Beyond Miramax

Far from Hollywood, new filmmaking communities emerge

In 1999, Apple unveiled a new commercial for its iMac computer. Through a video screen attached to a digital camera, we see a little boy riding a bicycle. A wire connects the camera to a desktop computer, where an unseen auteur reorders the images, adds a title, then views the result: a short film titled My First Wheels. Meanwhile, the voice of Jeff Goldblum translates what we're watching into a sales pitch. "This holiday season," he intones, "the most original, most emotional films may not be in theaters. They'll be on your desk. Introducing the easiest way to create and compose and edit and polish your own home movies."

Don't worry, I'm not trying to sell you an iMac. I mention the ad because it implies a number of interesting things. One is that the most ephemeral of film genres, the home movie, has undergone a radical change: It now involves editing as well as photography, allowing the domestic director to arrange his images in a coherent way. The difference between the traditional home movie and its modern descendant is the difference between a cluttered attic and a collector's den.

That in turn implies that the boundaries between the home movie and the independent film have blurred, and may soon break down entirely. In the '60s, devotees of "underground" cinema could speak vaguely of East Coast and West Coast filmmaking scenes. Today, one might find comparable communities in neighboring suburbs, each plugged into larger moviemaking networks via the Internet yet unaware of the other's existence.

So the self-publishing revolution that gave us zines and home-brewed CDs is now producing movies as well, and the number of D.I.Y. filmmakers is big enough for a major computer company to view them as a mass market worth pursuing. Yet these micro-auteurs have virtually no presence at the cineplex (except, sometimes, as an influence -- witness The Blair Witch Project). Hollywood itself is becoming subtly indie-fied: The mammoth studios still rule the industry, but much of the work is now subcontracted to tiny, independently owned high-tech workshops, some of which have themselves become part-time mini-studios. Yet movie distribution has grown tighter, more centralized, and less open to outsiders.

Many articles have been written about one sort of indie-film success story: the "young," "scrappy" "maverick" whose Internet short or ultra-low-budget tape gets viewed by the right Hollywood exec, allowing the fresh-faced filmmaker to vault over those barriers and land a job assembling dream-widgets. This is not such a piece. This is about the moviemakers who don't want Hollywood jobs, or at least don't want them on Hollywood terms -- about people trying to find ways around the distribution bottleneck, and the audiences that are tentatively coalescing around them.

Outside the blockbuster-oriented pop-music mainstream, there are musical subcultures devoted to bluegrass, techno, classical, punk, hip hop, folk, and jazz -- smaller worlds where one can be a success without even grazing the top 40. One day, perhaps, the same will be true of film.

Movies in Cyberspace

If you're interested in self-publishing, in subcultures, or in people trying to make an end-run around traditional distribution channels, the first place you'll probably think to look is the Internet. And indeed, the Net contains a vibrant virtual community of filmmakers and a horde of online movies, though not all of the latter have adjusted to the medium's demands.

The most popular online moviemakers are the pornographers. Indeed, if you're looking for a self-sustaining film community comparable to the punk or bluegrass scenes, you needn't look further than the "adult" world, an economy with its own network of business giants and big-name stars, a market where entry is easy (stop snickering) and brand names are valuable, where amateurs and entrepreneurs alike can find audiences. Porn has taken full advantage of both home video and the Internet, and by serving as an early adopter of new technologies and an early experimenter with new business models, it has made things a lot easier for other sorts of filmmakers.

But if alternative cinema consisted only of porn, it wouldn't be worth writing about. So what else is online? A little bit of everything, from old features that have slipped into the public domain to "websodics," the cyberspace equivalent of a TV series, some of which star well-known actors or are helmed by well-known directors. (Tim Burton, for example, has made a series of online animated shorts called Stainboy.) The Webplex is in a state of constant flux, with older films disappearing and new ones constantly being made. But the sheer variety available never seems to diminish.

Film school students have started to put their work online. So have fan communities devoted to Star Wars, Doctor Who, and other movies and TV series, churning out a breathtaking volume of semi-legal spoofs, sequels, and tributes. Inevitably, some people are making movies specifically for the Web, especially now that such sites as AtomFilms and iFilm have emerged to gather such efforts under larger roofs. (Some observers wonder whether those two companies will survive the dot-com free fall. But even if they fail, that wouldn't kill Internet movies; it would merely disperse them.)

The biggest trouble with online cinema is the conditions under which it must be viewed: a tiny screen within a screen, with the action periodically halted for "rebuffering" or rendered herky-jerky by a slow or congested connection. Some programs let you see the movies on a larger virtual screen, but they fail to improve the picture resolution in the process, thus often making the experience worse. Attempting to watch the Japanese director Hyun Kim's experimental film Disconnected, I gave up after less than a minute: The subtitles were either too tiny to be deciphered or -- if I blew up the picture -- too blurry.

As a result, the most successful Net films -- the ones that get e-mailed from friend to friend and watched between office tasks -- tend to be short, visually uncomplicated, and, ultimately, trivial. That doesn't mean, of course, that they can't be enjoyable. Some even turn their triviality into a virtue. This is especially true of those cheap, primitive-looking "movies" made with flash animation, in which cut-out figures glide awkwardly around the screen.

The hilarious Hyakugojyuuichi!! (2001) -- directed by the prolific Neil Cicierega, who informs inquirers that he's a homeschooled 14-year-old from Massachusetts -- stars Elton John as the Devil and Colin Mochrie (better known as "the bald guy on Whose Line Is it Anyway?") as the Sun, plus a pacemaker, a singing airplane, a trio of Pee-Wee Hermans in an ambulance, and a horde of Harry Potters in midair. Their performances are choreographed to a ridiculous but strangely catchy song from Pokémon, which the film occasionally "translates" from Japanese into nonsense-English ("It's Princess Leia/The yodel of life/Give me my sweater back/Or I'll play my guitar").

Confronted with the above, Salon half-seriously commented that Cicierega's movies "can easily be viewed as biting satires of the American media, trenchant observations about consumer culture -- or, at the very least, clues to unlocking some of the universe's deepest mysteries." In its non-linear, dadaistic way, Hyakugojyuuichi!! feels like it's infused with some kind of meaning, trivial and semi-random though it may be. If it were screened at film festivals, audiences would treat it as a legitimate piece of avant-garde art, pointing out its similarities to the work of such earlier experimentalists as Bruce Conner. Instead, we regard it as yet another funky artifact on the Web: weird, entertaining, and not really "art" at all. And we forward it to our friends, and they forward it to their friends, and the movie reaches more eyes than it ever would have crossed if it were stuck in the avant-garde ghetto.

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