Monday, July 23, 2007

Indie Film: Ignoring Quality

I saw the premier of an indie film a few weeks ago, How to Rob a Bank. This wasn't too bad of a film. But, nothing to write home about. Then maybe it'll grow on me. But, I got the feeling I was watching someone's cousin who had the right connections to get something produced, and not a diamond in the rough, as we'd like to think are found at indie fests. It's a shame, because the story is good, the premise is good, the acting is good, the camera and sound are good. The execution is lacking.

If I had read the screenplay that I'm assuming this film was made from, I can imagine it wouldn't get too far in terms of what you'd expect typical prodco readers want to see in a good screenplay, if there are typical prodco readers.

It has holes in it. It lags in places. A few people actually walked out of the theater. I think the guy next to me fell asleep, and he was on the crew.

We hear so much about how a screenplay has to be a good compelling story. If it's a comedy it should keep you laughing every few minutes. The action should keep up a pace. Then you go to a fest and see some sophomoric B film like this.

I think the cast and crew put forth an admirable effort. But, the script clearly wasn't ready, unless you don't mind competing with stuff like 40 Year Old Virgin. Even that was more polished.

But, this isn't the only film at the fest I thought violated high standards. Some of the others were slow and lagging too. There seems to be a lower bar at fests where filmmakers can put out lower quality stuff that you know could be improved if they'd just put more effort into it, and I mean effort into the story, screenplay and editing. They shine in the production phase. But, films are so much more than working 20 hour days on the set, no matter how good of a job it is.


Something I do notice at festivals is that although almost every film is amateurish and has obvious flaws, there is always something redeeming there. Sometimes, it's just the passion of the director, cast and crew that shines through, and you can forgive the flagrant violations of things like poor angles, lulls in the story, static shots, and more. A lot of that is due to low budgets, maybe an inexperienced DP or inability to do re-shoots.

I saw an Iranian film that repeatedly had long shots holding on one character in a two way dialog, not showing the other until at the end as a quick reaction. I could tell that rated very low with a lot of viewers. But, if you could look past that, you might see some great merit.

The things I can't forgive are things fixable with just a little more effort, like weak or slow stories, pacing, or editing.

There are always those with high standards in terms of a finished look. They don't think of themselves as snobs, but that's what they are, because they criticize based on what they expect to see in a Hollywood film. Just breaking a few conventions will throw these people off. They're missing the point. The same people would consider 40 Year Old Virgin a good film. I'd take a decent story with unmotivated angles over that film anytime. In the context of indie filmmaking criticisms concerning the polish of the work really aren't valid. When there is polish there it's icing. It's what might win the fest instead of placing.

There aren't many great films in all existence, let alone at a festival. How many at the LA Film Fest would you say stack up to any of the IMDB or AFI top 100? I'd say, exactly none. So, there's plenty of room for criticism on any of these indie greats. No matter how much you liked How to Rob a Bank or think it was pretty much flawless, and I can see how some could say that, it ain't no Saving Private Ryan.

It's a matter of relativity. Relativity to trailer versus the actual short, relativity to something done on little to no resources. Relativity to your particular prejudices and notions about quality.....

I'm referring to things in pre and post, the story, script, editing. I know the masses of cast and crew work diligent 20 hours days. But, that's not all there is to making a film. The most important part is the script. You might say in terms of man-hours, 90% of the work is done in production. But, in terms of importance to the project 90% is done in pre and post. I always get the feeling at the fests that the directors and producers lag in the area of polishing the script and making sure they have a good cut, even if it means spending another year at it. They seem to be playing to the cast and crew, who are their anxious audience waiting with baited breath for the premier. That's not the place to focus your energy.


To clarify my meaning, I feel that great artists need talent and must know a craft. That doesn't mean all artists who are great in a given discipline, like writing, have to know the same craft and all apply the same tools to their work. It means they need to know their own craft, which could be unique. So, to make blanket statement like 'never break the 180', 'use motivated angles', 'use a three act structure' and on and on, is like saying artists must apply certain rules or conventions to be successful.

This is a fallacy. It may be useful for artists to use similar tools if the tools work for them. But, there are no tools, rules, or conventions that are mandatory for success, except maybe something more abstract and blanket like the rule that art must be compelling or interesting. But even that is optional. Art can be disturbing, repulsive, disgusting. It may have a limited audience but it could still be successful. It worked for Lynch to get him an AFI grant and launch his career.

It's just plain wrong to say you need any conventions. You may need them. But don't project your needs upon others.

Now, if you look at a work and say, "it just isn't compelling, I couldn't get past the first page, no one will ever watch that, people walked out after the first 10 minutes", and if others agree with you, then I think you might have a good argument that something isn't working. But, you still don't know that it's these conventions that are missing, unless you can take the work and point out specifically how a certain tool works to make better. But, in doing that you've applied your craft, not the artist's craft and it becomes your work and not theirs. They must agree and apply the tool you suggest, if they find it valid. But, they could just as well make an alteration with their own tools, like a fluid camera for example, that will make it work.

When you and others apply certain conventions or tools across all work, it then takes on the attribute of being a rule. It's seems you think certain things are always necessary and must be done, just as with laws, people must always do certain things that are mandatory, like drive on the right side of the road. When you do this you are creating rules. But in art no rule is mandatory. Every one of them is optional. So, effectively there are no rules, only guidelines.

David Lynch

I think Lynch's shorts fall into the category of art that some would define as bad art. The thing about them is originality. If something is original enough it is interesting and it's quality doesn't matter. If you look at Clerks, you could say quality is lacking, yet it's highly original. Lenny Bruce might be another example.

I'm curious what the critics here would have to say about Lynch's shorts. Look at the reviews of them here. Most here would probably say he sucks as well. What people are missing is that consideration has to be given to the circumstances and restrictions under which the films were made. Another consideration should be originality. one implied my trailer is no more original than a thousand others they've seen. But, I feel there is originality there that is interpreted as bad craft disguised as artsy technique. It's no more that than Tarantino's Death Proof is as unoriginal as the grindhouse films he is paying homage to. Oh, pardon me if you think I'm comparing myself to Tarantino. It's an analogy, not a comparison. But, of course, those who think I suck largely think he does too.

But, I don't think Lynch had a movie audience for his short films, as we'd consider one when we write. He may have had an art community audience (God forbid). His first one Six Men Getting Sick was a continuous loop played at galleries. So, while the audience matters, which audience matters? In this case it's the one that got AFI to consider his work. The point is audiences differ quite a bit. You must know this well. That audience would call the work of probably anyone here passe, unoriginal, and they'd likely sneer at us.

But, when we make a film and put in into festivals, that's a specific audience too, one that I think likes originality above all else and forgives technical problems, taking resources into consideration, and looking for passion and promise in the filmmakers, not polish.

This topic has been discussed in detail here.

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