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In Features, Issues

FEAR FACTORY
In these notes towards a digital cinema, producer and director Jason Kliot argues that true auteurism is linked to the success of the DV revolution.

So, the deed is finally done. Film is dead, and we have killed it. Only a year ago there were debates on this subject, and many still clung to the possibility that film, in all its magnificence, would be able to survive the technological onslaught. But whether the burial be in two years or 20, it is now clear that the rumors of film’s death were not, as previously claimed, greatly exaggerated.

What is most startling about the current digital revolution is that for the first time technology is outpacing filmmakers. The development of new film technologies has historically tended to be marked by innovations that came out of artistic needs and desires — filmmakers wanted to make films in color, with sound, in wide-screen, in the streets, etc. The digital revolution, however, was pioneered (for the most part) by the average consumer’s desire to have a good small video camera to carry around and tape home movies with. The first videotape-to-film feature, Rob Nilsson’s Signal 7, was made in 1986 — and he was using cameras and decks that had been around for years. And yet, until Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 The Celebration, (shot on the most rudimentary DV camera then available), the feature film world had pretty much ignored this technology. I think that the same force behind the slow burn of video technology might be the same force currently holding the independent film community back from exploiting digital technology to its fullest today. Could it be fear?

Film is a 19th-century construction. Its heavy mechanical cameras were devised in a world where the task of making a feature film was something akin to a colonial war. Masses of technicians were needed to create the verisimilitude of a film, and the industry has evolved ever since as a militaristic order: over-bloated, segmented, and hierarchical. No wonder the first pioneers working outside this system were called “guerrilla” filmmakers.

For the most part, filmmaking has remained locked within that cumbersome system. Of course, a few Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller — most famously Alfred Hitchcock — managed to bend that huge apparatus to their will, and the director became known as the film’s “author.” The French and Italians discovered this and imagined a world in which the director could completely control all the disparate elements that go into making a film. With the help of lighter equipment, faster film stocks, and a new way of thinking, the French New Wave and the Italian Neo-realists completely transformed filmmaking.

But, as anyone who works in film knows, these claims to “authorship” were overinflated. Making a traditional film on celluloid with a large crew is a task that is overdetermined by too many elements — money, time, weather, personalities, luck, money — beyond the director’s control. Few directors can truly call themselves the “author” of their films — the apparatus of traditional filmmaking does not support the auteur theory. Which brings us back to fear.

In 1982, Jean-Luc Godard cast Isabelle Adjani in First Name: Carmen. He, together with inventor Jean-Pierre Beauviala, invented a tiny 35mm camera (destined to become the small and agile Aaton 35mm) and decided that he would try to make the entire feature with a crew of only three people. Adjani left the film after a few days. Her reason: “You must understand — I had to leave when I realized that there would only be three people and a little camera, which the director had invented, on a little tripod.” In short, she was afraid.

Making a film to her was so linked to the signifiers of the process she was accustomed to — large crews, big cameras, heavy equipment — that their absence was too much to bear. Instead of seeing their absence as freeing, she saw it as a lack of professionalism, as a move away from “cinema”. But to Godard, altering the modes of production was precisely the point. He felt that having fewer people around and a smaller scale of production would allow him to make a different kind of film — more intimate, more artisanal.

In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote a prophetic essay titled “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo.” In it he wrote: “Direction is no longer a means of illustrating, of presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. This filmmaker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, a daring group of filmmakers — many influenced by Astruc — lept from the studios to the streets. Their efforts gave birth to the cinema that has inspired independent filmmakers to this day. But they were too early. The apparatus they were using to film had not yet caught up to their daring, and their modes of production still often held traces of the 19th-century industry that bore them.

The digital cinema can change all that. The tools of the creator can now truly be the expression of a single will. Technology and authorship have finally joined hands, and it is this marriage that will ultimately be most representative of the films of the New Digital Cinema. Of course, co-conspirators will be needed, but it is clear that the less people needed to make films, the less there will be that lies between the author and their film.

Not everyone will choose to work this way — many will stay attached to the old order. In the past two years many have already begun. So let’s take their lead and move forward. This is not a time for Dogma, but for unbridled creation. Go ahead. Place the camera to your eye, face your actors and the world. Get on a plane with a small crew and shoot in a remote location. Shoot a whole movie as a rehearsal. Throw a movie out after editing and re-shoot the whole thing. Shoot with 100 cameras for a few days, or with one for 100 days. Edit for a year. Or a day. Shoot a historical epic in the desert. A hand-made special effects spectacular.

The age of the New Digital Cinema has dawned. For the first time we have truly moved from the mechanical age to the electronic age — from Hollywood to independence. For the past century, the means of production have exerted a tremendous influence on the kinds of films we could make. We are now free of those bonds, and we have new tools to work with which will transform cinema in a way we have never before seen. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. It’s time we took the leap and embraced digital technology and all it offers us.

Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road is about a loner who travels throughout the German countryside fixing old projectors in empty small town theaters. The loner realizes at the end of the film that he can't hold onto the past anymore. So, after a series of life altering adventures, he wakes up one morning, rips up his repair schedule card, and starts out for a new life. Whether we hear the words as a command or as an acceptance of the state of things, they are nonetheless hard to ignore: “Everything must change.” We have nothing to fear.

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