Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Life's like a movie, write your own ending: An appreciation of The Muppet Movie

Last week I watched The Muppet Movie – the 1970s classic of iconic songs and gloriously corny jokes – at the Dryden Theatre.

The timing of this screening now seems more poignant after learning that Jim Henson died 26 years ago yesterday. In fact, three of the five main Muppet performers are now gone, and so are the vast majority of the 1970s celebrity cameos in this film. To quote a Far Side cartoon, “We’re getting’ old, Jake.”

The Muppet Movie is one of my favorite films and another influence on Saberfrog, and seeing it on the big screen in 35mm was something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. I don’t remember watching this film a huge number of times on video, but I don’t think I needed to, so deep was its influence.

I know that this film taught me the concept of puns and wordplay, since I needed the double meanings of “fork in the road” and “drinks are on the house” explained to me. It’s the earliest depiction of a romantic date that I can remember seeing as a kid. I also think that the scene where Rowlf the Dog discusses the joys of solitary bachelorhood made an impression on me – it’s the spoken intro to a musical duet with Kermit, so it was included on the soundtrack LP and was thus the dialogue I was able to hear repeatedly in the days before we had a VCR.

I have long credited/blamed (delete as appropriate) the influence of Star Wars in inspiring my younger self to become a filmmaker. But The Muppet Movie now seems like a more obvious influence, since it is explicitly the story of a backwoods boy going on a cross-country journey to enter show business. Although Kermit’s initial goal seems to be to become a performer, when Kermit actually reaches Hollywood he is shown directing a film based on his own experiences.

(This emphasis on filmmaking rather than performing seems to be further emphasized in the film’s wraparound story of the Muppets gathering at a Hollywood screening room to watch the completed film. It’s now striking to me that the very first shot of the movie is the sculpture above the studio entrance, showing a stereotypical Hollywood director balancing the world on his fingertip.)

Kermit’s saga begins when a wandering Hollywood agent (played by Dom DeLuise) overhears Kermit happily singing and playing the now-famous song “Rainbow Connection”, and thus encourages Kermit to go to Hollywood to audition. Our hero’s journey seems to be influenced by The Wizard of Oz (with its similarly-themed song “Over the Rainbow”) and I couldn’t help but notice something that both films share with Henson’s later film The Dark Crystal: The protagonist sets off alone, with no mentor or allies or safety net, and must build a family of comrades over the course of the adventure.

At first, Kermit experiences the Joseph Campbell-approved Refusal of the Call. But what seems to finally motivate Kermit to set off on this journey is the thought of making “millions of people happy”.

Rewatching this film as an adult, the innocence of that goal really hit me. Kermit is pursuing the selfless goal of being an entertainer, rather than the arguably deeper, but more self-centered, goal of being an artist. And when the villainous businessman Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) wants to exploit Kermit’s talents, Kermit ultimately confronts him by explaining that – unlike Hopper – Kermit is pursuing a goal that “gets better the more people you share it with.” So under this wacky, whimsical, light-hearted comedy is a theme about the importance of friendship and community, something that the more calculating Hopper lacks.

My earliest filmmaking efforts were motivated purely by the desire to entertain. But by the time I was old enough to go to film school, there was a growing cynicism and a growing backlash against Hollywood blockbusters, and against the very idea of “entertainment”. Anger, disgruntlement and ennui had become more fashionable. Entertainment was for stupid, shallow people who couldn’t accept the reality that everything was awful. And anyone who didn’t get with that program was made to feel like a sheep or a sellout.

I tried to resist that mentality for a long time. But in recent years I have observed mainstream commercial films becoming more formulaic, and more reliant on existing properties rather than springing from the imagination of a visionary like Jim Henson. I’ve also gotten bummed out by the constant din of Internet culture, where the most hostile and close-minded people so often seem to have the power to overpower every discussion.

I have recoiled against all this by overdosing on screenings of experimental films – they may be confusing or disturbing or sometimes even dull, but they stem from the subconscious of someone who is determined to walk his or her own solitary path, regardless of what other people think.

So rewatching The Muppet Movie as an adult was like coming home after waging a long and difficult war. It didn’t reduce me to tears (as I thought it might), but I had to sit in my car for a little while after the screening. I had to process what I had seen. I had to dwell on the difference between what I originally learned from that film as a child, and what kind of adult I have become.

I’ve had many triumphs and good experiences. But I’ve also had many moments of frustration, and many experiences that have left me more inclined to become closed-off and separatist.

The Muppet Movie is a reminder of the importance of optimism, innocence, and pursuing your dreams. Both “Rainbow Connection” and Gonzo’s later lament “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” have lyrics about pursuing something that is intangible or hard to explain.

The film is also a reminder that you can be irreverent without being cynical. The Muppet Movie does not shy away from depicting the hazards and pitfalls of adult life, and in fact there are some gags (such as those involving mild depictions of sexuality or alcohol use) that I suspect might upset some people if used in a kid’s film today. Doc Hopper starts out as a silly and cartoony villain, but becomes a more serious and violent threat over the course of the film.

Yet The Muppet Movie does not treat these adult-world hazards as excuses to give up or to be nihilistic. The point of the movie seems to be that idealism can and should triumph against these darker forces.

Two scenes in particular have always haunted me. One is when Kermit and friends are stranded in the desert, and Kermit wanders off alone to deal with his thoughts. He has a conversation with himself (literally – there is another Kermit that he talks to, and I needed the symbolism of this explained to me as a kid) and has to convince himself that he would have been unhappy if he hadn’t pursued this dream, and that the friends who’ve been traveling with were following the dream, not him.

The other is when (spoiler) Kermit finally reaches Hollywood and tells a studio head that he wants to be “rich and famous”. This has long struck me as an ambiguous ending, since Kermit expresses his goal more selfishly at this climax than he did at the beginning, when he simply wanted to make “millions of people happy”. The irony seems to be made more deliberate by the casting of Hollywood’s most infamous fallen angel – Orson Welles – as the studio head.

And on this viewing, I noticed that Kermit and friends essentially bully their way past the studio head’s secretary (Cloris Leachman) instead of simply going to the audition that the agent told Kermit about at the start of the movie. It’s an unexpected change of character for Kermit, especially so soon after scolding the villain for his lack of empathy.

I realize this is a G-rated family comedy whose plot is just a rough clothesline to hang gags on, and that I may be looking too hard for existential meaning in what are probably just story glitches that another script draft could have fixed. But The Muppet Movie had a huge impact on me as a kid, so it will always seem to me to be a work of Talmudic significance.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The insane film event that inspired Saberfrog

I recently read a biography of film director David Lynch, which describes some seminal moments in his life that had a direct effect on his art. One was a memory of his childhood in pleasant rural Montana, when he found a tree whose fruit was oozing blackness and covered with ants. The other was living in 1970s urban Philadelphia as a college student and witnessing crime and violence on a regular basis. These experiences had their most obvious effect on his films Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, respectively.

Reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if my own creative work was similarly impacted by a particularly vivid life experience.

I couldn't think of one at the time. But there was one, and I unexpectedly got to relive it last night.

I was once again meeting up with my fellow film nerd (and Saberfrog co-star) John Karyus for an experimental film screening, this one at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. I was on the fence about going to this one - there were other important things I could have been doing, and our seeing Matthew Barney's River of Fundament a few days earlier had left me feeling like I should maybe take a break from this sort of thing. So I wasn’t really in the mood, but I decided that one more couldn't hurt.

While we sat in the Hallwalls screening room waiting for the films to start, some old Prince songs were playing on the speakers in the recently-departed musician’s memory. Finally the music stopped and the curator stood up to introduce the films. “Sorry to stop playing Prince…” he began. “Instead we’re gonna play some prints!” I shouted back, jerking a thumb at the projectors behind us. Even at my shyest and most depressed I can never ignore an opportunity for a bad pun, but nobody laughed and the curator ignored me and continued his introduction.

The screening was a collection of old short films, including Un Chien Andalou (a well-known surrealist film by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel), and a film by Stan Vanderbeek which clearly showed his influence on Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python.

Some of these films were more interesting to me than others. Then it got to the final film. And I thought, Oh my God. It's THAT one. From the screening that will live in infamy.

* * *

When I was a kid, I would see oddball animated films and other shorts - either in school, or at a library or museum, or as filler between movies on cable. When I began making my own films, I was mainly influenced by Hollywood fantasy films and cartoons. But these strange and dreamy shorts also crept into my imagination.

My early filmmaking got me accepted into the 1990 New York State Summer School of the Arts - or NYSSSA for short - held that summer at the University at Buffalo. As a film student, I got to make some short films on Super-8 film and to watch a variety of foreign art films and experimental films, an experience that would further cement my interest in alternative cinema.

This was a six-week adventure of a lifetime. It was my first taste of college life, and exposed me to a type of art that was more avant-garde and confrontational than anything I had ever encountered previously. It was at NYSSSA that my sheltered small-town self first saw the aforementioned Un Chien Andalou as well as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Chris Marker's La Jetee, the Scorsese films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the films of Stan Brakhage, among many others.

In among all these was a short film called T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G by Paul Sharits. This was a series of strobing images - mostly a man placing scissor blades against his tongue (as if to cut it off) and that same man having his face scratched by a woman's hand - accompanied by the endless looping sound bite "Destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy..." I don't remember the class's response to this film, but I suspect that my younger self found it annoying.

Watching all these films was the proverbial drink from a fire hose. I was fascinated by the various film screenings, lectures and field trips, but I was also frustrated that they were always mandatory, especially when they cut into the time needed to complete our own film projects. But I was an obedient kid and so I went to all of these events as instructed.

In addition to viewing films in our regular classroom, we also had guest speakers and visiting artists in a different, auditorium-sized classroom. And Paul Sharits himself was present for one of these - a screening of another of his films, called Razor Blades. This film required two projectors, showing two different film reels side by side.

Like the previous Sharits film we'd watched, Razor Blades was an epilepsy-inducing barrage of flickering images and repetitive audio. This time the imagery was much more NSFW (male genitalia in various stages of arousal, an ass being wiped with toilet paper, naked people dancing, stillborn/aborted fetuses) and the audio was a very loud, piercing, stuttering electronic tone.

The film alone would have been a lot to inflict on a captive audience of kids in their early- to mid-teens - especially back in 1990, when The Simpsons was considered controversial and rap music was still seen as a potential threat to civilization.

But on this occasion there was also a live element that pushed the whole thing to another level. Sharits had brought someone with him to the screening. I don't remember much about him (he was a black guy, possibly heavy-set, maybe wearing a big coat or sweatshirt), but I do remember that he stood down in front and yelled at the audience. So we had to cope not only with electronic noise in our ears and dongs and butts before our eyes, but with some guy heckling us at the same time.

Finally the insanity got to be too much for my classmates, who stood up and began walking out of the auditorium. At first I obeyed the edict that we were supposed to sit through every screening and lecture, but as more and more students left I finally left my seat and joined them.

On a later day - possibly the next day - there was a meeting in which the students angrily confronted the summer school's director. He seemed amused by the whole thing and kind of laughed off the outrage of his students. But it transpired that Sharits' cohort hadn't just been shouting at the audience (as I had observed) but was directing more specific verbal abuse at the female students in the audience.

* * *

That screening and its fallout gave a dark tinge to my summer in NYSSSA. Yet that particular event - and the NYSSSA experience as a whole - would grow to a mythic proportion in my memory over the years.

In the short term, it all made me jaded - I saw a lot of the same films that would be later shown in film school, ones I wasn’t always that interested in seeing again, and it made me resentful of having non-narrative styles of filmmaking forced on me by professors. But over time - and especially in recent years - I’ve become something of an experimental film junkie. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve finally matured enough to appreciate the kind of art that NYSSSA introduced me to, or if it’s just some kind of Stockholm syndrome that has made me so fiercely loyal to a genre that once caused me such torment.

My aforementioned friend John Karyus once joked that students enter film school aspiring to be the next Spielberg, and leave wanting to make a 3-hour film about grass growing. He too went to NYSSSA (in a different year, when it was held at Ithaca College), and both of us bonded in film school when we discovered we were both veterans of the same heightened experience.

We each had found it to be both inspiring and misleading. It cracked open our brains, opened our third eye, and showed us the full spectrum of wild and envelope-pushing things that art could be, while arguably steering our tastes and ambitions in a direction that was uncommercial to the point of madness. We wouldn't have missed it for the world, yet we still suspected it had warped our expectations of film and art in a potentially unproductive way. And that conflict was a major influence on Saberfrog, in which the troubled protagonist finds himself inexorably drawn back to a half-forgotten experience in college in order to make sense of his current state of mind.

* * *

I forgot some of the details of that infamous 1990 screening, including the name of that particular Sharits film, and who the hell that guy was doing the yelling. I assumed he was a performance artist of some kind.

After Sharits' T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was shown recently at Visual Studies Workshop, I briefly described the dual-projector Sharits film to programmer Tara Nelson and asked if she knew the name of it, and she guessed that it might have been a different film called Shutter Interface. So when this latest screening at Hallwalls include a Sharits film called Razor Blades in its lineup, I did not know for certain whether it would be one that I would recognize.

But almost as soon as Razor Blades began, I recognized the phallic imagery and throbbing audio. Oh shit, I thought.

Even if I had never seen this film before, it would still have been an intense experience. The flickering imagery was as blinding as ever, and that soundtrack - with the piercing staccato tones laid over a deep bass - made me feel like an airline passenger as his sinuses repressurized during landing. I was bopping my head furiously during the film.

But the autobiographical element made it even more psychedelic. Imagine actually reliving one of the major emotional peaks of your life - your first kiss, a bad breakup, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one. I felt that I was inside one of my own memories, something that I thought never happened in real life, only in stories like A Christmas Carol and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I was seeing a rare film that I hadn’t seen in almost 26 years, and it was still as mindwarping as ever. And because it was from the University at Buffalo’s collection, it was probably the very same print!

When the film ended, I turned to John and excitedly told him that this was the film I’d been telling him about for years, the one I’d seen back in 1990. A woman behind us overheard our conversation and joined in. She had been one of the directors of NYSSSA that year, and had been present when that crazy screening happened.

She told me that the guy yelling at the audience was somebody Sharits had just picked up off the street! And at that screening he had been telling the female viewers things like “I want to touch your p***y”. She added that there were phone calls home to parents the very next day, and that one of the consequences was that NYSSSA stopped accepting students in their early- or pre-teens. She also said that students stole knives from the cafeteria so that they would be armed for the next time Paul Sharits made an appearance, but I wasn’t sure if she was joking about that or not.

She told me all this in a sheepish tone of “yeah, we made sure nothing like that ever happened again.” But I was elated. Not only had I partly relived one of the most intense and inexplicable episodes of my life, but I’d just had the details corroborated and completed by someone else who had been there! I had no choice but to yell out “This is the greatest day of my life!” and thus make an even bigger fool of myself after the screening than I did with my failed pun before it.

To think I almost didn’t go to this screening, when it felt as if it had been prepared specifically with me in mind.

* * *

There’s a semi-recent David Lynch quote that made laugh. I haven’t been able to find the exact quote online, so I may be paraphrasing, but I believe he said “Words … they add nothing.”

I have described to you an intense nonverbal experience I have had, so that a record of it will remain even if I forget it or am no longer around to describe it. But I don’t know whether I have succeeded in making you feel its importance.

And now it is a story told in words, rather than a feeling. Is that better? Is that worse? I don’t know. But art is about communication, and I have tried to communicate my experience to you. And that, ultimately, is all that an artist can do.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Knocked for six: My reaction to Matthew Barney's River of Fundament

Yesterday I went to the George Eastman Museum with my friend John Karyus for a screening of River of Fundament, a six-hour experimental film by conceptual artist Matthew Barney.

I knew going in that this one would be an ordeal, not least for its monstrous length (with two intermissions dividing it into three parts) and because Barney is best known to film buffs for his 5-part Cremaster cycle, which I've never seen but which is notorious for being bizarre and "challenging" to sit through.

A bit of Googling (and looking at the description in the Eastman Museum's bimonthly program guide) suggests that this is all an opera loosely adapted from the Norman Mailer novel Ancient Evenings, and that Mailer (played by various actors in caked-dirt makeup) reincarnates three times over the course of the film. But this and other nuances were unknown to me during the screening. I can only report on what I saw:

The first of River of Fundament's three sections revolves around a funeral reception for Mailer. This reception is attended by real-life celebrities such as Salman Rushdie, Fran Leibowitz, Elaine Stritch, and the spirit of Mailer himself. Paul Giamatti plays the representation of an Egyptian god named Ptah-Nem-Hotep.

The second section revolved around a car and its gold-straitjacketed occupant plummeting off a bridge and then later being recovered as two female police investigators holler strange music at the spectacle. One of the two women is an elfin character with big blue eyes, and her face - contorted with emotion and streaming with saliva as she howls at the water - is the image that stuck with me the most. This second section was my favorite, despite its use of the hated experimental-film fakeout of fading out to black and fading out the audio - creating the deception that it was over - only to fade right back up again.

I've already kind of forgotten the third part, though I believe this was also the section in which actors portrayed the mythic conflict between the Egyptian gods Set and Horus, mediated by the father-god Ra (a conflict also depicted in the underrated recent action film Gods of Egypt). I do remember that near the end Ellen Burstyn gives a deathbed speech about the cyclical nature of birth and death. For me this scene stood out in a film that was otherwise reluctant to spell out its theme or point too clearly.

River of Fundament should probably be regarded as a modern-art installation or performance, rather than a film per se. Like much controversial modern art it is scatalogical - there are plenty of shots of human orifices and the things that can pass into or out of them. Reoccurring images include a pig roast (which slowly becomes more decayed over the course of the film) and the disemboweling of a dead cow, either to remove a stillborn calf or to allow a male character (Mailer's ghost if I remember) to crawl inside it.

Most of the film is urban and industrial in its imagery - a crane spectacularly destroys a car, a fist-fight breaks out between two men in a warehouse, etc. For this reason, the nature imagery (trees, fish, etc.) that occurs late in the third section was a huge relief to me. No matter how self-consciously icky the subject matter gets, the 4K digital photography is gorgeous, the music and sound design is hypnotic, and the overall austere tone is impressive.

I've run the gamut of emotions on experimental films, from resenting them as a self-indulgent waste of the audience's time to cherishing them as a refreshing break from conformity. As Hollywood movies become slicker and more dependent on pre-sold properties, I've become more indulgent of experimental films that at least seem to come from someone's own unique view of the world. But for me, watching this was the experimental-film equivalent of reaching the proverbial end of the Internet.

My past enjoyment of experimental films has been on the grounds that they are essentially underground and personal (like poetry or punk music) and I'm mainly used to seeing older, analog entries in the genre, shown on grainy 16mm in a college classroom or hole-in-the-wall art gallery. Yet this is a massive epic featuring celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal, with large and complex crowd scenes (such as one involving steel workers dealing with molten metal) that I'm told were performances staged for the public while being filmed for inclusion in this piece. The film's main set seems to have been built on a floating barge, housing both the dinner party above and a flooded basement below.

My friend John loved it, was only occasionally bored by it, and saw it as proof that one can still make truly weird or shocking movies. My response was more mixed. I was bored for longer sections of it than he was, and I was less sure what value to derive from it all.

After sleeping on it, I suppose the film's most obvious message is that decay and disorder - not to mention death - are natural aspects of life that we cannot and should not ignore. Part of me finds this deep, yet another part of me questions the value of this insight. Surely there is greater survival value in postponing death, and avoiding disease and decay, rather than dwelling on them?

This might seem like a tangent, but I once read an interview with Woody Allen in which he discussed his enjoyment of old Fred Astaire musicals. He said that Ingmar Bergman (an arthouse filmmaker he admires) is grappling with weighty issues you know cannot be solved, whereas Astaire offers at least temporary satisfaction and happiness.

Similarly, there's currently a lot of nostalgia for the comedies and action films of the 1980s, even among viewers who weren't alive when they were made. I recently rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in years, and also watched Critters for the first time. Seeing these, it occurs to me that 1980s popcorn movies are about characters with achievable goals - get the girl, kill the monster, win the big race, etc. - unlike the more acclaimed films of other eras that are about a more nebulous search for identity and meaning.

The core appeal of this has become more clear to me. I still believe that conformity should be resisted, not just obeyed. And yet the older I get, and the more our existence is defined by social interconnection, the less sure I am of the value of wandering further and further away from the herd.

What good does it do to ingest (or create) a difficult work like River of Fundament, if doing so just leaves you even more removed from the masses who haven't? As the modern economy demands us to be ruthlessly practical with our scant resources, how does one justify the time or expense of making, let alone seeing, something so strange and user-unfriendly? What is the reason to be the audience for - or a maker of - experimental art?

I guess it's simply to see what will happen. To see what can be learned, or experienced. To see what the limits are, and where they are.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Information vital to the Rebellion: Watching the Star Wars “making-of” documentaries

You've surely heard by now that there's a new Star Wars movie opening this week. I see that many people are marathoning the previous six movies in preparation.

As a kid I devoured every book, article, interview or documentary I could find about how Star Wars came to be, what its themes are, how the effects were done. Star Wars, to me, was always something that somebody made, and I was always on the side of the person who made it and interested in what he was trying to achieve.

But I think many other viewers prefer to accept invented universes like Star Wars at face value, and to acknowledge the writer or director only when it’s time to blame someone for something they didn’t like. This is aided by the fact that, more and more, science fiction and fantasy films and TV shows are based on existing properties, making it easier for viewers to feel that they know in advance how the story should go and that the filmmaker or showrunner will get it wrong. 

In defiance of this trend, I decided that instead of marathoning the previous six movies (something I’ve already done anyway), I would marathon the “making of” documentaries, and revisit the Star Wars saga from a behind-the-scenes perspective. In doing so I hope to champion the creativity and hard work of the people who made them.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have a player to watch the Blu-ray features, so my marathon will be limited to what’s on DVD, on the internet, or in my personal collection. Also, the prequel DVDs are loaded to the gills with bonus features, so in the interest of time and sanity I limited myself to one or two documentaries for each prequel.)


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is widely criticized for its lack of realism, so what’s fascinating about the making-of documentary The Beginning is how raw it is. It has no narration, no background music, no talking-head studio interviews, no fancy graphics or transitions. There is some occasional plain text telling you what the location is, what the date is, or how many weeks are left before the movie comes out, but otherwise this is fly-on-the-wall footage of the film’s planning, shooting and editing, presented without comment.

The upcoming Episode VII will be the first Star Wars movie made without its original creator, so it’s poignant that my marathon would start here. The documentary opens with Lucas being interviewed on 60 Minutes, explaining that the “auteur” theory is true, that movies resemble their makers, and that he to have a strong emotional commitment to these films in order to make them.

A scene in Episode I that’s grown on me over the years is the one where Anakin Skywalker’s loving mother sends her young son off to new adventures with the words “Don’t look back.” It’s a scene I now find moving, since the other two prequels have provided clearer knowledge of how painfully the adult Anakin would fail to live up to his early potential. I bring this up because The Beginning has the heartbreaking real-life equivalent – we see little Jake Lloyd excitedly signs the contract to play Anakin, while his female agent tells him how proud she is, surely assuming her young client is destined for stardom. (If you don’t know what later became of Jake Lloyd – who even changed his name! – I’ll just say that his Wikipedia page is a sad read.)

Contrary to Episode I’s reputation as an exercise in CGI overkill, we see the extensive use of audio-animatronic creatures, large physical sets, and arduous location shooting under difficult weather conditions. Lucas is seen to be a very hands-on director, consistently involved in every creative decision.

Still, rewatching this documentary leads me to suspect that many of Episode I’s problems result from Lucas’ preference for directing films in post-production rather than on the set.

When Lucas is reviewing the finalists for the role of the young Anakin, he says he is trying to decide between one kid who is pretty good all the time, and another kid who is more hit-and-miss but has brilliant moments that could be combined in editing. Later in the film, editor Ben Burtt sounds slightly frustrated by Lucas’ desire to try to re-direct a film in post-production; Burtt points out that in the old days one would reject a take that had something wrong with it, and that the ability to digitally combine different details from different takes has now made the editing process more challenging.

If Lucas likes a certain type of performance, and is able to cherry-pick every element of a take or scene that fits that preference, that may explain why the performances in Episode I seem so monotone. I would also argue that if the finished CGI had kept more of actor Ahmed Best’s on-set physicality, without exaggerating his character’s movements and facial reactions to such a cartoony degree, Jar Jar would have seemed less grotesque.

In any case, Burtt’s grumbling is one of only two scenes in the documentary that indicate creative difficulty behind the scenes (even though it was made for Episode I’s belated DVD release, by which time the film’s reputation as a disappointment was set in stone). The other, more famous moment is when Lucas and company review a rough cut of the film and are concerned about how to salvage it. Lucas is concerned that things move too fast (“if it’s fast for us, a regular person is going to go nuts”) and that it might be possible to reduce this. It’s unclear whether Lucas is referring just to the action climax, or to the movie as a whole. If it’s the latter, his attempts to slow things down might explain why the pace of the exposition scenes in Episode I feel a bit sluggish.

Lucas’ attitude through the film seesaws between optimism and caution. I’m fond of the scene where he pragmatically observes that the sequel to American Graffiti was a box-office failure, and that “you can destroy these things – it is possible.”

Fun fact: Swear words (mainly from producer Rick McCallum) are bleeped throughout the documentary, but they missed one. After executing a stunt, actor Ewan MacGregor says that when he was offered Star Wars his response was “Too f**king right!”

The Beginning won’t convince anyone to love Episode I, but it’s a good glimpse into the filmmaking process from beginning to end. Seeing and hearing a full chorus belting out “Duel of the Fates” is a particular highlight.

"STORY" (2002)

The DVD for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones doesn’t clearly identify one of its bonus features as a primary “making-of”. There are two “Documentaries” and three “Featurettes”, so I watched one of each.

The documentary From Puppets to Pixels has the same minimalist approach as The Beginning. The emphasis this time is on the challenge of creating convincing digital characters, specifically the new digital Yoda as well as Obi-wan’s four-armed friend Dexter.

My favorite moment is when Lucas and his animation director are arguing the subtleties of how sad or worried that the digital Yoda should look when delivering the line “Begun, the Clone War has.” This animation had apparently gone through several unsatisfactory iterations by this point, and Lucas seems to be struggling to keep his sense of humor about a shot that is now trying his patience.

Like The Beginning, this documentary provides glimpses into the filmmaking process from filming to editing. However, this time we only see two of the main actors at work (Ewan MacGregor and the late, great Christopher Lee) and that alone makes it feel less comprehensive than The Beginning.

By contrast, the featurette “Story” is a more conventional piece that has talking-head clips of Lucas and the main cast discussing the important story developments that occur in Episode II (a film that many fans like to insist has no story). Samuel L. Jackson states that this film will be a return to the swashbuckling spirit of the original films. I found this statement curious, since if anything Episode I was the more light-hearted film and Episode II is the one that plunges into darker territory. But it’s interesting as an indirect acknowledgement that the previous Star Wars film was not universally well-received.


Within a Minute, the making-of documentary for Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, is an interesting departure from those for the previous prequels. Stylistically it’s more conventional in its use of interviews, graphics and music, but its content is very different. It follows a single minute-long section of the movie through the entire filmmaking process from beginning to end, taking pains to emphasize how many people are involved and how many decisions are made along the way – from scripting and planning and filming, to special effects and sound design and music.

Whereas The Beginning opened with Lucas discussing the auteur theory, Within a Minute celebrates all the individuals who contribute to making a film. Each subsection of the movie includes a scroll of all the names involved in that part of the process. The roll-call of animators actually includes two guys I knew at RIT – Brian Cantwell (who is interviewed on-camera) and Kurt Nellis. The film even covers the people who never get covered in making-of documentaries, such as the caterers and the people who handle payroll.

The section of Episode III that was chosen for analysis is a minute-long portion of the climactic lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-wan, as they fight atop a large structure that breaks apart and falls onto the sea of lava beneath them. This battle was a famous piece of unseen backstory for years before the prequels were made, and all involved seem excited at the prospect of bringing this legendary moment to life.

I love Episode III but am aware that many people do not. This conflict made me squirm a bit at producer Rick McCallum’s obvious pride in the work on display here. I think his pride is justified but I could mentally hear Internet trolls snickering at his every declaration.

The shorter documentary “The Chosen One” is less about the production process and more about the creative development of the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, and how Episode III completes the story that is developed in the other five films to date. We get talking-head quotes from Lucas and Hayden Christensen, as well as on-set footage of Lucas directing Christensen and explaining the character’s motivation. The moment of Christensen walking on-set in the final Vader costume is understandably treated as a major event, with the crew applauding and Christensen later recalling the event as something he will not soon forget.

(Also, in a recap clip from Episode I, the puppet Yoda is replaced with the digital Yoda seen in Episode II and III. This was still a few years before was Episode I was re-released in 3D and on Blu-ray, with the new Yoda fully implemented by then.)

Episode III was not only the final Star Wars prequel, but – as far as anyone knew at the time – the final Star Wars movie ever. Many of the people in these documentaries – including Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, and animation director Rob Coleman – had been working together for a decade. Within a Minute and “The Chosen One” show this project coming to its natural end, yet no one is seen to express emotion or melancholy at this. Instead, the filmmakers are excited to be part of a piece of history (as the Star Wars saga is finally complete) and express a sense of victory and accomplishment. It’s almost as if they knew that the story was just beginning.

Which leads me to…


I had originally planned to just marathon the official “making-of” documentaries – the DVD extras for the prequels, and the TV specials that accompanied the release of the original films. However, I remembered that a fan named Jamie Benning had made a series of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy, by intercutting each film with behind-the-scenes footage as well as audio-only interview material from various sources. I’d never gotten around to actually watching one of them, so I decided that now would be a good time. So I watched Star Wars Begins, Benning’s 2-hour-and-19-minute interlacing of the original Star Wars with behind-the-scenes content.

I’ve always been fascinated by the development of the original 1977 film, the one we now call Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. All the other films have had a successful proof-of-concept to follow, but this is the one that began as just a vague notion in Lucas’ head of swords and capes and ray guns, an ultimately world-changing idea that he struggled to develop through four very different drafts. Studio heads struggled to understand Lucas’ concept, the production of the film was famously difficult, the rough cut of the film was deemed a disaster and had to be extensively reworked, and entirely new special effects technology had to be developed in order to complete the film.

However, little of that seems to come through in Star Wars Begins. Occasionally an archive quote will mention how stressed and unhappy Lucas seemed to be during production, but the focus seems to be more on minor trivia – alternate takes, redubbed lines, what the camera and crew looked like when a particular scene was being shot.

The film doesn’t have an obvious point of view – it is basically other people’s documentaries and interviews stitched together in script order. Onscreen text (often with typos) will sometimes throw in an interesting factoid, and also identifies who is speaking in an audio clip and what year their quote is taken from. Any time a quote was from 2004 I recognized it from the original trilogy’s DVD release – either from the commentary track, or from the accompanying DVD extra Empire of Dreams – and I recognized a lot of behind-the-scenes footage from Empire of Dreams as well.

However, there were also some clips I didn’t recognize and some anecdotes I hadn’t heard. I was impressed to hear quotes from Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, who seem to have seldom been recorded speaking about their most widely seen roles. So Benning and/or his Internet friends (thanked in the credits) did an impressive amount of research, even if the resulting “documentary” is no more than the sum of its parts.

The most interesting thing about Star Wars Begins is that it provides a glimpse of how the original version of Episode IV would have played with its most famous deleted scenes integrated back into it. These scenes include early cutaways of Luke Skywalker (before he meets Artoo and Threepio); a few shots of Han with an unidentified female companion who leaves when Luke and Obi-wan meet with him; and of course Han confronting the original, human, fur-wearing version of Jabba the Hutt.

Some fans would love to see the early scenes of Luke and his friend Biggs (who appears in the finished film only as a Rebel X-wing pilot during the finale) actually edited into the film. Seeing these scenes placed in their original context, though, I think Lucas (or the studio?) was right to cut them.

As released, the original film opens in the middle of a conflict that is only partly explained to the audience, and gets away with this by telling the story from the point of view of two robots who also are unclear what’s going on. To cut away to seemingly unrelated characters in a strange environment talking about the Academy, the Empire and the Rebel Alliance would probably have confused the hell out of 1977 audiences who – remember – had not seen Star Wars before and did not already understand this universe.

However, watching the dialogue between Luke and Biggs is interesting for another reason. After the prequels, Lucas gained a reputation as being inept at directing actors. It’s tempting to look back at some irreverent quotes from the original trilogy’s lead actors, and the knowledge that Episode IV had to be salvaged in editing (largely with the help of his then-wife Marcia), and conclude that Lucas was always deficient in this area. However, the Luke-and-Biggs material – which plays out in lengthy medium- and wide shots – is well-played by both actors, and the prequel documentaries show Lucas working closely with his actors (and animators, in the case of digital creatures) to shape a character’s performance. So this supports my aforementioned theory that the digital-era Lucas is not necessarily a bad director of actors while on set, but perhaps pushes out too much of their spontaneity in his editing choices.

Star Wars Begins was a little frustrating in that I wanted to see more of Episode IV’s birth pangs and not just random trivia. But I hadn’t planned to actually rewatch the movies in this marathon, so it was cool to find myself accidentally rewatching the original movie in this exploded, deconstructed version.


This hour-long documentary aired on ABC on September 16, 1977. It was scripted by Time critic Richard Schickel, with narration by William Conrad and some jokey in-character commentary from Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio (well, by See-Threepio anyway). The Artoo/Threepio material is corny and inconsistent – sometimes the droids seem to be recalling the film’s characters and events as if they were real, and sometimes they are recalling the experience of being actors in the movie.

I probably did see this at a very young age. I have a dim childhood memory of seeing the droids on a white sci-fi set when Threepio makes some kind of meta comment about the movie, and while I long pictured that set as being the blockade runner from the beginning of Episode IV, I now believe I’m remembering the set on which the droids appear in the host segments of this documentary. I don’t know for sure whether this set was built especially for this documentary or was left over from something else, but it’s very detailed and retro-awesome.

The bulk of the film is narrated behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Conrad, framed by occasional cutaways to Artoo and Threepio. There are very brief interview clips of Alec Guinness (clearly made during shooting, as he’s in costume and on set), Harrison Ford (in a boat for some reason), Carrie Fisher (in a video arcade!), George Lucas, a VERY long-haired Mark Hamill, and producer Gary Kurtz.

Despite – or because of – the thermonuclear levels of cheese in this documentary, I found myself holding back tears at its extreme simplicity and innocence. When this TV special aired, Star Wars – though already the highest-grossing film of all time – was less than four months old. Its footprints in the world were still fresh. The narration re-explains the entire film to its audience, and every major scene is shown, in case viewers did not remember the broad outlines of the plot. Lucas explains – perhaps for the first time on-camera – his desire to tell a more innocent adventure story, as well the religious concept behind the Force. Clips of old movies helpfully illustrate Star Wars’ roots in Flash Gordon serials, WW II dogfight movies, swashbucklers, and Westerns.

Near the end, Fisher mentions that there is talk of the next Star Wars being set on “an ice planet”, and also “a tropical planet” similar to the moon of Yavin (the misty rebel base seen in the original film), which is a startling indicator of just how early the broadest outlines of The Empire Strikes Back were being determined.

The closing narration, accompanying the famous scene of Luke gazing at the twin sunset, ends with “The magic of Star Wars does not lie only in its brilliant special effects. Its power derives from something simpler and rarer: the romantic spirit that moves in it. Before it we are all young again, and everything seems possible.”

If you watch this old TV special and are able to hold it together at that moment, you are made of sterner stuff than I. But it is Threepio who gets the last word when he rhetorically asks, “Where will it all end? Perhaps, Artoo, it will never end.”

I will always defend the prequels for their ambition, and for taking the innocent Star Wars universe into more adult and troubling waters. But watching this hokey documentary put me in the right frame of childlike innocence to remind me what Star Wars means to the rest of my generation.


I DEFINITELY remember watching this one as a kid, as it is basically Mark Hamill saying “Young Curt, I order you to make a movie” for forty-plus minutes straight.

Ostensibly a documentary about the special effects in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, SP FX is really a celebration of the art of special effects in general. Hamill’s narration (again written by Richard Schickel) frequently waxes poetic about the power of effects to transport us to realms of imagination, freedom, and possibility.

This TV special includes clips from many celebrated fantasy and science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, King Kong, The Thief of Baghdad, and even A Trip to the Moon (that’s the silent film where the rocket lands in the eye of the moon). But it’s the inclusion of clips from amateur stop-motion movies by child filmmakers (at about the 10- and 35-minute marks) that seared themselves into my young psyche. Rewatching those clips now, it’s startling to see that one of the films was made with paper cutouts and that the filmmakers named in the film were between 11 and 17 years of age. It so happens that, years later, I made a stop-motion paper cutout movie when I was between 13 and 15.

There are only a couple of brief interview clips, from Peter Mayhew (who played Chewbacca) and sound designer Ben Burtt. Otherwise it’s all Hamill talking about how inspiring and wonderful special effects are.

I’m sure many prequel haters will seize on Hamill’s closing speech that “In the end, a special effect is just a special effect. If it isn’t surrounded by people we care about, if it doesn’t serve a story that moves and involves us, and if above all it doesn’t help us to grasp some larger imaginative vision, then it’s just a trick, a gimmick.” But while I agree that the prequels falter on the first point they still manage the latter two, at least for me. Which I guess puts me in the role of Artoo-Detoo, who rolls onscreen at that point to tell Hamill to give it a rest.

“The Star Wars saga will continue,” concludes Hammer. “In the largest sense, it can never end, because imagination has no end.” Okay, Schickel, you’re starting to repeat yourself. Otherwise you did a hell of a number on my younger self. Good job.


In late 1983, two Star Wars documentaries aired within a few weeks of each other. The first was Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi, hosted by Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams. But I couldn’t find a complete copy of that one on YouTube and thus had to skip it for this marathon. So I’ll stick with the second and far superior From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga.

Like the two earlier specials, From Star Wars to Jedi is narrated by Mark Hamill and written by Richard Schickel. And again, we see plenty of on-set footage of the latest movie (in this case Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi), primarily filming Jabba’s lair (with brief input from Jabba’s puppetters) and the Ewok village.

But compared to the two earlier TV specials, this one doesn’t gush about the wonder of cinema, or show any clips from older films in order to explain and justify the tradition it’s working in. Instead, Star Wars is now firmly established as an end in itself, as Lucas gives one of his first and most extensive platforms to explain his theories of what the overall Star Wars saga is all about. The film regularly cuts to Lucas sitting in front of a leafy plant somewhere, explaining his thoughts and ideas as well as his disappointment at things that didn’t live up to his aspirations due to technical limitations. “In his mind,” says the narration, “George Lucas was jumping to hyperspace long before he visualized the process for the rest of us.” Lucas himself also asserted to my younger self the integrity that artists must have when he said that “that’s the way it should be, and if the public can’t deal with it, then what can I do it? … The film is about human frailties, it’s not about monsters.”

While I only have dim childhood memories of the two previous documentaries, I was able to record From Star Wars to Jedi off cable TV on VHS and subsequently rewatched it many, many times while developing my own filmmaking. During those repeat viewings I was fascinated to hear Lucas describe the development process of Star Wars, to see abandoned concepts (this must be where the human-Jabba footage from the original Star Wars was first shown publicly), and to hear Hamill’s narration explain the themes and mythology behind Star Wars. So I’m always baffled to encounter those who loved the Star Wars movies as much as I did but whose love never drove them to explore what made them tick.

Lucas talks about his attempts to explore how fast-paced a movie can be before it becomes incomprehensible, which ties in interestingly with his reaction to the rough cut of the “earlier” Episode I. He then adds that success has made his personal life more intense, which is a sadder statement when you consider that the time and energy he devoted to the Star Wars trilogy led to him becoming divorced.

This docu-marathon began with an older Lucas describing how films are the embodiments of their creators. By contrast, From Star Wars to Jedi has a final post-credit shot of Lucas getting on a plane and waving goodbye. “As attractive as the Star Wars world is, sooner or later you have to leave home and go on to some other place.”

And so the saga continues, for others to tend.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lessons learned in 2014

"[E]very time somebody opens their mouth they have an opportunity to do one of two things—connect or divide. Some people inherently divide, and some people inherently connect. Connecting is the most important thing, and actually an easy thing to do. ... I’m shocked that there are so many people that live to divide."
-Joss Whedon, 2013

"I want to spend time doing films and exploring ideas, with the opportunity to fail - which you don't have in the professional film business. You've got to win every single time, and it's very difficult because you end up making very safe movies: you know this works, so you do it. ... I want to try making some films that I'm not really sure will work or not."
-George Lucas, 1981

* * *

At the end of 2013 I wrote what I thought was one of my best posts to this blog. Then, some weeks later, I discovered that it had only gotten about a dozen hits (it’s had more since then) … and that the new blog entry I was about to post covered very similar ground.

So I took it as a sign that maybe this blog had reached its natural end. It had begun as an online tie-in to my then-new indie film Saberfrog, and I also used it to discuss topics that I felt were related to the movie. By 2014 the movie had been out for a while, and I figured it was time to move on.

Saberfrog still pops up anew from time to time – opportunities still arise to sell some additional copies to interested viewers. But in 2014, my focus has switched to an older project that I am now remastering – a Super-8 stop-motion animated sword-and-sorcery film that took me two years to make as a teenager, and that had languished forgotten for decades.

I spent much of 2014 reconstructing this old project – transcribing my old handwritten script into Celtx, getting the Super-8 footage digitally transferred, making a temporary soundtrack to sync with the rediscovered visuals.

Rediscovering this project has been an emotional experience. Whereas Saberfrog was the angst-ridden tale of an adult trying to get his life back in order, this older project was the more innocent work of a teenager who had his whole life ahead of him, and was absolutely confident of his purpose in life.

I felt that reviving this older project would be a way of reconnecting with my less jaded self, who believed wholeheartedly in a life of filmmaking, before adulthood intervened. It was an opportunity to set aside the cynicism I’d developed in recent years, and return to the joy and optimism and positivity that originally fueled my passion as a young filmmaker. I also set up a crowdfunding campaign with a friend of mine, after doing as much research as I could on the brave new world of social media and online fundraising.

Unfortunately, both I and my crowdfunding partner ended up going through major job changes at the time, and I was therefore unable to devote the necessary time and energy to promotion. Prioritizing my new day job was a major reason why I failed to commit more passionately to the campaign.

But it was not the only reason. Even after all the groundwork I’d done, I found myself extremely hesitant to promote the project on the Internet, even though I knew (from telling strangers about it in person) that this was a project that would probably interest people. I had to think hard about why I now had such cold feet.

I realized that – for the first time in my many years, off and on, as a filmmaker – I was now afraid of the audience. That fear was holding me back, and I needed to overcome it once and for all.

* * *

Like many teenagers, I was a bit of a misfit and an introvert. But I loved movies, and I loved sci-fi and fantasy. And it seemed like those things came from a world that was somehow better – a world of artists and thinkers, a smarter and more tolerant community than the “mundane” world of regular people who weren’t fans.

When I first became an aspiring filmmaker, it was a time when people loved movies, and admired and respected filmmakers. Creating an entire world from one’s own imagination, and sharing that personal vision with an audience, was a celebrated achievement. Filmmakers were praised for pursuing their own visions, rather than allowing focus groups and studio conservatism to tell them what they could and couldn’t do.

Today is actually not a bad era for movies. Mainstream Hollywood has fully embraced the once-marginalized world of geek culture, creating ambitious and interconnected stories. Independent films continue to explore brave new territory. VOD has made acclaimed, limited-release films available even to people without specialty theaters in their neighborhoods. And even if none of that were true, DVDs and Blu-rays and VOD continue to make the riches of the past as available as those of the present.

And yet, nowadays I often sense a deep hatred and resentment of movies and the people who make them.

When people badmouth certain films and filmmakers – as well as other storytellers working in TV, literature, or comics – they do it with such a swell of pride, as if the highest demonstration of intellect was to be unmoved by a creative work.

That is not an attitude I’ve ever identified with. Even as a kid, I always thought that seeking out and appreciating the good work was more important than dwelling on lesser work.

And the people who made the good work were my heroes and role models. I always respected people who did the work more than I respected people who could only find fault with the work of others.

Has Internet culture turned this value system upside down? Is it now the social role of artists and storytellers to simply be punching bags for people whose self-esteem needs a boost?

I hope not. Especially when promoting this new (old) project, I want to believe that audiences are open and accepting, that they will give a movie the benefit of the doubt instead of deciding in advance that it sucks.

* * *

I guess I’ve always seen sci-fi/fantasy movies as a more expensive type of experimental film. Movies like Star Wars and Tron and The Dark Crystal seemed like someone’s personal, creative vision – passion projects that a studio was somehow convinced to pay for.

When I was real little – we’re talking late 70s / early 80s – the line between mainstream and experimental was a lot blurrier. Underground filmmakers did animation for Sesame Street. Oddball short films were regularly shown to the public, projected on 16mm in schools and libraries, or used as filler between movies on cable. Stand-alone animated specials would show up randomly in prime time. UHF stations and fledgling cable networks showed any obscure movie or foreign TV show they could get their hands on cheap.

That great churn of the weird and wild and unexpected had just as much impact on my interest in filmmaking as the more universally recognized hits like Star Wars. You would see these strange things as a kid, not knowing where they came from or who made them or why they were being shown. Maybe years later, you could finally look them up on the Internet or ask someone else if they knew what the title was. But the stuff you remembered less well would always be out of reach, and probably not easily available on video even if you could identify it.

Maybe a part of me is still wedded to that time when movies were mysterious and magical, when seeing a movie was an ephemeral privilege. Perhaps the permanence of home video was what enabled the modern nerd instinct to collect and categorize and rationalize. Like a villainous computer in an old Star Trek episode, we now try to explain away anything strange or unexpected as simply incorrect or impractical.

I guess I still crave the experience of seeing a movie I don’t know that much about, in a dedicated cultural venue, in the company of actual humans who shared my curiosity enough to go see it too. You don’t get that by watching a movie at home on VOD. Even with video stores you had to go somewhere, browse the shelves, and talk to the weirdo behind the counter.

Roger Ebert once pointed out that Starbucks offers not just coffee, but also a trip away from the office. He meant this as an analogy to argue that Netflix and video on demand would not supplant the experience of going to video stores. But clearly he was wrong – a lot of people are happy to watch movies at home, or on portable devices, without having to go someplace or interact with other people.

Is that antisocial attitude now manifesting itself in the tone of Internet culture?

* * *

In the last few years I’ve been to a fair number of independent filmmaker conferences, and read many articles about indie filmmaking, in an attempt to keep up with a changing industry.

One of the major messages that keeps coming up is that filmmakers need to be marketers and self-promoters. The days of a Kubrick or Kurosawa being allowed to concentrate simply on creating his art, and let distributors and critics do the work of convincing people to go see the finished product, are over. With the decline of brick-and-mortar cultural hubs (not just video stores, but also record stores and bookstores), it’s become more important for the artists themselves to maintain an online presence. You need to be on social media. You need to engage with your audience in a personal way.

But to me, interacting with strangers on the Internet is a daunting prospect. The Internet is where people seem to drop all real-world pretense of civility and politeness, and vent their frustrations and hostility at length. And major media outlets feed this climate with their clickbait headlines, generally phrased in terms of disdain and rejection: Why You Shouldn’t Watch This Movie, Why You Should Stop Watching This Show, Why This or That Person is a Hack or a Jackass.

Perhaps it’s mainly the big Hollywood productions and franchises that generate that kind of hostility, while smaller independent production are relatively safe. But should artists really stay small – never leaving the garret or the garage – to be safe from criticism? Is that really how we should think? Are we not supposed to be bold and strive?

* * *

The original Star Wars was one of the films that inspired me to become a filmmaker. I certainly enjoyed watching it as a kid, but when I was old enough to read accounts of how blown away people were in 1977 – by the opening shot, by the cantina scene, by the jump to hyperspace, by Han’s heroic return at the end – I thought, I want to do that. I want to make something that amazes people. Not by making a Star Wars fan film, but by learning the craft well enough to come up with something of my own that would have a similar effect.

Is that still a realistic goal today, when so many people seem to hate movies before they even come out? Or does it only seem that way on the Internet?

* * *

These thoughts have led me to at least one positive lesson. I never thought of myself as particularly social or outgoing or extroverted. But Internet culture has forced me to realize how comparatively well I thrive in real-world situations. When I introduce myself to strangers, I hear myself speak with much more charm and confidence than I ever feel when I’m brooding in isolation, staring at a computer screen, reading hostile text written by trolls.

This revelation has motivated me to go to the movies more often than I’d been doing lately, and to attend social and cultural events even when I’m not quite in the mood. The Internet might often seem like a race to the bottom, but the real world is a place where skill, accomplishment, and distinctiveness are still somewhat valued. And realizing this has helped me to reconnect with humanity in a way that the Internet – seemingly designed to connect people – has not.

When you go to a movie, you have to leave the house. You are watching, on a big screen, something that took a lot of effort and expertise to complete.

And more often than not, it tells a story of a goal-driven person who accomplishes something difficult.

(Maybe that's why Internet trolls hate movies.)

So that refuels me as an audience member. But what about as a filmmaker? In the digital age, what kind of film can you still reasonably aspire to make, that has enough of a sympathetic audience to make it worthwhile?

* * *

I think a mistake I’ve made in this ol’ life is looking mainly to the big successes for inspiration. I was a precocious filmmaker at an early age, and I went to one of the most celebrated film schools. So I’ve allowed myself to believe that I was destined for big things, and that if I didn’t achieve that then I was not successful.

But there are other frames of reference, and other models of success. Completing projects is success, regardless of their scale or profile. Doing what makes you happy, no matter what other people think, is success.

You can make something very commercial, and be dependent on the approval of a large number of strangers … or something low-budget enough that you don’t need everyone’s approval.

The purpose of being an independent artist is not to keep up with the Joneses, or to bow to peer pressure, or to try to appease audiences who don’t get it. The purpose of being an independent artist is to be true to yourself, to be unique and different, and to have faith that there are audiences who do get it.

And if I do better in real-world situations than I do online … well, then I should tell more people in the real world about my work, and show it to them.

The audience is however many people you can get to be interested, in whatever walk of life, online or in reality, whether it’s 50,000 or 500 or 15.

Just make your art, and be happy.

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.