Selected Skirmishes: Do the Cheap Thing


Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn is a sobering film about the futility of life in the ghetto. Old theme? Tired plot? Maybe. But there is something distinctive in this portrayal; it pounds the incessant meanness of the projects right into the viewer's soul.

How has Mr. Rich achieved such artistry? Not by dazzling technique. His movie is an uneven affair, almost amateurish at moments. Not by fancy cinematography, special effects, or studio editing tricks: The film is decidedly low-budget. Nor by dint of long years of training under the masters of the film art. Matty Rich, you must know, is but 19 years of age.

The power of this film comes from the personal vantage point that society has bequeathed the young director. Matty Rich has come straight out of Brooklyn, and the images on screen haven't been prettied up by a Harvard MBA reading scripts at Paramount. As a truth-teller in a medium created for fantasy, Rich offers viewers a megadose of reality.

But the big picture is this: Rich has shown that today a ghetto kid with some moxie can become the niftiest thing you can be on this planet—a filmmaker.

Moxie didn't used to be enough. For decades, would-be directors had to learn on the job. Convincing a production company to give you the jack to make a feature without long years of studio apprenticeship (or an uncle on the inside) was about as easy as being the Dodgers' opening-day pitcher without having tossed an inning of Little League.

Today, however, a good, solid videocam can be had for about $700 at any electronics discount house. That machine, powered by the magic of the microchip, will perform cinematic tricks beyond those possible just 15 or 20 years ago by full-fledged studio equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. A used 16mm Bolex, on which big-time movies are made, can be picked up in good condition for under $1,500. Professional editing machines go for about $3,500—and can be rented by the week. The current barrier to entry into filmmaking is a Mastercard.

As entry costs have plummeted, the number of outlets for films has exploded. Video peddlers now have not just the big-screen theaters and the TV-network triopoly but 70 cable channels, hundreds of new independent broadcast stations, and the direct-to-cassette market as well. Add new foreign markets—America is the South Korea of entertainment software exports—and the ghetto kid with moxie becomes bankable.

Society's experts all have their heads turned the other way. The communications schools are self-absorbed in lost worlds and obsolete market definitions, ranting about the increasing concentration of daily newspapers in fewer hands and corporate censorship of broadcast television, while entirely missing the show up on the Big Screen: society's economics-driven atomization of news, information, and entertainment services. From online databases to cable's explosion of choice to the burst of "alternative" weeklies now serving the yuppie/counterculture submarket, new media make Americans less and less dependent on mainstream news and entertainment.

It would be easy to attribute this to a wave of awe-inspiring technology, since the electronics revolution, desktop publishing, and the enlargement of the television dial all seem linked to the science lab. But that would mistake the invention for the innovation. New tech may spark the new product, but it need not: Only after the villainous Rupert Murdoch smashed the British newspaper unions under the political cover of the early Thatcher years did British papers switch from the old "hot type" printing to computerized typesetting. Paradoxically, this cost-slashing publishing innovation opened the gates for scores of new leftwing publications theretofore economically impossible. Likewise, forget about the union label on a Spike Lee project.

Experts said such vulgar economic forces would breed the culture's subjugation to the saga of Ozzie and Harriet. How wrong they have become, as offbeat flicks and directors of color flourish due to new production and marketing efficiencies. They don't all tell the truth (Roger & Me was a commercially successful gaggle of lies packaged as a documentary), but they expand the circle of democratic debate to a radius unheard of in less profit-hungry nations. To bring Lenin up to speed, the capitalist gladly sells left-wing activists the audio-visual equipment to frame capitalism, and at an increasingly competitive price.

Even friendlier to freedom are the free-lance filmsters. When George Holliday videotaped the LAPD pummeling a defenseless Rodney King, he instantly entered America's political arena as a social critic of great influence. Today, millions of unregulated private citizens patrol the precincts of the world, armed with Japanese video cameras made possible by technology and made cheap by market competition. They delight in taping the offensive actions of agents of the state, from the streets of Los Angeles to the back alleys of Croatia.

As a sensation-seeking journalist, George Orwell saw society's horrible future: Science would progress to serve the state in its quest for total control of the individual. He seemed oblivious to the reverse possibility: The flowering of technology now allows the citizen to spy upon the state. 1984 was a pretty good book, but I like our movie version much better.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.