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 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.

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