The dying aesthetic of Indie Film

Here’s a quote from Lance Weiler, via the NYT where MANOHLA DARGIS has been doing a decent job of covering US indie film….

These days “everyone is his or her own media company,” Mr. Weiler wrote in Filmmaker Magazine. “With the push of a button they can publish, shoot or record and moments later it can be online for the world to see.” This audience, in other words, has its own D.I.Y. ethos, and sometimes can be part of a movie’s creative process.

This is probably true, but what’s amazing to me is that lower budget filmmakers seem to want to copy this D.I.Y. aesthetic rather than give the audience something that they can’t get at home.  I’ve railed against that psuedo-realist approach of handheld, crappy looking films before, but there is some sort of established thinking that you need this approach if you’re going to have street cred, not only with audiences, but with what’s left of the indie film community.

AVATAR, whether you like it or not, is giving audiences something that they cannot get at home.  Sure, it’s the most expensive movie ever made, but you do not need a billion dollars to give audiences something they can’t get at home.  I’m not talking about 3-D.

What a filmmaker has that your average youtuber doesn’t is cinematic language.

There’s a craft to filmmaking and there’s an art to filmmaking, and both of them are beyond the realms of what an amateur at home can pull off.

Filmmakers have some tools that don’t come with the Flip Video camera.  Tripods, dollies, lighting, production design – these things are not to be ignored or underestimated.  These things are the tools of the trade.  You don’t have to have an Avatar-sized budget to afford a tripod or even a dolly.  We used to use wheelchairs for dollies and, while they were limited, they worked pretty well.  Sam Raimi designed his own steadicam by tying a camera to a long two-by-four.  You can find plans to build your own dolly for cheap on the internet.   It’s not zero cost, but it’s not that expensive either.

There’s also something called a “cheat” which doesn’t come into the world of reality-television filmmaking.  Using cheats is what makes films so much fun.  They are things like sticking up a palm tree and pretending you’re shooting in Miami, but also things like having an actor stand on an applebox to make them seem taller.  There’s a thousand cheats in a good film, and you don’t even notice them.  It’s part of the illusion of film.

Then there’s the art of filmmaking.  This is the act of using all those tools of the craft to create something special.  Contrary to the popular anti-education, FoxNews mentality, some of this can and should be taught.  Education is another way to separate yourself from the layman’s crowd.  What can’t be taught comes from watching and thinking about films and imagining what films can be.

Novelists have always had to compete with everyone who knows how to write, but the brilliant novelists do things with words that most of us can’t.

The seminal US indie films of the 80’s, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, POISON, etc.  They all had something that wasn’t in cinema then or now: a unique style and a unique point of view.  I’ve only watched clips of the films coming out of Sundance this year, but most of them seem to be either hand-held or in the unambitious style of Hollywood.   How are they going to distinguish themselves from anything else?

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Happy Endings…

Endings are always tough in movies.  When I try to think of the perfect ending for a film, I always think of ROBOCOP, when Dick gets fired, allowing Robocop to shoot the hell out of him.  And if that’s not enough, the CEO calls after him, “What’s your name, son.”  And Robocop, who’s spent the whole movie trying to figure out who he was, calls back, “Murphy”.  It all just comes out of nowhere, but it’s been there all along.  And, most importantly, it leaves you with this shot of adrenaline as you’re ready to leave the theater.  It’s great.

I can’t think of a recent film that’s left me with that kind of satisfaction, even if I’ve seen some good films.   Sure, Robocop has a happy ending (well, Murphy’s family’s still gone.  He’s still a robot), but even a nice dark ending can leave you with satisfaction if it’s done well.

I’m not sure why endings are so hard, but they seem to be difficult for novelists too.  Novels are usually not as stuck to plot as a film is, so they can sort of just meander on to their endings, maybe have the narrator contemplate what happened, and it’s fine.  For a film, where the plot and the time are so crucial, that ending really has to rise to the occasion.  But it almost never does.

As I’ve said, I’m working on an action film now, and I think I finally figured out the ending.  It’s a pretty good ending, but it’s not up there yet.  It doesn’t have that moment you remember.   Hopefully, as I write it, it’ll come to life and I’ll have some more ideas for it.

It’s different for me, too, as I’ve mostly written artier films which have more ambiguous endings or endings that don’t end every story and theme that came before it.  I got a lot of criticism about the ending of CHASING SLEEP because it didn’t answer every question, but I thought it was pretty clear that it wasn’t meant to.   The ambiguity was supposed to leave you questioning your own feelings about the story and your sympathies to the character.  I’ve had people who’ve seen the film explain it back to me better than I’ve ever explained it, so I know that it works if you let it.  It’s true, it doesn’t deliver that feeling of satisfaction that I’m talking about here.

Maybe the reasons that so many endings seem unsatisfactory are because writers are more comfortable asking questions than answering them.   Or maybe it’s because they are lazy.

Piracy and cost

I haven’t been posting about the business side of film, but there was an article about apps for the iphone (or tablet) that got me thinking.

Before the music business was crushed by piracy, computer software was pirated on a regular basis.  In fact, software has always been pirated.  It’s an industry that grew up while being pirated.  I never bought Microsoft Word in my life, and I’ve used it since 1990, but Microsoft did pretty well in the 90’s.

Apps have come along and nobody appears to be stealing them.  I have no idea how difficult or easy it is to do, but the fact is that people are paying for them.  In my mind, there is really only one reason for that: they are cheap.  They cost, generally, 99 cents.  It’s not worth it to pirate.  Even the priciest ones are about five bucks.

Microsoft Word has always been hugely expensive, and it never made sense to me.  It’s always cost more than 150 dollars.  I would have gladly paid fifty for it.  If they had been charging fifty, more people would have paid for it and it could have been cheaper.  I’m sure they did the math and figured that they made more with the 150 dollar sale than with more 50 dollar shares, but the fact is that it was pirated because it cost too much.

Itunes charges 99 cents for music and, amazingly, people are buying music again.  This, after years of getting it for free.  It’s still available for free, but it’s slightly easier to do it legally, and 99 cents seems like a fair price to keep the musicians alive.  And you’re not breaking the law, which always feels nice.

Films haven’t figured out their price point yet.  Rather than go for the cheap seats, they’re trying to squeeze extra money out of us by going 3-D.  It’s true that there is a value for a film that may be diminished by charging less for it.  But getting it for free, and it’s fairly easy to get a movie for free, devalues it 100%.  Why not make films more affordable?  Surely a DVD doesn’t have to cost 15 bucks.  Downloading legally has to compete with illegal, but legal downloading can compete.

But even without this, look at the huge software industry which manages to survive even with piracy and still has plenty of high-priced software.  Piracy of films has been around for a long time, at least since VHS ruined the sales of E.T. in England before it came out there.    It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as, say, Tower Records going out of business.  That’s a bigger problem with much tougher solutions.

Magic and the shot

Anyone can point a camera at an actor and tell them to talk. Learning how to get the camera to talk is something else. It’s something that a lot of directors don’t think is important and some do think it’s important but don’t do it well. Some think they do it well and don’t.

Part of the fun of watching a film is that moment when you think, “how did they do that?”. How did they get that shot? It’s just as much fun for filmmakers to figure out how to get those shots. In fact, crews love the challenge, they love the coordination of a tough shot, lighting cues, dolly moves, a piece of set that has to be pulled away during the shot. Audiences love them because the illusion is working. And they can see and appreciate that someone put some thought into what they were doing, someone knows what they’re doing, someone is guiding them through the story in a way that they don’t really understand.

Like I said, anyone can point a camera at someone. Audiences want to see things that they don’t think they could do themselves. How often have you heard, when coming out of a bad movie, “I could made a better movie”? The opposite is true of a good movie.

A simple dialog scene, done in one take, with the actors’ movements choreographed, and the focus pulls rehearsed and the dolly moves worked out, is much more difficult to get than shooting an actor standing there saying his lines. It’s also more interesting. It’s more interesting to shoot, and to watch.

Films are made of shots. Shots need to be imagined. A shot always says something, so, as a director, you’re trying to get it to say what you want. It’s not just being clever, although that’s part of it.

It’s all illusion and one of the most common words on a set is ‘cheat’. Everything is a cheat. And that’s the fun of it: figuring out how you’re going to turn this stuff that you dreamed up into something real, so that it can become someone else’s dream too. Get the shot. No one said it would be easy.

My tastes and stuff I hate

I write a lot of posts that I don’t post because I don’t want to be too negative about other people’s films or other people in general.  It’s hard enough to get a movie made and just as hard to get it out there.  Nobody needs my asshole opinion chipping away at their success.  More power to them.  People like different films and that’s how it should be.

There’s a certain film out there right now that I HATED.  I usually walk away from a film disappointed, but this film really pissed me off.  It’s so bad, in its filmmaking, in what it says, in every aspect.  It’s probably going to get nominated for an Oscar, and it’s making plenty of money, so that shows what I know.  Most of my friends, who don’t work in film, like it.  Trying to convince them how awful it was, when they enjoyed it so much, seems like a waste of time.  Why should I take away any enjoyment they had from this crappy movie?  Or try to make them feel stupid for liking such crap?

So this blandness that gets passed off as quality breaks my heart a little because people think it’s good, when it’s really, really bad.  But people have different expectations of films.  I spend most of my waking hours thinking about films in one way or another.  Most people don’t do that.   I wish all films were better.  I wish people’s expectations were higher.   I wish people were a little more educated in their film viewing.

But I don’t wish that everyone had the same tastes as me.

Indie Rock and Indie Film

With Sundance coming up, I was thinking about the similarities between Indie Rock and Indie Film.  Some of this dated, but I was just thinking about the connections.

Think about the garage band quality of a lot of Indie Film.  Think about how it’s mostly white, 20-somethings musing about their lives and relationships.  Are these bands or films working in the genre of indie, and limiting themselves because of that?

Think about the relationship between indie bands and the big labels, accusations of selling out, and how that jibes with indie filmmakers when they make bigger studio movies.  Are they selling out?  Did they ever have any artistic interests?  Does better production value mean losing some heart?

How did the branding of indie rock help to kill it?  Or with indie film?  Once that brand is established, how can the new indie film or music hope to break through?   Or different indie film or music?  Or different cultural film or music?   Is indie a brand, or a genre, or really a way to differentiate from corporations?

How sick are you of hearing indie guitar bands?  How sick of you of quirky character dramas full of self-centered importance?

Indie Rock might have started out with indie lables, but, like indie film, many of them were consumed by the studios.  More recently, the big labels, like the film studios, have mostly gotten out of the indie business all together, deciding it wasn’t worth their time.  You can find some great new indie bands out there, doing all sorts of different stuff.  Indie film?  There’s some of it around, but it’s hard to find outside of that garage band aesthetic.

Sex scenes

There’s certain things that films do really well and the number one thing is sex.  In fact, it’s so good that there’s an entire industry dedicated to doing just sex films.  There’s not an industry dedicated to, I don’t know, eating scenes or arguing scenes or even action scenes (maybe video games qualifies for that).

Good film sex is hard to beat.  Sure, real sex is better, usually, but film sex is clean and even when there’s orgasm, you never have one (unless you’re beating off in the theater), so it’s all sizzle and no steak.  It’s always going to leave you wanting more, and what better feeling can you have as an audience member.

It’s easy to film a cliche sex scene.   You know how they go, the kiss gets a little more passionate.  The music turns up.  Breathing gets heavy.  Lights get dim.  Girl rolls on top in a passion play, but really so we can get a good shot of her tits.  Backs arch.  Hands clench sheets.  It’s always, as they used to say in Penthouse Forum, a “simultaneous orgasm”.   The actors are beautiful.  The cameraman makes them look good.  You can’t fuck this stuff up.

Except, you would think there’d be a little more variety in the sex scenes we’re served.  I’m not talking about different positions, although that helps.  I know that the first time a man and woman have sex, they’re not going to reinvent the wheel.  But, there’s a lot of talk about these scenes before they’re shot.  Actors and actresses want to know exactly what to do.  They’re excited  about it, usually.  Rules are set with the crew about who’s allowed to watch.  What body parts they show is usually discussed.   So, with all that talk, you’d think that they would come up with something a little better than that scene I was talking about.

Obviously, there’s some puritanism going on.  Women don’t want to be exploited, and who can blame them.  Men don’t get to show anything except their ass.  There’s a fine line between acting sex and having sex, and actors have their own feelings about how far they want to cross that line.

And there’s the audience too.  I can’t stand people who say they don’t want to see sex in their films (or bad language).   Or people who say that sex was gratuitous, as if sex wasn’t an important part of the character’s lives.   I’ve heard, or read, people say that a film was pretty good, except all that sex.  These people must live in Disney World.

It’s funny too, when a filmmaker decides to make his sex film, or when you see a film about sex how awkward this can be.  The first mistake to watch out for is the over-serious sex movie.  I always get turned off by films without humor, and I like to have fun with whoever I’m in bed with, so these movies always strike me as silly.  Then there’s the variety sex movie, where each sex scene gets it own sequence and theme.  Like the food sex scene and the leather sex scene or the outside sex scene.  Anyway, films that are all about sex are generally uninteresting unless you really have something interesting to say about it, like Catherine Breillat.

It’s much more interesting to have your sex scenes mixed up in your romantic films.  Films like Annie Hall and The Man Who Loved Women have easy, meaningful sex scenes.  The orgasms are kept mostly off screen, but you still know what’s going on.  They’re treated in an adult way and they’re still fun.

But those films were from the 70’s and, while the French are still laid back about these things (and have better sex scenes), America has regressed to the point where a sex scene is a political act.  All the more reason for it to be there, and for it to be good.

Shots, coverage and budget

I was watching MEN IN WAR last night, Anthony Mann’s gritty (at the time) foot-soldier movie. It’s a great film, although the first 30 minutes are probably the best, and there are some typically excellent sequences from Mann, one of my favorite directors.

I’ve seen the film a few times before, but last night I noticed how efficient it all was. It’s set in Korea, but it was shot in Griffith Park in LA. Apparently, they didn’t have any army cooperation, so there’s a couple jeeps in it and some guns and that’s it. And, most interesting to me, there are not that many shots in it.

I’m not sure how a lot of this would play out in present day cinema. Shooting in Griffith Park is still pretty standard, but people have a more worldly view of Korea now. A war movie could probably get away without the tanks, but I’m pretty sure that audiences these days expect bigger artillery in their war films. I’m not sure that a film with less shots works with audiences these days. Watching MEN IN WAR last night, I could imagine the same film, with the same action, but covered more so that the director could keep cutting. Today, that would be the standard, though I don’t think it would make a better film.

The thing is, this was how they kept budgets low in those days. They shot less film. They had shorter schedules, usually under 18 days. They shot on the studio lot. This is why Anthony Mann and the great directors got the big bucks: because they could make this work.

Filmmakers always have to work on a budget, and there is usually a choice that has to be made between coverage – ie. the number of shots that cover a scene – and quality of those shots.  The idea is that if you take the time to get a shot perfect – with lighting, camera movement, performance, everything – the less time you have to get more shots.  Or you can shoot quickly – maybe using available light, or not worrying that the dolly looks bumpy – and this gives you time to get more shots and, therefore, more options in the editing room.  Producers always want coverage because it gives you more options in the editing room, but there’s something to be said for a director who has the vision and preparation to cut some of those options out before shooting them, and can therefore make what he has look better.

Watch an Aldomovar film or a Woody Allen and you can see you are in experienced hands, there’s no excessive coverage and the quality is top notch.  You can see in, say, MAGNOLIA, where the director, PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON has decided that he needs a lot of shots, moving quickly and had to sacrifice some of the quality of the shots.  Obviously, a bigger budget gives you more time to get more shots, done better.  David Fincher films look great and seemingly have plenty of coverage, but they cost a shitload and take months to shoot.   On the other extreme, look at something like CLERKS, which had so little money that they didn’t have a lot of shots, and the ones they had looked like shit.

But CLERKS worked with audiences and it was audience perception what I was thinking about when I watching the dated quality of MEN IN WAR.  Audiences these days are accustomed to films that cut from shot to shot constantly, sometimes arbitrarily and unnecessarily, because that’s what they are given.

Budgets are getting smaller, so filmmakers (and audiences) will have to make do with less and, inevitably, that will mean films that don’t look so polished, and/or don’t have as many shots and may seem a little slower paced than films did a few years ago.   It seems pretty clear to me that the trend is to get a lot of shots and not worry so much about the quality.  I’m interested to see how audiences react to films that take the quality approach, and maybe sacrifice a little of their excessive pacing.  A great director knows how the grab an audience whichever approach they take.

Maid’s Room Blog

I’m setting up the blog for Maid’s Room.  I’m not promising too much now, but it’s always tough to start these things.  I have a lot to put up and talk about, but because of the nature of how a film is put together, I’m limited to what I can say.

I have done a great deal of work on preparing for it, so I can put some of that stuff up.  Here’s the link…

http://maidsroom.wordpress.com