It’s hard to ignore it, especially if you’re a student of the medium. Film, while still the number one format for most fledgling auteurs, is losing ground. Slowly but surely, at the fringes of the industry and within the outsider dominion, celluloid is being replaced by the binary. Thanks to DVD, advances in computer technology, the shrinking cost of moviemaking equipment, and an eager pipeline of cinephiles desperate for something different, a punk-like DIY spirit has gripped the wannabe Welles of the artform and has turned everyone – from the most accomplished visionary to the most horrifying hack – into their own determined De Mille. While some would argue that the art form is undergoing one of the most important revolutions since sound sunk the silents, the camcorder has a long way to go before it can claim a coup.
As an example of truly independent filmmaking, the current breed of homemade artisans isn’t really achieving anything novel. For decades, individuals with Super 8 cameras, friends in local universities or rental outlets, or perhaps a basic videotape set up, have been crafting cinema – or something close to it. They’ve relied on imagination, determination, and a collective ideal that sees the like minded gang up to give the format an infusion of necessary new blood. While the cost could be controlled, there were other prohibited measures that kept many from making their stand. With the death of exploitation (a genre where almost anyone could get a week long run at some Podunk passion pit) and prior to the birth of the affordable VCR, there were very few ways to get a film distributed. Even worse, if you were lucky enough to find an acquiescing shill, months (or even years) of hard work could be marginalized, and then MIA, in the breech of a contract.
The growing popularity of the VHS format changed some of this. Suddenly, the creation of a crude, movie-like entertainment could be achieved. Though aesthetically limited, the beginner could simulate cinema without having to jump through the nepotistic hoops and technical specifications of an actual career in the industry. Even better, the cost was commiserate to what many would-be directors could afford. While the equipment was bulky and hard to maintain, and the end results paled in comparison to even the most poorly shot stag film, the first volley in the soon to be salvo against the Hollywood mainstream mentality was in place. Even better, home video opened up an important public perception. It let the everyday individual, someone not possessed of their own projector or screening room, determine when and how they were to be entertained.
The VCR indeed began the democratization of film. It removed the “see it now or never again” sense that surrounded most Tinsel Town fare. Granted, the result of such a surge in retail revivalism meant that the medium was simultaneously celebrated and diluted. The ability to revisit an old favorite in the comfort of one’s home led to a greater appreciation of the classics. But with studios slow to embrace the change (based in nothing but money, naturally) and the independent’s seeing a legitimizing light at the end of their travails tunnel, the entertainment equilibrium was destroyed. From the moment you could buy a copy of Star Wars for $120 at some high end New York specialty emporium, people outside the business felt empowered. In the war for the art form, magnetic tape was the Gatling gun.
In that regard, the digital versatile disc became a multi-megaton nuclear bomb. An offshoot of the CD and the growing Asian fascination with the video version – or VCD – of same, the purpose of the new format was simple: use the increased storage space and clarity of the analog-less transfer and deliver theater quality images to a hibernating home theater crowd. When DVD came along, VHS sales were flat. Laserdisc had proven that there was an audience (albeit it a rather elitist and picky demographic) for replicating the big screen experience. Almost instantaneously, film fans dumped their clunky collection of fading, glitch-ridden tapes and embraced the sleek, sci-fi like system. Within 10 years, the VCR was officially a dinosaur and even the most cinematically stunted was celebrating the little aluminum disc’s wealth of wonders.
The importance of DVD cannot be overstated. It arrived on the heals of home computing’s power, a strength supported by the MP3, the introduction of localized broadband and cable Internet access, and the ever, extending scope of a PC’s internal power. Where once, memory was measured in mega-bite, the gig was becoming the norm, and as the think tanks tricked out their desktops, finding ways of turning their tunes portable, the focus slowly shifted to film. Once again, the digitization of information in combination with a drop in price made technology more accessible than ever. And once you have the ability to use a new toy, you naturally want to expand its range of realization. Thus laptop editing and other post-production software started cropping up. The stage was set for a Bastille storming celebration.
Of course, there was a significant factor missing from the discussion – talent. There are many who believe, rightly or wrongly, that access hinders the gifted, that if only given a chance, almost anyone could succeed within the proper symbolic support. On the other hand, there is another argument that states, rather succinctly, that skill and acumen always win out. Call it the proverbial cream rising, but without a gift, mainstreaming of any art leads to mediocrity. When filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Lloyd Kaufman argued that technology would save cinema, they had a very valid point. But without actual artists behind the newfangled lens, the same old junk would end up in the DVD-R drive.
That’s why, so far, the digital revolution has been one of quantity, not quality. Since anyone can buy a computer, a camcorder, and a rack of recordable medium, the movie monopoly middleman is no longer necessary. Yet one of the functions that the unenlightened suits regularly performed was the mandatory thinning of the ranks. While DVD lets anyone who wants it access to the corridors of creative power, the sad fact is that many making their way down said hall have no business being there. In fact, with very few exceptions, the art form’s digital dissidents have failed to make much of a splash on the big stage. Instead, they have so far only managed the most middling of victories.
If compartmentalizing genres into their easily micromanaged basics and preaching to a purposefully determined demographic (horror fan, sex farce aficionado) can be considered a triumph, then this neo-revolution can claim a minor sense of accomplishment. Unless you consider that famous Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Mann and David Lynch have embraced the sleek, ambient look of millennial medium, digital has been so far reduced to a delivery system. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemekis have stated that, until theaters are equipped with special projectors that replicate the celluloid experience without the need for analog transfer, celluloid will remain the moviemaking model for decades to come. And this is from men who fully believe in the new guard.
Ability, however, will be the definitive deciding factor. The public will determine digital’s viability, and right now, the pickings are slim to say the least. Currently, most outsider artists tend to replicate their favorite film style – horror, comedy, horror, drama, horror… - and do so in a way that simply substitutes handheld cinematography for a big screen sense of scope. They’re not out to set trends or buck the system so much as make a name for themselves and get a window seat on the plane ride to fame and fortune. Distributors are more than happy to help them along said rose-colored path. A company like Lionsgate will buy up almost any hackneyed camcorder macabre, re-title it, slap a snappy bit of cover art on the case, and advertise it as the “new face of terror”. Of course, once the poor sucker who bought/rented sees what’s inside, that overwhelming sense of being conned creeps in.
The problem is obvious. For every Giuseppe Andrews, actor turned auteur who is deconstructing cinema in a manner similar to Godard and Truffaut, there’s a billion Blair Witch wannabes who think that moviemaking is as simple as playing the lottery – and DVD and its technical ease of access have rigged the results in their favor. Sadly, the truth is far more telling. Even avant-garde antagonist Lynch was raked over the coals when his INLAND EMPIRE proved to be nothing more than a director’s home movies strung out for nearly three hours (at least, that’s how some saw it). If innovation and imagination can’t accompany access, then there is no hope for real change. Audiences will grow antsy no matter the format – overstuffed celluloid blockbuster or naval gazing camcorder crudity.
So it looks like the revolution will be digitized, if and when the rebels catch up to their ambitions and intentions. There are some marvelous examples of the medium out there, movies like The Legend of God’s Gun and The Blood Shed that really capture the daunting DIY spirit and channel it into something truly astounding. These are films that find their insurgence in ideas, the new tech specs are just a way of delivering their creative conceits to the masses. It’s not the medium that’s making the change, it’s the minds behind it. It was true a half century ago, and it’s true now. CDs didn’t make popular music better, or more culturally relevant. They just gave greater entrance to those outside the cocooned conglomerates. Whenever a new voice is finally heard, it is rarely judged on its entrance. The power to change is inherent in art. Getting into the gallery and access to paints are only the beginning of the battle.