We spend so much time trying to find a way to make it this indie film thing work, to get good work seen and appreciated, to have a sustainable working model that might afford one to have a reasonable middle-class existence creating quality work (is that too much to ask?), we sometimes forget about why we are doing it.
Today’s guest post is courtesy of Eric Mendelsohn, whose Sundance Best Director Award winning 3 BACKYARDS opened this weekend. What have we lost in our effort to survive and build together a better world for truly ambitious work?
Ted Hope was kind enough to ask me to write something for his site to accompany the release of my film, 3 BACKYARDS. I hesitated for a number of reasons. For one, I am uneasy about filmmakers spouting about the state of this or that in print. But more to the point, I actually think I was uncomfortable revealing a truthful representation of my relationship to independent film as well as to the type of conversation that regularly dominates film websites, film festival panels, etc. But, expanding upon and incorporating a piece I had written for the Sundance website, I decided that as long as I wrote honestly and strictly from my own perspective, there might be some validity in doing so.
There is only one part of the term ‘independent cinema’ that has ever held any interest for me. That is cinema. For years now, I believe the art form I love has been the subject of a highjacking of sorts; the conversation has been– reductively, tediously, mind-numbingly– about ‘indie-film’ when it should have been about film.
I didn’t grew up with the term “independent film.” When I was a kid, indiscriminately watching everything that appeared on TV via “The 4:30 Movie”, “The MIllion Dollar Movie” and “Chiller Theater”, there was no such thing as indie film as we now know it. In fact, like many people my age, I was illiterate about film in a way that isn’t even conceivable today. I happily watched pan-and-scan films and thought the camera movements were part of some coherent Hollywood style. When TV stations scrunched up the opening credits of epics to fit television screens, I thought it was a way of telling the audience that an elegant, important film was about to begin. I watched great films and schlock, 1940’s melodramas and foreign arthouse classics, all on the same tiny black and white TV, lying on the carpeting in my mother’s dining room.
And so, when I began to differentiate those films that had a hand guiding the visuals from those that just seemed to photograph whatever the actors said, I never discriminated against the film’s origins. I saw that guiding hand in films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Psycho, for sure, but I also saw it in The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom and the originalSuperman. I saw that the same guiding hand could organize and orchestrate images in the manner of classical music, like in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, or fracture and destroy them like in Nicholas Roeg’s Performance. Sometimes, I would wait for a film to come on television just because one shot excited me. The Little Foxes had only one moment that caught my attention as a kid—when Bette Davis, foregrounded and unable to move, refuses to help her dying husband, who is staggering through the background trying to get his medication. There is a single shot in a film called The Mummy’s Ghost, where the limping Egyptian creature carries a woman up a railroad trestle— in a long-shot, executed in terrible day-for-night—that I find existentially terrifying. I recall lying on my belly, stunned into silence, as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast opened itself up to me on the TV and it felt like an unreal portal had been revealed in the walls of the house.
I didn’t care or even know about the aura that surrounded moviemaking. Instead, I had fallen in love with the silent, persuasive visual strategy called directing.
And so, it was with a sense of real, personal disappointment that, when I began going to festivals with my first half-hour film, Through an Open Window, I found the conversation surrounding filmmaking had been reduced to coy, ‘aw shucks’ back-stories about how each film got made. The very first question I was asked after my film, Judy Berlin, premiered at Sundance— while the actors sat in the audience and just after the credit music had stopped- was about the budget. I wanted to talk about shots. I wanted to talk about Fellini, from whom I’d certainly stolen my own little heroine, played by a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco. I wanted to talk about those weird, sometimes-clunky, Frank Perry films that had partially influenced the film. I certainly wanted to talk about Jacques Demy whose films mythologized the coastal towns of France in a way that was to give me license to set my films in the towns of Long Island. But the era of the low-budget indie film had arrived and all anybody wanted to know about was how low the budget was, did I have a great backstory about the film getting made. Though I refused to answer the question in deference to the entire creative team in attendance, I have been guilty since then about playing into the feverish desire for bone-headed, scrappy-fimmaker stories and the vogue for cutesy “Look Ma, no budget!” anecdotes.
The only thing that rivals our society’s fetish with the enormous budget of Hollywood movies (when did we start to know or care about Monday morning grosses?) is the independent world’s fetishizing of our own low budgets (“made for twelve dollars in green stamps and recycled bottles!.”) The insidious danger in having diverted the conversation to either the back-story or the budget is that neither is good for film. The films I love of the Italian Neo-Realists and of the French New Wave were made under enormous financial constraints and deprivations, but that is not eventually where their greatness lies. Instead, it is their uncompromising artistic rigor and the startling inventiveness of their writing and directing that we still celebrate and are in awe of today. I don’t think that Ted Hope’s “The budget IS the aesthetic” was intended to focus us slavishly upon the budget nor the aura of cool that surrounds NOT having great sets, professional actors or neat-o equipment. It was intended to encourage filmmakers to utilize what was before them as the Neo-Realists had done with real locations and open air shooting. The budget is NOT the aesthetic. The only guiding principle in a work of art is internal to that work of art or artist.
The responsibility for the creation of better films is the filmmaker’s. Film is an art form as well as a commercial endeavor but its practitioners must be artists, craftspeople and creators first, before they are multi-platform, social media, soap-box, agenda-laden, guerilla this, viral that, trans media, new model, off-Hollywood, micro, mini, anythings. We have an obligation both to the filmmakers of the past in whose steps we follow and to the filmmakers of the future who are looking for guidance to redirect the conversation to one that is worthy of the art form.
I am a professor of film at Columbia University’s graduate film program. I mention this because it is there at Columbia, in the classrooms where student work is gone over shot by shot, in the edit suites where three frames are added and then one removed, and in the hallways where there is always a conversation going on about the plot of a current film that I see the most hopeful expression of where independent film, and film in general, might be going. It is, however, what isn’t being said in those rooms where I find the most meaning.
The conversation no longer seems to be enslaved to the kind of shrill, militant, indie-for-indie’s sake battle cry. My students are interested in shots, in edits, in stories, in characters. In short, they are interested in movies.
— Eric Mendelsohn