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First Person: Matt Dentler on Indie Film for the MySpace/YouTube/iPod Generation

First Person: Matt Dentler on Indie Film for the MySpace/YouTube/iPod Generation

Time Magazine wasn’t just phoning it in when they decided to name “You” as their “Person of the Year” for 2006. We live in a media era where everything is “My” this, “You” that, and “i” something, where a simple “send” or “publish” button could reach millions. And, faster than you can say “thanks for the add,” art has begun to fall in sync with this brand-new world. The inter-connectivity of artists from around the globe has not only led to new ways of consuming art but also new ways for art to be made.

At the end of the day, when skeptical audiences want to figure out what a bunch of films “about nothing, starring nobodies” has to do with cultural significance… the new-media horizon is why. The films that comprise “The New Talkies: Generation DIY” series opening at the IFC Center this week are not just part of some exclusive movement of intellectual masturbation. That’s the beauty of them: Separately, each film is an original, passionate, and articulate examination of young bohemian America. “Mumblecore” is a myth, and the term has sort of taken on a life of its own. The one thing this term does address, however, is the fact the films lumped into it, are all about communication or a lack thereof. As a whole, these films speak volumes about what post-college or pre-marriage life means to an entire generation who were promised flying cars, and instead got reality TV, after the year 2000. And, around this time, a unique kind of American independent film began to emerge out of the late-1990s cacophony of Tarantino/Rodriguez rip-offs. We wanted something different.

It was also around the year 2000 when there was a distinct feeling at SXSW to be unafraid about programming, a time to start experimenting. An atmosphere permeated the film festival meetings, as if to say “take risks we didn’t take before.” So we did, and started programming some very small films from some very unknown filmmakers. And, honestly much to our surprise, they struck a chord. At the SXSW Film Festival (which I produce with a terrific staff), we began to take notice because our appetites were already whetted by the influence of local people/places such as Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, the world cinema at the Austin Film Society, and the experimental programming at the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival. From these influences and more, a small group of SXSW programmers (myself along with filmmakers Bryan Poyser, Dan Brown, and Spencer Parsons) consciously began selecting films that were a little different.

In 2005, something was different, but we didn’t know it at the time. People have asked why SXSW brought all these films together that year, as if the programmers did it on purpose. We simply programmed what we liked and the rest happened on its own. A new Andrew Bujalski film (“Mutual Appreciation“)? We loved it and premiered it. A film from our old pals the Duplass Brothers (“The Puffy Chair“)? Post-Sundance, it won a SXSW audience award. An odd, but highly enjoyable experimental narrative featuring hardly any dialogue (“Four Eyed Monsters“)? After Slamdance, it won a SXSW audience award. And then, some kid from Chicago (Joe Swanberg) made a no-budget movie on video (“Kissing on the Mouth“) where he and his friends get naked, talk, hang out, and explore intimacy? I think Joe’s fearlessness about exploring intimacy (and his charismatic nature) made it easy to make friends with some of these other filmmakers when they attended SXSW 2005. After that year, they stayed in touch, and a community of artists from around the nation, started to grow. Thanks to MySpace, e-mail, and blogs, that was very easy. Thanks to MySpace, e-mail, and blogs, more collaboration and films were made.

A graphic view of “the tangled web of interconnectedness,” in an image created by Aaron Hillis. Published with permission.

Quiet simply, the intimacy these filmmakers portrayed onscreen (a post-Y2K, post-9/11 “slacker” adulthood) felt all the more vital. This collective of filmmakers (which later included Aaron Katz, after meeting Swanberg during SXSW 2006), whether consciously or not, continued to make very personal films that had the immediacy and audacity of Web 2.0. Because, much like the vloggers or bloggers gaining momentum around the globe, these were films coming without filters and directly from the source. They were rough around the edges, but accessible and honest. Like blogs, some will take to “The New Talkies” films more than others. Most importantly, perhaps, is the realization that they are united by one theme: struggling for inter-personal communication during a telecommunications revolution. This subject would be examined most directly in Swanberg’s 2006 sophomore feature, “LOL,” also screening in the IFC series.

While the filmmakers featured in “The New Talkies: Generation DIY” may vary in their literacy of blogs, cell phones, and instant-messaging, their films reflect the modern adulthood of this landscape. I feel one of the reasons audiences around the world respond to “The New Talkies,” is due to the same intimate-audience relationship we have with blogs. I also feel audiences embrace this work, because no two “New Talkies” films are alike. Bujalski’s films are not the same as Swanberg’s films, and so on and so forth. Rather, the “New Talkies” films are bound – both physically and thematically – by a DIY spirit which is so rarely successful.

So far, these films have been successful, but like the blogosphere their community resembles, “success” is relative. Many of these filmmakers are already finishing their next projects, and the 2008 festival circuit will be canvassed with new Bujalski, Swanberg, and Duplass films. Fittingly, whether this trend of “New Talkies” can break out beyond discerning journalists, curious online observers, and enthusiastic festival audiences, is up to you.

Matt Dentler is the Producer of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference & Festival in Austin, set for March 7-15, 2008. He also writes a blog that is hosted by indieWIRE.

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