November 26, 2010

The Motion Picture Divide

Robert Margolis in The Definition of Insanity
The worlds of high budget 3D films, and low budget independent films have never been so separate, like the national divide between the rich and poor. Ten years ago I would have said that this would not happen. The birth of digital video, desktop editing with effects and digital animation tools made me think that the future of motion pictures would have no financial barriers of entry, only creative ones. Near the beginning of all of this I was a producer of The Definition of Insanity, a digital movie that blurred the lines of documentary and feature, something which has become common. That was 2004, and my thinking was that as cameras improved there wouldn’t just be intimate cinema verite style features made for less than $100,000, but also epic films for the same small budget. This doesn’t seem to be the case, and I am not sure why.

Tuesday night I went with a friend to see a Ted Hope sponsored indie film called You Won't Miss Me. It was very much in the vain of Definition of Insanity, and I respected it. The star and co-writer Stella Schanbel so much blurred the lines of improvisation and performance that it put me in a state of empathetic anxiety. This film was not polished, but it was moving in a way that pulled me into the drama of a young New York artistic society. This still left me with the same confusion over the state of independent film. After all, the same week as this premiere was also the release of the Microsoft Kinect. Again it is a consumer technology that wasn’t even fathomable a few years ago. Yet Avatar, with a $300 million budget, is so removed from any independent film in production value, that entrance into the mainstream seems as far away now as it did in 2004 when we made Definition of Insanity.

This may be the wrong way to look at it though. Maybe it is possible that the world needs these extremes, making it more of an access to distribution problem than a budget, or technology related issue. The TCM documentary Moguls, about the rise of Hollywood’s culture domination, reminded me of a fundamental difference between silent film and sound pictures. The silent films were not only visually stunning, but they involved a level of improvisation that wasn’t possible with sound stage schedules and crew sizes. The genius of Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin wasn’t just in comedy and acting in a structured sense, but in an intuitional impromptu sense. The move to sound films wasn’t a problem for these actors because they had to speak, but because they had new confines of schedule and movement. Chaplin was the only one of these three to be at all successful in still making films that were mostly silent, like City Lights, and the main reason is that he had the power to control distribution. City Lights is not so different from other Chaplin films, it is just right in the middle of the talky age, making it a standout. It might be that the same thing that made it impossible for Buster Keaton to have films seen in the age of sound films, is the same reason that it is difficult for a film like Definition of Insanity, or You Won’t Miss Me to compete with Harry Potter or Avatar.



This article was guest written by Matthew Putman, a physicist, composer, entrepreneur and occasional film and theater producer. More on Matthew at www.matthewcputman.com.


3 comments:

  1. I think you may be right when you say we need the extremes - often this is the only way we can judge our taste, by having a comparison. Like Avatar was a terrible story, really poor, which if it didn't have 3million spent on all the effects, it would have been nothing. I likened it to sitting in a multisensory art space - you enjoy the experience but not necessarily the subject or the story. Where are the kind of docu-feature films are much more interesting and would not be suited to expensive gimmicky effects - they would detract from the subject.

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  2. I think you may be right when you say we need the extremes - often this is the only way we can judge our taste, by having a comparison. Like Avatar was a terrible story, really poor, which if it didn't have 3million spent on all the effects, it would have been nothing. I likened it to sitting in a multisensory art space - you enjoy the experience but not necessarily the subject or the story. Where are the kind of docu-feature films are much more interesting and would not be suited to expensive gimmicky effects - they would detract from the subject.

    ReplyDelete
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