Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Role

Sometimes I go for long stretches without posting anything to the blog. It has been, on some occasions, due to laziness. Sometimes it's simply because I don't feel the inspiration. But, every once in a while I'm struck by something that seems to demand a response. Just a few moments ago I had such an experience.

As most of us are aware everyone these days wants to make a movie. With the advent of more and more affordable digital imaging technology we are shooting images of pristine quality on devices that are smaller and cost less than filmmakers of yesterday could ever even have imagined. We can edit our films on the same device with which we check our email and post updates to social networking websites - and do it from the 2nd bedroom we converted into an office. Everything is smaller. Everything costs less. Everything is by comparison more accessible to the general public.

But to those who see filmmaking as a passion they want to pursue, I will pose this question: what is your role? In St. Louis, MO where I live we have an enthusiastic independent film community. I have had the privilege of working with a number of independent filmmakers here in various capacities. One thing I feel our town lacks however is the sense of what it means to be a professional independent filmmaker. When audition notices are posted and read like a volunteer day for the local church it doesn't communicate professionalism or inspire those whose skills would be utilized in the project to much hope. 'Volunteering' is something you might do for a passion project. But as a professional you don't intend to give your skills away on a daily basis just because so-and-so wants to make his dream film and isn't organized enough to do the leg work to raise the necessary funds.

Which leads me to why I'm writing. In a post I just read by a local producer, she asks if "anyone's got a dollar?" She along with a small collective of filmmakers (who've all graduated from a local filmmaking program) are doing it right. They are organizing a project, pre-production to post-production, and raising the money for the various production costs through a legitimate, online fundraising tool called Kickstarter. They need to raise $5K by December 17th in order to be funded. Kickstarter uses a rewards based incentive model to help generate the funds needed to complete the project. You can donate as little as $1 or as much as $1000. The point is to get a community of people involved in bringing this artistic vision to fruition.

So, why did I ask 'what is your role?' Because, even though some of us may have dreams of being the next big-screen star or headline-stealing director, films are brought to life through collaboration. Perhaps your passion is also combined with the ability to fund a project. Maybe your strength is as a distribution channel through what you can invest. The point is, storytelling in filmmaking is the art of many people coming together to complete a single vision. For some that's character development and performance, for others it's signing that check.

To all the cinephiles out there (and especially to those of us in St. Louis) let's get to the heart of making the stories we want to tell a reality by, as a community of passionate filmmakers, filling those roles we know are ours to fill.

To donate to the aforementioned project click here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Tech

I read an interesting blog post recently about the ability of technology to enhance the performance of an performer. It started me on a line of thinking about wether or not we really take the time to consider if the technology most of us now take for granted is actually doing anything to improve the story in which we are participating. You can read Larry Jordan's post here.

I pondered two examples of technology being used to tell a story. The first is 3D. I have seen a few movies in 3D now and personally it just doesn't do anything for me. The glasses are distracting, my brain is constantly telling me that what I'm seeing is synthesized, blah blah blah. Yes, it's personal opinion but that's how I feel when I'm watching it. Anyway, it seems to me that perhaps 3D is doing something more than just trying to visually stun us. It seems that perhaps it is trying to make up for something that is missing. What do magicians do in order to pull off slight-of-hand? They use a distraction at just the right moment to pull our attention away from the fact that they're not actually making something disappear. They're confusing you to make it appear that it has magically vanished. Is it possible (I think it's not only possible but just 'is') that things like 3D are simply just digital slight-of-hand? "Don't pay attention to the fact that we didn't take the time to develop these characters." "Just look past the acting. The eye-candy makes up for it!" "We don't need authentic relationships. Give'em more digital adrenaline." This is how I felt about a movie like Avatar for example.

Example number two comes from a movie that I've only seen previews for but am very interested in actually seeing when it comes out. The movie is Like Crazy. It's a stripped-down indie film about a boy and a girl who fall in love... I know, some of you are sighing right now going, "Hasn't that been done a thousand times already?" The answer is yes. However, aside from the fact that it's being extremely well reviewed, this feature film was shot on an $1,700 digital camera. The camera is called the Canon 7D. It's actually a still camera that shoots HD video. Now, this advance in technology is something I feel much more like I can get behind. The reason? Because an ambitious group of individuals with no money said, "I want to tell a good story." So, they invested about 1/100th the cost of a motion picture camera and with their little investment are managing to tell a story that will stick with us far longer and have a much, much greater personal and emotional impact on us than Avatar or Fast5 or any number of other generic, digitally overblown films ever will. This is not to belittle what digital artists do. The men and women who've developed the ability to give us the creatures and events that we now see in the average movie are,without a doubt, artists. It's not their fault if what they're given to create doesn't say much.

In the end I believe all of us have the capacity to enjoy a summer blockbuster for the thrills and spectacle that it is. But let us also consider what it would look like if the storytelling landscape was only covered with towering skyscrapers and there were no homes. Life happens for us where we live, not where we'd like to live. Technology gives us the ability to tell stories on a grander scale, but when it comes to storytelling the technology should always serve the story being told. If the technology exists for it's own sake then we won't care if a story's being told or not. That eventually leads us to the place of leaving the story altogether and simply ingesting the magicians slight-of-hand. Because in that world the object he was going to make disappear wasn't even there in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Few

In a previous post entitled, The Shame, I addressed what I feel is a common occurrence while watching certain films or participating in certain pieces of art. You're sitting there, the film is unfolding (or the painting is staring you in the face or the music is moving through your ears) and you're thinking to yourself, "I'm just not getting this." However, after you've gone back to it once or twice you begin to see the way in which the story is being told. That once abstract blurb of noise, picture, prose or whatever it may be begins to make sense and you finally feel that it's revealing itself to you. This is, I believe, fairly common. There are those instances however, in which a piece of art is created at such a level (where exactly this place is I don't know; I hope someday to visit and perhaps stay a while) that the average, above average, and even those slightly above the above average, leave the experience scratching their heads and wondering if what they've just witnessed is in fact art or, something their 5 year-old could've just as easily come up with accidentally.

I remember seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey a couple of years ago and having this reaction. Mr. Kubrick is seen by most in the film industry as a genius. I don't believe I'm intellectually qualified to speak to that. I've seen a number of his films and while I feel that all of them are powerful pieces of visual art, the jury's still out on how I feel about his ability as a storyteller. The reason I mention Kubrick is because I recently saw the movie The Tree of Life. This is a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. As I was watching The Tree of Life I thought to myself, "This reminds me of a Kubrick film." (After seeing the film I read Roger Ebert's review on it and interestingly enough he also mentions Kubrick) Ok, big setup. So, what am I getting at? After having seen The Tree of Life and leaving the theater feeling as if I'd just been completely overloaded with every stimuli I could possibly imagine, I had to concede that it didn't matter how many times I saw this film, it would remain absolutely out of my realm of interpretation. Did I have some strong emotional reactions to it? Certainly. Will I every fully understand the intention of the writer/director? I highly doubt it.

This leads me to believe that there are those few individuals -- those few -- artistically, intellectually, emotionally, sensitive people, who will always be able to appreciate the Kubrick's, Malick's, Lynch's, von Trier's, etc. and actually be able to (at least according to them) connect with the story that's being told while the rest of us think our niece's and nephew's could probably have come up with something at least as good if not better. How do I come to this conclusion? Because as of the time of this writing The Tree of Life is getting an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The critics are eating this film up. They love it! Now, some people might just chalk that up to the stigma that film critics are pretentious and only enjoy movies with subtitles. However, they see more movies in a year than the average person probably sees in their lifetime. These are the large majority of 'the few'. These are professional movie watchers.

This post has largely been a rambling of thoughts as they spill out of my head. I think that if I were to boil it down it comes to this: I can have my opinion about wether or not a story that's told is effective. I will form this opinion based on wether that story affected ME in a certain way. However, I can't say that a story is ineffective to someone who was moved by it. I may never fully understand all of the storytelling devices thrown at me in The Tree of Life and therefore will probably not have it stick with me as an impacting story. But there are a lot of people out there who will and I can't tell them that their experience isn't valid because I didn't get it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Challenge

When I started this blog it was with the intention of focusing on storytelling as it pertained to works of art. So far my entries have consisted of observations about storytelling that were inspired by movies, music, or a combination of media. And yet, as I reflect on the very first entry into this blog, I again realize, the most powerful stories are born out of the human experience.

On May 22, 2011 an EF-5 tornado leveled ten percent of Joplin, MO. Over 150 people were killed and it is estimated that the clean-up alone will cost over 3 billion dollars. It will take years to rebuild Joplin.

I can only imagine the number of stories there are to tell from such an event. In fact, that's what they call the category of the tornado, an EF-5 "event." It is the norm for an event like this to garner national attention. The story was being told from coast to coast and around the world within a matter of hours. The news media brought it to our attention through pictures of devastation, stories of personal loss, and statistics telling us how, why, when, and where. But then, it happened. Less than a week had gone by and this devastating "event" was now nothing more than an update during the late local news.

The challenge we face when telling stories is telling the whole story. A story like Joplin's is an ongoing story. It's people don't have the comfort or convenience of only paying attention when it suits them. They aren't living this story because they choose to, they're living it because they have to. Which begs the question: If the whole story is to be told, what part is mine to tell? You and I may not live in Joplin or even have a personal tie to it's people but what we do share is the human experience. We know what it is to suffer devastating loss. We know what it is to see beauty turned to a shadow of what it once was. If, as the famous movie actor Edward G. Robinson once said, "Nothing that is human is foreign to us", then we have the obligation to choose to be a part of their story.

I have had the privilege of being a part of Joplin's story, albeit in a very small way, by participating with a charity organization called Songs for #Joplin. Songs for #Joplin has compiled a list of 18 songs, donated by 18 artists, to create a benefit album of the same name. The website is www.songsforjoplin.com and you can follow them on Twitter at @SongsForJoplin and on facebook. This is a story you can help tell and I encourage you to donate.

Storytelling isn't limited to those who hold the guitar, write the novel, look through the lens, pick up the brush, or mold the clay. Stories are being told, and we are the ones telling them -- even if we don't realize it.