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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A Case for Anti-Film

I took a course in college that introduced me to the work of Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet perhaps most famous for his declamations against poetry. A self-proclaimed “anti-poet,” Parra essentially took issue with the longstanding worldview of poetry as some sort of lofty, mystically powerful medium. He also criticized the attachment of poets to what at the time were the prevailing standards of the form itself. Frustrated by the lack of a utilitarian purpose to most poetry, but cognizant that it remained popular and had a large admiring audience, he sought to write and champion work that existed practically in opposition to itself.

I remember reading Parra and feeling alternately curious and dubious. The contrarian in me liked the idea of art made in opposition to itself; and his points on the lack of a link between prevailing examples of art and a greater utilitarian purpose behind such examples, rang true to me even then. The (undeveloped) artist in me disliked the proposition that, in order to be pure and useful, art should “devalue” itself and the artist by foregoing so much of the creativity that separated it from reality and simply “report observations and feelings” instead.

I was a silly little student.

To me, at the time, anti-poetry seemed like something of a copout. I just didn’t see the point in making a point about how far the messages had strayed from the messengers through a “new” stripped-down version of the message itself. It seemed a little too clever, and maybe it was and still is, to an extent. What I wasn’t seeing or admitting, however, is that it doesn’t matter.

It certainly doesn’t matter to us, here and now. Not when so many contemporary American “artists,” and the money men pulling their strings and slapping paint over their ideas, have dialed up their efforts at “engineering” art to such a spectacular degree that it is now considered an intriguing artistic statement (because it is, unfortunately) to illustrate the pure garishness of the whole situation via such magnificent displays of American cultural decline as are ingeniously mirrored at us by such experiments as Lady Gaga (well played, Gaga).

But I digress. What I mean to say is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Nicanor Parra this week, after so many days wrestling with my ideas and opinions about our relationship with The Screen, because it’s been somewhat difficult for me to reconcile what essentially amounts in those posts to a call for more participatory activism through The Screen (and against The Screen As We Know It), with my journey as a filmmaker.

While I’m definitely settling more comfortably in the role of the indie filmmaker — the definition of which for me starts and ends with total creative independence on the part of the production — I still respect and long for the sort of reach and audience relationship that at current can only be easily got by working with those who have historically controlled what goes on The Screen (and who still mostly do). This is not to say that there aren’t people-of-influence out there who support truth and filmmakers locked into it. I just haven’t met any of them yet — please give me a call of you’re one of those people and if you want me to show you mine.

Getting serious again, a conflict naturally arises for me, based on my combined desire to both reform the prevailing relationship between art and audience and yet remain honest and steadfast as I attempt to do so in an industry that in many ways represents a large part of the problem, when I consider how to move forward. I don’t fault the industry in particular for its failings. Evidence in support of that claim can be found in the aforementioned posts on The Screen.

Working under the assumption that “we get the art we deserve,” however, my view is that, if it’s broke, we can’t start fixing it until we look down at the pieces and start to think about how to put them back to together to form it again (it being us).

So, in thinking about Parra and anti-poetry, especially as I’ve continued working on my latest script (which is pretty much steeped in my own personal journey through this changed worldview), I started thinking about the concept of anti-film.

It didn’t surprise me, when I decided to look to see if anti-film already existed, and was quickly led to Warhol. The ideas that had been knocking around in my head when trying to link my feelings about Parra and anti-poetry to my feelings about The Screen find a obvious natural home in Warhol’s legacy. But he and Parra belonged to different eras (and Parra’s Chile was and is a much different place than contemporary America) and I am neither a poet nor an iconoclast. I’m just a guy trying to point out some bullshit that’s standing in the way of the real shit. But I think maybe most artists working today (and everyone else as well) might benefit from the examples set by these and other artists.

Particular to my life and my experience to this point, and piggy-backing in part on my discussion of The Screen, I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s time for a more robust and thoughtful opposition to the status quo – on the part of both artists and the audience. I think it’s time to admit that we’ve lost our way in terms of truth of expression, and that, further, we won’t be able to find it again until we work our way back to a place where the cultural dialogue of the average American overlaps in a widespread and impactful way with the challenges of our time.

Again, as the fallout from tragedies like Sandy Hook have proven, we seem incapable (as a whole) of facing truth itself. Our forms of expression, these days, have taken to mirroring our “interaction” (or lack thereof) with the markets. Our participation in our cultural dialogue has become far more passive, and/or spasmodically reactive, than either passionate or measured. That which is most popular is that which is hollowed out, spread thin, and shined up to appeal to the broadest possible swath of people who might find such inoffensiveness palatable and non-confrontational. That which can, not coincidentally, be duplicated into sequels, re-purposed into merchandise.

Time and again, our money and time get sucked away, most often in service of the lie that “everything is going to be okay.” Unless you’re one of the few privileged ones who don’t have to work as hard or worry as much as most of the rest of us do, this simply isn’t true. Things are only okay when we make them okay, when we decide to agree that they aren’t okay, and decide to collectively do something about it.

In artistic terms, the problem isn’t that our art is bad. The problem is that our art is bad because it’s dishonest. The world we most commonly see on The Screen is so divorced from reality as most of us know it, and has been for so long, that we’ve actually lost sight of the artifice, to such a chilling extent that we now accept the existence of reality television — in which life itself has been turned not into something to celebrate or question or struggle for, but just another melodramatic narrative that plays out on The Screen. Art, which in the Aristotelian sense once was an imitation of life, has in America become an imitation of an imitation. In this way, regress, the unspoken goal of those battling for continued control of The Screen, has infiltrated our lives.

This has happened because some people pushed it to happen and because many more didn’t know any better and allowed it to happen. Regardless, it has happened and is still happening.

Regress is the enemy of the future, and in order to combat it, we need to backpedal to its source and deal with whatever unfortunate truths we find there. In so many words, we need to steer our lives (and probably, first, our art) away from the prevailing narratives that are failing us.

Like nearly everything else I seem to advocate, this is easier said than done.

As I mentioned frequently in my discussion of The Screen, our narratives infiltrate and grip every aspect of our lives. Further, they’re now with us all the time, unending in their availability (if we’re being generous) or their assault (if we’re being combative). They aren’t going away, and neither will the minds of those that control them be swayed towards greater responsibility if we do not engineer our response to their failure in terms they can understand (hint: there’s only one term, and it’s money).

In the spirit of Parra, we need to peel away the layers that make these narratives seem larger and more legitimate than they are at their core. At the same time (and it’s important to note that it’s difficult for a single piece of artwork or another similarly engineered activist action to do both these things concurrently) we require more of the sort of inflammatory pop art, more commonly associated in the present discussion with someone like Warhol, that manages to be both familiar and challenging at the same time.

Quentin Tarentino understands this. Django Unchained is a brilliant example of one of the things we need most right now: bloodletting. The legacy of slavery and of racism continues to poison our society and render untrue our claim that America is a place of equality and opportunity. The genius of Django is that it delivers a few carefully placed, chilling reminders of some of the most visceral horrors from our past, that continue to haunt us in more devious ways in the present, all wrapped up in the clothing of our dearest American pastime (violence).

Similar praise should be heaped on Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon for the separate contributions each recently made to a needed call for unity, as presented by The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. Each of these directors have succeeded wildly by locking into the popular need for something different and better delivered under the guise of the same. 

Joss Whedon’s work has always ridden on the message that community, for all its difficulties, trumps individualism, and that the defense of community begins with inhabiting its contradiction: that we are all together in feeling so alone. Nolan has historically been more focused on puzzling out the trustworthiness of narratives from the noirish point of view of a damaged, isolated loner. In this way, he makes an equally crucial contribution to the reigning popular culture by pulling us into The Screen, on terms we can relate to, while constantly asking questions about everything we see and, eventually, landing in a similar place as Whedon. In Nolan’s more mathematical point of view: this problem (social dysfunction) plus this targeted solution (social harmony) requires this variable (a united effort to understand and combat the dysfunction) for it to all work out (however much of what we knew and used to hold dear we may lose in the process).

These men are some of the finest filmmakers working today. It boggles my mind that they aren’t more celebrated or more imitated (in terms of strategy and focus) on artistic terms. Studios look for the next Avengers rather than the next Joss Whedon; they ask what else can be done the way Nolan did it, rather than sit and think about why Nolan has succeeded in the particular way that he has. Tarantino is treated as the maverick that he is, but few pause long enough in their tiresome conversations about the violence and the dirt and the language in his films to ask themselves why they’re so upset with him in the first place, and blame those reasons instead.

Independent film is in a similar state of disconnectedness. No matter how many fine films get made each year (some are still being made) only a rare few seem capable of punching through the noise of an increasingly saturated entertainment arena and meeting with widespread success. In a day and age when so many lines still exist, demarcating so many marginalized groups that are outside the “old media” establishment, fine filmmakers emerging from such groups have little choice, shackled as we all are to a need to remain authentic to our own feelings and experiences, to similarly marginalize our own work.

Especially in the age of social networks, good work finds its audience – which isn’t a bad thing and probably also a necessary step in our redemption. Too few pieces of great artistic import, however, are able to cross the same lines that a blockbuster are able to cross and yet deliver unadulterated crucial messaging that does need to be heard. Contrarily, too many independent films that do receive the marketing support necessary to increase the likelihood of this happening, simply offer something too akin to the same watered-down narratives as our failed blockbusters, just wrapped up in extra quirk or built upon a foundation of what essentially amounts to a well-intentioned but ultimately exclusionary artistic absolutism that cuts it off from both the audience at large as well as those who need the most convincing: the old rich white dudes in charge.

Again. The old rich white dudes in charge will only be convinced if we’re convinced, because, in the prevailing terms of our culture, the only way to convince anyone of anything is to show them the money.

The specifics of my argument for anti-film thus arise. Leaving alone those few brilliant niche artists who are able to continue to do their important work, I don’t think the rest of us can or should wait for the industry to come down to get us. I think indies need to rise up from a truthful place (the ground, which rich people usually only see from afar) and force progress on our culture by developing complex narratives with a two-tiered character of atonement (reconciliation from the top down) and forgiveness (progress from the bottom up).

As artists like Tarentino, Whedon and Nolan have shown, this can only be done honestly within the system by giving people what they need and are used to while still performing a measure of alchemy as you assemble the pieces. Audiences have always rewarded change of this sort, and the saving grace of this whole situation is that it seems like a natural corrective process, by which innovation made in the name of emotional truth is rewarded and allowed to hasten true change.

In the indie world, however, where none of us enjoy such influence or such easily-employed freedom (or are yet as brilliant), we need to shake off the idea that anything but a true reflection of what society looks like ‘on the ground,’ in very real terms, is acceptable. We need to cease rewarding cleverness and excusing myopia. We need to stop pursuing only that which appears true only in the sense that it reinforces what we already think to be true (because, as I discussed in my posts on The Screen, a lot of that is simply false). All these habits, in both the creative sense as well as on the level of the audience, reinforce old narratives of the American and/or the individual (often the white male American individual) as something particularly special. They also, in turn, reinforce the depiction of anyone existing outside this ‘norm’ as an ‘other.’

An anti-film, then, must be defined as an activist film that backtracks against the parameters of what is normally understood as a film by historically conservative, historically white audiences, in terms they can relate to, while at the same time challenging certain ideas steeped in those parts of white conservatism that continue to endanger our future and are otherwise maintained in order to preserve the power of the old regime.

Like I said, easier said than done. Certain people will continue to make good, important films that are incapable of accomplishing this at the same time that they’re being honest. Others will continue to give those in control of The Screen more of what they want, which is now so far divergent from what the people that make up the average audience want, that they can’t do anything but fail in the long run.

And they’ll fail because people like me, a formerly conservative white male with everything to gain by playing ball (and a few opportunities to do so), have sniffed out what’s going on, rejected their arguments and their rationalizations, and have called bullshit. They’ll fail because people like me and you (there’s no way you’re still reading if you don’t agree at least a little) are more interested in justice and fairness and truth, than the ease of idle passivity.

Mostly they’ll fail because the winds of change are blowing against them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working together to create and champion the sort of compassionately reactionary art that’s capable of hastening the change as much as possible. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working tirelessly to create and reward visions of an America (and a globe) that might be all we can aspire to for now, one where the realities of ‘life as most of us know it’ are depicted as they are, rather than what other people want them to look like. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep fighting for equality and justice. It just means we should be fighting smarter.