The Feature Film Isn’t Dying, But We Still Need to Save It

I wouldn't even be in the position to make a feature film today, if not for changes in technology.
A throwback to my first short. I wouldn’t even be in the position to make a feature film today, if not for changes in technology.

An interesting blog post appeared on Short of the Week yesterday, written by the site’s Founder Andrew S. Allen. The title: Fade to Black—Is the Feature Film Dying?

The main argument weighed by Andrew — who appropriately spends most of the post teasing out this question rather than attempting to hone on any one answer — seems to be that filmmakers in particular can’t ignore the question due to two prevailing arguments.

1. We’re in a Golden Age of TV.

Talent and money and eyeballs seem to be increasingly turning away from film — or rather, not returning to it, after the last several years of contraction in the industry — and towards television, in terms of long form moving image content. This is not a new observation but it continues to be an important one.

2. We’re still in a bit of a Wild West Age, in regards to how to deal with the proliferation and omnipresence of The Screen (as creators in particular).

Again, we all know this very well by now (or hopefully we do). But, as Andrew and other smart people have pointed out, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be thinking about how this affects the narratives we deliver (and that are delivered to us) via our many screens… daily, hourly, by the minute. It doesn’t mean we don’t also need to ponder how all this affects the creation of those narratives (and, consequently, our careers as well).

I enjoyed the post, agree with many of the points made, and, as a filmmaker who has put a very lot of thought into this question and others related — I think it’s the right thing to be asking, here and now.

But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think features are dying.

I think, like everything else — they’re changing. I think they’re changing in importance and effectiveness, if not in form. Perhaps they’re also facing diminished attention, on a percentage basis at least, and that’s what I want to talk about, for a moment.

While I don’t think features are dying, I do believe viewership data about how we watch and what we watch today has exposed some dangers, in terms of where we are and where we are headed.

The question, to me, isn’t whether or not features are dying. The novel didn’t die and neither did the stage play. But, sticking with these examples…sometimes, after reading a particularly great book or after watching a great play — I’m struck by melancholy. I wonder: why don’t I do this more often? Why do I continuously make the easier choice to turn on the TV?

To be honest, it’s the same with film, for me. Despite the fact that I love film — indie film in particular — I’m not a great supporter of it, at least in terms of contributing to box office results by putting my butt in a seat. This is also why I feel like I can talk about this, though, for better or worse.

I don’t go to the movies much because my lifestyle doesn’t afford the opportunity at present. I work to pay the bills and to enable me to pursue my passion.

There’s not much time and money left over, after these two things — at least right now, in my life — to stop everything and check out for two hours by sitting in the dark with some strangers and getting outside of my head, along with them, on the way to some magical place that is like our world but different.

And I think that’s where the melancholy comes from.

In his post, Andrew observes that going to see a feature used to be an event in our lives, whereas now it’s more often something we sometimes maybe sit down and do casually at home, via some VOD platform, when we aren’t watching a serial TV program.

He’s absolutely right. This has changed. He’s also right when he hints, indirectly, in another part of the post — that it’s mostly useless to fight this truth. Stories, narratives, are all around us, now. We can access them anywhere, anytime. And we do — often, as Andrew also notes, in smaller, more digestible forms. An episode of TV. A webisode online. I would take this further to include a Facebook post, a Tweet.

Here’s where, to me, the question of whether or not the feature film is dying becomes moot, and we are faced — from both the perspective of filmmakers and the audience — with an imperative.

We need to make sure we hold on to what separates features from TV and all other forms of media.

Especially — and the why of this will hopefully become clearer in a moment — independent filmmakers need to take this responsibility upon themselves.

At the same time, Andrew is right to warn prospective and/or self-proclaimed filmmakers in regards to their beliefs and career intentions/aspirations. So is Filmmaker Magazine Editor Scott Macaulay, in the quote Andrew chose to end his post.

We (filmmakers, artists) have to recognize that we can neither fight nor deny the clear changes that have occurred and will continue to affect filmmaking and moving picture narratives and arts of all forms.

So, this is the imperative, as I see it — in two steps:

  1. We need to protect and support feature films, because they may be our last form of poetry. There is one, brilliant exception to this statement — that gives me much hope — but I will end with a plea to make this imperative a goal for indie filmmakers.
  2. We need to always serve narrative first, by following our instincts — hopefully always tethered to reality in some way — and formatting stories appropriately to the best representation of their pure expression.

I know both imperatives need some unlocking. Working backwards…

Television, by its nature, has its finger more frequently on the pulse of the zeitgeist than feature films.

If a show doesn’t deliver a narrative that compels large numbers of people to watch — regardless of whether or not they “should” — it doesn’t last. Yes, some shows are able to force this issue by throwing money and spectacle at audaciously basic and manipulative narratives, but that doesn’t define most TV that gets distributed.

The result of this, in my opinion, is that TV enjoys a “leg up” over film, on average, in terms of narrative mobility.

The smaller, serial nature of the format, and the smaller increments in which it is produced — even the existence of pilots, for which there is no real match in the feature world — allows TV the opportunity to adapt more quickly and more easily to present circumstances than features.

There are flip sides to this advantage, however, and one is the pressure to keep producing more quality TV, once success has been found, in order to make more and more money, regardless of the narrative appropriateness of keeping the story going, until such time that the narrative purity of the series bends or breaks beyond the point of no return. This does perhaps also happen from film to film, within studios or production companies or during the career of filmmakers, but it’s not as palpably noticeable and it also leaves entire expression of narratives (standalone, pure, successful films) intact. Also — for the most part — this leaves TV dangerously beholden, in a complete way, to the present only. This stifles reflection on and dialogue about past and future, which isn’t good for any culture.

Okay — but what of the shows that Andrew justifiably identifies as “film killers”? The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Mad Men.

They’re all beautiful exceptions, if you ask me.

The aforementioned are some of the best shows on TV, and, in fact, by nature, they are the best of TV and film combined.

These are poetic character studies that last hours and hours, and that span years. Here, I would add The Wire as an ultimate example. Joss Whedon, when he worked primarily in TV, as has been well-documented, did an equally interesting and novel thing, by mixing a monster of the week format with a long-running serial narrative, season by season, even as his main characters continued to grow and change over the course of the series, linking everything and keeping it all brilliantly tethered to overall thematic narratives. And look at the path his career has taken — he’s one of the hottest filmmakers working today.

I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing a Golden Age of TV.

We’re seeing some artists — in the form of show runners — elevating TV into something more like film. We’re also seeing them challenging prevailing norms and formats while respecting the purity of narrative.

It’s fucking fantastic that Breaking Bad ended on Vince Gilligan’s terms. It’s equally wonderful that Mad Men appears poised to do the same, on Matt Weiner’s. Louis C.K. is another auteur who is thriving right now because of what he’s doing on TV — he’s leading the way in many terms.

What we may actually be in right now is the beginnings of a new Golden Age for serving narrative. Formats are breaking down, as has been discussed, because of changes to The Screen. Hopefully more changes, cultural changes, will follow. I think that’s the point of what Gilligan, Weiner, C.K. and others are doing. It’s brilliant and it’s brilliantly inspiring.

So, that’s why I’m cool with the best of what’s out there right now on TV.

Again — Andrew and Scott are both right. We “filmmakers” should be thinking of ourselves as servants of narrative first. We should be open to whatever compels us on an instinctual level, and we should endeavor, as we also strive to build a sustainable career, to respect narrative purity at the same time. A story that should be on TV but is forced into a feature film or diluted into a web series may not work unless it is cultivated into a different thing. Whedon again becomes an example. Buffy The Movie ain’t Buffy The Show.

But.

There’s no denying that films, as they were, are becoming increasingly scarce. Technology has changed film, as we have discussed. It’s also changed filmmaking.

The trouble, to me, is that Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Louie and other shows — they are exceptions. The majority of the rest of what we watch is…it’s simply not very good or very helpful. Definitely most of TV is not good compared to some of the fine films being produced today.

Which is fine. It took me about seven years to understand this, but I know I can’t change the world with a blog post or one little indie film — or that it’s even wise to try.

Maybe I haven’t completely absorbed that last point 🙂

I hope I never do. Anyway.

I’m going to shut up soon. But here’s my final point.

I was watching TV with my wife last night, and said on two separate occasions, after beginning two separate shows (that I genuinely like):

“Sometimes, this show really bothers me. Everyone is rich.”

TV, more so than movies, is where reality goes to die. More accurately, it’s where we willingly push reality over a cliff (or, rather, where it’s pushed off a cliff by those in control of the prevailing narratives of the day).

Everyone, on most of the most popular shows, is good looking and either wealthy or eerily able to get by easily despite their alleged lack of money. Reality TV is anything but that, as we’ve all know for a while — though we continue to play along. Representative diversity on TV, though unfortunately better than diversity in film, is lacking, when comparing what gets made and pushed and seen…with what this country actually looks like, demographically. Very little — at lease very little of what most people are watching —  looks anything like real life.

And now these fantasy narratives ride along in our pockets.

I’ve written about many of the dangers of all this before, and I won’t go into it all again. Here’s what I will say, though, about how important independent film has and will become, under these circumstances.

Quite simply: we (indie filmmakers) are the vanguard in the fight for a return to reality.

America in particular is dangerously out of touch with how things actually are in our country. Again, I’ve written plenty about this. And I don’t say that to suggest that I believe we’re doomed — or that the feature film is the only or best medium to engender change.

But it is the most dominant, after TV.

I believe in the redemptive power of the feature film. The poetry of it, as I have said.

Because…here’s the thing.

In the real world, we don’t experience narratives linearly or serially. That is one of the most interesting things about where we are now, in terms of our immediate and all-encompassing access to narratives of all forms, via our devices. We can and do not only watch TV, but talk about it, obsess over it, live and breathe it, sometimes while we watch.

That’s fine, in doses. But we also shouldn’t spend — and haven’t historically spent — all our time experiencing narratives.

Narrative is also here so that we can learn and reflect.

Sure, some people treat television and other media this way — as well they should, when appropriate to them and the examples that deserve this treatment. But a film, a feature film that respects reality in some pure way, even if it’s not a documentary or an indie character study, a feature film that bring a bunch of people together in the dark to sit down and abandon ourselves to a narrative formed with the intention of proposing just one idea, to ponder privately, or discuss or debate…that’s poetic.

We need poetry, in life.

It’s a way of understanding what we value and why, and of expressing the sheer unanswerable question of what it means to be human. This is not a shocking or new observation, but I do worry about how much or how often we seem to have forgotten it’s lesson.

Television, web media, these are moving-image formats that may just have the ability to divorce us, finally, on an overall level, from the poetry we’ve been drifting away from for years and years as the page does continue to die and The Screen multiplies and multiplies.

There’s room for optimism, though.

Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, the web series format that isn’t quite TV (perhaps in a good way) that Andrew Allen also discusses in his own post, the extension of a single narrative beyond a single experience — these are things that are new which arose as answers to problems, even if we don’t yet understand, on a macro level, what problems, or why they’re important.

As such, I believe these tools and formats can be employed and experimented with, carefully, as corrective measures to the understandably indiscriminate damage caused by changing technologies as well as the willful exploits of those in power to keep things the same, so that they may remain in control.

That is part of it, too. Let’s stop pretending it’s not. The owners of television benefit from us watching television as a stand in to experiencing actual wealth and The American Dream.

But, back to the optimism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, to remind myself as well, because I sometimes need to be reminded of it. All of this is about change. And real change is, for the most part, usually good.

There’s never been a better time to be creating — whatever that may mean to you or to me.

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What I Liked This Week: 4/27/13 (aka Remember The Mission)

Furious Faithful. It’s been a long week. The script for Sophia The Great, as well as several supplemental materials about our general production plan, went out to several fellowships and contests and support programs over the last few days.

As some of you may have read on The Facebook or The Twitter, this was a surprisingly delightful experience for me. I wasn’t entirely prepared for that to happen. Again, I think partially it happened because I’m in a much better place this days, in terms of coping with (and channeling) The Fury, but I also think it’s also another indication that this project is The One.

I want to be able to temper my excitement so that I don’t become disappointed — but this assumes that I would become disappointed, say, if Sophia puts a goose egg on the scoreboard in terms of the aforementioned applications. I can’t say this wouldn’t happen, if a goose egg were to drop, but I also don’t think I would entirely care. Sophia is happening, whether we get major help from Deciders or not.

The last thing an independent filmmaker should do is wait for permission. Waiting doesn’t help make films. This isn’t to say it’s always a good idea to just vault ahead and produce something — which is why the next step is to draft a clear and clever, studied and concrete plan for producing Sophia soon and on the cheap — but it still feels good to know that all the “paperwork” I filled out this week…I filled out because I truly believe in what we’re doing, and am merely trying to convince a few influential deciders to help the cause.

Perhaps this is why it was so comparatively easy to fill out all the applications this time around. I’ve completed most of them a few times before, when I was similarly convinced I was ready to make The Leap, with other projects. I wasn’t.

I think I am now, and part of the reason why is because of all the previous work I’ve put in to past projects. But…it’s also…again…something about Sophia feels special. I believe I’ve earned her, but as some of you may know I am also a big believer in the mysticism of creativity, in the idea that a story is more a living thing that is born out of an intersection between circumstance and the labor of the creator…than something that is merely crafted. I said it in one of the applications — at this point, I feel like Sophia’s servant.

I don’t think this is at all a bad thing. In fact, as if this outpouring of words weren’t enough to convince you — this feeling is the first and biggest thing I liked this week.

I’ll keep the rest as short and as sweet as I can. Perhaps not always sweet. Life is sometimes very bitter — just ask David Simon:

  • I liked this blog post by David Simon, wherein The Wire creator condemns Your American Congress, following the failure of said Congress to pass new gun control legislation. Simon more eloquently and more expertly eviscerates our Reprehensible Representatives in his post than I did in mine (but you can still read mine).
  • Similarly, I liked this article by Josh Barro at Bloomberg News, illustrating a perfect example of the core injustice of our bifurcated society. The short of it: one particular symptom of the sequestration forced into existence by the inability of our Do-Nothing Congress to come to a compromise on all sorts of political and economic issues — because Republicans in Congress in particular refuse to compromise on anything, because they don’t give half a shit about anyone who isn’t rich — was dealt with swiftly and effectively this week. Congress did something! Do you know what they did? They passed legislation offsetting the effects sequestration had on aviation. Do you know why they did this? Because politicians (and other rich people) fly a lot, and so the flight delays caused by the forced budget cuts were having a negative impact on their lives. None of the cuts that affect those of us who aren’t rich — those of us whose lives are more seriously affected by such cuts — were addressed. And they won’t be. Because our government no longer operates for The People, at all.
  • On a lighter note, I liked Nametag Day, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a initiative based solely on the goal of putting name tags on as many New Yorkers as possible on June 1st. As I said on Twitter, I think this is a simple, actionable thing to do to help build community. Check out the site if you are an NYCer and volunteer to help if you can. Follow Nametag Day on Twitter here.
  • I like The 4-Hour Body. I had been interested in experimenting with Tim Ferriss’s “body re-composition” cookbook since listening to this episode of WTF with Marc Maron (which you can check out for free if you want to get an idea about what it’s all about). I finally got around to implementing a majority of the “small changes” in diet and behavior Ferriss advocates, after adopting only a few to great effect, initially. It works. I’ve lost weight (mostly fat), my energy level is up, and I feel great. Some of what The Four Hour Body suggests you do is a little strange, and/or seems tough (like cold showers!) but…again…it works.
  • I like the new original Netflix series Hemlock Grove. The first episode is very confusing, but engaging nonetheless. From there, the show gets better. It has a sort of Twin Peaks, B-movie vibe that it — importantly — embraces responsibly and smartly rather than resorting to irony or lazy homage to its numerous influences. The show has its imperfections, but it’s well-thought-out, and the storytelling is not lazy. The look and tone appear similarly cultivated (and contribute greatly to the success of the series), the writing is at many times extremely “fresh” — oftentimes adopting and exploiting established tropes before cleverly subverting them in pursuit of its own ends — and most of the performances are impressive. Rebecca and I had little knowledge of the show beforehand, and no expectations, but we’ve watched almost all of the first season by now and are enjoying it immensely.

So there’s the list for this week. Except for one last thing.

Again and as always, I liked you this week. The Furious Romantic Returns eclipsed 500 visits and 1,000 page views recently, at the same time that a small group of new readers wandered over from Twitter — and I’m sincerely grateful. It makes the fight easier to know that you’re out there with me, and it gives me hope for the future. We need hope as much as we need to “get angry and speak up” — we need to know that there are others who want more and better things for themselves and their neighbors than what we are currently getting from the here and now.

Have a good week, Furious Friends. This last one wasn’t the easiest for me, despite all of the above (it’s stressful emailing a snapshot of your soul to strangers), but it helps me remember the mission when I talk to all of you, and see that you’re reading.

So, yeah. Thanks.

What I Liked This Week: 3/30/13

Hello, Furyans — not to be confused with Furrians, which is very different thing. Hello also to any Furyan Furrians — The Furious Romantic Returns is an all-inclusive place.

Apologies for not slapping you with a longer post earlier this week. The Furious Romantic was furiously sick. That sort of Please God Make It Stop kind of sick. You catch my imagery? Put that imagery down! What’s wrong with you?! OMG wash your hands.

A word before we move on to WILTW.

There may be some changes around here, in terms of how these type of posts are populated. In short, I am limiting my time spent: reading the news, scouring the internet for signs of life and death (including Twitter and Facebook), emailing. I am making a concerted effort to free my mind from anxieties that are originating from someplace else. Partially this is because THERE IS ALREADY ENOUGH ANXIETY IN MY MIND. Also, I have a lot of work to do. And a lot of thinking to do, if Sophia The Great is going to live up to her name. Wish me luck. I will report in on my progress down the line, if people are interested. As an aside, I’m also cutting my coffee intake down from 5-6 cups a day to 1 cup on weekdays and 2 cups on weekends. This step alone has left me MUCH less anxious and much more productive.

What all this means for WILTW is that I may be bringing fewer links and more testimony to our weekly discussions and judgements. I think this may end up better for everyone. I will get to report in on Likes and/or Dislikes that are of a slightly more active nature, which seems to me a healthier and more useful thing.

And so, on to it. A few of these items are holdovers from The Days When We Still Read The News*.

  • The Trader Joe’s Lesson: How to Pay a Living Wage and Still Make Money in Retail, from Sophie Quinton at The Atlantic. I think we all know why I liked this.
  • Dick Van Dyke on WTF with Marc Maron. Just a delightful interview.
  • Slacker. Richard Linklater’s classic indie from 1991. Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers, and Slacker is one of the titles I wrote down on my re-watch list as I begin thinking about how to shoot Sophia The Great. I think I liked it better when I watched it this week than I did several years ago when I watched for the first time. As many have pointed out over the years, sitting through Slacker, ironically, takes some work at points. But, overall, it’s such an original and challenging and engaging piece of art. As I hinted in a tweet after I watched, I came out of this recent viewing disappointed in current indies. That’s not a grumpy old man statement. It’s an honest assessment. There are many fine films being made these days. Fine films. Films that are fine. Good. Nice. Beautiful. But no one’s really arguing about them. I feel like if I gathered five or so friends in my living room and watched Slacker again — there would be a few arguments. A few legitimate discussions, at the very least. This used to be why we made independent films. Groundbreaking/thought-provoking films still pop up now and then, but I don’t know that they pop up often enough. I don’t know that the right ones are yet sparking the right dialogue. About our generation — all of it.
  • Strange moments of sudden inspiration. I was writhing (writhing, not writing) on the couch earlier this week, clutching my stomach and trying to keep my mind right despite the pain and some serious dehydration and some unpleasant flashbacks — when I was struck with an idea. The specific experience I was going through, strangely, sparked a sudden, clear thought, which led to an image, which became a sequence, which became a scene. The scene itself is only tangentially related to what I was going through at that moment, but it was built of genuine emotion from the moment, and I had to write it down. So I did. The scene wasn’t even for Sophia. It was for something that’s been living in the back of my brain for a while, that I’d like to take a shot at sometime in the near future, so I had to run with it. I liked this experience. I took a perverse joy in it. It made me feel powerful, for a few moments, at a time when I was feeling extremely powerless.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is why we do it. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?! Too much news and coffee, probably.

Right?

Hah. Have a good week.

What I Liked This Week: 3/2/13

Greetings, dear readers. And thanks to those of you who made The Furious Romantic feel a little less furious this week, not only through the birthday wishes but the “good lucks” with Sophia.

  • The first thing I liked this week was this article about a team of physicists who created the first multiverse in a lab. It’s cute, that they think they were first. IT WAS ALREADY CREATED IN THE LAB OF MY MIND. If you haven’t “Liked” our short film #Multiverse on Facebook already, click that link and get on it (please). For anyone who doesn’t know or is wondering, #Multiverse is currently in the late stages of post-production.
  • This progressive deficit reduction plan, by Senator Bernie Sanders. Because it focuses on reducing the deficit by introducing more equality-based legislative measures into the politics that currently keep our economy weighted in favor of the wealthy. Few, if any, of these measures will see the light of day — at least not for a long time — but I like them anyway. I like that someone is trying.
  • This ScriptMag column by Clive Frayne, titled: “You Are Not Tarantino or Kevin Smith,” which is itself a response to this blog post by Bitter Script Reader, titled “You Are Not Tarantino.” Because they make me feel even more certain a shift is on the horizon, and that my impulse to craft my version of an anti-film…has me on the right track.
  • The fundraiser I went to this week for OnTheRoad Rep. It’s never not fun, drinking and carousing with actors. OnTheRoad has been doing great work, with more to come. Keep an eye out for future shows, NYCers. Disclaimer: I’m in love with one of their awesomely talented members.

Have a good week, my furiously romantic friends.

Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of 3 of a mega-post. To read Part 2, click here. Part 1, here. Don’t be afraid to hit me up on Twitter to let me know what you think.

American consumers are in an abusive relationship with our economy, more often than not. We hand over our money, accept mostly mediocrity in return, and either complain about it amongst ourselves or sublimate our dissatisfaction and turn it against ourselves and each other, instead of reminding companies (big and small) that it’s their job to serve our needs, not the other way around.

Most Americans these days are consistently making due with less, and getting less for their dollar, while the economy continues to flounder and jobs continue to be scarce and/or inadequate in terms of pay and benefits – even as profits remain high and the rich remain well-paid despite having screwed a whole lot of stuff up.

The prevailing messaging coming through The Screen continues to minimize and deflect us from this reality. For the past several decades, while we were absorbing a predominantly one-way narrative controlled increasingly by special interests, those same interests were squeezing more and more out of us. And now we’re nearly juiced and still they squeeze and still they trust that their narratives will keep us docile and subservient so long as they continue to control the messaging.

Sure, there’s a vocal minority out there who demands more from life than simple consumerism, but we shouldn’t be a minority. To be honest, I’m not even as vocal as I used to be in this fight – not because I’ve given up, but because, as often as I can, I just stop. As much as I can help it, I only open my wallet for, and pay attention to, companies and professionals that earn it.

Okay. Perhaps my wallet is also pretty light on the disposable income, but that’s not the point (though it’s partially the point).

The crucial point, though, is that too many of us seem to have forgotten – though it looks increasingly as if some good people are waking up – that the decisions we collectively make or don’t make every day are our power in this conflict between us (average Americans) and them (the wealthy in control of The Screen).

An advertisement only wins your attention and your dollar if you choose to ignore the fact that your lens is being focused for you – on a one-way narrative designed most often for no other purpose other than to part you with your money. Spend what you want on what you want, of course, but I think we owe it to ourselves to respond to most advertising messaging with more in the way of initial distrust.

With all apologies to those for whom it isn’t so simple – though many of us could stand to spend less on the distractions and diversions and foods engineered primarily to keep us distracted and sated and quiet – money only leaves your hands if you let it. We need so much less than we buy and consume. That’s an American pastime as well, but it’s one we may have to let go of a little bit if we want to regain our freedom. We’re as complicit in our own repression as those who lord over us, until and unless we change the narrative of our economic lives away from one steeped purely in sales and consumerism and back to one of reasonable, community-centric supply and demand.

What does this have to do with The Screen? Well, how else can we be expected to band together? The economic reality I’ve been discussing exists in direct correlation with a now “normal” way of life wherein the majority of our consumer population lives out most days shackled to jobs that, for us, remain linked to sustenance (money for food, shelter, transportation, health care). But for them (the intransigent old guard), our continued participation as workers and buyers only islinked more importantly to the bottom line. As has been established, the wealthy and privileged special interests that run our country aren’t interested in matters of livelihood. Many of today’s wealthy don’t even understand livelihood. They only know privilege and power, and want to maintain both, again, at all costs.

Should we blame them for that impulse? Not entirely, in my opinion. Human nature is what it is. But human nature isn’t only defined by greed and opportunism, a combination which historical precedent has shown invariably always gives way to subjugation and oppression. At the end of the day, we have to stop pretending that we aren’t collectively responsible for the mess these machinations have created. In very real terms, they have caused – and continue to cause – the deaths of a large numbers of Americans that our crumbling social compact has left behind.

Beyond this, I think we need to shake off the narrative we’ve been indoctrinated in for decades (that America’s past successes came about because of individualism and free-market capitalism only) and remember that human nature is also about community. More importantly, in terms of the task that faces us, human nature is also about emotional expression.

That’s where, for me, it all comes back around to what the proliferation The Screen, and of social networking in particular, means to our prospects for deliverance. I believe Facebook and Twitter and the like emerged and rose to such importance because of a symptomatic need on the part of everyday people to free ourselves from the one-way narratives that have failed us in life, and on which we have mostly soured as a result of their near-total corruption. I believe we turn to The Screen in part because it has always been there, talking to us, but that we fill it now with our own faces and the faces of our kindred because we crave the authenticity and connection that we have lacked for so long while we were bombarded with agendas on the television at night and were pushed in front of computers, often in service of similar agendas, during the day.

Even those of us who fail to understand this in any way, our privileged white whiners and our imitative hipsters, they turn to The Screen and the internet for the same reason the rest of us do. It’s not just about attention in their case. It’s about the intense sadness that is their life. It’s about the emotional neediness that pervades an existence that has been defined by the lie that life is anywhere near as shiny and fatigable as it has historically been shown to be on The Screen, a lie that has been blasted into our faces since we were children. The lie lords over the lives of such people even as they purport to exist in total opposition to it, because in doing so they ignore the fact that they are realigning their point of view using reactive rather than active energy.

I believe it’s crucial that we acknowledge all this, and that, further, we act upon it by attempting to share our experiences and our collective pain and broaden our perspective. It’s, admittedly, confusing. We are used to a world where The Screen speaks and we process and respond mostly from our own point of view and for ourselves. Now that The Screen has been paired with the internet and has proliferated into more evolved iterations, and we have begun to speak more frequently back to it in earnest, we need to engage with one another, more often, on real and honest terms. And we should do so with actual people, especially those who we were previously led to believe were different from us (they aren’t).

We should reserve our online energy for, and wield our own little versions of The Screen in service of, the real-world fight. Most important of all, we must remember when we interact with one another, that we are all in the same predicament. We can all, myself included, do a better job of remembering the crucial difference between the old narrative of The Screen and the new one: that the new narrative is a dialogue, and that we have a say the conversation.

Take it from someone who’s spent the last ten years stumbling after a means of engaging in a more honest cultural dialogue through his work. A two-way conversation is, admittedly, infinitely messier and more difficult than a one-way conversation. But it’s also truer, more human. Dialogue equalizes us, and we need so much more of it if we’re to ever bring validity back to the increasingly hollow claims we put forth in this country: that we’re all equal, and entitled to our fair shot at fulfillment and happiness.

Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 1)

Although I haven’t announced it, my goal for this site is to publish at least two posts per week. Most of the time, this will probably result in one lengthier post appearing earlier in the week, and What I Liked This Week (WILTW) rounding it off during the weekend. That’s pretty much all I’m going to be able to manage, in between the day job and The Filmmaking.

This week, however, you’re getting four posts. Or, more appropriately, one mega-post split into three parts, and then your weekly WILTW. I guess there just was a surplus of fury and romance this time around. Probably this happened because the gun control debate has me riled (the children who died last month are still dead, and still shouldn’t be dead, and more than a couple of people are standing in the way of desperately needed reforms) but also I’m pretty happy on a personal level these days.

Anyway, without further delay, here’s Part 1 of Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen. I will publish Part 2 tomorrow, and Part 3 on Friday. As always, I encourage readers to respond via Twitter or Facebook, and please definitely share anything that you like.

Thanks for reading.

It should go without saying that our country and the globe are both big places, at least in comparison with the lens through which we view and experience them: our personal point of view.

But as a reader pointed out to me in response to my post about Sandy Hook, our personal point of view, oftentimes these days, is increasingly aimed at a screen. A computer. A television. A phone that ceased to be a phone a long time ago.

Her (paraphrased) words: “I’m not sure a world in which we’re so much ‘more connected’ to each other helps anything – I think it leaves us less humanly connected that ever before.” In addition to writing this, she smartly (and importantly, in my opinion) pointed out the irony inherent in the fact that she was delivering her opinion via Facebook. That’s an important detail, given where I’m about to go with this discussion.

Stick with me. This is a long one.

This issue of connectedness vs. connection, for me, is vastly interesting. Much has already been said about it, and the conversation continues, so I’m only going to focus on one particular problem I have with the way many of us use technology.

The aforementioned reader is also particularly worried about the dangers facing members of coming generations who are born into a society where so many of us choose The Screen over, say, a face. I share this concern, though I think the fact that she and I are both worrying about it indicates an awareness on the part of our generation that this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with on an individual and/or family level. One that, hopefully, at the end of the day, won’t differ too much from similar debates certain members of the boomer generation had about us, in regards to video games and computers, and which their parents before them had about television. It ends up, for me, a matter of vigilance on the part of the family as well as on a social level. I’m not as worried about it as I used to be, because I believe that such concerns, while legitimate, stem more from a need to catch ourselves up to accelerating technologies and technologically-based social networking systems than anything else. Though this doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do tracing our compulsions towards these technologies and sourcing out our subsequent responsibility to use them in a healthy and/or productive way.

This is the real imperative facing our generation and future generations: parsing why we feel compelled towards The Screen, in the particularly clumsy interactive ways in which we are lately compelled towards it in its evolving forms (phones, tablets, smart TVs). Answers as to what we should embrace, what we should worry about, how to respond as our lives continue to depend on computers and networks and information technology, are likely to follow.

I would argue that it all begins with understanding and acknowledging that our relationship with The Screen is as emotional as our relationship with the world itself, as glimpsed from our own point of view. Further, taking this statement at face value,  I believe we have some waking up to do, when it comes to realizing the extent to which the gatekeepers of The Screen have traditionally leveraged the influence they enjoy as programmers of its messaging to take advantage of this relationship.

If you can’t come with me on that, stop here and go catch up on Mad Men.

Again, our country and the globe represent a vast, interconnected system. This is true on both a natural level (the Earth as an organism) and a manmade level (society as a network of interdependent beings working together, if not in unison, to survive).

In contemporary terms, with rare exception, we enter into this system incrementally, by proxy at first, as we are raised (or flung) into adulthood.

In America, in particular, we begin to fully belong to the world, in prevailing terms, when we enter the workplace and begin purchasing and working our way through whatever corner of it ends up in front of our individual lens, either by choice (if we are “lucky,” and increasingly fewer of us are lucky, because the system is rigged in favor of the privileged) or necessity. These are the facts of American life. You grow up, it’s difficult and strange, and then eventually you settle into some place or another, do one thing or another, and at some point it all bleeds together and the difficulty and the strangeness evaporate except at times of emotional upheaval (birth, death, other rites of passage). Perhaps you shuffle things around now and then, in terms of where you live and what you do, but in the end we’re all just making money and handing over money and in between we keep ourselves busy. Increasingly, we keep ourselves ever-busy, on an individual level, in front of some permutation of The Screen.

Except there are a few key differences between The Screen as it was and The Screen as it is now. First, the television has lost its status as the primary target of the individual lens. Even those in our populations who are older are finally being forced by the move towards electronic publishing and recordkeeping to form some semblance of computer literacy. Additionally, there are the phones and, now, the tablets. The Screen has multiplied. Under our “control” it’s various forms coexist and interact. It is now “normal” for many people to engage with a computer or phone or tablet while watching TV.

It is not the concern of this post to judge questionable examples of such behavior, per se. There are clear, easy-to-see repercussions, on an individual and a societal level, to dividing our attention so completely for an extended period of time. Also, I am guilty of pushing my face into The Screen a little too often, so I can’t judge. However, there is a fine line between withholding judgment and the subsequent failure, in the place of judgment, to take a realistic perspective on the repercussions of our actions.

Which all a very long way of saying that we are collectively, and on average, far too passive in our use of technology.

To borrow some metaphors from my vocation: we are not a fixed lens. Our perspective can be likened to a fixed lens – which has only one point of view, that can be played with to varying degrees but which is unable to ever see everything on its own, even when focused on a dynamic and engrossing subject – but we should never be so self-restrictive or so presumptuous to assume that one point of view is capable of taking in the whole world.

Only in varying our perspective, switching out lenses, as it were, and experimenting with different views and different combinations of views, are we able to responsibly say that we have looked at something. Only then does it become easy to remember that The Screen is only that. A microcosm of a particular worldview. A picture of a thing that, however simple or complex it may be, or however steeped in the abstract of the imagination, has a real world equivalent which, whether we acknowledge or not, exists in relation to us in way that is neither tactile nor energetic.

Even more crucially, a face on a screen is not a face. It is a representation of a person on the other side who, despite any artifice thrown in the way of each of you, exists in reality in another place, made of organic stuff and vibrating with feelings.

Our initial relationship with The Screen was a passive one. It was crude, by today’s technological standards. The television blasted its messaging at you, and you could only respond insofar as you were able in the real world: by communing with those in your direct vicinity, or with your wallet as advertisements fought over each other for the privilege of your dollar. And prior to YouTube, a select few among us enjoyed the privilege of being able to clumsily and incompletely communicate within the screen, participants in the messaging conducted through subsequent programming.

This relationship has clearly changed, now that we have the internet and now that we carry it in our pocket wherever we go. Especially in the last several years, with the rise of social networks, the narrative of The Screen has begun to more closely align with the narrative of life. The faces that appear to us from the other side are increasingly the faces not of traditional messengers but rather our friends, our loved ones, perhaps even our enemies instead.

This is still all very new. And so, we worry. All of us. On the ground, people like me and you, we worry that we spend too much time on too many screens – which we’ve already discussed as a legitimate but ultimately inconsequential concern. We worry while experts and academics and reporters squabble amongst themselves about similar concerns, about the moral and social repercussions of our changing habits, all of which represents a debate made more on their own behalf than ours. They aren’t to be blamed. The one-way narratives they are used to continue to either evolve or expire, leaving whole swaths of them behind while a few of the smarter ones abandon themselves to the vagaries and the chaos of the new narrative. And as we all worry, those in the towers that loom over our cities (our literal overlords), scramble to adjust the narratives and the delivery systems they have long controlled, such that they may maintain or reinforce the old, crumbling relationship between us and them.

All our fears are justified. Make no mistake: The Screen, by virtue of our increasingly symbiotic relationship with it, is the personification of control. Say what you will about that, argue against it if you’d like (just don’t ask me to listen to you), but the fact of the matter is that we are, at least on structural terms, on the precipice of a future many of us have long feared. The Screen is everywhere; we can’t go back.

We shouldn’t want to go back. Especially those of us whose lives have been dictated by those traditionally in control of the The Screen and the message (most of us), we shouldn’t want to go back. Because as it stands right now, we know more about how to win control of The Screen than they do, and we are better positioned than ever to regain some of the dignity that the average American has lost over the past several decades. 

The truth is written in the mangled façade of what we still call Facebook, which rose to prominence once, in part, because its interface recalled an Apple-like regard for beauty, in comparison to the visual and architectural mess than was MySpace. The fact that the visuals of Facebook have turned into a conglomeration of icons, links, and flashing lights – whereas it used to look like a communication hub – tells us all we need to know about where the site is headed and/or where we’re letting it lead us.

Facebook is becoming just another business hub. Especially since it’s IPO, which has unsurprisingly hastened the rate of the reverse exponentially, the site is in a state of regress. What began as a means of connectedness now begs for and demands your connectivity. The push to make Facebook something more valuable than what it is – and, just so we’re clear, I believe Facebook has value and can co-exist as a business and as a historical touchstone of the social networking movement – has perverted its legacy as a primary virtual epicenter for the movement away from the traditional one-way narrative of The Screen and towards a more widespread and all-encompassing visualization of the sort of cultural exchange of information, ideas and emotions that has been taking place on the internet since its infancy as a popular destination.

Do you know why this is happening to Facebook? It’s because the monologue of The Screen has become a dialogue, and those who have historically controlled the messaging don’t want this.  Since it’s happening anyway, you can be sure that those in power will do their damnedest to seize one side of the conversation fully and not let go. That is what has worked for them in the past. That is why they bought the news.

Make no mistake: the war for your divided attention – for frequent access to your many screens – is on. Most of those in power don’t really know what they’re doing, because they’re old and because they’re incapable of knowing what it’s like to need The Screen as we need it. But they’re not completely stupid, they have resources, and they have time. Especially while we idle, continuing to devote more of our waking hours and our energy on trivialities than on improving our lives and the world, they have the time.

And why shouldn’t we idle? It fits the traditional narrative structure of life, as we experienced it growing up in front of our televisions. We can’t be blamed any more than we can be forgiven – and I say that because at the end of the day, regardless of causality and of the difficulties ahead of us, it’s our responsibility to seize control of our share of the dialogue ourselves.

There is no evil in business. Companies that make The Screen and fill it with imagery and provide us with the tools of communicating with one another and sharing information – as well similarly connected/invested corporate powers – they can’t be completely blamed for wanting their share of control. Evil comes from people. On the side of such organizations, they are evil who leverage their control of The Screen against humanity, perverting truth by doubling-down on the insistence that the limited view of a one-way narrative is legitimate and righteous. On the side of the people, we are evil who neglect to question these practices and damn their practitioners by failing to take our attention and our wallets somewhere else.

Only in understanding our true relationship with the new normal of communications technology, in acknowledging what it means about us and what it means for us going forward, can we begin to regain ownership of our side of the narrative. I believe this process, not new laws, or progressive policies, or more new technologies, will help us find our way back to true individual empowerment and true collaborative democracy.

But we have to want it. And it’s infinitely easier said than done.

Sandy Hook And America’s Sickness

My first reaction to Sandy Hook wasn’t shock, to be honest. I’ll leave the task of hypothesizing as to why I wasn’t shocked, to the words that follow. But, no, I just cried. On and off for days. I didn’t even get angry – at least not in the ways I know how to get angry.

When I did get angry, however, at the facts and nature of what, with all apologies to the families involved, is and should remain a national loss – something strange happened. There’s no way for me to completely contextualize the causality between the tragedy and my eventual feelings about it – not without making this too much about me (in the wrong way) – so I’ll just say it.

Shortly after Sandy Hook, I decided for the first time that I wanted to be a father someday.

I work hard to be a good person. My wife does the same. We’ve both been through some shit. More shit than some, less shit than many others. We’ve put ourselves and each other through shit. We’ll fuck up more shit today and tomorrow.

But we’re good people. We care, and we struggle – and we fight. I guess, after turning over my emotions in regard to Sandy Hook as best I could, that’s where I landed – in a place where I felt the most appropriate reaction was to acknowledge the goodness in myself, which I probably too often forget is a reflection of the good that still exists in the world, and decide for myself what I was going to do to make sure it survives. If the world’s going to get better (it’s still pretty shitty in many spots) more good people are going to have to start doing more good things.

I’m not having a kid anytime soon. But neither can I conscientiously hold on to the reasons why I was, very recently, very afraid to commit to the idea. Apart from the reasons that can be inferred from what I’ve said already, the rest of my rationale is my own. But I believe the impetus, to respond to the sadness of such a tragic event as Sandy Hook with not only sadness and anger, but love and defiance…is something worth exploring.

Much has been made of the official comments made by the National Rifle Associate (NRA) in the wake of Sandy Hook. I’m not going to dignify what was specifically said with a response. However, I will say that I find it odd that less has been made of the days-long silence of the NRA (and the similar silence of a large percentage of our population) in the wake of the shootings. Say what you will of the appropriateness or necessity of discussing topics like gun control and mental health in the immediate aftermath of the event itself, but the fact that the NRA remained sinfully silent for such a long stretch – when the right thing to do would have been to condemn the violence and lament the tragic abuse of firearms at Sandy Hook, regardless of any impact on the overall agenda of the organization – and the lack of a widespread dialogue condemning this conscious decision to do or say nothing, to me speaks loudly of where we are as a culture.

We simply can’t talk about these things.

I get that it’s hard. Little seems harder, in the wake of such a painful example of societal dysfunction, than discussing the fact that children were murdered, and that, beyond matters of faith or fate, there are several reasons and possibilities as to why. But if we don’t talk about these things when something so completely horrific happens – when do we talk? And I mean really talk.  Further, when do we act?

Children are dead. Why haven’t assault weapons been banned already? Why did the uproar die down so quickly? Why, in 2013, isn’t mental health more of a national concern?

Why did it take an outburst of outrage, from the populace as well as local New York and New Jersey politicians, for the Speaker of the House of Representatives to schedule a vote to pass part of a Senate-approved bill to get aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy?

Have we become so dispassionate – that these forms of meandering and inaction are acceptable to us?

Do you know what I did to help victims of Sandy? Not enough, compared to some of my friends and neighbors. But what I did do, I did quickly and to the best of my ability. I donated what money I could to relief organizations. When a friend from Staten Island posted “live from the scene” on Facebook, while he was helping neighbors sift through the remnants of their homes, and said that they had plenty of food and clothing for the time being, but needed shovels and gloves and facemasks –went out and charged what I could find from that list to my credit card, and delivered it to a neighborhood crew who was making daily deliveries to the hardest-hit places in the city. When that crew said that food was needed in a certain area, I packed a bunch of lunches and dropped them off the next morning.

Is that a humblebrag? Maybe. Don’t care. It’s also an example of fucking helping people who need it. Of doing something, to try to help bring the world back into balance after some bad shit goes down.

I’d argue we could all do plenty, on a normal day, to live a more balanced life as a member of society. As it stands, we in America – supposed land of the free – cling to a guarded, fractured, selfish, ghostly existence, in human terms. Most of them times, when we help, we do so remotely – with money, by clicking, sharing. I implicate myself in this behavior as well, and don’t completely fault us all, given where we’re at this crossroads in our history, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking questions. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be struggling a bit to figure out what exactly is going on out there, within people, that allows us to remain so callously self-interested and distant in the presence of a crumbling social compact that is failing so many of our citizens – including our children.

The issue here, for me, is the closed gap between how we live and how our lives are run, in terms of humanity and justice. It has become woefully apparent, in the age of information, that many of the terms by which we live out our daily lives are controlled and dictated by the networks of power and of powerful people who, at this point, are infinitely more concerned with assuring their continued dominance than with the good of the people, the planet, and even themselves. They’d sooner turn a blind eye as it all bleeds out than be cut off from the money, influence, and especially the illusions, that keep them safely separate from the travails of life on the ground as an otherwise “average” American.

I grew up in a middle class community of workers and entrepreneurs. I received a pretty decent public school education. I then spent my undergraduate years among a population that was mostly white and wealthy (and diversified occasionally by “minorities” playing by the same horrible rules as the old guard) and whose students and alumni have long been associated with “the elite.” Over the last several years, I’ve lived the unglamorous life of the artist-working-a-day-job-to-make-ends-meet. The point is that I’ve skipped around between social classes. And I’m telling you, there’s not a whole lot of differences between anyone, in any environment, when you start digging as deep as you have to dig to get at the reasons why it’s “normal” in our country for the majority of the population to sit idly as the leaders of the day – that we elected and/or keep in power – spend more time haggling over taxes on the rich than they do helping to avert tragedies and/or speedily address the destruction left in their wake.

I’m sure I’ll get around to discussing politics and class in more detail at a later date. My belief, however, is that if you take away all the supposed differences between the majority of the privileged class and the rest of us – the money they have, the material, situational, geographical advantages they enjoy – all you’re left with are: people. People like you and me. Maybe that sounds obvious, or trite, but do we really spend enough time acknowledging this to ourselves every day?

Since September 11th, people in America tend to also be scared people. Worried people. Despite all claims to the contrary, and whether we admit it or not, we’re also a fundamentally godless people. Regardless of whether you agree, with all that stripped away – and I don’t understand how it can’t be momentarily stripped away at times of great tragedy – still we’re incapable of looking at a day stained by the blood of children as a day of reckoning.

The clamor for new laws and better and fuller access to mental health services was and is right and just. But we won’t truly start getting better, won’t be fully able to honestly say we did about as much as we could to prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook from recurring, if we don’t admit that something corrupt has poisoned our souls.

Following the lead of our politicians and leaders, and the media empires they control, we mostly just ignore this unfortunate truth. We avoid it.

Well, I’m sick of it. More than that, I’m sick of the fact that we don’t talk honestly about these issues in a widespread way.

I’m sick of the inaction and the squabbling of our leaders and our population. Of our lack of courage and compassion. I’m sick of the outdated, out of touch moralities that we continue to cling to as our culture cannibalizes itself on every level. I’m sick of ignoring the smell of death that has crept into our daily lives.

If I ever have a child, he or she is going to know love. To me that means teaching my future children that life’s contradiction – that we are all complex, unique souls, fundamentally linked by our humanity – renders us ultimately the same.

When children die, we all die. When we fail to ask why, once they are dead, we fail them all over again, and further endanger a world already left less bright by their absence.