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.

Other flash-animation pieces range from last year's pro-Napster MettaliCops series to Daniel Hamilton's highly entertaining Journey: A Tribute to America (2001), an ineffable film inspired by the 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believing." (The latter feels like a piece of outsider art, apparently by design. "I was thinking about the idea of the 'untrained web artist,'" Hamilton explains, "like folk art meets the Web.")

Non-flash Web movies often resemble their more primitive counterparts in their visual simplicity, if nothing else. Consider the Australian director Adam Benjamin Elliot, whose stop-motion claymation films about his family are crafted with much more sophistication than any flash film, but are nonetheless stark and uncluttered. His 1998 effort cousin, a touching but unsentimental short about a boy with cerebral palsy, is, in effect, an illustrated memoir: The narrator reads an essay about Elliot's relative while the clay figures offer a visual counterpoint to the actor's words.

Films on the Side

Not that such creativity is typical. The great bulk of online filmmaking, alas, is derivative and dull. Jeff Gurwood's Covert Operatives (2000), a tongue-in-cheek tale about a "Social Anarchist Front" bent on world domination, is notable for its elaborate sets and its stop-motion photography. (All the "actors" are toy action-figures.) But though the plot and dialogue are supposed to mock those movies that skip theaters and go directly to the USA Network, they feel more like a pale imitation than a parody.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alexander Pappas' Timescape (2000) is one of the most popular pictures in iFilm's "experimental" category. Consisting entirely of time-lapse photography, it is, to quote its Web site, "a sort of Day in the Life of a city." But what's so experimental about that? Many movies like it have been made before. At this point, you can see this kind of stuff in TV ads.

But there's still room online for small bursts of brilliance—for Hyakugojyuuichi!!, or for cousin, or for Dave Kurman's poetically paranoid …and I (1999). Kurman's film begins with a man noticing a figure outside who appears to be pursuing him; more frightening still, the pursuer appears to be himself. The protagonist tries to flee, but the pursuer bursts into the room where the man is hiding—only to find it empty. He looks out the window and sees a figure outside who appears to be pursuing him, and we realize that we're back where we started.

Kurman's simple but effective short plays well on the Web, but it wasn't made with the Internet in mind. Kurman originally shot the film (for about $20) at the request of an employer, who thought it would be nice to have a video installation in the lobby; originally, it was to be not a two-minute short but a continuous, theoretically infinite loop. Then Kurman got a new job, and his film became an online effort instead.

Now 27, Kurman made his first movies in his early teens, ripping off Monty Python sketches with his friends. With time, his efforts grew more sophisticated, and he started screening them in 1998, when The Apartment War—a comedy made with frequent collaborator Ben Jurin, about an apartment that attempts to secede from the United States—went on the festival circuit. Kurman now earns his keep in Web-based advertising while making movies on the side, a combination he says he likes. "I love the idea of film as a full-time hobby," he explains. "I usually make one or two films a year, and while I'm making the film, that's sort of my job. But I like having this other avenue to work in, too."

At the moment, …and I is Kurman's only online effort. It is also his most atypical: Most of his films are comedies influenced by Python and The Kids in the Hall. But simply by virtue of being online, it has brought him attention. Someone from the PBS show Image Union saw it, and the program intends to broadcast it in the fall. The short has also gotten him invited to more festivals.

Above all, it has brought him a lot of useful feedback. At festivals, Kurman complains, it's easy to get lost in the pack. In the much more populous online world, paradoxically, it's easier to stand out—and to find, and interact with, an interested audience. "One of the great things online," he reports, "is that people can be very free with their comments. Lots of different people who have no idea who I am and will never meet me can say, 'Hey, that was very cool' or 'It would have been cooler if you'd done this.' I really value that kind of feedback because you can be totally open, and there's absolutely no prejudice."

So where is this heading? Mainstream success? A diverting hobby, like woodworking on weekends? Or somewhere else altogether? "I'm not looking to make a million dollars or make something that everyone's gonna love," Kurman says. "Medium-sized success is what I'm shooting for. The sort of films that I make are only going to appeal to a certain audience, but the people they appeal to—they're going to be really into them. That's my measure of success: If 10 percent of the people who see it absolutely love it, I don't care if the other 90 percent hate it."

Life on the Road

Most of those films aren't going to go online. At 20 minutes or more, they're simply too long, Kurman feels, for the medium. A better option might be videotape.

As on the Web, several subcultures can already view a rich selection of the movies they want on tape, even if the films rarely turn up in theaters. One such category, again, is pornography. Another is Christianity, which has inspired videos ranging from apocalyptic thrillers (The Moment After) to syrupy stories for children (the Veggie Tales series). But for artists interested in topics less popular than sex and God, videotapes pose a few problems. One is the trouble you'll have getting viewers to shell out $15 for a movie they'll likely watch only once. Another is getting rental stores to buy a video that people haven't heard of and aren't likely to ask for. And it's easier—and free—to watch an online film than one you see advertised in a movie magazine.

This last barrier might be avoided by putting samples of your work online but saving the full films for other venues. The San Francisco writer-director Danny Plotnick, 35, has done that. But he has a more intriguing method of getting the word out about his films as well. For nearly a decade, he's been taking them on tour.

The idea is not new: There was a time when even some Hollywood epics went on the road, traveling from town to town like a circus troupe. But Plotnick seems to be taking his cues not from any cinematic tradition, but from the music world. Just as a local band tries to extend its audience and sell a few CDs by hitting the road, Plotnick packs a projector, his films, and some videotapes to sell, then starts driving. Mostly, he tours the West Coast—"logistically, it's the simplest"—but he has also made it to other parts of the country, and even, twice, to Europe.

Sometimes he screens the films in a proper theater. Other times, he has to make do with smaller venues. I first became aware of his work because I happened to be in Shreveport, Louisiana, the night he was showing his movies in the back room of a local café. I liked most of them, and I thought one—Pipsqueak Pfollies (1994)—was exceptional. A 24-minute picture that, in Plotnick's words, "painstakingly details all the crap little kids can get away with," it's not merely clever, well-crafted, and funny, but genuinely insightful.

When Plotnick started making movies, in the late '80s and early '90s, there was less room at festivals for films with a punk/alternative aesthetic. "So," he recalls, "we decided, 'OK, the network doesn't exist for us—let's create our own.'" The first result, in his case, was a tape called Small Gauge Shotgun, compiling shorts by Plotnick and the Chicago director Jim Sikora. Plotnick did his first tour to promote the video. He also sent it to several film and music magazines. The latter, he discovered, were more supportive, something that has remained true throughout his career. Most of his movies don't deal with music, but they still fit the sensibility of the indie-rock world, and they've gotten most of their publicity from such magazines as the punk mainstay Maximum RockNRoll.

Today, Plotnick makes a living coordinating workshops at San Francisco's Film Arts Foundation, while doing his own films in his spare hours. There's a strong filmmaking community in the Bay Area, he reports; and there's an increasingly strong national community of punk filmmakers as well, with their own festivals and their own approach to getting their pictures seen. "People have really grasped onto touring and alternative distribution in the last three or four years," he says. "I get a lot of calls from other filmmakers who want to do tours and want advice."

But there are still gaps in the path, barriers keeping the movies from some of the people most likely to enjoy them. Plotnick hopes that will eventually change. "The independent music world is a pretty good model," he remarks. "When that took off, it was a network of independent labels, distributors, stores, magazines, and venues, all feeding each other. But in film there isn't really any video 'label,' so to speak. There's one or two people doing interesting things, but they're dealing with the regular distributors."

Meanwhile, Plotnick is starting to make more use of the Internet. This year, for the first time, he has put an entire film online. It's a new short called Tour Tips, made with a flash-like tool called aftereffects animation.

Pictures as an Exhibition

Antero Alli, 48, has been making movies for about a decade, but you shouldn't expect to see many of them online soon: He's happy to use the Web to draw attention to his work, but he has no interest in actual Webcasting. In the past, he has released a few pictures on videotape, but lately he's decided not to do that either. "I've come to the conclusion," he says, "that I'm an exhibition filmmaker. I make movies specifically for projection onto a big screen. That includes everything from the lighting to the composition of the frame. The depth, the sound, the narrative—all of it, as an expression of my so-called art, for me demands a large screen and a very big speaker system."

Alli has another reason for preferring public exhibitions, one that invokes the people facing the screen rather than the screen itself. "I'm a great believer," he explains, "in this 20th-century ritual of a dark, cavernous room full of strangers, all looking through the same window. I think it's an important social ritual worth preserving, and I see it in some ways being threatened, or its value diminished, by more convenient Internet streaming and video-on-demand."

In that sense, his stance is a philosophic one, even if it means limiting his audience to those who can make it to screenings in Berkeley (where the Finnish-born filmmaker now lives) and selected other cities. (Like Plotnick, Alli takes his movies on tour, though he pretty much sticks to the West Coast. For eight years, he's also run the Nomad Videofilm Festival, an annual traveling show featuring an assortment of short films and videos from around the world.)

If Plotnick looks to independent music for a model, Alli's framework comes from theater. He has acted in and directed plays since the '70s, often combining live theater with projected moving images. If you're used to working in a live art form that can't be mass-produced, it's no small leap to treat your video work the same way.

His latest feature is Tragos (2000), an inventive two hours of myth, science fiction, and film noir. In it, a cult of "technopagans" spends its nights communing with Tragos, a virtual-reality device that tests one's ability to distinguish the virtual from the real, forcing its users to fight for their consciousness while they're plugged in—and enhancing their awareness of the real, and their disdain for the virtual, during their waking hours. After one session, the cult leader loses her sight and her sister dies; further deaths soon follow. A witch hunt ensues, led by a fiercely Christian prosecutor who regards Tragos and the technopagans as Satanic threats to public morals.

In rough outline, the story might sound like an opportunity for countercultural self-congratulation, with heroic pagans fighting off an oppressive church. Yet the prosecutor, though misguided, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, and the priest who regularly gives him advice offers nothing but wisdom. In a film about scapegoating, Alli seems intent on making his audience consider its willingness to scapegoat as well. The cult leader, meanwhile, is clearly on the brink of madness. The film may sympathize with her, but her personality has more than a few shades of gray. Alli clearly has ideas to present, but they often take the form of questions, not answers.

And there is another character, an unemployed actor who hopes to play a detective in a Woody Allen movie and who prepares for his audition by living the part. Unaware that the actor isn't a real investigator, the prosecutor hires him to infiltrate the Tragos cult. Besides offering comic relief—the dialogue between the prosecutor and the faux detective is often very funny—this portion of the plot adds another dimension to the story, giving us a viewpoint character who isn't really affiliated with either the Christians or the pagans, though he must pretend to side with both.

Tragos was made for about $7,250, and though it features some visually interesting special effects, they were actually among the picture's least costly expenses. Obviously, it represents a revolution in filmmaking, a series of technological changes that have made it much cheaper to make a complex, feature-length movie. Less obviously, it represents a challenge to conventional ideas about how and why to reach an audience.

"The only use I have for money, quite frankly, is to pay my survival bills and to fund my movies," says Alli. "I'm pretty low-maintenance. As for fame and recognition, I don't really have that much use for it, with the exception of wanting my name known as an exhibition filmmaker so people can come see the movies in the only places where they're shown."

If the boundaries between the home movie and the independent film are breaking down, then this is another consequence of that: Not just home movies transformed, via the Net, into pop phenomena, but an increasing number of serious film artists with little or no interest in reaching a mass market. Not just Hyakugojyuuichi!!, but Tragos.

Other arts have long had space for both. For a long time, it looked like film would have little room for either.