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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