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Where is the Film Revolution? (A Plea for Radicalism in Digital Cinema)

Our taste is shaped by a myriad of factors, and they don’t lend themselves to anything approaching a comprehensive view of art. It isn’t possible. Anybody who prides themselves on being a film buff, a music aficionado, a bibliophile, an art historian, or whatever else is absolutely delusional to think they’re any kind of authority on their subject of choice. It goes even beyond blind spots in our knowledge. Professional film critics who review hundreds of movies each year only watch what they’re paid to see, which necessitates an unwitting yet implicit curation of films that is commercially motivated. The same is true for any critic, theorist, historian, academic, or even casual blogger (hello) of any art form. Nobody wants to admit it, but the vast majority of us only consume art that is relevant to our own self-interests — to varying degrees, of course, but ultimately, there isn’t that much difference between someone going to the latest Marvel movie for their monthly nerd fix and someone going to see the latest Palme d’Or winner so they can feel sophisticated and in the know. The two films may be aesthetically, ideologically, and culturally worlds apart, but they will by the nature of how movies are distributed and consumed always have at least one thing in common: somebody financed it, somebody’s selling it, and you’re buying it. They are, not to mince words, products.

“Like it or not, movies are a business.” How many times have you heard someone say something along those lines to dismiss your bushy-eyed, idealistic hopes that movies could be more than that? Or could at least strive to be more than that before the corporate interests get their slimy, conniving fingerprints all over them? There was a time when the opposition to cinema-as-product mentality was strong, almost to the point where it didn’t feel like too much of an optimistic leap in logic to think that there could one day be a viable, readily accessible alternative. And I don’t even mean as far back as the Cahiers du Cinéma days of the ’50s and ’60s when film radicalism was chic. I mean in my lifetime. In the early days of digital, change felt possible, and maybe even imminent. For as much flak as digital gets from film purists (and to be clear, I typically prefer the look and feel of celluloid myself, so don’t think I’m saying we should overthrow the old guard in that respect), its most exciting quality was one that could and should have been instantly revolutionary: accessibility — not to the audience, mind you, but to the filmmaker, established and aspiring alike. The proliferation of digital technology meant you didn’t have to buy expensive cameras, equipment, or film stock; with very little resources, you could just simply make a film on your own. No need for investors, no need for a studio, no need for a professional crew. Whereas the mere act of making a movie was a purely theoretical talent for the aspiring director prior to the advent of digital, it was now possible to at least attempt it on your own, if not fully pull it off (which some have indeed done).

Digital should have been the Great Democratizer in the world of cinema. The people who want to make big-budget studio entertainment would still get to do that because the audiences who seek that stuff out were never (and are never) going to suddenly develop a taste for guerilla films or anything of the sort, but the technology was (and is) there to create a whole new forum for movies and open up an entirely different conversation about them than the one that invariably involves box office numbers and Oscar nominations. Not a replacement for commercial filmmaking, but an alternative to it that would actually generate widespread interest and discussion rather than being relegated to an extreme niche. It has at least to some extent (though not nearly enough) happened for music, painting, literature, poetry, and most other art forms in recent years. There’s music that people are making at home with nothing more than a microphone and free editing software that is achieving a relative level of success on sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Why not for cinema?

Where was the revolution?

The studio system never truly died, despite what the forward-thinking mavericks of the ’60s and ’70s all banked on — and now even most of them have found comfort in making their recent films for giant conglomerates ever since some sleazoid executive must have told them that all their former radicalism led them to achieve the oh-so-prized ticket to funding known as “name value.” The vast majority of the films that get labeled “independent” these days — and certainly the ones that actually manage to get theatrical distribution — are really not at all. They’re just more modestly budgeted studio films, because “independent” is more of a genre than a means of production now, and one that has a certain amount of marketability at that. Yes, there are audiences who want something other than mega-budget superhero epics and nostalgic rehashes, but the money those audiences are spending on tickets to see “independent” movies is still going to the very same companies for the most part. Very, very few movies that are widely distributed are “independent” in the true sense of the word.

This isn’t entirely on the studios, though, and that’s really the point I’m trying to stress here. It has literally never been easier to make and distribute your own movie than it is right now. Sure, you’re not going to get it shown at your local AMC multiplex theater, but what I’m saying is that shouldn’t be the standard to which all filmmakers aspire. That shouldn’t be the goal of everyone who picks up a camera. And perhaps more so, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for people who write about movies and drive the discussion of so-called “film culture.” In fact, the idea of “film culture” as an all-encompassing, monolithic community needs to go. That’s the first thing that needs to be gotten rid of if a filmmaking revolution is ever going to happen, because as long as people act like cinema is a single interest rather than an umbrella term that loosely refers to many distinct, sometimes even opposing interests within it, there won’t be room for true independent filmmakers to find their audience. Acknowledging that cinema isn’t just one thing, but rather many different things each with their own different functions, purposes, and philosophies, is something that should have been done at around the turn of the century. And I mean the turn of the 20th Century — you know, when movies first started being made.

This is why there need to be more film journalists, academics, critics, etc. who disavow the One Cinema fallacy and embrace a specialty area within the vast array of art forms that happen to utilize a camera to communicate something (and of course, not even all movies are made with a camera, so there truly is no singular, unifying element that ties together all movies). I reject the notion of a “film community” or “film culture.” Even smaller subsets of it are pointless. There isn’t even a “horror community.” I understand the appeal of saying otherwise, as it’s much more convenient to believe in the reality of a uniform community revolving around any given interest and fun to act like being invested in that interest means you’re part of a social club, but not only is it untrue, it’s also a hindrance to movies that don’t fit the mold of what the larger “community” canonizes and accepts as worthy of discussion. At the end of each year when everyone’s doing their top 10 lists, whether or not this is anybody’s explicit intention, there is a collective implication through the sheer process of it that all movies not only can but should be compared to and placed in competition with each other. Even lists compiled by the more adventurous cinephiles are self-defeating in their purported advocacy for eclecticism by insisting that certain films even belong to the same proverbial phylum. The idea that all works of art and/or entertainment that are consumed via a screen can be discussed on the same terms is ludicrous, let alone that they can be rated on the same arbitrary scale or ranked alongside each other on some fool’s errand of a list.

If the One Cinema mentality weren’t so commonly held both in online film discussion and in the ever dwindling world of print, then maybe — just maybe — the long overdue revolution of true independent digital filmmaking could flourish. Because as tempting as it is to romanticize the idea of creating art even if you don’t have an audience, eventually there have to be others discussing and celebrating your art on some level in order for there to be progress. Art is at its very core just a form of communication. It can be abstract, heightened, or dramatized communication, but nonetheless, it is still communication. T0 create art is to communicate something (in most cases, anyway; I don’t doubt that there are people who live up to the starving artists’ fears and truly are only in it for the money, and indeed, shame on them). And communication cannot be strictly unilateral. It needs a dialogue, even if not right away then eventually.

But where are the people who will help the revolution? Where are the people who won’t dismiss homemade films uploaded to YouTube as being inherently lesser than studio-backed films or as not “real” movies? Where are the people whose disdain for the “movies are a business” sentiment is more than just self-satisfied posturing?

Where is the revolution?

Maybe the evolution of this so-called “film culture” into a unified groupthink experiment on the internet has killed the possibility of a tangible counterculture to rebel against the status quo. Radicalism is in vogue only insomuch as it gains traction on social media, which means it’s not really radical. Film radicalism requires an outsider’s perspective, and with the way almost all of movie discussion transpires now — even discussion of movies that most would consider “underground” or “cult” — there are no outsiders. Not in this environment. If you’re discussing movies with people on the internet, there are varying degrees of being an insider, but you’re definitely not a full outsider. John Waters, who in the earliest stages of his career was one of the beacons of outsider cinema, has confirmed this by stating once in an interview, “The word ‘outsider’ meant something when there was a cultural war going on, but there isn’t one anymore because everybody’s on the internet.” This is a guy whose first few films were made completely guerilla style with zero budget and self-distributed at local coffeehouses around Baltimore. And people were interested. A conversation started. Who is going to start that conversation now? How can someone who takes a similarly radical approach to filmmaking find a way to get that conversation started when seemingly nobody is even willing to acknowledge that they might be onto something? At best, it seems like the true independents, radicals, guerillas, and would-be revolutionaries of cinema get damned with the praise of “Nice work, but get back to me when you make a real movie and we’ll talk.”

The expectation is that the actual independent films — the ones that are homemade and self-distributed via whatever uploading service is settled on — should just be stepping stones to studio filmmaking. They’re not thought of as cinema in and of themselves, just clips to put on a demo reel when they’re trying to land a spot in some film festival lineup. Where is the “culture” that celebrates these films for what they are, not for what their makers might do in the future with a bigger budget and wider distribution?

Interpret this as a callout if you’d like, but it definitely seems like even most of the people who claim to hate the current state of cinema are complicit, because while they may criticize the corporate nature of things, they’re not actively looking for an alternative. It’s out there. It needs only for you to seek it out and be willing to embrace it wholeheartedly. Where are the people who are itching to proclaim the future of cinema and not just settle for debating which movies are the “best” and passing it off as actual discussion? Where’s the real anger? Get fucking angry and fucking do something about it.

There is something that gives me hope, however. It’s something that’s happening on the fringes of the One Cinema conversation online, but that’s just fine because the fringes are the spots that are most vulnerable to being broken off from the larger “culture” and forming something else entirely (which, again, is what needs to happen). Within the VHS collecting sect of cult and horror fandom (yes, this is a thing), there’s been a significant wave of interest in the shot-on-video (SOV) films that were made in the ’80s and ’90s during the era of the video store. These are films that were never made with theatrical exhibition in mind and were only ever intended to be watched in the privacy of one’s home. They were once dismissed outright as not being “real” movies (sound familiar?), but an impressive number of them have become not just collector’s items for VHS archivists but actually, genuinely beloved films in their own right.

Along the same lines but on a slightly more widespread scale, there has also been a surge in interest recently among certain cinephiles in rediscovering and reappraising older films from parts of the world that were never afforded the luxury of being counted as part of the canon of world cinema. Many of these represent a type of filmmaking that one might call local, regional, or in some cases even indigenous cinema. Not just obscure films from the likes of Japan, Italy, and Russia that have frankly always gotten plenty of attention from cinephiles even if they never became renowned classics in America (which, let’s face it, almost no non-English language film ever has), but films from Senegal, Iran, Mali, Colombia, and other nations that have been traditionally excluded from the One Cinema discussion. Sometimes labeled “Third Cinema,” (as in Third World, although several of the countries included in this category aren’t actually Third World countries, for what it’s worth…not to mention the fact that the mere idea of Third World countries is an outdated relic of colonialism, but that’s probably for another time), it’s a movement in film discussion that is gaining more and more traction every year, and I would not be at all surprised in 2022 when Sight & Sound updates their decennial poll of greatest films if there are a lot more nations represented than ever before.

The growing interest in rediscovering SOV films and Third Cinema has me feeling confident that the revolution can still happen. There are people who are looking for alternative forms of cinema. Cinema from different places made by different types of people using different methods of production and distribution with different intentions that serve different functions. There are people who crave something different. That hunger has only to manifest itself in the form of an interest in discussing and celebrating a new wave of independent cinema — not “independent” as a label appropriated by studios to sell modestly budgeted movies to pseudo-intellectuals who decry mainstream entertainment but still won’t venture outside of their comfort zone for an actual alternative, but truly independent, in production, in distribution, in intent, in spirit. There have to be filmmakers out there who are doing this, and are doing it not just as a stepping stone to becoming just another purveyor of studio product, but because they fucking believe in it. Because they believe there’s room for something different not just to rediscover from the past, but to create right now in the present, for the future.

Make your movie.

And I hereby vow that I, for my small part, will be one of the people trying to get the discussion started about it.

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2 thoughts on “Where is the Film Revolution? (A Plea for Radicalism in Digital Cinema) Leave a comment

  1. Agreed; the digital revolution was meant to add some decree of democratization to film-making, but there’s been a concerted effort to keep the creative process away from the masses, obstacles put in the way. Digital should be a challenge to all film-makers to get their act together and comment on the world in the way that the main-stream can’t.

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