox. Yet in the constantly-shifting indie world, I sometimes feel like my training in older formats and traditions can be liabilities.

At the web comedy panel, Todd Sklar said that he was always losing work to people who just made a short, or do web comedy. He said losing a feature directing job to someone who's only done shorts and web series, when you've done two features, is frustrating … but it makes sense, because shorts and web series can be watched more easily as samples of someone's work.

Sidenote: The week after the conference, I drove to Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo for a screening of the new indie film Computer Chess, a comedy-drama set in 1980 and filmed with vintage black-and-white video cameras from the era. During conversations after the screening, I overheard a film student say that he's studied big Hollywood movies, but now realizes he's probably never going to make big Hollywood movies and so he should study more indie films.

I'm glad that guy learned that lesson at a younger age than I did. And I'm glad I'm finally learning it too.

So stop complaining about how scripted cable TV shows have made people stop caring about movies. Make your own online movies … or series.

#1. It's all about the audience … or is it?

Listening to the advice given by the various panelists this year, I sensed a tension between the more traditional view of filmmaking (especially of the indie variety) as a vehicle for personal expression, and the idea that content really needs to have an audience in mind that can be expected to engage with that content. I guess that's the big difference between old and new media.

But the day's closing keynote speech by producer Jon Kilik seemed to suggest that filmmaking is – and has always been – full of contradiction. Responding to the famously pessimistic speeches made by Steven Soderbergh, and by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, about the imminent death of Hollywood cinema, Kilik said such end-of-industry predictions have been made before, but that there are now more ways to make movies and to get people to see them.

“For every tentpole,” he said, “there's a young filmmaker with a small cast and crew to create a uniquely personal vision. For every sequel, there's something fighting to be born. It's never been harder and it's never been easier – and it's probably always been that way. … Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Have both confidence and doubt – it keeps you awake and alert.”

As if trying to reconcile the needs of the audience with the needs of the auteur, Kilik also stated: “The only way to truly connect with an audience is to be as personal as you can be, and share that vision onscreen.”

To be continued ...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The elephant in the room: The deep, mind-blowing symbolism of Snuffleupagus

I've been working on a lot of projects this past month, and have seen some interesting films. However, I won't have time to talk about all that before the month is out, so instead I'm going to discuss something else that's been on my mind.

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I'm on YouTube I will just enter something in a search engine. You know, just to see what comes up. I might enter the name of a movie or TV show, just to see what the top result will be – a trailer, a popular scene, or a fan-made parody or music video.

One day I felt like doing a search for “Snuffleupagus” because that is a Sesame Street character I was always fond of as a kid. Looking back on that show as an adult, I find it funny that there was a character whose very existence caused the other characters to have a disagreement about the nature of reality.

Yet I also recall, as a kid, being frustrated that Big Bird couldn't convince the other adults that Snuffleupagus really existed. In hindsight, it seems slightly reckless for a kid's show to instill such an emotion in its impressionable viewers. According to Snuffy's Wikipedia page, the character was originally created to tap into kids' experience of having imaginary friends. Yet the larger mission of kids' shows – particularly educational ones – is usually to instill proper skills, values, and socialization into kids' growing brains. Sesame Street, for all its adult-friendly humor and irony, was psychologists carefully designed based on input from child psychologists. By contrast, the ontological dispute over the existence of Snuffleupagus seemed to encourage kids to regard adult authority as fallible, arbitrary, and unjust.

Notoriously, Snuffy's existence was finally made known to the other adult characters in 1985 because the show's writers were worried about the possible real-life parallels with children being afraid to report sex abuse for fear of being disbelieved. While that seems a valid concern, it seems to me to be a narrowly Freudian interpretation of what Snuffy represents. It treats Snuffy as a metaphor for buried sexual trauma. But I prefer a more Jungian analysis. To me, Snuffy is an archetype. He represents a form of universal wisdom that is not fully accessible to the civilized world.

As a logical-thinking adult, I find it impossible to avoid the question of why adults who inhabit a universe of talking monsters should find it difficult to believe in Snuffleupagus. When Gordon or whoever insists that Snuffy cannot exist, he is addressing a seven-foot-tall talking bird while saying it. In this innocent, unrealistic, cartoony universe, what line does Snuffleupagus cross by existing?

It seems to me that Snuffleupagus was intended to be some kind of prehistoric animal. He looks like a woolly mammoth, while his long tail and his polysyllabic, mock-Latin name also make him resemble a dinosaur. So maybe the idea is that adults dispute Snuffy's existence not because he is unbelievable, but that there shouldn't be any of his kind still alive.

The trouble with this theory, though, is that the adults don't seem to have any trouble believing in the Count. Vampires are mythical creatures, so why do they believe in a vampire but not a woolly mammoth? Perhaps this is because vampires are creatures from folklore and religion, embodying beliefs about the human soul. By contrast, mammoths are creatures from the secular world of science. They died out thousands of years ago – possibly as a result of early humans – in defiance of the creationist belief that the earth is only thousands of years old and that the environment could not possibly be altered by human activity. Perhaps Snuffy challenges traditional religious morality, and a sense of man's place in the universe, in a way that the Count does not.

Another thing I notice about Snuffleupagus is that he is the only one of the main Sesame Street characters to walk on all fours. This might be significant as well. It's common to anthropomorphize animals as humanoid characters who stand upright – from the bird-man of Lascaux to the Egyptian gods to all the famous Disney and Looney Tunes characters. Peanuts fans will notice that Snoopy gradually became bipedal as his role in the strip grew. These characters seem acceptable to the human world. And yet, a four-legged talking animal – whether it's Snuffy, or Mr. Ed, or Michigan J. Frog, or even the talking dog from that “do you think I should have said Joe DiMaggio” joke – tends to be a secret, known only to one person.

Could this be a subconscious acknowledgment of the possibility that our ape ancestors were able to develop intelligence, and civilization, only when their front limbs were free to build tools and make language gestures, and that an intelligent being who walks on all fours is therefore impossible? 

Or, is a four-legged talking animal actually some kind of spirit animal, who speaks to us not in the spoken language of civilization, but on a more primal, spiritual, archetypal, subconscious level?

If the latter, it raises the potentially brain-melting question of why a giant bird would envision a woolly mammoth as his spirit animal. Well, remember, in the real world, birds and elephants have a symbiotic relationship. Birds perch on elephant's backs to get food, and in turn alert the elephant to predators by flying away.

Alternatively, remember that Big Bird is a large, flightless bird. Perhaps he, too, is an extinct animal who should not exist in our world. Perhaps he is a dodo or a moa or an elephant bird, and thus feels a kinship to a fellow living fossil. His loss of the ability to fly, and also the theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs, both tie him to a more ancient world that modern humans refuse to acknowledge. Perhaps that is why he alone possesses the wisdom to see, and hear, a four-legged animal.

But wait, I hear you say, what about Eeyore? He's a four-legged talking animal that other characters believe in. Well, that's a good point. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood do acknowledge the existence of Eeyore. But he seems less inclined to acknowledge them. Eeyore regards the two-legged characters as lacking wisdom. Hmm.

Interestingly, a comparison of Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus and the Disney portrayal of Eeyore reveals one strong similarity – a droning, monotonous voice that stands in stark contrast to the chipper, extroverted tone adopted by all the other characters. Perhaps Snuffleupagus/Eeyore is not simply a spirit animal, but a counterculture guru, tapping into a calm inner wisdom that is denied by the more worldly and hypersocial characters around them. At least in his early days, Snuffy would answer questions with cryptic statements. In fact, some people go so far as to equate his slow speech and movements with drug use.

In any case, it's hard to avoid the sense that Snuffleupagus embodies all of the thoughts, beliefs, and realities that modern Western civilization attempts to keep hidden. Perhaps nothing emphasizes this more than 1992's legendary “lost” Sesame Street episode, “Snuffy's Parents Gets A Divorce” This was an episode that attempted to handle the difficult subject of parental divorce in a way that would be palatable to kids. But the episode disturbed and troubled test audiences, and so was shelved. Even before it was made, there was apparently resistance to making the episode: executive producer Dulcy Singer argued that divorce was a middle-class issue, while the urban underclass in Sesame Street's target demographic would be more likely to be in single-parent households.

Remember, this was the same show that, a decade earlier, had sensitively handled the death of Mr. Hooper following the real-life death of actor Will Lee. That episode aired, but not one about Snuffy's family. It's as if Snuffleupagus carries painful implications – not only about consensus reality and the trustworthiness of authority, but also about issues related to class, and to the integrity of the family unit – so troubling that even death is easier to face.

What does all of this tell us? Does it mean that even in an urban, multicultural, enlightened society, there are still limits on what terrible truths may be spoken of?

Look at the original Snuffleupagus from 1971. Look into those terrifying yellow eyes, before he was redesigned. (skip to 1:10) What does he know, that we dare not learn?

One final thought: I remember, as a child, seeing the episode in which the adults finally saw Snuffy and admitted he was real. But even this did not result in absolute consensus. As I recall, the adults saw Snuffy when he was sleepwalking, and wearing a white nightshirt. And so the argument between Big Bird and the adults changed from whether Snuffy existed, to whether he was brown or white.

Does this tell us that consensus reality is ultimately unattainable? Is it significant that the community could only accept Snuffy when he was white, but not when he was brown? Also, consider the fact that Snuffy's favorite foods are cabbage and spaghetti; does the reluctance of the Sesame Street community to acknowledge him represent the downtrodden status of Irish and Italian immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York?

Or, most horrifyingly of all, is it simply possible to read way too much into a puppet character in a kids' show in a strained attempt at comedy?

Perhaps these questions are ultimately unanswerable. Perhaps each of us can only glimpse a fragment of the whole truth, as shown by the parable of the blind men … and the elephant.

And if, after reading all this, your mind still dares to deny that the impossible is possible, here's a clip of Snuffleupagus ice-skating.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Three big lessons I've learned about writing

So I've got a draft of the first novel done, and I've gotten some feedback from friends. It's been surprisingly positive. I say 'surprisingly' because writing the book was a slow and difficult writing process, and getting it above novella length has been a struggle. Being much more used to writing screenplays, I knew that there would be a learning curve, and that by the time I got to the final book I would know a lot more about writing, knowledge that I could then apply to revising the earlier volumes. (I'm not gonna think about publishing – self or otherwise – until I'm sure the books are as good as I can make them.)

Now I'm starting to write the second book, and I find it's flowing a lot better. Thinking about why that might be, and thinking about things that I and other people have written, has made me think about some lessons that I've learned about writing.

These are lessons I learned by doing. Some of this is stuff that I've always believed but couldn't articulate until now, and some of it is stuff that I learned only after making mistakes.

LESSON ONE: Your character needs to be active. He or she needs to have a goal, and be willing to do something to achieve it.

The biggest mistake that people seem to make when they first start writing is having a character who doesn't do anything, who is introverted, alienated, lonely, and passive.

Everybody does this when they start writing. Everybody. Even people who are proudly anti-art and anti-independent in their tastes, who never watch a movie with subtitled dialogue that isn't spoken in Klingon or Huttese, seem to want to write an Antonioni film on their first attempt. If they ever go to film school or take a writing class, and have to read or watch the equivalent efforts by their fellow students, they would probably discover how boring that is for the audience, and it might make them realize that their own version is probably just as bad.

Why do new writers tend to fall into this trap? I can think of two possible reasons. One is that, as a new writer, you are trying to Express Your Personal Self, and writing is an internal process anyway. So it just feels good to write a character who is caught up in his or her thoughts, cut off from the world.

The other, and much worse, reason is that they allow themselves to think that being weak and passive and doing nothing is somehow … deep. I'm not sure how this attitude caught on. Once upon a time, even punks and hippies and grungies wanted to actually do things and make things. But nowadays I notice that a lot of people – especially on the Internet – really can't identify with anyone who had a dream and put in the effort to make that dream come true.

Somehow the people who strive and aim high, and pick themselves up when they fall, are the villains that deserve scorn whenever they do even a single thing wrong … while the people who just sit back and do nothing but complain about everything have somehow convince themselves of their own superiority.

All I can say is that when I was first trying to teach myself to write screenplays, I tended to look at movies that I liked, and try to figure out how they work and what made me like them. I know that many other people have done that also, but it might be less common than I thought it was. How else to explain why people who take pride in only liking genre films – movies about characters who DO THINGS – keep wanting to write dramas about navel-gazers who are helpless and passive?

When people write, they reveal a lot about their own psychology. People who are unambitious, and see life as one big conspiracy against them that they can do nothing about, are unlikely to be able to lead a main character through the process of changing the world. The people who write one page of something, and then can't think of what happens next, are perhaps struggling to understand how a person might go about making things happen.

Sometimes I hear people say “Well, I want to write about character rather than plot.” But here's a secret: Plot is what reveals character. What your character does to achieve a goal, how s/he treats people, how s/he responds to challenges … those are the things that reveal character. Not just sitting around spouting monologues.

So if you're thinking about writing about a character who does nothing, try writing about a character who does something. If that's not true to who you are, then watch some movies or TV shows, or read some novels or comic books. See how fictional characters respond to stuff, and try to learn from that. Study some successful models and try to follow them. Get your character off the sofa, wipe the streaked mascara off her face, and send her out on a journey!

And just having your character do what other people tell him to do? Not quite enough. It's a step in the right direction, but it's not quite enough. Ever heard of the “refusal of the call”, that Joseph Campbell moment when the hero doesn't want to accept the mission he's been given, before eventually agreeing? Until now, I never thought about why that trope is there. But now I realize why it works: It shows the character actually doing something. By choosing the life that's familiar to him over the one that's being presented to him, he is taking a stand. And when he decides for himself that the mission is actually important and that he is willing to take the risk – often for personal reasons other than the ones initially presented to him – he is again taking a stand. Without this element, the character is merely a pawn.

I've certainly written – and even filmed – scripts about a character who is introverted and alienated, as a vessel for my own feelings at that particular stage of my life. So I can't be too smug about this. However, a trick I used to compensate was to surround my alienated protagonist with more assertive and colorful characters who get pulled into his or her orbit.

Which brings me to ...

LESSON TWO: Your character should have, or make, friends.

I'm calling this a “should” rather than a “needs to” because it's certainly possible to tell a decent story about someone who is alone on his or her journey. However, it's damn hard to do this well.

And why do you want to? When have you ever seen a movie that you liked, that did this? I guess it gets back to the “I'm alienated, no one understands me, so I'm going to write about loneliness” approach again, so I won't repeat points I've already made, except to add one thing: Stories with multiple characters are more interesting.

You know how a lot of people say that TV is now better than movies? Why might that be? One reason is that there's more time for big story arcs, but another reason is character. A modern TV drama tends to have an ensemble of characters, each of whom gets his or her moment in the sun, and viewers often have a particular character that they love (or hate).

An important thing about writing for an ensemble, rather than a solitary protagonist, is that you have to write characters who aren't you. Rather than just having a sullen loner who is meant to represent your own sad-sack viewpoint, you have to imagine characters who stand on their own merits as fictional creations, who have their own hopes and dreams and quirks and strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe it's just me, but I always liked movies where there was a gang. I always liked it when there were a lot of characters with different abilities or personalities. You know, obscure arthouse fare like Star Wars and Aliens and, I don't know, The Goonies.

Having a gang means that your characters can talk to each other about the plot. When something happens, they can all have different reactions. The brave one, the fearful one, the smart one, the naïve one, all can have different perspectives on the action. Also, you can split them up and send them off on different subplots. This might be a challenge if you have difficulty coming up with one plot, let alone two or more, but that's part of why you should try it.

What can I say … As a writer, I guess I've always found the Wizard of Oz template more appealing than the Eraserhead template. Even though I like both of those movies.

LESSON THREE: Having a story is more important than having themes or a message.

You might be expecting me to drop the Sam Goldwyn quote “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” but I personally think that's too cynical and discouraging. Film and literature are certainly capable of having something to say.

I prefer a quote from Orson Welles, who said that “most movie messages … could be written on the head of a pin.” I take that to mean: you can put a message in a movie if you want to, but it won't actually amount to that much. It won't be as important and earth-shattering as you think it will.

There certainly have been moments when it seemed like movies could change the world. The late 60s/early 70s has been widely hailed as such a period. I would argue that the late 80s through the 90s – an indie-friendly period stretching from Blue Velvet and Do the Right Thing all the way up to Fight Club – was another one.

I'm not sure we're living in a time like that right now. Maybe once upon a time it was oh-so-shocking if a movie made a political statement or criticized something about our society. But now we have blogs, talk radio, and entire cable TV channels devoted to decrying how much worse things have become since … well, since the last time people said how much worse things have become.

With indie cinema seeming to become ever more marginalized by franchise Goliaths, I don't really like to discourage anyone from consciously putting a personal philosophy or political viewpoint in their scripts. However, I'm not sure any philosophy is likely to be compelling enough to compensate for the lack of a decent story.

First of all, with all the chattering going on out there on the Internet, the chance that you genuinely have an absolutely unprecedented opinion about something is somewhat low. If you think you do, then by all means go for it. But you can't just (to paraphrase Team America) read the news and then repeat it like it was your own opinion.

And usually what people have to “say” is grouchy and negative. Every once in a while we get an Amelie or a Ferris Bueller's Day Off or something that tries to convey a positive philosophy, but usually we get A Hard Hitting Satire rooted in anger. To some degree that's the rebellious spirit of youth and/or art … but man, we are so knee-deep in that toxic negativity now. It used to be a brave thing to create art that challenged the status quo, but that hostility is now so omnipresent that it has become the status quo.

For me the absolute worst is when people write a script or make a film that merely exists to criticize something ephemeral ... like a particular politician or celebrity who's going to be out of the limelight before you know it anyway, or a current pop-culture trend that you find annoying (often for no better reason than that it differs from the pop-culture of your own childhood). When I see something like that, I tend to think: Come on, dude. You had a chance to make something cool. You could have been part of the solution. Instead you gave the problem free publicity.

I guess it's easy for me to say all this stuff now that I'm more experienced. I've done much of the above, and have now gotten it (largely) out of my system. Maybe people need to do it wrong first, not just for practice but because you need to get those things off your chest somehow. But what motivated me to write all this up was encountering a lot of scripts recently that are about self-absorbed inaction.

Two decades ago, indie filmmaker Hal Hartley complained about the “empty formal posturing” of suburban film students trying to make urban gangster films. He said that, instead, they “should be writing stories about sitting on their couch watching gangster films.” But since then, we've gone so far in that direction. We've had so many Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino wannabes who've embraced the “dude, we can make a whole movie just about guys in one place talking” aesthetic of both directors' debut films without demonstrating the wit or cleverness of either. Spouting opinions has become a substitute for actually doing anything or having any ambition.

So I think a little of the “formal posturing” that Hartley complained about 20 years ago – understanding how drama and storytelling and genres work, rather than just snobbily rejecting them or nerdily critiquing them – would go a long way toward making off-Hollywood scripts and movies better.

And novels, too. Speaking of which, time to get back to work ...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Quit your griping and start your typing: Or, the future of art and storytelling and stuff

As both an independent filmmaker and a punster, it's tempting to refer to the recent July 4th holiday as Independent's Day. But this year, for me at least, the label fits.

As I've mentioned before, I often attend events at Visual Studies Workshop, particularly their screenings of old 16mm short films. Their most recent screening was July 5, and had an Independence Day theme.

I'd been in kind of a creative rut recently. I still wanted to complete the books I was trying to write, but I was wondering if my heart was still in it, or what I would do with these books when they were done. I still considered myself a filmmaker at heart, but the complexities of low-budget moviemaking are not to be treated lightly and I wasn't sure if I was quite ready yet to re-enter those waters.

Anyway, at the VSW event, I inquired about a two-day course they'd announced for that weekend called “Performing Books”. I wasn't sure what this course was about, but it seemed to have something to do with combining elements of literature with elements of film/video and live performance. It seemed like it might offer a way to bridge these two worlds in which I was trying to rekindle my interest.

I hadn't had a weekend completely to myself in a long while, and I was looking forward to spending the holiday weekend catching up on things and trying to get back into my writing. I wasn't sure I wanted to give up 16 of those hours. But my gut feeling was that I should take this course.

And I'm glad I did, because it rekindled my creativity. The teacher, Tate Shaw, showed some different types of unconventional books that artists have made, and also showed some videos of various artists who had combined live readings with multimedia. A few of these were by people I knew of – Marina Abramović (the subject of The Artist Is Present, a documentary that was shown at the local High Falls Film Festival), Laurie Andersen, and of course Crispin Glover – while others were new to me.

I didn't “get” absolutely all of the work being shown, and some of it was the kind of stuff that my college-age self would have sneered at as pretentious and boring. But years after college ended, as a working adult studying this stuff by choice, I now appreciate why less accessible forms of art exist. The whole point of it is to challenge you, to make you think, to see things from a different angle. Even if you don't “like” it, it's good for you in a way. And it made me excited about my own work again, because it caused me to think of new ideas and new approaches.

The timing of this class was perfect. It was a case of one door opening when another closed.

Because some time earlier that week, I happened to vist the sci-fi website io9 for some reason. I have a love-hate relationship with that website – there's some fun and interesting stuff there, including science news and some good articles about writing ... but also some snarky junk, especially in the user comments. Anyway, one of the headlines was “When is the right time to finally give up on a series?

My patience with nerd negativity had been declining for several years now, but against my better judgment I clicked on this link. As someone who was trying to write a book series, I thought I might get some insight into what elements make a series work, and what mistakes cause the audience to lose interest.

But when I read the page, I saw no insights into the art or craft of storytelling, or appreciation for the challenges of doing it well. All I saw was one fan grievance after another, as nerd after angry nerd listed a series they hated and the moment they gave up on it, and how as a result they now hated Stephen King or Orson Scott Card or whoever.

The one halfway thoughtful comment I saw was from someone named Rob Bricken, writing under the handle of Superman villain “mxyzptlk”:

“Maybe a better question is why we persist in keeping up with stories that have long ago made us question "Why am I keeping up with this?" ... maybe completism is a geek flaw — we're continuously drawn back to a flawed storylines [sic] because they tap into our weakness for identifying flaws, and that coupled with our completist tendencies make for craptastic bait we have a harder time ignoring than taking.”

I would have liked to take that observation as something constructive – that fans have the perfectionist mind of an engineer or programmer, and have an instinct for spotting bugs. More cynically, though, it seemed to indicate that these people just like to complain and criticize.

And that was the moment when I finally realized that this was not the audience I wanted to reach out to. This was not the community I wanted to be part of. Not when there are other communities of artists and DIY-ers and even some 'normal' people with minds more open than they get credit for.

Prior to that, I'd been thinking about why I originally wanted to make movies, and why I was so passionate about science fiction and fantasy when I was younger. Cinema was something that entertained and excited people ... and if it didn't, that just inspired the restless and creative souls to want to create their own original visions and put them on screen. At the same time, the sci-fi fan community seemed to be a haven of smart and friendly people in an otherwise brutish world.

But something seems to have gone sour. It's weird because I don't think fans have ever had it better. The biggest TV shows in the world right now seem to be Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, and maybe Sherlock. Every halfway decent drama on TV nowadays, genre or otherwise, has gone the Lost / Babylon 5 route of epic story arcs that span multiple seasons. Every tentpole studio movie seems to be based on an established franchise and marketed to the Comic-Con audience.

So I don't completely get where this growing anger is coming from. However, I do get the sense that Hollywood isn't liked right now. The studios seem to be putting more and more eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, trying to please everyone and instead pleasing no one. Their losing strategy in the last couple years has been as follows:

  • Instead of ever making an original movie, just buy an obscure property whose core audience is very small, but also very vocal and determined to create bad publicity
  • Hire an auteur director who will want to put his own original stamp on the property, thus alienating the aforementioned core audience
  • Spend so much money on the film that it will have to be an all-time blockbuster just to break even
  • Produce a really generic marketing campaign that doesn't tell you what the story or premise is, or why you should see the film, instead relying on the obscure brand to sell itself
  • Generate nothing but apathy or hostility from the fans (who don't like auteurs), the critics (who don't want to see an auteur wasting his talents on a remake of something), and the general public (who don't know what this thing is or why they should care)

A similar formula admittedly worked for the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but recent attempts to duplicate those successes have grown ever more futile.

There also might be a class resentment of some kind. I never fully appreciated how deeply Hollywood directors and actors are hated right now until the recent backlash against Zach Braff. If you somehow haven't heard, the former sitcom actor recently decided to fund a follow-up to his cult film Garden State by raising money from fans on the Internet (“crowdfunding” as da kidz call it nowadays). From the bitter backlash he received in some quarters, you'd think Braff was some pampered Tudor who bathed in a diamond-encrusted bathtub full of champagne and baby seals' blood, while raping orphaned migrant workers at the same time.

Most of the criticism of Braff I've seen essentially boils down to “Braff is in the Hollywood system, and therefore all-powerful and evil! He already has all the power and influence required to get a movie green-lighted and distributed by the studios!”

A cooler, calmer head might point out that if Steven freaking Spielberg has trouble making the movies he wants (his recent Lincoln apparently came within a hair's breadth of being made for cable TV instead), then maybe creative clout isn't that easy to come by in the studio system anymore. Nearly every name director who's been a major influence in my lifetime, from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderberg and Kevin Smith, has been in the press recently bemoaning the difficulty of getting their movies made and/or announcing their imminent or eventual retirement from filmmaking.

In the midst of all this chaos and frustration, maybe it's time to ask: If Hollywood cinema is really that much of a dinosaur, then why are we still so obsessed with it anyway? We have video cameras, which are better than ever. We have computers. We have the Internet. What's wrong with just making something on a smaller scale, something you truly believe in, instead of trying to compete with the Goliaths? Do you just want to complain, or do you want to be part of the solution?

I can think of at least one person out there who might have the answer. There's a website called CrochetMe.com which, about five years ago, discussed the DIY movement and online distribution with a guy who crochets but also makes web videos. Here's something the guy said:

“I mean, let's face it, in the media there are now eight companies. ... Everything is becoming consolidated, so where there used to be lots of variety, there are now, like, ten giants and tons of tiny little villagers. And yeah, the villagers are going to start making their own stuff because the materials will be available to all of them, and we can't all just do things the way the giants want, because it does seep something out of your soul. I think it's absolutely true on every level of art that this is the worst of times and, like some guy might have said once, the best of times. ... we are now in a situation where everybody can do what they do. ... I will always give them credit for trying to find a way to steal Christmas, but this time they might not be able to. There's always been an independent side to the industry. And for this particular medium, I think it's going to be a lot harder for them to crush it.  .

“[A]t the end of the day right now, you can create something; what you can't usually do is make a fortune off of it. But ... it's not about, "... I'm going to be [a] millionaire without enjoying the process and the product." Ultimately, the artistic expression can't be squelched; it's just they'll try to cut off any avenues for that expression to be, shall we say, monetized in a realistic fashion. Like I'm saying, the sort of people who understand the DIY mentality are more about the doing than the having. So I think that ultimately, my advice is what my advice always is: Make stuff. ... Right now, because of digital technology, you can make crafty little movies, you can make crafty little things that go up for millions of people to see. ... It is no longer the time of sitting around and thinking about doing something.”

It's been five years since the guy gave that interview, and he's since been busy making other stuff but he probably still feels the same. And it seems to me that if that guy wants to crochet and do web videos as well as make Hollywood blockbusters ... and if Crispin Glover wants be a spoken word artist in between Hollywood comedies ... and if Zach Braff wants to crowdfund an indie film … and if George Lucas wants to retire and make experimental films in his garage … and if Ethan Hawke wants to do whatever it is he does … then what the hell is stopping the rest of us?

So I think the smart people are gonna be the ones who stop bellyaching about what Hollywood does, and how mainstream pop culture does this and doesn't do that, and are willing to embrace new technologies and new opportunities, and actually show people how it should be done.

And it doesn't even have to be a traditional movie. That used to be the dream – make a full-length movie and show it in a conventional theater to a live audience. But if that medium is dying (as it seems to be), there are other ways of telling a story. You can make a web series. You can write books. You can be like the folks I learned about last weekend, and find ways to combine existing media into something new.

I think J to the W was right. These are the worst of times and, “like some guy might have said once,” the best of times.