Have We Forgotten What We Really Need To Talk About?

by Ted Hope
March 20, 2011 1:36 AM
16 Comments
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We spend so much time trying to find a way to make it this indie film thing work, to get good work seen and appreciated, to have a sustainable working model that might afford one to have a reasonable middle-class existence creating quality work (is that too much to ask?), we sometimes forget about why we are doing it.

Today's guest post is courtesy of Eric Mendelsohn, whose Sundance Best Director Award winning 3 BACKYARDS opened this weekend. What have we lost in our effort to survive and build together a better world for truly ambitious work?

Ted Hope was kind enough to ask me to write something for his site to accompany the release of my film, 3 BACKYARDS. I hesitated for a number of reasons. For one, I am uneasy about filmmakers spouting about the state of this or that in print. But more to the point, I actually think I was uncomfortable revealing a truthful representation of my relationship to independent film as well as to the type of conversation that regularly dominates film websites, film festival panels, etc. But, expanding upon and incorporating a piece I had written for the Sundance website, I decided that as long as I wrote honestly and strictly from my own perspective, there might be some validity in doing so.

There is only one part of the term 'independent cinema' that has ever held any interest for me. That is cinema. For years now, I believe the art form I love has been the subject of a highjacking of sorts; the conversation has been-- reductively, tediously, mind-numbingly-- about 'indie-film' when it should have been about film.

I didn't grew up with the term “independent film.” When I was a kid, indiscriminately watching everything that appeared on TV via "The 4:30 Movie", "The MIllion Dollar Movie" and "Chiller Theater", there was no such thing as indie film as we now know it. In fact, like many people my age, I was illiterate about film in a way that isn't even conceivable today. I happily watched pan-and-scan films and thought the camera movements were part of some coherent Hollywood style. When TV stations scrunched up the opening credits of epics to fit television screens, I thought it was a way of telling the audience that an elegant, important film was about to begin. I watched great films and schlock, 1940's melodramas and foreign arthouse classics, all on the same tiny black and white TV, lying on the carpeting in my mother's dining room.

And so, when I began to differentiate those films that had a hand guiding the visuals from those that just seemed to photograph whatever the actors said, I never discriminated against the film's origins. I saw that guiding hand in films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Psycho, for sure, but I also saw it in The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom and the originalSuperman. I saw that the same guiding hand could organize and orchestrate images in the manner of classical music, like in David Lean's Oliver Twist, or fracture and destroy them like in Nicholas Roeg's Performance. Sometimes, I would wait for a film to come on television just because one shot excited me. The Little Foxes had only one moment that caught my attention as a kid—when Bette Davis, foregrounded and unable to move, refuses to help her dying husband, who is staggering through the background trying to get his medication. There is a single shot in a film called The Mummy's Ghost, where the limping Egyptian creature carries a woman up a railroad trestle— in a long-shot, executed in terrible day-for-night—that I find existentially terrifying. I recall lying on my belly, stunned into silence, as Jean Cocteau's Beauty and The Beast opened itself up to me on the TV and it felt like an unreal portal had been revealed in the walls of the house.

I didn't care or even know about the aura that surrounded moviemaking. Instead, I had fallen in love with the silent, persuasive visual strategy called directing.

And so, it was with a sense of real, personal disappointment that, when I began going to festivals with my first half-hour film, Through an Open Window, I found the conversation surrounding filmmaking had been reduced to coy, 'aw shucks' back-stories about how each film got made. The very first question I was asked after my film, Judy Berlin, premiered at Sundance--- while the actors sat in the audience and just after the credit music had stopped- was about the budget. I wanted to talk about shots. I wanted to talk about Fellini, from whom I'd certainly stolen my own little heroine, played by a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco. I wanted to talk about those weird, sometimes-clunky, Frank Perry films that had partially influenced the film. I certainly wanted to talk about Jacques Demy whose films mythologized the coastal towns of France in a way that was to give me license to set my films in the towns of Long Island. But the era of the low-budget indie film had arrived and all anybody wanted to know about was how low the budget was, did I have a great backstory about the film getting made. Though I refused to answer the question in deference to the entire creative team in attendance, I have been guilty since then about playing into the feverish desire for bone-headed, scrappy-fimmaker stories and the vogue for cutesy "Look Ma, no budget!" anecdotes.

The only thing that rivals our society's fetish with the enormous budget of Hollywood movies (when did we start to know or care about Monday morning grosses?) is the independent world's fetishizing of our own low budgets ("made for twelve dollars in green stamps and recycled bottles!.") The insidious danger in having diverted the conversation to either the back-story or the budget is that neither is good for film. The films I love of the Italian Neo-Realists and of the French New Wave were made under enormous financial constraints and deprivations, but that is not eventually where their greatness lies. Instead, it is their uncompromising artistic rigor and the startling inventiveness of their writing and directing that we still celebrate and are in awe of today. I don't think that Ted Hope's "The budget IS the aesthetic" was intended to focus us slavishly upon the budget nor the aura of cool that surrounds NOT having great sets, professional actors or neat-o equipment. It was intended to encourage filmmakers to utilize what was before them as the Neo-Realists had done with real locations and open air shooting. The budget is NOT the aesthetic. The only guiding principle in a work of art is internal to that work of art or artist.

The responsibility for the creation of better films is the filmmaker's. Film is an art form as well as a commercial endeavor but its practitioners must be artists, craftspeople and creators first, before they are multi-platform, social media, soap-box, agenda-laden, guerilla this, viral that, trans media, new model, off-Hollywood, micro, mini, anythings. We have an obligation both to the filmmakers of the past in whose steps we follow and to the filmmakers of the future who are looking for guidance to redirect the conversation to one that is worthy of the art form.

I am a professor of film at Columbia University's graduate film program. I mention this because it is there at Columbia, in the classrooms where student work is gone over shot by shot, in the edit suites where three frames are added and then one removed, and in the hallways where there is always a conversation going on about the plot of a current film that I see the most hopeful expression of where independent film, and film in general, might be going. It is, however, what isn't being said in those rooms where I find the most meaning.

The conversation no longer seems to be enslaved to the kind of shrill, militant, indie-for-indie's sake battle cry. My students are interested in shots, in edits, in stories, in characters. In short, they are interested in movies.

-- Eric Mendelsohn

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16 Comments

  • David Van Taylor | April 4, 2011 6:05 AMReply

    Thanks for this post, Eric. I have also often found it dispiriting how hard it is to find/provoke/experience conversations about movies, not business, at festivals and other should-be temples of cinema.

    I don't think your concerns come from a privileged place. To stick with some of the commenters Marxist framework, but flip it on its head: we all must work to seize back the inherent meaning and value of our labor, even as the system of production threatens to reduce it all to the single denominator of capitalism. so thanks for your attempt to do that.

    David

    PS I think we met *many* moons ago, via Tam Jenkins. Congrats on your successes. I'm sure they have been hard-won.

  • bari boswell | March 31, 2011 8:13 AMReply

    To clarify what I think I read in this post: There are two separate discussions about filmmaking. Making films (the aesthetic) and Getting films made (the funding). Their both valid and necessary discussions.

    GETTING THE FILM MADE: You can walk around with a great film in your head, but until you get the funding to produce that film, it stays in your head. Or, you can make endless compromises to limited resources to get it made. But there comes a point when the compromises overwhelm the original vision to such a degree that no one (the audience) gets your original vision. That's heartbreaking for a filmmaker.

    MAKING A GOOD FILM: The universal axiom, "The cream of the crop e.g. the best of the best will never exceed 10% of the total product or talent available" holds true for Hollywood and Indie films. I would honestly say that I haven't seen a higher percent of really good Indie films than of really good Hollywood films. Mendelsohn's point that first and foremost a filmmaker must master ALL the elements of good filmmaking is so true. If you have access to the money to make a film but you haven't mastered filmmaking yet -- then what happens? You get Hollywood today. Film students should be focused on learning the art of filmmaking. The last two classes they take before leaving school should introduce them to the realities of film funding they're about encounter in the real world. BUT, they should not be obsessing over or distracted by that reality BEFORE they've learned everything the school has to offer about the art of filmmaking.

  • Jamie Paszko | Film Slate Magazine | March 23, 2011 2:42 AMReply

    Eric,

    Love your ideas here, but I don't the love of movies and filmmaking his lost. I think these conversations about budget give filmmakers who are outside of the Hollywood system hope that they can also pick up a camera and make a great movie that may be seen by an audience.

    Regards,

    Jamie Paszko, Publisher, http://www.FilmSlateMagazine.com

  • Christopher | March 22, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Dear Eric,

    Congratulations on the success of your film, 3 BACKYARDS!

    And thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on Ted's blog! Being very proud of my recent "micro-budget" film endeavor, I inevitably have thoughts I'd like to share in response to your article.

    Though I myself have not attended many festivals, I have heard numerous accounts of the infamous "budget" question and can totally understand how obnoxious it can get after screening your film. After all, you made your film to share art, not a budget.

    On the flip side, us craftspeople, artisans, we like "shop talk." We like to talk about our materials, tools, conditions, environments, and, yes, even budget. As an independent filmmaker, to me, budget is a HUGE element to my art. Although, I agree it literally is "NOT the aesthetic," budget definitely is a huge factor ON the aesthetic. In many ways, budget informs, inspires the aesthetic in the same way a particular piece of marble or ceiling assigned to Michelangelo informed and inspired his work.

    Your statement, "There is only one part of the term ‘independent cinema’ that has ever held any interest for me.  That is cinema." reveals a lot. You're not interested in the "indie" conversation - that's fair. Personally, I am and a lot of us who follow Ted are. As a filmmaker working outside the studio system, I am eager to connect with others like me who are trying to figure out how "to utilize what was before them." That is the independent spirit: making the most with what one has, including budget. And it's incredibly valuable (financially and emotionally) to learn from one another how to better stretch our dollars.

    Finally, to mention your students is a very interesting way to end your article. I understand your point and fully appreciate their pure approach to cinema. However, Eric, they are in school. As a person with many degrees and many years spent in school, I fully understand that lifestyle and the comforts it affords. It's easy not to think about budget while living off your parents, scholarships, and/or student loans. Budget, shmudget. However, once one graduates and is solely responsible for financing their film, budget becomes a HUGE part of the conversation, not for it's own sake, but for the art's sake, because money is needed to make art happen.

    Living in LA, I am surrounded by myriad film school grads who learned about Godard, story structure and shot size, but not budget, so they're stuck. They have a script or an idea that they simply cannot make, because they lack budget discipline. They do not understand that budget is a huge part of the art form, a key material to making art happen.

    Budget is a conversation "worthy of the art form." Budget is a "guiding principle" in art. However, you have reminded us that it is not everything. That, in the end, budget is only a means to an end; an end that is cinema. And good cinema is ultimately what we need to concerns ourselves with.

    Thank You,
    Christopher

    http://followmyfilm.com

  • doghouse | March 21, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    Hey Bilbo, you're giving anonymity a bad name!. Since the business is vindictive, the pashas are remarkably thin skinned and the truth is so rarely spoken, there's at least some justification for a mask on forums like this one, even if privacy and google into eternity aren't a concern to you (or anyone).

    But there's no justification for a mask if all you care to do is make personal insults -- and idiotic ones, at that. Eric Mendelsohn is one of the very few indie filmmakers pursuing his own path. If you're not interested, don't buy a ticket.

  • Audrey Ewell | March 21, 2011 6:12 AMReply

    Bilbo, I don't think he's necessarily a douche, and not all indie filmmakers are elitists or privileged (although to be fair, you'd never know that from most of what gets praised, awarded, and covered by the indie film media). Not all of us filmmakers are insulated and myopic, and the film I'm now putting together does in fact traverse the sort of locales you mention.

    Doghouse, it's a pleasure to see you again. The post below yours is actually mine, I wrote it after coming back from having a few drinks with the founder of a cutting-edge European festival (music, not film, as that's where the edges are usually being cut today), and anyway I put a title instead of my name! In retrospect, it could have been so much worse, I'm delighted to have been coherent at all (aside from some dubious spelling).

    Anyway, Doghouse, I think you should get in touch. You can write me at the webpage below if you like, not just to satisfy my curiosity, but because I so seldom find anyone who thinks about things in a similar way, and I'd love to see your work or potentially talk more.

    Audrey
    http://www.blackmetalmovie.com

  • Bilbo Baggins | March 21, 2011 5:16 AMReply

    Mr. Mendelsohn, you sir are a douche. Only someone from a priveleged upbringing would write a post like this. Seriously, is this what you spend your days worrying about? How about you go spend some time in a small town in middle America, a town that once represented the American dream, but is now dead and desolate. Go there and talk to the people there about this petty problem you have with indie film and see how they respond.

    All you damn indie film elitists that live in your ignorant little bubbles need to learn what life is like in the real world. And no, teaching at Columbia University isn't the real world.

  • This is a post-capitalist culture, why are you cha | March 21, 2011 3:51 AMReply

    Bourgeois. There is a reason these questions get asked. We are making films in a capiitalist society, time... for better, or for much, much worse. The art is part and parcel of the finance, and there is precious little art to spare. Ask the questions, by all means... but do not offer tired forms as the answer.

    What is your hook? What genre are you part of? What is you built-in audience...? if you have not been asked to justify your existence, then whose rich man's white son are you?

    The world is not the same one in which 81/2 was made... so who's keeping up?

    I agree with you ... 40 years ago. My friend, you are an anacronism. This is not to say that you're wrong.. only that you're privileged. And we, in this time of terror and uncertainty, are drawn between the beacon of pristine educated gloss/entertainment, and the visceral reality of life. Your film is already dated. We must become translaters between the classic and the ever-evolving now.

  • Eugene Martin | March 21, 2011 1:59 AMReply

    Great post. I am also a filmmaker and professor teaching filmmaking at the Univ. of North Texas. For us, its all about the story. We shoot everything on film, so its our 6 Bolexes and 3 Arri SRs. We spend time on developing compelling material with great characters and engaging stories, whether its narrative, doc, or experimental. Then as a school, we fund the films. At the same time, our students are immersed in a film culture where they can quote Fellini, Cassavetes, Christopher Doyle, Chris Marker and Agnes Varda and the Maysles. For those of us who are also taking on the education mission, our role has never needed to be more focused on the essential aspects of getting students to create their own style of cinema.

    Eugene Martin

  • doghouse | March 21, 2011 1:44 AMReply

    As inspirational as Eric Mendelsohn's view is, and as necessary as it may be to profess it, there are a few difficulties here.

    To break the first commandment (talking about money): in current dollars and by American indie standards, the classics of the early French New Wave were well-funded productions often featuring stars, or professional actors with star qualities already in evidence. Even the post-war neo-realist Italian films, impecunious as they may have been, were known to employ legendary actors, had access to wide-ranging and credible locations and were productions with an industrial basis.

    The prospect of an unknown American assembling equally rich productions, and as removed from Hollywood and indie film as these films were from the prevailing conventions of the French or Italian film industries of the time is, to put it kindly, remote. Alas, DIY means mumblecore, not the French New Wave or "Paisan".

    It would seem that in the worst and most literal way, Ted Hope is right: budget IS aesthetic. For Americans outside the indie mainstream (and for very few within it), there is no means to buy that aesthetic, at least not without years of fund-raising. Confronting this reality could well mean the end of a film career, or a would-be career. Then again, the taint of fantasy in cinema, including the fantasy of making cinema, runs so deep that there will never be a shortage of wasted lives.

  • Beth Janson | March 20, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    I suspect some of those anecdotal tendencies began purely as tales of artistic ingenuity triumphing over mundane realities, but the focus has definitely become tediously myopic in that regard. What a great post for the first day of Spring...thank you!

  • Bilbo Baggins | March 20, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Zak, you have to leave LA to experience that b/c everyone in LA lost their souls and their abilities to empathize a long time ago.

  • Scilla Andreen | March 20, 2011 8:35 AMReply

    I constantly experiment in looking for ways to bring film to the audience so we can relish in the conversation that follows. I think it's the most meaningful part of the film experience. It's the story that matters not the budget or the camera.
    Thank you Eric for a great post!

  • Zak Forsman | March 20, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    it's mostly regional fests where i've had the pleasure of an audience that wanted to talk with me about story and character afterward, as opposed to which camera we shot on. I mean, I get why people ask this stuff. And I think what they really want to know is what resources (money, time, equipment, skill) it took to get the resulting picture they just experienced -- to confirm whether or not they could do the same for themselves.

    one of our best Q&As; had these women, all over the age of 50, relating personal reflections on what the main character (a young pregnant girl with a history of bad relationships) went through. They'd share personal stories of past heartache (while their husbands sat quietly) and often would sum up their experience of watching the film in a beautiful and eloquent way. it's embarrassing to admit, but I've gotten choked up during Q&As; like this because it's so... moving. I wish it weren't the case, but I usually have to leave Los Angeles to get that kind of deep interaction with an audience.

  • Ed Casey | March 20, 2011 4:42 AMReply

    Re: What we really need to talk about?

    This article is a treasure for reminding many of us of our early film roots of seeing big movies and small movies on black and white TV sets. For many years, the train track shot in the Mummy Returns seemed like a dream rather than a film. It was visually so unreal!

    Most of us in film, believe strongly in solid characters, and a good story.

    If the conversation in Q and A panels turns to the low-budget discussion, well so be it! As long as people care about the movie and it gets seen is what truly matters.

    How does one explain the passion and energy needed to complete even a short film? That's a story that is hard to tell. So if the conversation leads to bone-headed anecdotes, it's better than talking about exotic locations, off-screen romances, and the ego battles of studio blockbusters.

    If your students are an indication of film's future, we are moving towards a cinema of ideas and away from a fetish of commercialism.
    The future is exciting indeed!

  • Michael R. Barnard | March 20, 2011 3:04 AMReply

    This is one of the best posts about film that I have read. Thank you. It is completely accurate in describing the reality of what a movie *is* versus the pits we fall into while discussing how it was made.

    ("We shot it on a RED" is becoming a very annoying statement to me for that reason.)

    Thank you for a clear and concise aesthetic focus that is as important as the camera's focus.

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