Digital knocked by Nolan, but not by those who can’t afford anything else

Christopher Nolan has been bashing digital filmmaking, as he’s rather accustomed to do. There’s an interesting response to this from some indie filmmakers canvassed by the Latin Heat Entertainment website, here. The gist is that they put Nolan’s comment – that digital is ‘devaluing what we do as filmmakers’ – to several Latino indie writers/directors. The response wasn’t very much in his favour overall, particularly in the dismissive tone he seems sometimes to adopt. And for most the bottom line seems to be a simple one: that they don’t always have the luxury to be able to afford celluloid and would rather work on digital than not at all. Some unfavourable comparisons might also be made between some of Nolan’s most mainstream studio work and what some filmmakers – Latino or otherwise – have achieved digitally on minuscule budgets.

Hmm. How big exactly is my budget this time?

 

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Your Sister’s Sister, post-mumblecore and Joe Swanberg’s persistence

Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister seems to have cemented her reputation as a significant presence in what might be termed a post-mumblecore tendency in some indie film, following her earlier titles such as My Effortless Brilliance (2008) and Humpday (2009). What characterises such films is a sharing in some of the relatively rough-and-ready, very low budget style of mumblecore with a degree of more conventional plotting and dramatic scenario.

Humpday is a good example of this, very mumblecore in its general texture but with a stronger ‘hook’ than is normally associated with the form and in this case one that leans more towards the material of exploitation cinema – in promise at least – in the shape of the drunken agreement of its two male protagonists to make their own DIY porn movie.  This creates a greater sense of dramatic tension and movement towards a ‘big’ plot point than is the norm for mumblecore or some other forms of low-key indie film – but it doesn’t really ‘deliver’ in that sense, the discomfort of the two protagonists around the enterprise, from which neither feels able to back down, being likely to be shared by the viewer and not leading to any consummation.

Your Sister’s Sister also has a narrative shape and plotting that is more conventional than most of the films associated with the drifting narrative tendency of mumblecore, in the various dramatic tensions created through its central relationships triangle. This is accompanied by a more mumblecore style at the level of dialogue and general low-budget resonances (the latter including a harsh sound quality that is often as clear a marker of low budget as anything in the visuals). The result is an effective mix. I particularly like the way the film blends elements of comedy – occasionally laugh-out-loud – with a more serious modality. It manages the tricky balance of including some of the former without at any time undermining the impact of the latter, in a piece in which we’re meant to feel a real emotional pain on the part of the progatonists, an ingredient that’s also found in much of mumblecore.

The three principals in Shelton’s latest

Whether or not mumblecore itself has now had its day remains open to debate. I’ve written more about this in Indie 2.0 and it is certainly the case that a number of filmmakers associated with the label have move some degree more towards the mainstream or towards more conventional indie filmmaking. But not always very far and not at all in at least one prominent case, Joe Swanberg, who continues to produce an extraordinary number of films very much in line with his earlier micro-budget mumblecore features such as LOL (2006) or Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). Swanberg had at least six films on release last year (Uncle Kent, Silver Bullets, Art History, The Zone, Caitlin Plays Herself and Autoerotic, the latter co-directed by Adam Wingard). Is this a record? Some would argue this is because his work is so rough-and-ready and almost thrown together rather than anything of which to be proud (and his films are far from to everyone’s taste) but it is notable that at least one of the key figures associated with mumblecore from the start (in 2005) has resisted any urge to conform to more established indie or crossover dynamics and continues entirely to do his own thing. Filmmaking of this kind also raises interesting questions about the boundaries between that which is accorded ‘legitimate’ indie status or is declared to remain in a less valued ‘amateur’ realm – but it also suggests some ways in which these boundaries have been blurred in recent years, as a result of factors including the availability of incredibly cheap filmmaking apparatus. That again is something I explore further in Indie 2.0. Not that I’d want to keep plugging that, or anything!

One of the numerous Swanberg films released in 2011

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Tarnation sequel – not quite available to all

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is right up among my personal favourite indie films, so it’s exciting to hear news of his sequel, Walk Away Renee, in a review by Jana J. Monji on the Chicago Sun-Times website. For anyone who doesn’t know it, Tarnation is an extraordinary expressive first-person autobiographical documentary, shot at virtually no initial cost and involving various kaleidoscopic displays of home-movie and reconstructed footage relating to his troubled life and that of his family, particularly his mother Renee. It reaches quite ecstatic heights at times, in the orchestration of images to a selection of the filmmaker’s favourite music. And you have to love a film that includes footage of his precocious high-school production of a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet! I’ve written about Tarnation at some length in my forthcoming book Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity on Contemporary American Indie Film, as an example of what’s become known as the ‘digital desktop’ aesthetic resulting from certain, mostly low-budget uses of DV, particularly at the level of expressive post-production effects. Be interesting to see how the sequel works – structured around a trip across the US taken by Caouette and Renee as he moves her from her home in Houston to join him in New York – as Tarnation certainly set the bar high for this kind of production and will be a tough act to follow. A brief clip is available below.

The film itself is currently available by video-on-demand from the SundanceNOW platform. Which brings me on to an issue that came up during the Q&A at the London Film and Media conference panel I was a part of at the weekend, particularly in relation to a paper by Yannis Tzioumakis about history of overseas distribution of indie films. This kind of source (not specifically discussed in this paper, which traced some broader patterns over recent decades) has become a key contemporary outlet for some lower-budget indies, but it’s notable how lacking this is at the moment in fully international dimension, despite the increased overseas presence of indies as charted by Tzioumakis. Looking at the SundanceNOW site, it claims that ‘Independent film knows no borders, and SundanceNOW is proud to offer films from countries all over the world, from Korea to Romania and nearly everywhere in between.’ Hmm. From here in the UK what I get in relation to Walk Away Renee and every other title I’ve just tried is a notice saying: ‘This movie is not available in your geographic location.’ OK, the UK isn’t actually in between Korea and Romania I suppose, but I don’t think they were being that literal.

Clearly there are lots of rights issues still involved in all this and a coherent strategy is still missing, unless there’s a deliberate policy to hold back some overseas rights in the hope that they can be sold theatrically. But that undermines any hope of getting a bigger return from initial sources of publicity that can often have international reach, particularly in this era of social media, such as this case of a prominent review for the Caouette film. The same issue applies to one of the other high profile sources of regular use of VOD, the IFC. The IFC has a strategy with lower budget films of giving them a splashy showcase in New York’s IFC Center, simultaneously with VOD release, an approach that’s been used recently with a number of new films by the unbelievably prolific Joe Swanberg. These, too, are unavailable to me in the UK. Which is rather frustrating, given that they’re very unlikely to be released theatrically over here either. Presumably this will change. And maybe the same will happen in the realm of the indie TV channels run by Sundance and the IFC, which also seem to be unavailable outside the US.

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African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement

Interesting piece on FilmSlate about a new initiative for the release of African-American indie films, which fits in with some broader recent trends relating to the building of links between festival screenings and (at least relatively) wider theatrical openings. I Will Follow to become first title released by The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), described here as ‘a grass roots organization looking to increase exposure and get theatrical distribution for African-American independent movies.’ Planning two such releases a year, so quite a modest initiative so far. Full article here. Also see AFFRM website and trailer for the film below.

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Indie panel tomorrow

I’m giving a paper and chairing a panel on American indie film tomorrow at the Film and Media 2012 conference in London. For anyone who might be interested, the panel is titled ‘Contemporary American Independent Cinema: Change or Continuity’. I’ll be arguing for a strong vein of continuity in contemporary indie film, using Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff as an illustrative case study.

Other panelists/papers are as follows:

Yannis Tzioumakis, ‘An Increasingly Global Presence: Contemporary American Independent cinema outside the US’

Claire Molloy, ‘Independent Film and Social Entrepreneurship: The Rise of Social Impact Capital’

Should be a good panel and will hopefully provoke some interesting discussion relating to broader issues of change vs. continuity in the contemporary indie landscape. We’ll also be taking the opportunity to plug the collection we’re jointly editing, American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, due out from Routledge in the Autumn.  More details on the conference, at the Institute of Education, are available here.

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Auteurs, very much alive… but socially situatable

The announcement yesterday of the death of Andrew Sarris, the critic who did more than anyone else to propagate the ‘auteur’ notion in the United States, is a timely moment to note how large such a concept still looms, particularly in the indie sector. The idea that the single figure of the director should be seen as the single overriding ‘author’ of a film remains controversial, of course, in so collaborative a medium. It’s often disputed, academically, in studies of all the other factors that shape and determine the nature of individual films and also more practically, particularly by screenwriters. But the significance of the director is clearly variable depending on the nature of the film practice involved and an auteurist approach does seem more justified in much indie cinema, particularly where writer and director are sometimes the same person. Whatever else we think about it, it’s still certainly seen as having plenty of mileage as far as the selling of many indie films is concerns. The name of the filmmaker remains the major hook for discourses surrounding recent films discussed here, for example, such as Wes Anderson’s’ Moonrise Kingdom, ‘Lynn Shelton’s’ Your Sister’s Sister and ‘Todd Solondz’s‘ Dark Horse. It’s hard to imagine these and numerous other indie titles being discussed without heavy reference to the name of the filmmaker, and often rightly so.

It’s clear that the distinctive personal approaches of directors and/or writer-directors are often very much to the fore in such work. Even here, though, we can situate these more broadly. The work of the most individual of filmmakers that reaches any kind of commercial distribution remains shaped and/or constrained in various ways, both industrially and through the manifold ways in which they are likely to draw on various kinds of broader socio-cultural currents or perspectives. We end up here in very broad territory of debate about the relationship between individual and wider culture or society. And, again, this is an arena in which Raymond Williams has much to offer us. I posted recently on the continued relevance of his classic Culture and Society to understanding of discourses relating to cultural hierarchies that remain very much in play today. I’m currently reading his follow-up, the Long Revolution, first published in 1961, which includes a finely nuanced account of the manner in which we can comprehend the close relationship between that which is socially determined and that which carries the marks of particular individuals; the two, he suggests, existing in a mutually informing relationship to such an extent that neither extreme point (individual or society) can be understood in the abstract or in isolation from the other and various mediating factors. It’s good stuff, worth being more in circulation today than is usually the case. An interesting complement to Sarris – and published just a year before the latter’s classic essay, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’.

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Coordinated international releases for indie films

Is it just me, or is it becoming an increasing trend for indie films to be released simultaneously in the US and it at least some overseas territories such as the UK? I posted a while back on this in relation to Moonrise Kingdom, which might be expected to be an exception in some ways, particularly as it used the platform of so big a festival as Cannes to gain international coverage that supported a more or less simultaneous release. But the same strategy is being used for some smaller-scale films and examples that represent other parts of the indie spectrum, which seems more striking. One other example is Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, the recent opening of which in art houses on both sides of the Atlantic followed appearances at the Tribeca and Seattle festivals. Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse is another, although in this case with a couple of weeks or so between release in the US and UK.

There are various reasons why this makes sense as an industry strategy, particularly for films that appear at the bigger festivals, but it does also seem to involve the loss of some traditional marketing features. If a film opens so close to its festival appearances, it gains when those appearances bring with them plenty of media attention. But it also makes it harder to include the roll-call of festival selections or particularly prizes in key marketing arenas such as posters and trailers, which has been a standard strategy in the art and indie film sectors of for many years. Not sure what the trade-off here might be. 

It’s tempting to suggest attribute this strategy also to the nature of the world of social media surrounding such films. Being a new recruit to Twitter, it’s struck me of late how frustrating it can be if you follow indie-film related sources (as I do) but can’t see the films they tweet about because you’re in the UK – but actually more so how far this hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, because most of the traffic has been in relation to films that are being released here either simultaneously or very soon after the US opening. It’s certainly the case that social media tend not to respect international boundaries in these kinds of areas and are likely to be at least one of the forces pushing towards this kind of approach.  A space worth watching, I think. Will post something on the Shelton and Solondz films themselves separately.

 

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Cultural hierarchies

Cultural hierarchies, through which different media forms are for various reasons given higher status, can appear fixed and unbending. But far from always. One of the themes of Newman and Levine’s Legitimating Television, on which I posted below, is the way TV has sought to claim some of the higher prestige generally accorded to film or cinema – either at the level of form or content or in what might appear to be somewhat marginal phenomena such as the increasing tendency in the 1990s for TV shows to adopt some degree of ‘letterbox’ format through the creation of noticeable black bands at the top and bottom of the screen to mimic a more cinematic shape. Such has been the success of some forms of TV (although far from all) in claiming higher-than-usual status, however, that these days it’s common parlance for journalistic accounts to suggest that TV has become ‘the place to go’ for higher quality. A piece in The Guardian slipped into this simplistic rhetoric last week, suggesting, in the context of a report about the new version of Dallas that: ‘Cable has replaced movies and networks as the destination for complicated, well-written, well-acted, well-shot dramas’.

Networks aside, is this true of ‘movies’ in general? Of course not. It’s perhaps more superficial than might be expected from The Guardian, but what’s interesting here is less the accuracy of such journalism than its status as evidence of this type of discourse when considered more broadly, something I’m thinking about these days in the context of a new project on the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood. One of the case studies I’m going to examine is The Social Network and it’s striking that one of the grounds on which ‘quality’ was ascribed to the film was the presence of Aaron Sorkin as screenwriter,  bringing such credentials from his work in TV, particularly of course The West Wing. So in this case prestige in film comes at least partly from associations with the small screen. Not something that would have seemed at all usual in Hollywood in the past.

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Attention spans

Having just plugged Michael Newman’s new co-authored book on television, I also wanted to say something about his 2010 essay on discourses relating to the notion of ‘attention spans’ (‘New media, young audiences and discourses of attention: from Sesame Street to “snack culture”‘, Media, Culture & Society 32, 4). This also fits very closely with work I’m currently doing on notions of ‘quality’ – and, importantly, the opposite against which it’s defined – in contemporary Hollywood. As Newman argues, notions of reduced attention span, often closely linked with particular media such as MTV, contemporary Hollywood blockbusters or online video culture, are based on ‘evidence’ that’s almost entirely anecdotal and unconvincing. But this discourse, the prevalence of which is traced to developments in the 1970s and 1980s, is dragged out time and again as one of the ways of characterising ‘lower’ status forms, in either explicit or implicit opposition to notions of more sustained attention required by more culturally valued forms such as the literary or its equivalent in other media.

One of the reasons, Newman suggests, is that such a discourse offers a way of reasserting ideological and hierarchical distinctions in the face of change: a reassertion of ‘adult’ culture over that associated primarily with youth and of a traditional establishment culture over the threat perceived to be posted by an emerging electronic visual culture. In this sense, the dynamic can be seen as a continuation of the kinds of historical discourses identified by Raymond Williams, on whose Culture and Society I posted briefly below, and other accounts of the genesis of notions of ‘art’ and ‘popular culture’ that remain very much with us today. Another recommended source on this longer context is Leo Lowenthal’s Literature and Mass Culture, which nicely complements Williams, tracing some such developments further back into the eighteenth century. Theatre and opera were accused of over-reliance on spectacle and stage effects in this period, at the expense of plot, in a manner that seems uncannily similar to more recent castigation of the Hollywood blockbuster.

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Legitimating Television – book report

Can highly recommend Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine (Routledge 2012). OK, it’s not about film let alone indie film, but there’s strong continuity between this book and Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture in the focus on discourses through which particular kinds of value are prescribed to texts that to which various notions of ‘quality’ are ascribed. Newman’s work on indie film has paralleled mine in some key respects (including a very similar analysis of the way in which the status of Juno was disputed in some indie discourses, something he examines in Indie and on which I focus in one chapter of Indie 2.0). When he gave a paper on this dimension of Juno at a conference on American independent film at Liverpool a couple of years ago, we both had a sense that the other was picking our academic pocket in some way (I remember Michael suggesting that I must have gained access to his hard drive after I made my contribution as one of the keynotes; I felt the same way!) although we had developed our similar ideas quite independently.

So now I’m starting a book on the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood – something I’ve not yet posted about directly but it was the context of the post on Williams below – and I pick up his book about quality in TV; so we’re both at it again (or, he’s beaten me to it again, if in a different arena). Some of the underlying issues here are very close to what I’m currently working through in the context of Hollywood, so it couldn’t be more timely for me. Studies of the notion of quality in TV – mostly focused on recent or relatively recent American output – aren’t short on the ground, but this is the best I’ve read so far because it really interrogates the concept at various levels. The key argument of the book is that all of the focus on certain privileged quality series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and progenitors such as Hill Street Blues – is predicated on an implied denigration, still, of all of the rest of TV, to which lower cultural status remains ascribed. A strong thread of this book is also devoted to the identification of the extent to which this is rooted particularly in genderized hierarchies through which quality is articulated in terms of ‘masculine’ dimensions that exist in opposition to long-standing conception of ‘ordinary’ TV as essentially ‘feminine’ both in character and dominant assumptions about modes of consumption.

Newman and Levine offer useful background material on notions of ‘golden ages’ in television, followed by an examination of the extent to which the ‘quality’ label is dependent on the identification of ‘auteur’ showrunner figures. Additional text-based chapters focus on distinctions between different forms of sitcom and the extent to which notions of quality can be understood in many cases to be based on the marking of difference from soap opera. The latter is a key point in relation to the gender characteristics attributed to different forms: such differences are asserted, the authors argue here, despite the fact that some key dimensions of the long-form ‘quality’ drama have their roots in daytime serials as much as in the more elevated forms with which they’re usually compared. It is of the ignoring of such links that Newman and Levine are particularly critical and it is in this kind of argument that they go beyond most existing studies of this kind of TV.

In addition to the analysis of particular TV series, and responses to these, they also examine within the same frame a number of broader issues relating to the cultural position of TV, including literally the situation of the set in the domestic or other spheres. A key component of the manner in which TV has been legitimated in recent years, Newman and Levine suggest, is through the changing image of the television set itself, in its recent ‘high-tech’ flatscreen HD incarnation. They chart here a shift into a ‘masculine’ sphere of technology and ‘mastery’ that mirrors the gender characteristics attributed to quality TV texts themselves. The same goes for their understanding of new modes of consumption, particularly those that permit more active agency on the part of the viewer, from the advent to VHS to DVD and DVR, and the discourses through which such technologies have been advertised.

The final chapter turns their attention to the role of academia in contributing to these various dimensions of legitimation – in the constitution of TV studies as a discipline in its own right (not entirely solidly established as yet) and through academic studies of quality TV, many of which, as they suggest, remain implicated in the same hierarchies of taste and value as those articulated in broader cultural discourses. It’s excellent stuff throughout, to the credit of both authors. I’m glad to see that Newman’s now researching a project relating to videogames, as that’s not somewhere I’m going anytime soon (although I have co-authored a book on the subject in the past). Please, Michael, don’t tell me you’re currently also writing about notions of quality in relation to Inception

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