Conventional wisdom tells us that Hollywood generally produces crass and redundant products, leaving truly independent artists to tell their own stories outside the system. Yet as the decade defined by YouTube and its ilk draws to a close, twenty-first century creativity faces those very same threats. Earlier this year, I attended a talk delivered by television critic Virginia Heffernan, in which she urged young filmmakers to actively contribute to popular micro-genres of the viral video world and improve their quality. She cited two such micro-genres — neither of which, I imagine, would ever land a slot at the Sundance Film Festival: Salvia trip videos and dancing pregnant women. Personally, I can do without more plot-less documents of fleeting drug sessions and gyrating wombs, even if they were shot on the RED camera.
Heffernan’s advice, while well intentioned, suggests a misperception. Filmmakers should defy, not embrace, the tendency to make inferior works in the digital age. Still, her suggestion illuminates an awkward comprehension of cinema’s expansion to the online realm. The movies may evolve to reflect our technologically-oriented environment, but they can do so while avoiding the corrosion of aesthetic standards.
This year, a number of filmmakers contributed innovative new works to the history of the medium, taking advantage of the resources available online and with the grassroots support made possible by cheaper technologies. I am partial to “Sita Sings the Blues” and “Stingray Sam,” two remarkable productions that fit into this loosely defined camp, but it seems as though their successes — through digital distribution, naturally — owe much to the larger cultural forces at work over the past ten years.
As consumers, we are obsessed with the possibilities of the new: There was something bizarrely fascinating about Roger Friedman’s gleeful realization, when “Wolverine” leaked online a week before its theatrical release in May, that he could illegally download movies. (If he had managed to keep the revelation to himself rather than spilling the beans to his readers, he probably could have kept his job as a columnist for Fox.) Friedman was behind the curve on movie piracy, but his comically unbridled sense of excitement (“Later tonight I may finally catch up with Paul Rudd in ‘I Love You Man.’ It’s so much easier than going out in the rain!”) struck me as symbolic of the general public’s surge of interest in taking control of its entertainment options.
Our collective desire to conjure the stories we want when we want them has made us easy commercial targets (hence the popularity of Hulu, Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature and other streaming services) but it also paves the way for cinematic innovation. Nina Paley distributed “Sita Sings the Blues” online under a creative commons license, building a far greater audience out of people who stumbled onto the film than she would have if it merely played at a few theaters around the country. Cory McAbee produced “Stingray Sam” as an episodic experience designed for the small screen. These movies don’t necessitate online viewing, but they are certainly enabled by that possibility.
Unlike, say, “Wolverine,” “Sita” and “Stingray” feature highly experimental content, including trippy animation and genre pastiche. “Sita” is an animated version of the ancient Indian text Ramayana, paired with 1920s jazz music and Paley’s own experiences going through a divorce. “Stingray” stars McAbee as a space explorer drifting through surrealist black-and-white landscapes while singing the strangest tall tales this side of Douglas Adams. By Hollywood standards, both movies are straight-up avant garde.
At the same time, they are creatures of modern times, and thus highly accessible. Audiences have grown comfortable with ambitious D.I.Y. productions, perhaps because mainstream storytelling has become immersed in the language of emerging technologies. Consider “Up in the Air,” a movie widely considered to contain a strong current of emotional legitimacy. Corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) faces a career crisis when the implementation of video conferencing technology threatens his life on the road. Bingham forms a traveling fling with a fellow workaholic, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), with whom he exchanges — in an undeniably mushy sequence — a series of erotic text messages. In short, a lot of the movie’s drama involves people staring at screens.
Much as Ryan Bingham’s power grows tenuous in the face of more convenient new media options, so too have newer audience interests begun to impact the commercial world. Here, “Paranormal Activity” looms large. In an oft-repeated triumph this fall, the ultra-low budget ghost movie briefly toppled “Saw VI” at the box office. Moviegoers were apparently more interested in a cheap, surveillance-cam spookfest than a comparatively sleek studio franchise.
The saga of “Paranormal Activity” illustrates the subtle cultural changes that have allowed new kinds of stories to be told. In “We Live in Public,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, Ondi Timoner tracks Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris’s uncanny commitment to filming every hour of his life for a mass online audience in the late 1990s. Harris anticipated the appeal of such a voyeuristic concept even before “The Blair Witch Project,” which in turn anticipated “Paranormal Activity.”
The media’s coverage of the “Paranormal” phenomenon emphasizes its “Demand It” model, which gave potential audiences the ability to mobilize en masse to get the movie delivered to a local theater. This part of the story provides the “how,” but not the “why,” responsible for the “Paranormal” appeal. Viewers have accepted the lingua franca of new media as a narrative device on par with classical narrative filmmaking. Some people consider “Paranormal” dismissible as a glorified YouTube stunt; maybe so, but that just means Peli took Heffernan up on her micro-genre challenge without even realizing it.
Which, of course, could be a problem. Convinced that the “Paranormal” success means cheap movies sell, Paramount (which distributed the film) has opened a “micro-division” exclusively for low budget productions. It’s safe to say that salvia trip videos won’t come soon to a theater near you, but you never know.
However, filmmakers searching for new storytelling tactics should not fret. If “Paranormal” gives Hollywood one possible trajectory for the future, “Sita” and “Stingray” provide a more optimistic glimpse of cinema’s future as an art form. And they’re not alone. Last month, Houston-based first-time director Chance McClain posted a 60-minute fan-made prequel to Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog,” unequivocally raising the bar for fan-made productions. “Great World of Sound” director Craig Zobel and his “Homestar Runner” co-creator Matt Chapman recently began posting their sci-fi comedy “Ron Planet” online as a comic strip, which serves a secondary function as the storyboards for a feature-length production that the duo hope to produce out of the material. These projects rely less on financial incentives than a sheer desire on the part of the artists to share their enthusiasm with the rest of the world. Few would argue that salvia trip videos serve a similar need — for now, at least.