A Change Has Gotta Come
“(A)ll of painting, both past and present, the written word and music were slaves for natural form. They waited for their liberation in order to be able to speak their own language and no longer be dependent upon reason, sense, logic, philosophy, psychology or laws of causality…”. Peter Tscherkassky uses this quote from Kasimir Malevich in his essay ‘The Framework of Modernity’, and then makes mention of how the church was the arts’ greatest patron because the arts were needed to explain the church’s answers to life’s mysteries. It is my feeling that cinema is nearing a point where it needs a similar liberation.
In the United States, cinema’s natural form has been the commercial narrative film, as patronized by the Hollywood studios. As the means of production become cheaper and more readily available, individuals began to create their own cinema, though the end goal remained the same: narratives either meant to succeed in the commercial arena (the early exploitation films) or made with the hope for commercial success (the independent cinema of the last twenty-five years). Throughout the years a cadre of filmmakers have bucked this tendency and followed their whims, letting their conscious, unconscious, or the medium itself, be their guide. But they weren’t completely free. There were costs for film processing and development, a scarcity of equipment, limited exhibition possibilities. The filmmakers of today have more freedom than ever before. Yet they maintain a desire to press on with the tried-and-true, commercially-aimed narrative. For which they cannot be blamed. Tscherkassky states in the aforementioned essay that “any notion of “right” and “wrong” ways of making art are no longer tenable.” This is not true for the commercially-aimed cinema. “You can’t shoot in black and white. Nobody watches black and white movies.” “Your main character has to grow and overcome obstacles.” “Three acts. 90 minutes.” This means commercially-aimed cinema is not art, yet those trying to replicate it at the same time attempt to make “art”. We’ve driven past the dead end sign; in a few more blocks there will be nowhere else to go.
How do we move forward? Rather than pursue art in the guise of the conventional, set the moving image free. An image is an opportunity. To continue to craft imagery using the tenets the system has been selling for the last 100 years, since Birth of a Nation became the model, is to waste 24 opportunities every second. Film is dead, on a purely terminological standpoint. This goes for “movies” as well. They carry too much baggage. The only true requirements for cinema is that it’s an image projected on a screen, whether it be silver, television, computer, phone, or otherwise. It’s time to shed the accumulated sediment and start over from the beginning. In an article about Jose Luis Guerin’s Unas fotos en la ciudad de sylvia, Miguel Marias mentions how Guerin looked all the way back to Marey and Muybridge, which is a step I think would that benefit all filmmakers. We’ve been presented with a new set of tools. In some cases, it’s actually the original tool: a still camera. What is the best way to use them to create moving images? The old goal of making facsimiles of films and movies, with their “requirements” on how they should look, how they’re told, and what they contain is one that’s been hard to achieve using digital means. In studio projects shot digitally, the weight of the machine, of the process, overcomes the modus creatio. If you’re a (truly) independent filmmaker, it is near impossible to make a movie that walks like a movie and talks like a movie. No matter how close you come, there will always be something off about it. Something not quite right. It takes a lot of money to cover a project in enough wallpaper to disguise that fact. All the wonderful independent films shot in the ’50s and ‘60s, the cheap-o horror & sci-fi flicks, despite all their creative failings, feel like “films”. Making the same product today, using the equipment being used by the average DIY-er, doesn’t have the same charm, the same effect. Image quality does not make a film. Resolution does not make a film.
Nor does the audience make a film. The days of conventional distribution (theatrical followed by home video) are waning; it’ll solely be the territory of studio product. Creating a film with the hopes of getting it seem on the big screen by the masses is like buying an incredibly expensive lottery ticket. Submitting to film festivals is a slightly less expensive lottery ticket. Instead of trying to find an audience, let one find you. Put your film up on the internet, for free, and just get it seen. That’s the goal isn’t it? Would you rather spend your time trying to raise the necessary funds required to make your desired viewership believe they’re watching a “movie” or spend it on the creation of the next piece?
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently wrote about how the concept of workflow is changing production. Digital has made the process more amorphous. No longer are films made on the assembly line. They’re made out of a mass of clay. It used to be that choices and sacrifices had to be made. With things like HDR (which the purist in me finds utterly revolting), we can have our cake and eat it too. Instead of simply being satisfied with the fact we can meld different exposures, start asking what we can do with those images. What purpose does having both ends of the spectrum properly exposed serve? As filmmakers, It’s time to take a step back and really look at the tools we’re using. Allow ourselves to play with them. Test them. Just as Melies, the Lumieres, and the folks at Edison did with their new toys. Vishnevetsky is absolutely right in the comments of his piece when he laments at Robert Zemeckis’ reliance on shot/reverse shot in the midst of a sandbox that’s capable of anything. Explore these possibilities. Learn about their strengths and their weaknesses. Don’t think about what’s come before, this is new terrain. Throw off the shackles and let the moving image become what it’s always hoped to be: free.