I’m Getting Tired of Asking Where We Went Wrong
My friend and fellow filmmaker Tom Moser said something about my last post that I think merits its own topic. The post was about how awesome 1981 was for genre fans, how many amazing and landmark horror, sci fi, and fantasy movies were released that year. Tom said this:
I hate to be one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” guys, but damn, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
And I think that the underlying point of my post was to say something like that, but also to be uncharacteristically positive about filmmaking and where it can go. That they can make them like that – they even did. Not that long ago, either. Which means that they (read: we) can do the same thing again.
But what is it that made the movies on my list particularly noteworthy, other than being beloved by genre fans and filmmakers alike? Well, these films were made by people who loved genre. Because the genre filmmakers in question were making the films ostensibly for themselves, the genre movies they made tend to not insult the intelligence of that audience. Although I do not think most filmmakers or executives set out with the assumption that a given audience is stupid per se, I think it’s often the case that when someone works in a genre that they don’t understand, or simply to cash in on a trend, inevitably they have to back up and explain the genre rules to themselves first – resulting in talking down to the viewer.
A Worst-Case Scenario
If I were to be assigned to make a romantic comedy involving a man, a woman, and a funny dog who chews on all that the two lovers find precious, I’m going to approach the material in an unsophisticated way as to alienate the people who can’t get enough of “Marley and Me.” Why? I don’t really see a lot of those movies, I don’t personally seek them out, and therefore I don’t know what makes them good when they really work.
I will leave it to my betters to direct the talents of Aniston and Wilson, use them like a gatlin gun to blow a love-sized hole into all of our hearts. But please, oh please, not me.
But there’s also an overcorrection that should be avoided – when the idea of “write what you know” is taken too far.
Write What You Know, Right?
In 1989, Steven Soderbergh‘s landmark “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival and found distribution, showing the world that a personal story of powerful emotion could find an audience and make back its money. Over time, the designation of Sundance Film evolved as a sophisticated, literary, introspective, and smart kind of indie film which catered to a small-but-loyal audience.
And for about eighteen years, that audience kept coming back and back and back again for small, personal stories. So why did audiences seek out and pay for character-based dramas of a highly personal nature for so long? I have no idea. It was the 1990’s, America wasn’t at war, the economy was doing well, and maybe we’d beaten the big-budget blockbusters into the ground.
But over time, the stories became more remote or less consequential, until a surprising number of films we think of as “indie” became low-stakes personal dramadies – something I call the “Garden State” effect.
Now I have nothing against Zach Braff‘s freshman directorial effort, and I even went to see it at my multiplex and got a few yucks out of it. It’s a film which seems to be attempting to dutifully hit all the right buttons at all the right times just like any mainstream movie. It seems to beg for Owen and Jennifer and the dog, yet with all the street cred of being “inde.” In 2004, the film played the Sundance Film Festival and won Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. I’m sure it brought the house down at Sundance, and there’s no doubt that Braff was humble and self-depricating as he introduced his film. Now I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with watching 102 minutes of the actor/director’s musings, and thanks to Braff we all know about The Shins. So bully for him. But in 25 years will someone be writing about the cultural groundswell created by “Garden State,” or even how it typified something awesome about film? Culture? Art?
To me, “Garden State” exemplifies the indie world with its head up its ass, rewarding films about the minor personal dilemmas of the upper-middle-class. And audiences seem to have lost their hunger for those films, at least from indies.
In a world where indie film is dying, I’ll miss you least of all, “Garden State.”
Write What You Can’t Know
In order for movies to survive the crowded marketplace and myriad of other things to do I think indie film needs to return to its roots. This will require each indie filmmaker to find the audience of which they themselves are a part, figure out how they want to connect to those eyeballs, and fight to earn them. We need to move from the easy listening smooth jazz of the cliché Sundance film (yes, I’m aware that “Saw,” “28 Days Later,” and “Grace” were all Sundance Films) to the punk rock of earlier “indie” films. Pre-“Sex, Lies, and “Videotape” indies, which were often genre films created by people like John Waters, Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Lizzie Borden, and David Cronenberg before any of them had the clout of a studio system pushing their product. Back when they had to earn every ass in every seat.
So, Tom, in answer to what you said I think they/we can and should make ’em like they/we used to – For an audience.