by Charles Eidsvik
Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 36-42, 73
As a predominantly establishment medium and art form, cinema carries and promotes ever-new permutations of mainstream ideology. Therefore, left film critics understandably spend most of their time explicating and criticizing films' ideological messages and have little time left for technical analysis. Generally speaking, little is lost by ignoring technique. Two things, however, have occurred in the last decade that require understanding production technology and practice if we are to grasp their significance.
First, incremental shifts in technology have permitted high-budget filmmakers more closely to approximate the “real” when presenting mainstream fantasies, making their messages more persuasive through verisimilitude. Second, an independent film movement, mostly made up of filmmakers with a background in documentary filmmaking, has embarked on fiction filmmaking using a second set of technologies. These technologies were developed by European independent filmmakers to allow them to offer a low-budget aesthetic as an alternative to Hollywood mainstream style. To understand either the current independent film movement in the United States or the dominant cinema it opposes, one must get a basic sense of how filmmakers have used new technology for aesthetic and political ends.
French film theorist Jean Mitry argued that filmmaking always involves trying to make the world into a story. A filmmaker's problems lie in the ways that the world resists that attempt. How much money and technical sophistication a filmmaker has determines whether the world can be bent to fit the story or the story bent to fit the world which the filmmaker finds. Because enough money, skill, and technology enable a filmmaker to bend how the entire universe looks and sounds, almost all of mainstream film's technical and craft arsenal is aimed at that end.
A filmmaker can try, like Wordsworth, to make the everyday seem special and poetic (as in, for example, John Hughes’ teenybopper romances such as SIXTEEN CANDLES or PRETTY IN PINK). Or a filmmaker can, like Coleridge, try to make the extraordinary seem everyday, as in big-effects films such as COCOON or POLTERGEIST or WHO KILLED ROGER RABBIT?) A few films, of which E.T. is the best example, try for both romanticisms in a single film. The technology used makes fantasies consistent and coherent as well as richly detailed. Whatever might contradict the film's fantasy is excluded from our view, so the technology also masks its own existence. The aesthetics of the dominant cinema are illusionist, in that they attempt to mask the means by which the story achieves its effects.
This is, of course, nothing new. Mainstream cinema has promoted a Romantic and Illusionist aesthetic almost since its origins. But the “progress” of cinema's technical apparatus has been primarily to develop tools to better serve the goals of Romantic Illusionism. Whether in lighting, or sound, or camera movement, or just about any other technical area — improved" equipment has almost always meant improving the equipment's ability to create illusions the artifice of which is masked. With the exception of a relatively few very special film genres — most importantly the early German Expressionism of THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, the studio musical in its many variations, and some science fiction — few films have flaunted techniques beyond whatever the given conventions of a period and genre would regard as acceptably realistic. "Craftsmanship,” as a film concept, has come to mean well-executed illusionism. Within the film industry, neither Brechtian distanciation nor gritty realism is acceptable as good film “manners" or good technique.
Behind the industry's insistence on a particular style lie a number of factors. Historically Hollywood has thrived on making slick, expensive entertainments. Film trade unions prefer styles that require large productions because such productions employ more people. More important are economic reasons: the imposition of de facto stylistic standards limits the number of films competing for viewers; only those producers with megamillions or industry connections can become industry players. Given the number of potential filmmakers graduated from film schools, and the number who have otherwise developed filmmaking skills, overproduction of films is a danger. Overproduction of films in the 1960s nearly wrecked the film industry: the industry fears it will happen again. Thus a high-cost stylistic standard that effectively limits the number of films in distribution makes business sense. The industry has little interest in trying alternatives to Romantic Illusionism.
Film criticism has helped enforce viewers' expectations of seeing dreams that look real. Illusionist aesthetics so dominate commercial cinema that most critical as well as popular notions of what makes for a “well made” film are derived from Hollywood's sleight-of-hand techniques. Reviewers often dismiss as “amateurs" filmmakers who are uninterested in illusionism or who cannot or do not wish to achieve a slick cover-up of the tricks behind the cinematic illusions. The only obvious exceptions to the mainstream hegemony in production style have occurred when filmmakers have had “critical" organs that were able effectively to promote their own agendas — for example, during the early 1960s in France when Cahiers du Cinéma successfully championed the work of filmmakers such as Godard and Rivette. In the United States there is no widely-read film journal which could, like Cahiers, promote alternative or non-illusionist aesthetics, and which has survived into the 1980s.
Nevertheless, for filmmakers with progressive political commitments as well as for filmmakers with a background in documentary, both Hollywood's romanticism and the sleigh-of-hand techniques are ethically objectionable because of the gap between the world and the stories told about it. Hollywood illusionism denies the world's multi-voiced complexity. Further, high-tech illusionism costs so much to achieve that often a commercial filmmaker's loyalties are to financial goals rather than to moral ones. No one just gives a filmmaker money to make a movie. The cash comes from corporations, is covered by thousands of pages of legal contracts, and has to be spent in ways that at least offer the promise of profits. Even though a high-budget filmmaker might wish to speak to the worlds we live in, it is difficult to tell the truth with either the budgets or the terms available for commercial filmmaking.
The exceptions, of course, are fascinating. Spike Lee, in DO THE RIGHT THING, succeeded in using Hollywood money to create a powerful, socially critical work, which exists as a hybrid between gritty realism and Hollywood slickness. But Lee, with his ability to hustle publicity and his financial track record, has succeeded precisely as an exception. The industry has shown no signs it wants more Spike Lees messing up their smoothly running operation.
Thus, in the United States (though in a different way and for somewhat different reasons than in Europe) an “alternative" cinema based on low-budget fiction filmmaking has evolved. A kind of creative counterculture within the filmmaking community, this alternative or independent film movement has created a number of films that reject the entire aesthetic of high-budget illusionism. The films are primarily “realist” in that ethics are valued more than aesthetics. For the independent, low-budget filmmaker without the resources to falsify the visual and audio world convincingly, creating a cohesive fiction is possible only to a degree. Special effects, studio sets, spectacle and urban period scenes, and stars are out of the question: they cost too much.
Low budget filmmakers must tell stories set in our world rather than in some storytelling universe. Further, they must work in a way that does not require a complete masking of the filmmaker's presence. For filmmakers with a background in documentary, such as Lizzie Borden, Claudia Weill, Haskell Wexler and Robert Young or with a background in serious literature, such as John Sayles, creating new, alternative ways of making films is a simple matter of honesty. The problem for such filmmakers is not whether a work of cinema can be made to look and sound “real.” Rather, they pose this question: how to use fictional forms and still serve some of the objectives we normally expect from documentaries? How can a film achieve fiction's compactness, clarity, and narrative force and at the same time engage us in a dialogue about the world we share?
Goals such as these have little to do with making gobs of money or with giving people two hours of escape, so alternative cinema does not compete for Hollywood's business. But low-budget filmmakers must appeal to viewers habituated to mainstream films and must ask these viewers to set aside illusionist aesthetics, at least temporarily. How difficult this request is, is testified to by the very small number of independent filmmakers who have been able to survive financially.
One problem is that illusionist films often “feel" more real than realist films. The game of illusionist filmmaking is to see how much apparent reality can be gotten into a make-believe story. A larger problem comes from the fact that high-budget filmmaking gives pleasure by mimicking effective perception. A high-budget film gives pleasure because it is made for seeing and hearing.
A good chunk of a film's budget is spent making, "dressing," and lighting locations so that when we watch a shot, we quickly see and hear only what is narratively significant. To interpret such highly organized and highlighted visual and audio constructs, we encounter few of the struggles involved in ordinary perception. In everyday perception, our mental processes filter what we see and hear. We do not just look and listen at our surroundings; we look and listen for what we think might be meaningful, and we disregard the rest. Ordinary reality is disorganized, noisy, and badly lit, so we spend a lot of effort using our eyes and ears to survive.
Illusionist film technique manipulates what the viewer sees and hears so that perceived objects are fully systematized according to the story's needs. Therefore, the cinematic world is easy to look at and listen to, too. Big budgets offer perceptual accessibility. Big-budget films allow the viewer to relax and follow a perceived world designed to make sense and be seen and heard without effort. The camera leads the eye though scenes lit so that we only notice what we are supposed to and then only when narratively appropriate. The sound track gives us exactly what we need and only what we need to easily grasp the story. We hear no extraneous "noise," no voices getting in the way of other voices, no inappropriately echoing walls, no noisy air conditioners. One reason why high-budget films cost so much is that to prepare such visual and audio environments for the audience, a Hollywood crew of 75 can only shoot what will be two minutes of the final film's footage per day.
Though sound, editing, and other technical areas are also difficult and sophisticated, it is the visual area of mainstream filmmaking that is hardest for a low-budget filmmaker to compete with. Mainstream cinema has made an art of slick-looking visuals. To make locations visually controllable, wide-latitude and fast film stocks, lightweight and silent 35mm cameras, and new light systems now make “real" locations controllable no matter what the sun is or is not doing. To cope with the problem of getting cranes and other heavy equipment into locations, new electronic camera and lighting controls now allow filmmakers to separate the actual equipment from the controller.
The camera, mounted on a crane such as the Louma or on a Steadicam, can go into crowds, up stairs, or through windows with seeming effortlessness. Dozens of smaller changes have accompanied these changes, such as better light filtering and control materials, which enhance how images can be manipulated and made easy to watch. Very few of Hollywood's new visual control tools are usable without a relatively large budget. Smooth camera movement is especially expensive because even under the best of circumstances, it is enormously time consuming to set up and execute, and it requires a highly skilled crew.
Easy-viewing aesthetics enhance viewers' complicity with the filmmaker's fantasy. Or rather — and this is absolutely essential for understanding Hollywood's easy-viewing aesthetics and the ideological implications of that — we are swept in or held back, whichever the filmmaker wants. A filmmaker can make the viewer intimate with a character or withhold that intimacy, all without the viewer realizing that manipulation has occurred. As Steven Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE illustrates, technical control of viewer complicity goes two ways. This film is a fascinating study in how Spielberg manipulates viewing and hearing to lock viewers into the filmmaker's rather than the characters' perspectives.
As Walter Benjamin long ago pointed out, cinema's viewpoint often is vehicular, proving us with an aestheticized perspective similar to what we experience while riding in a car or train. Just as when riding in a vehicle through a slum, we can look at the slum aesthetically, as spectacle, rather than ethically in terms of human suffering, our cinematic perceptions call be insulated and isolated from what we are seeing through smooth camera movement. Our isolation from what we see is increased when camera moves feel smooth and pre-programmed, leading and predicting the action.
The camera's overt predetermination functions like fate, saying implicitly that the storyteller (and viewer) are ahead of and in control of the story. The filmmaker telegraphs what comes next and how it will all end, and thus turns action into predictable behavior. There are two results: first, preprogrammed movement effectively condescends toward the characters and dehumanizes them by "knowing" what they will do before they do it. Second, it lowers anxiety about what will happen to characters because it makes the viewer the visual accomplice not of the characters but of the storyteller. Complicity and distance can be manipulated shot by shot and scene by scene.
In THE COLOR PURPLE Spielberg's usual pattern is to leave the camera static when he wants us to follow and identify with the action, and to go into tracking shots when he wants emotional distance. Olivia's birth and abduction, for example, are statically shot. The camera work depicting Mister's first sexual use of Celie is almost static, except for following Celie's perception to a photo of Sling Avery. Spielberg keeps the camera still to shoot the scene in the store when Corrine shows Celie her baby (whom Celie believes is her own daughter), saying, "I call her Olivia," affirming Celie's hope that Corrine's baby is hers. And when Celie first is forced to shave Mister, the camera is static or follows her motion. Spielberg used this kind of camera work in those scenes where he did not want or need viewer distance.
But the camera stays in motion throughout the march to the graveyard with Celie's mother; it does not just follow along but plays peekaboo with the characters through a spoked wagon wheel. When Mister rides alongside Nettie, obviously intent on rape, Spielberg plays a more complex peekaboo game, showing Mister through trees which rush by in the foreground, aestheticizing each shot and making the whole situation visually playful: Spielberg's style tells the viewer that nothing bad will happen. When Nettie escapes and then is evicted from the farm by Mister, the camera, rather than staying with Celie or Nettie, takes a shortcut, tracks in a rightward direction, with foreground objects whizzing by and separating us from Celie's and Nettles situation. The camera knows where Nettie and Celie will wind up, and it goes there directly, choreographed in an agenda that effectively belittles Celie's and Nettie's anguish, only coming to a relative accord with the action at the fence. Swooping, rolling, capriciously following handbills blowing in the wind, the camera seems bored with the central story and goes on its own mannered way.
The astonishing thing about Spielberg's craftsmanship is that he is so good. Even when his story contradicts what he is doing with his film, he is able to vehicularize perception successfully enough so that the viewer can remain comfortably suburbanized, an accomplice of the filmmaker rather than of the characters. We are accustomed to Hollywood's ability to create spectacle. But who would have thought that even Spielberg could turn Alice Walker's novel into a comfortably bourgeois experience?
Whether the kind of material that Alice Walker includes in her novel should be so comfortably experienced is an issue Spielberg could not afford or perhaps did not think to ask. Once a filmmaker begins to try to control and aestheticize an environment, making it easy to watch, he has accepted stylization as more important than any statement about what reality is like for his characters. Thus the house that Celie and Mister share may be run-down, but we see it with shafts of light shimmering through smoky air, and the whole thing looks strangely beautiful. Celie and Mister live by a pond, but in Spielberg's world, ponds have no mosquitoes. Once everything becomes arranged for narrative accessibility, that is, to make a pleasant and controlled viewer experience, whatever human reality a story originally spoke to becomes subordinated in importance.
My point is not that Spielberg is a villain. Rather, he knows how to manipulate the narrative style in order to give his audience what they will accept as a good movie experience. Spielberg's technical and stylistic proficiency along with his willingness to avoid staring at unpleasantness make him a trusted name for millions of viewers. But the aesthetic he represents is insidious because it can claim to deal with serious issues. In practice, it only increases bourgeois complacency about these issues. Spielberg co-opts the rage in Walker's novel, smoothes it and makes it acceptable to discuss in suburban comfort. Two messages emerge from an analysis of Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE. First, that films such as his give audiences an alternative to taking serious issues seriously. And second, that the independent low-budget filmmaker is up against formidably sophisticated competition in any area in which s/he is competing directly with Hollywood.
Historically the independent cinema has taken as its "own” concern subjects and styles that dominant cinema refuse to touch. Since filmmakers such as Spielberg and Coppola (and more recently David Lynch) have entered the mainstream, there are few such subjects. Now what is left for independent and low-budget filmmakers as exclusive terrain are not subjects but attitudes. Dominant cinema cannot afford openly to express the attitudes of disaffected people, be they gays or leftists or ordinary factory workers or anyone else whose attitudes are “marginal."
Obviously, documentary films and videos most directly express the attitudes of the disaffected. In documentaries people can speak for themselves, without having to be part of a fiction. But since the beginning of the Reagan era, documentary films with non-establishment viewpoints have been almost completely shut out of their previous broadcast home at PBS. But even under the best — now long passed — circumstances, documentaries other than concert films have had perhaps the most limited audience in the United States of all film genres. This limit on reception occurred because the documentary has had few resources for selling its subjects and their attitudes to viewers who were not prepared for the hard struggle to see meaning and order in, for example, cinema-verité-style documentaries, and who were not willing to listen to a voice-over analysis of documentary, material. For many of us, the documentary film is the ideal way with which a filmmaker can by to tell the truth. But the documentary is not a form many people are willing to watch.
Low-budget fiction films, like documentaries, rake seriously the struggle involved in making meaning. For them, this struggle is based ethically in the view that meaning is to be found in real contexts and people rather than imposed upon them. To believe that meaning can and should be wrested from "found" realities rather than just invented is also the faith of the low-budget fiction filmmaker, just as it is the faith of the documentarist. But this faith also points to a faith in communicating unpopular or “marginal” points of view. Narrative fiction, in whatever form, can potentially immerse audiences in the logic and perceptions of non-mainstream viewpoints.
The problem for a filmmaker who wishes to communicate attitudes outside of the mainstream is complicated by the dominance of Romantic Illusionism. How can a filmmaker ask viewers (and reviewers) to treat his or her film as something deliberately "other" than a cheaply made "B" or “C" picture? Somehow the filmmaker must "switch off” viewer expectations of seeing mainstream narration, and must introduce the attitudes and techniques he proposes as alternatives. One approach is to say up-front, "This film is different."
The most direct attempt to switch off mainstream expectations I have seen in U.S. alternative cinema occurs in SUBWAY RIDERS, made by Amos Poe and Johanna Heer in 1981. The opening sequence shows Poe rejecting an offer to sell his script to Hollywood. The story then gets ultra-low-budget in look and sound, but also introduces a color-coded stylization, in which each main character's mood is shown by tinting the image. This stylization is pushed further by double casting the main character, a schizophrenic saxophone player who regularly tries to murder whoever hears him play. Poe and Heer made a film fully within German Expressionist terms and at the same time one that has the feeling of documentary realism. That Poe deliberately disconnected viewer expectations for a normal movie is part of the reason SUBWAY RIDERS became a cult classic, especially in Europe.
Even more successful was Jim Jarmusch's approach to STRANGER THAN PARADISE. Jarmusch simply refused the entire shot structure accepted in film history since Porter's (1904) THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. He shot each scene with one shot, mostly from a fixed camera position. The result was that his defiance of traditional aesthetics “read" as clearly as his primitivistic aesthetic, and audiences reacted positively to his story.
Often, however, filmmakers make little attempt either to proclaim their non-standard aesthetics or to hide them. John Sayles, for example, uses a documentary-like sound quality in his work. In LIANNA and for a good part of THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, shotgun and similarly directional, “perspective" microphones signal his film as different from the extraordinarily smooth-listening Hollywood mainstream. It would have been easier for him, and because it could have saved film stock, probably cheaper, just to make temporary recordings (known as "scratch tracks”) on location and, as Hollywood filmmakers do, to dub in cleanly synchronized dialogue later. But Sayles seems to like the fact that his films sound like extremely well-made documentaries; the rough location sound and visual texture of Sayles' films are part of his artistic signature. Sayles is not alone in hanging on to some of the feel of documentary in his work. That feel and the claim of independent cinema to political or social relevance form part of low-budget aesthetics. Low-budget aesthetics are sometimes almost as much a frame of mind as they are a restriction imposed by budget.
The unavoidable struggle — and the feel — of low-budget films come with using real interiors as film locations. This practice stands in contrast to mainstream filmmaking, where interior locations are faked in a studio. There, “wild” walls silently roll aside so the director always has some appropriate place to put the camera and equally appropriate places to put the lights and light-control devices such as reflectors and scrims. Low-budget filmmaking usually conveys the sense that the camera and lights went wherever the camera person could find place to put them. Kick lights and "specials” to outline and illuminate actors' features are seldom used. Often background lighting on walls is clumsy or simply (by mainstream standards) inadequate.
Almost always, low-budget features betray an awkwardness or obviousness about the lighting and camera work — in that we are aware how scenes have been artificially lit for the camera and arranged so that they can be shot simply. Characters' movements often are not blocked to coordinate smoothly with the camera and lighting, so we rarely see everything from quite the best angle. Sound bounces around in ways that reveal the struggle of the microphone boom operator. Often, to avoid boom shadows, filmmakers use highly directional but distinct sounding "shotgun" microphones, which give dialogue a documentary sound.
Often the interiors used in independent films have a borrowed look. On Hollywood sets, art directors and set dressers work the set over carefully to see that each room expresses the personality of the characters who supposedly live in it. Set dressing enhances the moods of the scenes that occur there. In low-budget films the interiors often seem to reveal not the characters' personalities but the personalities of the people whom the room was borrowed from.
For those of us who often inhabit other people' spaces, this kind of contingency adds an element of believability. But the believability is not illusionist, Rather, it invokes an a viewing attitude that, for lack of a better word, might be called "Brechtian." Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt," his so-called alienation principle, did not come from an attempt to alienate the audience. Rather, Brecht wanted to help audience members see social realities not as "natural" givens to be ignored but as something “strange,” contingent, and therefore changeable. Often low-budget films achieve this result paradoxically, by foregrounding the tension between story and setting. The effect is that the story becomes more than a story. It becomes a story “about," a story that in its physicality is connected to the viewer's world.
In these and other ways the unmalleability of physical existence asserts itself as the low budget film's co-author. Once one has seen an interior setting, one knows and accepts that, if the camera moves around, it will move where there would be room to move a real camera in a real room of the sort one is seeing. But a kind of visual and audio awkwardness testifies to the reality of the settings; and the reality of the settings testifies to relations between the film's world and the world we inhabit in our everyday lives.
The clumsiness of real interiors gives a fictional film the feet of documentary. Documentary's impact comes from viewers' sense that within any given scene, they somehow experience actual space and time with the people filmed, whom the viewers recognizes being members of the real world. The documentary cinema-verité filmmaker, at best, asks viewers to extend their ethical concerns from everyday life — basically the concern for common decency — to the people portrayed on the screen, whether those are institutionalized inmates in TITTICUT FOLLIES, workers and patients in HOSPITAL, or a Bible salesman in the Maysles' SALESMAN. A sense of the camera's restrictions in real space is part of the sense of "there-ness," of immediacy, that documentaries at their best give. This sense that the story is not preordained, but rather is risky, contingent, and even quirky, is a quality that both cinema-verité and the new, low-budget film seek to embrace.
Often there is also a rough technical feeling to low budget U.S. work, whether in documentary or fiction form, not merely because the filmmaking teams have little experience or taste for smooth illusion, but also because of the equipment used. Around 1970 a number of European filmmakers such as the Swede, Rune Ericson, began modifying film equipment made for television so that it would function for low-budget theatrical filmmaking. Filmmakers in small European countries such as Sweden often found the costs of working with 35mm equipment prohibitive. The most striking modification was called "Super-l6mm," which basically involves widening the image area of ordinary 16mm film so it can serve as the basis of a blowup to 35mm film. Though the results sometimes are marginal, improved film stocks and lenses have made it possible to get visual quality on Super-16mm that is acceptable for most film festival and "specialized" film theater audiences.
The lightweight format has two advantages. First, it allows small film crews accustomed to documentary work to make fiction films with lightweight, familiar equipment. Second, for interior location filmmaking, 16mm has advantages over the professional, 35mm gauge. For an equivalent amount of light and similar framing, 16mm provides around four times the depth of field as 35mm. In small spaces with low light, this advantage is perhaps as important as using a smaller crew.
Cable television and videocassette sales and rentals have been the main financial markets for independents for most of the 1980s. A film is shot on 16mm or Super-16 and blown to 35mm for festivals and a limited theatrical "publicity" run. It is then given wider release on video. This production and distribution procedure has become an alternative-cinema staple. For example, John Sayles' RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN and LIANNA were done on 16mm; Robert Young's THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ was done on Super-16. So were Bill Sherwood's PARTING GLANCES and Lizzie Borden's WORKING GIRLS. So long as a filmmaker avoids a lot of long shots (where a 35mm original is startlingly better), is careful with lighting, and composes meticulously, these "blow-up" films provide a way of doing distributable work cheaply.
But because visual quality is just barely good enough, low-budget films often look better on cable or video than on a big screen. The low visual quality of home video and TV sets makes any technical roughness in lower-budget films less noticeable than on a large screen, In private setting, documentary-like realism may prove particularly effective, in that the U.S. documentary tradition is primarily a television rather than a theatrical tradition. Further, the home setting is where independent cinema's other close "relatives” are perhaps most apt to be encountered in this videotape age. These include television series deriving from literature and European semi-realist fiction films such as MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE or LETTER TO BRESCHNEV (both shot using low budget techniques). Though television screens do not convey a film's power in the way a theatrical screen does, neither does the home screen announce a film's budget problems.
Nevertheless, the non-traditional visual and audio aspects of realistic low-budget films create problems for the films in reaching an audience. Cable and video sales depend on how well known a film has become through theatrical release. Alternative cinema needs ancillary television and video sales because even under the best of circumstances, independent films usually lose money for their theatrical distributor and must be cross-collateralized via small-screen sales. Specialty film distributors and exhibitors and cable and video buyers do not like the onus of trying to place films that do not look “well-made" or "artistic.” For a filmmaker to sell a film at all, it must somehow have gotten pre-validation via film festival prizes or newspaper or television reviews. And at film festivals, organizers and judges and specialty film exhibitors watch low-budget realist films on large theatrical screens in competition with far better financed, crafted, and aesthetically pleasing European "Art" films. To get good reviews or prizes in this kind of context, a film must not merely be good or ethically important, it must somehow be very "interesting" or “important."
A "distributable” film not only has an important theme but also stimulates viewers' and critics' interest on other than thematic grounds. The theatrical audience for nontraditional movies in theaters does not come from the counterculture. Such an audience contains two distinct kinds of viewer, both of whom get their stimulus for going to a film primarily through print media. One kind of viewer is the film buff who goes to anything which a favorite newspaper film reviewer has found "interesting.” The other kind of viewer is interested in a particular subject — say, ecology or homosexuality or abandoned children. Both kinds of viewers must be reached for a film even marginally to be successful. To reach either kind of viewer a film must develop a critical following, not with other filmmakers but with critics and reviewers. U.S. independent cinema has in no way solved this problem of building an audience.
Critics and reviewers rarely know much about the technical, ethical, and aesthetic issues that differentiate low-budget realist films from both mainstream films and the more stylistically-oriented European art film. Except in politically committed film journals such as Cineaste and Jump Cut, in left weeklies such as In These Times, and in the rare daily or weekly with a critic friendly to alternative film, independent films rarely get discussed in print at all. There is very little in the way of a film criticism counter-establishment that can write in terms relevant to the situations of independent and realist film. The body of such film criticism has remained almost as small in relation to mainstream criticism as has independent film in relation to Hollywood. The difficulty of such a situation is that only inadequate ways exist for letting people know which independent films are worth going out of the way to see (or rent or buy on tape) and why. Even more important, for works outside of easy-viewing Romantic traditions, viewers often need perceptual and ideological preparation for what they will see and hear. It is (or should be) one of the jobs of criticism to help in that preparation.
This is not to say that it makes sense for progressive or committed film critics to praise independent films simply because they are independent, or cheap films simply because they are cheap. The independent film movement has many directors trying to use the independent scene only as a springboard to Hollywood. Furthermore, historically it derived from the U.S. Independent Movement of the 1960s and often continues that movement's inexcusable attitudes. Sexism, rampant and often irresponsible individualism, and utter lack of social concerns comprise part of the legacy which the independent movement inherited.
A few name-brand, mainstream directors — the Spike Lees and Oliver Stones — attempt (from whatever perspective) to deal with realities in their films in ways that send us out of the theater thinking and talking about our lives and society. In this sense, it would be irresponsible for a committed critic to ignore a progressive mainstream film such as CRY FREEDOM in order to give space to an independent filmmaker such as Rob Neilson's work. But the independent low-budget movement remains the only possible base for filmmakers on the left or filmmakers dealing with minority viewpoints or realities.
In dealing with film art, which is dominated by a well-financed establishment, perhaps those who believe in committed cinema must eventually make the distinction offered by Satjayit Ray between "our" films and "theirs," between films made because their makers have something to say, and those that simply are meant to be fun to see. For some of us, Hollywood's romanticism and ideology are forever foreign, forever "theirs" not "ours." If as critics we wish to promote a cinema which is more honest about the world we live in, as viewers we must learn to see and hear in new ways, in ways appropriate to films outside of Hollywood's illusionist tradition. And to learn to see and hear in new ways, we will have to begin to understand the technology with which "their" films and "our" films are made. We will have to learn to analyze how illusionism is achieved and how it works to bootleg its ideological messages into our eyes and our dreams. We will have to learn to undermine illusionism's control by revealing the tricks behind Spielbergian illusions, and by saying there are interesting alternatives to simply accepting what Hollywood wants to offer.
And we will have to accept that we need to start with print, start with the specialized film audience, start with the only place we can compete. Right now independent cinema in the United States, though well-organized, is fragile because it has no critical voice. Perhaps we must create the conditions under which to develop that voice.