Monthly Archives: April 2014

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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How to F*cking Rest (In 10 Not-Always-Easy Steps)

Zelda has no trouble resting.

Zelda has no trouble resting.

Let’s be clear from the start: I have very little idea of what I’m talking about in regards to this subject. But I’m learning. So, consider the following more of a report on a work-in-progress, than a presentation of any definitive framework.

Only someone like me would view the ability to rest as a work-in-progress — but I know there are some of you out there who have the same problem. Maybe more than a few.

It’s better than failing spectacularly at it, I suppose.

As I have mentioned on various social media channels, I’ve been sick. Again. For over a week. Again.

It could be worse, and I understand that. But it still sucks.

I’ve been making a concerted effort to learn from past mistakes. And, as has been well-documented — on the scale of moderate to severe — there have been plenty of those.

Anyway, for better or worse, as obvious as some of these may be, here’s what I’ve learned about what works — when I follow through. Maybe all of this is obvious to a sane person, but that’s not always me.

1. Accept it.

We all know how this works. The interior monologue:

“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“You’re okay.”
“Probably. But…”
“You need to do X, Y, Z. You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. But…”

They key is to listen to the “but”. Ears between the cheeks.

“But I’m really not feeling well.”

This (hopefully) allows one to have compassion for oneself. Even begrudged compassion will do.

“Okay. Fine. I guess X,Y,Z will have to wait.”
“OMG!”
“Shut up.”
“It will be okay. I promise.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to — you just have to trust me.”

2. Stay in bed (and/or stick to couch).

I’m historically bad at this. But it’s important. This week I’ve been much better about it than I have been in the past.

I’ve (luckily) been able to establish boundaries with myself in regards to my bed. I don’t work in bed. I do very little web surfing in bed. I really only sleep and read and watch TV and snore in bed.

But I’ve found that even moving from bed to couch has a debilitating effect on my levels of relaxation. It opens the floodgates of distraction. Once I’m out of bed I tend to sit and not lay down. Or I stand, battle myself about standing, and then sit again. I’m also able, from my couch, to view most of an apartment’s worth of “stuff that needs to get done” rather than just one room. So, my solution this time around?

At night, I’ve stacked my bedside table with the basics of what I’d need in the morning to stay in bed for at least a few hours after I wake up. Lately, this has been a stack of comics/graphic novels (fun reads), a bag of cough drops, water, tissues, etc. It’s worked.

After a certain point, though — and as I’ll discuss this more in a moment — it helps to move around. That’s why after a few hours I do a few minor things (with a focus on rest or healing related tasks, such as the brewing of miracle teas) and then I move to the couch.

3. Read.

It gets you out of your head. Sickness can magnify feelings of isolation, loneliness, worthlessness (a good American produces and consumes and does not rest in between) — to a spectacular (not so spectacular) degree.

Reading also passes time and dulls pain by distracting us in an immersive way that’s a bit different than when you watch movies (next on the list) or talk to people (farther down on the list). Reading fiction in particular, when the stories are doing their job well, can be like wrapping your mind in a blanket. That’s not the say the below methods have less value. It’s just different.

4. Watch movies.

If reading is a warm blanket, a good movie is a hearty bowl of chicken soup. What?

It’s strange, and I don’t know how to explain it, but, for me, the magic of cinema is that, even when you’re watching something alone in your apartment on your TV — the experience is comfortingly communal. Some people might argue that point. They’d be wrong.

There’s something about watching characters struggle/explore the worlds they inhabit on screen — which, again, if the story is well told — that gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. Fiction may warm me but film reminds me, and all of us, I think, that we’re not never alone in our loneliness. And it does this in a more direct, and more immediately observable way, than books can. You can turn away from text, or avoid it. It’s less easy to turn away from even recorded images of human beings, with humanity shining through their eyes.

The benefit to the sick is similar. Loneliness is temporarily assuaged, time passes, pain can be momentarily forgotten. All this together — and the same can be said of books — can also help contribute to a belief that the problem of the illness will eventually resolve. At the very least, some temporary relief can be easily won.

5. Move — a little.

For me, this mostly took the form of short walks down the main drag in my neighborhood. If and when it’s possible, even when you’re sick, it helps to get fresh air. Sometimes, it can’t be done. I wasn’t contagious and a few open windows weren’t cutting it for me, so on most days (but not all) I rested up for a few hours after sleeping a long sleep — and then ambled to the pharmacy or a bodega for supplies.

This helped the loneliness, too. Just fifteen minutes outside, after a day (or days) of riding the couch — it can also (obviously) provide a reminder that you’re not alone, even in your illness. Further, especially in a crowded, punishing city like New York — you also may see people whose current or long-term plight is much worse than yours. Unfortunately true, but this is also an opportunity to take hold of a little gratefulness and/or exercise a little humility.

6. Ask for help.

Ugh. I know. Right?!

I’m not great at it. Getting better. And I have been lucky (more gratefulness on the way).

My wife took over some of my household responsibilities while I was laid up. Sometimes, as I would have had to do with anyone else, I had to ask for this help. No one knows what you can or can’t handle, for the most part, unless you tell them.

Sometimes, our nearest and dearest know us better than we know ourselves — and we don’t have to ask. Still, I’ve found it helpful not to make too many assumptions in regards to this point. This is particularly true when it comes to work.

For the most part, even for those of us whose jobs technically overlap with others in terms of responsibilities — we all specialize in some way. If not, we at least still own responsibilities that are ours only, in terms of workload. Work life, as it should be, is more officious (duh) than home life, at least in such terms. It can be easy to convince ourselves to push through with work while ill because the process of explaining how to do what we do, exactly how we do it, seems daunting.

This is understandable. But temporarily letting go of responsibility can also be treated as an experiment in trust and in leadership. These are two aspects of life where daunting is often the word of the day, but which also can deliver rich rewards to those willing to confront fear and hesitation.

Sometimes asking for help means that someone else has to cover for you — and that you, in turn, need to cover for them, now (in terms of communication and guidance) and/or in the future (in terms of fairness). This all takes a little bit of acceptance and some patience. I’ve found that it can help to have a plan, as well.

Anyone can take the time, when they are healthy, to summarize (on paper or through conversation) the basic and/or most important day-to-day responsibilities that they own — especially when it comes to actionable tasks. Not only does this leave you with a manual to help people help you, it can also serve as an informal self-assessment for judging your own efficiency, and/or finding areas of responsibility that can be streamlined, and/or work flows that can be updated.

7. Talk to people.

This is another hard one for me, because, basically, it’s another form of asking for help. More than a couple of days in bed will leave anyone feeling lonely and miserable. So, sometimes, we need cheering up. Again, I’m lucky to have a spouse I can talk to, and who continually asks me to talk to her (ugh). Still, it helped when people checked in. And even though I sometimes didn’t feel like talking — or reaching out — I did. A little. I know I can still be better about this.

No one gets worse by communicating. Even brief, random discussions with neighbors, on my short walks, made a difference to me. When we feel we are at our worst, sometimes it takes the reflection of another’s impression of us to realize that it’s not as bad as all that.

8. Look on the bright side.

I know.

But there always is one. For me, this time…

I had been trying all month to rest. Even before I got sick. I was doing an only-okay job of it. Now I’m being forced to rest, and, honestly, despite all of the above — it hasn’t been that bad.

Drugs help!

But, seriously.

I’m not saying my body hit the shut down button just because my brain wasn’t playing ball. It’s a possibility, but it doesn’t matter. I’m sick and it sucks. But I also got to read some books and watch some movies that I probably would have found a reason not to watch under “normal” circumstances. And part (or most) of what’s ailing me has been a sore and swollen throat. Enter excuse for copious amounts of sorbet and ice cream.

Yes, I have gotten a little fat. But I’ll handle that.

This time off my feet has also allowed me to do some healthy thinking. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and an interesting development, to find myself sick of body and then, suddenly, simultaneously, mentally thriving. It’s almost as if my brain relents in terms of self-flagellation, temporarily, out of respect for some amorphously defined threshold of pain and uneasiness that it feels it should back away from when my body is picking up more of the slack.

The thoughts slow down and they get less dark. This is more of a recent development, now that I think of it. Sickness used to make me very angry. But I question most of my initial impulses towards anger, most days, now.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere. Right?!

Moving on…

9. Complain.

Yes. Do it.

I’m telling you. Let it all out.

You have a right. Don’t go crazy. Don’t assume you also have a right to be public and unrelenting about it — but complain.

Someone will listen to you. You may exhaust them. This is understandable. Move on to someone else, if you aren’t done. Someday, very soon, someone will complain to you. Maybe as soon as tomorrow. Maybe its me, right now.

Oh, but don’t listen too much to other complainers if you’re still sick. Wait until you’re better.

And one last, important note. Don’t listen to people who complain about complainers.

You know who I’m talking about. That one or two (or more) folks who troll Facebook or other social media channels griping about how annoyed they are at other people who are simple expressing their emotions.

Can it get to be too much? Yes. Anything can. Everything within moderation. There are lines.

But, sometimes, if you’re sick, or if something shitty happened, or if your life sucks…it can feel good to just cast your despair into the world. No one has to do anything about it who doesn’t feel so compelled. Contrarily, they can also tell you to shut up — and then it’s up to you to decide if this is okay or not.

All of it, though, is better than bottling up that despair. Despair is real and it’s tangible and it’s got to eat somehow. Don’t let it eat you. Send it out in small doses to your friends!

For real. We’re hard-wired to sympathize, even if these days we need to click a link to some inspiring video to be reminded of the fact. Getting the complaints out starts killing them before they even reach your friends. Despair doesn’t fare well in the air.

So, there. Claire.

10. Adapt.

This final step is more of a catch-all of all the others.

Rest isn’t doing nothing. It’s doing something non-stressful, something other than working. And I say that using a loose definition of the word “work” — because even thinking can be a lot of work. In fact, as I hinted above, it often is.

Taking time to rest requires us to do something that has become dangerously taboo in contemporary America, and that is to acknowledge our humanity. Our frailty.

We’re surrounded and infected by so many rules. Some of us, people like me, even have some rules — some unhelpful and corrosive rules that make no actual sense and only cause more damage — twisted into our DNA.

But the thing is, as we all know very well — life does not follow rules. Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes, people die. At other moments, everything in the world appears to come to us easily, and it feels like we’re riding a wild unicorn on a beam of white light (or some other metaphor).

The point is that we can never know exactly what to do, and how, or when. We can only listen to our bodies and our minds and our hearts, and do our best.

In between, we rest.

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Reflections on Story

The script for my new project, the story of which, I hope, is just beginning.

The script for my new project, the story of which, I hope, is just beginning.

I want to talk about Story. Stories.

Stories have been on my mind lately. They’re always on my mind — I’ve always had a particular obsession with storytelling itself, as much as I have one with the act of it — but lately I’ve been reflecting upon what stories mean to me with a renewed focus, with redoubled vigor.

A few days ago, I wrote a note to myself:

Story is how I make sense of the world, and how some sense of the world is delivered to me.

At the time, I felt it was an important reflection. In retrospect, I recognize the words as some variation of an old mantra — one that readers might even recall from past posts here.

It doesn’t matter. Either way, I needed to deliver that message to myself. I still need to deliver it, perhaps every day.

Sometimes I try, uselessly, to fight reality. I try to convince myself that there are other important things to do. And there are, I suppose (eating, drinking, sleeping and…loving). But, for me, for better or worse, everything else — it all has to be part of The Story.

It gets dark, in my mind, when there’s just the noise and the flash of life filling the space there. I need to tell and experience stories — however they are defined, in whatever form — in order to stop myself from going crazy. I think, perhaps, in one form or another, we all need to do this. The danger, of course, is choosing the right stories to believe in and pursue.

There is also danger in denying the truth of our own stories, whatever they are. But as tempting as it may be, and however many of us may do this for long stretches and even entire lives — that truth, in the end, is irrefutable. We have authorship over the choices we make in life, that take us in whatever directions, down whichever paths. Every story invariably demands its day.

For all these reasons, I consider stories to be precious. Though I don’t mean by that they should also be stored behind glass, viewed from behind a rope.

I like my stories messy, a lot of the time. Some of the time I like them dirty. On occasion, I even like them to be confectionery. But, really, overall — I don’t much care.

Just give me something passionately told and fully considered. Give it to me in whatever form. Even within the narrative of my own life. I’ll take passion and thoughtfulness, every day, over the fear and the panic of the unknown.

I fucking love stories. I live for stories.

Don’t we all, when you really think about it?

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