(Leg note: Fibula? Still broken. Ligaments? Totally snapped & repairing. Ability to walk or drive? Zero. Please bear with me as I continue to struggle to write through a pain-killer and lilac wine spritzer fog.) I completely forgot to write about my journey to the foreign borough of Queens a few months back- a pilgrimage to the often heard about but never visited The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. I don't know what I was expecting...mostly I guess I wasn't expecting much since many of my Queens experiences have left me disappointed and lost in near surburban-esque sprawl of graveyards, and houses with fences (& yards!), as landing strips feel a little too close- hunkering airplanes in descent forming a claustrophobic ceiling between the cities low slung blocks... As I walked under the endless elevated train and down the blocks that feel like New Jersey, a huge, sleek, angular beacon sat perched between the old building bricks of Queens, slyly tucked near old (and even current) working NY film studios! The reason I wanted to bring this place up now of all times is because there is a new exhibit there that I think is really pivotal in the realm of film & art- and also media & consumerism- crossover: music videos.
Music videos don't just mark the MTV generation of short attention spans they are also the threshold of tons of different media centered exploits extending from the original Scopitone video jukeboxes that began the marriage of music/advertising/and image outside of commercials (speaking of which there is an AMAZING article/book review about the birth of music & ads & digital media over at n+1 that is sooo worth a read, the parallels to film are striking and totally engaging) to even the youtube generation of short snippets of ideas and sounds being broadcast to larger and larger outlets as technology hurtles forth. Music videos also have a legacy of being open to budding auteurs, to taking stylistic, conceptual and even technological risks that cinema would be unable to gamble on.
In terms of music videos, the video isn't the product being sold the "music" is, making the director freed up, the music oftne acting as a wedge for holding open whatever crazy idea is rattling around in the director's brain. In fact, the DVD compilation series Director's Label from Palm Pictures are a perfect example of the art of the music video and the way they act as springboards for so much talent...an extra on the DVD of Michel Gondry's first edition with Director's Label (my favorite of his music vids embedded above!) includes a VHS demo of one of his crazy ideas that he mailed to Beck in attempts to solicit a music video job (he tied shoes to his shoes, walked backwards, and reversed the tape making it seems as if the disembodied shoes were leading the way- a simplistic twist turned into a second if a huge production), a continuing collaboration that has resulted in amazing visions.
The exhibit at the Museum of Moving Image (a space I promise to write more about at length later!) is called Spectacle: The Music Video and seems to take a very physical approach to a very fleeting medium. Composed of props, recreated sets, screenings, an original Scopiotone and even a lounge where you can access a digital archive of videos you personally want to see, it seems to set out to make people take pause about the work, ingenuity and evolution of the music video. I can't speak for the actual exhibition but I am really excited that it exists, elevating the hard work of music video director's into a historical, artistic, and filmic canon of sorts. I also appreciate that artists (like Allison Schulnick whose hobo clown work is largely unknown outside of her music video for Grizzly Bear pasted above) and innovators (Sledgehammer, the legendary Peter Gabriel song that made claymation, stop motion, and analogue animation a household viewing experience) are being presented to the masses in this slightly exalted form...a thing we think of as a sort of commercial or low art being elevated to something so much more, solidifying the creative link between disciplines that we sometimes discount thanks to the heavy fog of capitalism.
Actually, that n+1 piece I mentioned above discusses the "selling out" of musicians in a way I think plays out almost the opposite when it comes to music videos? Musicians are often criticized for lending a song to a commercial in order to make money (an increasing reality thanks to the "decade of dysfunction," of the early 2000s where the digital revolution choked the revenue out of album sales). Music videos on the other hand really are advertisements for music, a way of expressing a particular image of a performer to increase appeal of the creative product they are selling, and lately it feels as if the music video is becoming even more of a genre and money maker with very little shaming on behalf of the (well paid) director! The trend of longer length video/short films (oftentimes littered with product placement beyond the musician) of pop music seems to be in full force providing money for newer, edgier directorial talent and a larger platform for their work.
Gaga & Beyonce, Janelle Monae's ongoing sci-fi saga, and Kanye's Runaway Opus, all push the music video & film crossover and do so in ultimatley profitable ways blurring the lines between advertisement, music, film, popstar, artist, seller out or buyer in, and through new platforms that have only recently become available (iPad apps for Daniel Johnston and Bjork showcase the music but through image based, interaction that even begins to blur the lines of any media or genre we have a name for, and projects like Sigur Ros' ambitious music video /art/album comp take the traditional video but upgrade the beauty, afforded by the content being available for purchase)....I doubt the Museum of the Moving Image touches on this new frontier of consumerist film-art-music-video-extended ad-new platform music video but it is definitely a current reality that will shape the future of these media and also shape the future of audiences, auteurs, artists, and rockstars in ways we can't begin to envision! Exiting times in a post-MTV world!
Well we can all acknowledge the death of indie film, right? I mean...indie is no longer synonymous with the terms of production as it is a style, feel and commodified counter-culture vibe. People call Wes Anderson indie. Wes Anderson's last movie supposedly cost $16million to make. And the "Independent Spirit" awards is just that, a spirit, given that an indie is defined as costing under $500,000 as opposed to something like Clerks which rang in at under $30,000 during the original indie heyday. So...where does this leave the real independent filmmaker? And how do we even define indie filmmaker nowadays? I don't know. But I do know I have been seeing more and more indie film iterations popping up that might just be the next step in the indie film chain.
The first one I came across recently was "bastard film." An person I know was flooding facebook a few weeks back with constant blurry shot of film screens, bingo games (?), and dudes sitting in chairs to form various panel-like situations all under the umbrella of some unknown event called the Bastard Film Encounter. After some research, it turns out that this little symposium that took place in Raleigh North Carolina is something of an ephemeral filmmaker's dream composed of films dubbed bastard- as defined by the fest's website as "something irregular, inferior, spurious or unusual." The "Thematically clustered screening" and "lengthy discussion q&a sessions" centered around a wide ranging group of films, some long forgotten documents of things best forgotten, others bordering the eerie home movie, and others adaptations of books into movies into other movies, into art- all centering around a discourse about the need, desire, and importance of preserving these misfit films. The fest itself seemed to draw quite a few names in the bastardly world of film too with people like the Keynote speaker artist/Curator of Collections at the Anthology of Film ArchivesAndrew Lampert, Liz Coffrey a conservator at the Harvard Film Library, Kelli Hix the Curator of Moving Images at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and even a banjo playing archivist/researcher in the form of Rich Remsberg. I couldn't find too much information on what went down at this event but with screening headings like "Regional Memorabilia," "Conversion Narratives," Sliced and Diced," and "Fascinating Detritus" one can only imagine the things shining brightly onto the pupils of this audience of bastards! And then, this fest lead me to the discovery of another brand of offbeat indie: the orphan film. The Orphan Film Symposium, this years event coming up May 10th & 11th, is a venture between The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. "Orphan," as it's known, describes it's films as those "..abandoned by its owner or caretaker...films outside the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies..." and so on and so on. Two stand outs from this years bill are A Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke's recently restored 1967 experimental documentary about a gay, black, "hustler" a film & subject pushed the boundaries of race, sexuality and culture and has all but been lost until now...and the other stand out is a screening of the only surviving "Auroratone" film which was a genre of near psychedelic, crystalline light show scenes set to slow, calming music produced in the 40s meant as a form of meditative healing mostly for post traumatic stress suffering war veterans. Orphans, like bastards, seem to have a tendency towards the anthropological side seeing these nearly discarded relics as historical artifact in need of preservation, which is what I think connects these categories to the roots of indie film.
The Indie film genre began as a platform for unheard voices unable to be be funded by the mainstream, the counterculture, the underground just as the orphans & bastards are remnants of ideas that people felt the need to preserve and promote for whatever reason. To take it a step further, youtube, vimeo, videocamera phones, vine- are all nearly instant access to moving images, a new kind of DIY whose digital archives are incalculable- all part of everyday voices that can be accessed like never before. The orphans and the bastards really are the forefathers of a new type of indie cinema- the lost home movies, the glimpses of the unseen, the beauty in someone- anyone's- vision through a camera (or now, a phone or computer or eyeglass) lens. By making the moving image medium more approachable where is it heading? Will new ideas, new platforms, more ways of seeing emerge? Most likely yes, as will a multitude of lives and pictures people have never seen before...the promise for a globalization of cultural sharing through film is on the brink of new dawn and I really hope this fact will let all the orphans & bastards out there have a voice, and maybe even gain attention in causes, issues, lifestyles & beauty we barely even know exist.
Well it's been a long while since I've seen a film before it hits the theaters...but I recently was able to catch the amazing documentary that has been making the rounds- most notable at my favorite film fest in the world True/False down in Columbia, MO and also just last week over at the Tribeca Film Festival- and that film is none other than Cutie and the Boxer. And it is one of the best films I have seen in years!
Cutie and the Boxer peers into the creative life of Ushio & Noriko Shinohara, a Japanese couple who have lived in New York for decades, building their artistic visions, lifestyle and love in a way that is to be admired, observed, and pondered. Cutie is the R. Crumb like scroll style narrative comic book creation of Noriko - her braided ink drawn alter ego portraying life in the shadow of a virulent man. The Boxer is Ushio, known throughout the NY 70s pop art scene for his found object sculptures, action painting- literally boxing paint onto canvases-, and general overwhelming artistic spirit/ego. They live in their own dilapidated studios, they move in & out of sparkling galleries, they support, push and struggle to maintain a lifestyle that audiences are rarely allowed to see....and the filmmaking that captures their sweeping togetherness is the perfect compliment to this story.
The director of this film won some kind of first time director award at Sundance this year and he definitely deserved it! His crafting of this film is near perfection with a personal yet distanced eye feeling around the emotions and environment he is documenting with a touch of his own creative intensity; animation sequences of Cutie's drawings provide backstory, archival & vhs footage of Ushio as a younger artist, distanced sequences of creative production rarely captured on film (think Pollock footage but with a much more humanistic eye)...event the carefully chosen music (Yasuaki Shimizu & Saxophonettes) held together the feel of the film in such a beautiful sense...in fact that is the way I would describe Zachary Heinzerling's filmmaking as a whole: sensory. A new cinematic voice that seamlessly blends the eccentricities and wonder of what it means to live a modern artistic lifestyle both as subjects and as a documentary filmmaker- both as artists.
I've been finding it very difficult to articulate my review of this movie...thanks to it hitting a little too close to home. I didn't make an official announcement on this here blog that I have parted ways with my collaborator....One can become so lost in their own head, in their own ideas, that the needs, ideas and heads of others are clouded with the visionary creativity of another- a problem that is so hard to reconcile, and one that, seeing the relationship of Ushio & Noriko, makes me yearn to kidnap her! How many apologies can we make for the gifted & talented minds that cause so much destruction in the wake of their enormous, brooding, towering ideas...? To see Cutie, a film executed with such poise and care, is to witness a type of living that is both immensely passionate and also immensely destructive- two things that are often needed to instigate and balloon shadows of ideas into realities....but sometimes the realities behind an artistic vision are can be a little trying.... Cutie and the Boxer is a must see film about a not often described unreal life of heartache, love and imaginative invention a film that I know all too well...
Woah! Sorry about the blog break- I'm not dead yet! Breaking one's leg is a pain in many, many ways. Mainly there is the pain. Then the pills meant to intercept the pain and lie to your brain that there is no pain. Then there is the hazy immobility. Then you see someone acting suspicious out your back window through your binoculars...wait, I mean (check out this awesome Rear Window time-lapse video if you get a chance!). My head is a bit more together and my pain, still there, but at least I am able to be somewhat coherent (the pain was so piercing I one day found myself biting my tongue in an attempt to offset it). I even have sobered up enough to enjoy some reading and grant applying. Speaking of which...I never get grants. Of any kind. Which I only find weird because people read this blog. Not a ton but a decent amount. Enough that I've been asked to write other things for other people. You know what...I want to talk more about this I think?
I just got denied a fellowship to this Summer's Flaherty Seminar- a film organization that seeks to define, discuss and promote the beautifully lush grey area between real life and the film life of the documentary landscape. This is a topic I am VERY passionate about. One that I've devoted a large chunk of my life to in a weird sense. But...I didn't get this grant. And I can't afford to go to the seminar without it. Which makes me wonder: who DOES get these grants? Who is deemed worthy of project loans and other forms of money doled out by organizations who support thinkers in need? Well the answer is...no one new.
A lot of grant-like outlets tend to act like a centrifuge, spinning around academia in a way that both perpetuates itself- picking out the ideas that it deems worth more inquiry- and removing the impurities of those of us without elaborate letters after our names...but, this has never been the way I view an intellectual life. In fact, I view it as just the opposite. I think the more ideas and influences that reach out beyond specific disciplines can lead to a more rounded way of problem solving- a thing that, in fact, has been proven to be a sign of real intelligence.
One of the major collector's of the filmmaker I used to work with was a scientist. He turned to the arts to spin his brain around, to think outside of science and look for creative solutions to problems in his own field. One of the most successful art related projects I encountered during my travels over the past few years was X-Square, a "Cross Institute Initiatives" class at Arizona State University. It was a class that produced a sustainable campus public art project, the catch was that each team had to contain students across different majors forcing each group to move beyond pure aesthetics and think about psychology, science, and the ways data & ideas are communicated- interdisciplinary problem solving & inquiry ballooning concepts into one vision.
The more global we get, the more technology transmits ideas across the invisible plane of ones and zeros, the more widespread our discussions become, the more informed our thinking can be... a thing we should foster off the web too, right? I dunno...maybe I am just trying to reconcile the fact that some deem me unworthy of membership in their organizations and, who knows, maybe my applications to these things aren't the best.... But, like a lot of fellow film writers, independent bloggers, and citizen journalists I know, I consider myself a part of a community that is working in a larger conversation and pushing around our individual ideas- our ideas culled from the experience of seeing underground movies in a darkened basement of a micro theater or experiencing the skeleton of a Ground Sloth for the first time, not just ideas learned in classrooms or on our daddy's film set...- to others in a way far more important than ever before! So, chin up to me and chin up to all other independent culture makers, critics and the like! We might not have the grant money but at least we have our thoughts....! xox (PS. I'm not saying academia is useless hell, I love reading a good film theory essay more than most... but, what I am saying is academia needs to be a little less closed off!)
So recently I got a message from a friend in desperate need of help on his most recent film project. Despite being incredibly busy (so busy my blog has been in shambles with a half dozen, half started posts lingering in the unpublished section of the internet jungle) I agreed to help...mostly because it isn't everyday that one is asked to aid in a deadline completion for the latest film of Ken Burns' and his local Florentine Film Crew! The task at hand: transcription. Transcription is the type of detail I think more documentary filmmakers should embrace as it helps manage interview content, a thing that can be daunting if not handled correctly. After completing this tedious task of transcribing I asked my friend what exactly they use the finished product for, his reply was that they use them to mine for potentially usable footage and also as an early stage in script writing- yes documentaries (mostly should!) have writers!
I've mentioned recently how I think it is important for documentaries to build a story, purpose or point around the subjects they are filming (a sore spot for me given my recent film fest screening committee time in which many a mere camera rolling in front of some real life subject tried to pass as a film...), a feeling that has been greatly reinforced by my forray into transcription! When thinking of the work of Ken Burns I think of sweeping yet detailed histories of a particular subject, subjects that are so dense and complex that they seem impossible to encapsulate through a film. But, it is the intense structuring of the information- the sweep and zoom across archival images, the questions asked of the interview subjects, thought provoking voiceover narration, humanized events, incredibly researched facts- that are able to make Burns' style move past photo album, vacation slide show or boring slapdash film category and into historical document territory.
The NY Times recently published an article about the sudden increase in writing credits attached to documentary films...and the conclusion drawn was: people are confused by it. But why? Turning a camera on a subject is one thing but shaping that subject into an interesting story, person, comment on the world is quite another. First off, editing itself is a form of writing, of building footage into something watchable, why should writing not act as an obvious extension of editing? I mean we all know that reality tv is concisely edited to portray it's characters as such- to create tension, drama- all of the things that dominant media tend towards- so why not expect the same from nonfiction films? Maybe though, it is the history of the film medium itself that creates this strange dynamic between editing and writing about reality.
Vertov fought for the Cine-Eye, the unfettered documentation of the world through film and Eisenstein was a lover of montage as he edited together two dissimilar cuts of film to create a tension full of meaning and inference but...we no longer live in a world where a camera is just a voyeur or where a simple image next to another can suffice. We now live in a society where information is accessible all the time, images splintered into micro-mediacosms where no consistent understanding of montage seems possible, and where the ability of cameras to lie is at an all time high. So, what does this mean for documentary film? Personally I think it means we should, and are (!), becoming even more reliant on words in films to be a conveyor of information. In fact, one of the best docs I previewed as a Screener consisted nearly entirely of voiceover narration that built up a complex understanding of one man's intangible personal journey, adding a deeper layer of meaning to images (much like good old Herzog and, to a certain extent, the very film this blog began as a companion to!). I have a feeling that words and writing are going to become a bigger part of the independent film landscape- especially in terms of documentaries- as the camera's abilities continue to grow and the world continues to become a more visually saturated place. Hell, even the rise of the internetmeme is often a thing of pictures and words, pushing us closer to a cultural communication (the fact that English is the dominant conveyor is a whole other matter...sigh...) creating a new static form of montage! A picture might be worth 1,000 words, but a picture with 1,000 words? Think about it. All this from the tedium of transcribing for the studio of Ken Burns! Good times in the documentary world! (Side note for haters: I don't think all docs need to be narrative but I do think a more thoughtful editing process is important to crafting the history of the subject you are making...in fact, think about it that way: A documentary film is a historical document, craft with the importance of this in mind!). Here I leave you with some interesting takes on documentary subjects and stories, with every piece of film calculated in writing, editing and beauty to leave behind a wondrous cultural relic for the future!
This blog serves as a cultural journey through time, space and art...or something like that? Beginning in 2009 as a chronicle of the making of the feature film Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, a film by the artist/animator Brent Green that was produced entirely in the backyard of his rural PA home & is now in the permanent collection of MoMA, I now wander around looking for a not-so-angry artistic fix! Feel free to write, sometimes the mountains are a bit cold...also: accepting film screeners for feedback!