FILMMAKER FLASHBACK: FALL, 1995
A number of cool things about our Fall, 1995 issue. First, the cover portrait of Tim Roth was an original by Nan Goldin, which was a pretty amazing coup for us at the time. Roth was one of the stars of Four Rooms, a now barely-remembered omnibus film all set in a hotel with segments helmed by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. Roth had shaved his head for a part when this photo was taken, so he was kind of unrecognizable, but we were still thrilled to have an original of Nan’s. L.M. Kit Carson did the interview with all the directors. The film? Well, the standard deal with most omnibus films is that one segment is great, one is terrible, and the rest float somewhere in the middle, making the completed films somewhat lumpy viewing experiences. This one was no different.
Here’s the entirety of the Tarantino interview. (The bracketed parts are from Carson.)
Carson: Want to talk about Four Rooms?
Quentin Tarantino: [Laughs and laughs.]
Carson: Say “No.” Just say “No” so I can quote you.
Tarantino: No. [Laughs.] You gotta get famous. [He is scrambling through boxes of free merchandise sent to his office.] Look, they just give you all these things. Free shoes. [He holds up a pair of oversized fire-engine red tennis shoes.] Odd fact is: I had co-producer slot on a small studio movie (a whole other story) shooting at the same time back in December. And I’d drive, 12 minutes from this small set, to the big studio lot for meetings. And driving through the studio gates was like driving into a Magritte painting. The place was motionless. Stop-frame. Semi-surreal. Echoing footsteps. Maybe some lone figure standing insecurely in a long slanting shadow. Like: nothing going on here. Except the feeling of gigantic corporate secrets hatching someplace deep inside this joint.
[Fact is, corporate-land was making big changes. Disney/ABC. Westinghouse/CBS. Time Warner/Turner. And they tell us: this is the Future.]
But I’d go back and forth from the ever-more-monolithic studio to this rackety rolling-and-tumbling Four Rooms. And I’d wonder: Yes, this is the crossroads — which way to the Future?
Also in this issue: James Moran wrote about Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation, which was subtitled “A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki.” Moran wrote:
A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki?” At first glance, the filmmaker’s new feature might seem like a radical departure for an artist proclaimed a pioneer of the Queer New Wave. But don’t be too fooled by appearances. Like its predecessors, Totally F***ed Up (“Another Homo Movie by Gregg Araki”) and The Living End (“An Irresponsible Film by Gregg Araki”), The Doom Generation flaunts an irreverent, self-conscious subtitle that both anticipates and mocks any critical attempts to label Araki’s sexual politics. And while it may be true that the film depicts only heterosexual sex, the homoeroticism prevalent in Araki’s previous work here functions as subtext, denied full expression in a homophobic milieu.
In a sense, then, The Doom Generation is heterosexual by default. “The film is less about sexuality than it is about America,” Araki asserts. “The characters themselves form a union of their own that’s more omni-sexual than anything else. Despite the portrayal of sexual dalliance, the film is most concerned with the hostile context that won’t allow this kind of union to survive. In America, only the heterosexual couple is condoned. A sexuality that’s unconventional must be destroyed.”
For most of us, The Doom Generation was also our introduction to Rose McGowan. If you only know her from Charmed or from, perhaps, Grindhouse, then you should know that she was once the perfect punked-out neo-Godardian heroine.
More: Peter Bowen essayed Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, the Danish TV mini-series that re-launched the cinematic provocateur’s career. Bowen wrote:
Picked up by October Films for US distribution, this quirky masterpiece would appear, on paper, to be a completely losing proposition: an over four-hour-long Danish-language film transferred from film to video and back again (the video was manipulated to give a monochromatic orange tint reminiscent of bad shag carpet) and shot and edited in a style that flagrantly defies temporal and spatial logic. But on screen, as October’s president Bingham Ray exudes, the film “is a complete surprise, sucking [you] in in the first 15 minutes and never letting go”…. What could sell The Kingdom in the US is its unexpected watchability. Hijacking television’s guilty pleasures of spectacle and narrative melodrama, The Kingdom forgoes the high-minded boredom so often attributed to European art films.
The headline grabber in this issue, however, was a ballsy article by producer Ted Hope entitled “Indie Film is Dead.” In rereading it I realize it’s a precursor to his current list-form of industry critique. There’s an implicit boosterism in Filmmaker‘s focus on independent film, but from the beginning we have tried to also expose the less-glamorous reality lurking beneath the hype, as Hope did here.
Here was Ted’s intro:
The marketplace is nasty and brutal, remembering only the latest successes and never forgetting its failures. It allows no room for taste beyond the mainstream. Truly unique films cannot get screens, let alone hold them for more than a week or two. There is virtually no American audience for art films, political films, or non-narrative films. The specialized distributors have morphed into mass marketers, not niche market suppliers. Monopolistic business practices drive most corporate strategies.
Whether we view ourselves as producers, directors or moviegoers, our options are limited by the structure of the industry, and if we do not act soon, we will lose our ability to choose the films we want to make and see.
The article consisted of 23 specific critiques and observations of the system at the time. Go back now and read the piece…. I’ll wait….
Okay, you’re back. A chunk of this stuff is still true. And, much of what Ted wrote is actually what was responsible for the subsequent further collapse of a sustainable model for small non-studio production produced for theatrical release.
There was a flip-side. Following this piece was a second by Hope, “Long Live Indie Film.” Here were 24 proposals and call-outs for a revitalized indie system. Many of these proposals are things Hope and many others are still arguing for now — or things we have all since adopted as part of our filmmaking practices.
Within our circle, I remember this piece causing a splash when it came out. (Ted remembers slightly differently… see below.) Some of what Hope wrote was common knowledge, but it was unspoken common knowledge. No one really laid it all out this bluntly. Also, the fact that Hope was a partner with James Schamus in Good Machine, arguably the most successful independent film company of the time, gave the criticism a special bite. Good Machine had a studio overhead deal and would soon have a flourishing foreign sales division. If Hope was feeling this way, how were the rest of supposed to feel? (The other provocative element of this piece was a reply by Hope’s partner, James Schamus. We don’t have this online and I don’t have access to it at the moment, but I’ll try to have it rekeyed at some point in the near future. James had an entirely different take on the relationship of culture to markets, making these articles with their differing points of view a kind of interesting portrait of their successful collaboration.)
I emailed Hope and asked him if he’d reread the piece and reply with his thoughts on it today. With thanks, here is his thoughtful reply:
I think we tend to view the past as the present and overlook the world we are really living in. Furthermore, there is always a tremendous gulf between thought and expression. As a culture and as an industry, we are very slow to react to change and particularly to clues as to what is around the bend. We only alter our behavior when the pain of the present outweighs the fear of the future. We need our canaries to have bullhorns, but usually I find that it is so easy to get so far ahead of the parade that the crowd forgets you are leading it. The big change today is how easy it is for people to participate. When I wrote “Indie Film is Dead” I got a nice response from ten or 15 people but it was mostly about the wish for someone to build the system so they could benefit from it. I write to get discussions started and hope that we can all move them into action. Now when I post something particularly applicable to our culture or industry over 100 people comment and many more pass it around retweeting and posting on Facebook and the like. That discussion is slowly also leading to action. Indie has bifurcated into Truly Free, which is sorting out a series of best practices, and the prestige and genre arms of the corporate well-capitalized entities that still rely on practices of old.
Looking back at the article, it feels like a Macy’s Parade float of a giant tweety bird pulling down a 1,000 fire alarms, but the reaction was a bit more like the “oh” to a high school prank. Or maybe the alarms were at a decibel that only certain dogs could hear them, and it never reached the right people. But generally I don’t think most people cared, because those that got to step to the mic were getting paid, and the others, well, those were the people the first group were being paid to ignore. Indie did end and became Indiewood, adopting The Cinema Of Quality aspects that lead to so much redundant work. The industry’s blind endorsement of the star-driven foreign sales estimate-based budgets eventually brought the sky down for most of Indiewood industry as companies with over-inflated overheads crashed, and films budgeted above their actual value never recouped. Most of those that supported themselves making what was then mid-range (and is now high) budgets have had to reorient themselves back to the budget range that films were back when I wrote the IFID piece.
I think filmmakers are collaborating now as never before, yet it remains quite hard to shake off the “build it and they will come” dream. It is truly hard to raise more than a production budget for a film, let alone a preliminary marketing budget. No new financial model is available to structure a plan, let alone predict a return, based on post 9-15-2008 Lehman Bros. crash realities. In the interim, audiences and communities have been besieged with budget-conscious entertainment choices and become both more dispersed and selective in their filters. We can reach them far more easily now, but getting them to pay attention is far more difficult. As producers, we’ve watched our job description expand tenfold, whereas our billfold has been sliced and diced to record lows. Indie film was a legitimate career for about a decade, but it has returned to the realm of the “amateur” — in that it is now truly all about the love.