Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thinking About Underground Film - Part 1

If you live in Los Angeles you've probably seen it many times: the caravan of white trucks parked along the block and around the corner, diesel generators roaring, cables strung along the gutters, piles of lights, rolls of cables, racks of costumes, makeup trailers, bored extras, bored crew members, bored motorcycle police, and fascinated passersby.

That's all you need to see to know that something mainstream - feature film, TV show, or commercial - is being made.

But what's an underground film?

Bad Lit, my favorite site devoted to underground film, has an article about the problem of defining something as slippery as 'underground film' in which several definitions are offered by different people. Mike Everleth, the site's editor, defines underground film this way:
"Essentially, I believe it is a film that is a personal statement by one person and a film that dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three. However, that dissension can take on any number of forms."

I agree with that, but would add the requirement of hostility. There should be an element of combativeness which attempts to counter a much larger established force. There must be some rebellion in the work. It can be very subtle - nearly imperceptible - but it's usually there somewhere. In fact, I think the hostility should even tend to include the general culture surrounding the filmmaker/s. Dissent, by itself, can be rather subdued, soft-spoken and shy. I think underground film requires a willingness not only to dissent but to kick apart.

While thinking about all this mainstream versus underground stuff, I went searching around on YouTube for something that might fit the discussion. I found this peculiar British documentary film about filmmaker Donald Cammell who co-directed, along with Nicolas Roeg, the 1968 film Performance. The film is one of those odd mixtures of underground and mainstream. It features Mick Jagger and involves a lot of mind-bending drugs, sex and criminal underworld shenanigans. It's actually impossible to forget once you have seen it.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

The documentary, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, describes a time when a group of intensely creative artists from various disciplines could operate on the fringes of the mainstream to create an essentially underground film with something resembling support from a mainstream production company. It's a scenario that does not exist today. If you watch all 7 parts of the film, you will be immersed in that strange hybrid world of the 'popular underground' that defines much of what was happening in the 1960s and 70s. Today, if it cannot be jammed into a mall and sold with Sour Patch Kids, it won't get any money. That holds as true for 'independent' films as it does for summer blockbusters.

Watching this documentary makes me wonder why so many filmmakers seem to have such trouble making the films they really want to make. After all, one can purchase a cheap camera and make exactly what one wants regardless of what one's career and money-earning responsibilities might be. Tormented filmmakers who are battling studois for creative freedom should simply make films with video cameras during their spare time. This would not only foster a healthy underground, but it would quite possibly prevent a few tragic endings.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film: Velocity

Official selection at CINEME, 2003 Chicago International Animation Film Festival.

This is a short film that I started back in 2001. 9/11 happened and I put the film on hold for almost 2 years. When I returned to it I was able to finish it in several months of hard effort. I was working with Flash and my process was kind of awkward. The drawing is actually very crude. But the film came out decently. It got into a Chicago film festival in 2003 and it has remained in its Flash form on ever since. It was recently shown by as part of their 'Treasure Hunt' festival of animation.

But getting the film out of the Flash ghetto and into video proved to be more work than I thought. So I've made a few little updates and improved some of the film effects a little. So now the film is actually closer to the film I was imagining back in 2001.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Yellow Plastic Raygun Wins Best Experimental Film Award at Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles

Well I'm just very pleased about this. The Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles has given my film, Yellow Plastic Raygun, the award for Best Experimental Film. I was having quite a nice week attending various parties and screenings at the festival. Its use of multiple locations in the heart of downtown Los Angeles gives one a real sense of taking part in the life of the city and being involved with something that's helping to foster the exploding art and film scene in downtown. Most of the short films were screened in the new Civic Center Theater at the intersection of First and Main Streets, in the shadow of the famous City Hall tower that has appeared in so many crime shows and film noir classics. I attended the screening of my own film this past Saturday evening and was amazed at seeing it large since I had put so much work into it on small monitors. What's great about the Downtown Film Festival is that it shows a wide range of filmmaking styles, crew sizes and budgets. They show films made with lots of production resources right alongside films made by individual artists working with inexpensive HD cameras and even cell phone cameras. I am very proud to have won this and I look forward to more great festivals in downtown Los Angeles from the people who put this together.