Are Indie Films Better Than Studio Films?

I got duped into watching a little indie horror film called Grabbers, last night.  It’s on Netflix and it has a pretty high rating of 3.5 stars.  The premise– townspeople of a seaside village must keep their blood alcohol content up to avoid being eaten by alien sea monsters– seemed worth watching, but the Tremors-like production lacked anything significantly appealing.  I don’t want to turn this into a review, But this production is very interesting to me as a failure on many levels, but still a success, apparently, on Netflix.  It is even has 72%on Rotten Tomatoes!

It’s an indie film, which means nothing to me.  People talk about liking indie films as though they are their own genre and they are not.  I love that independent film has grown and the artistic freedom and access that it affords, but in general, I don’t like indie productions any more than I like Hollywood ones.  There are just as many flaws in both systems.  I think that generally, the point of a Hollywood studio production is to make money.  They can accomplish this by giving wide audiences what they want, or at least by profiting on their anticipation with a huge opening weekend.  One of the biggest complaints about this system is that it rarely delivers anything particularly extraordinary.  One of the biggest drawbacks is that they track ticket sales as a formula for success rather than critical reception.  The difference is that ticket sales show how many people want to see a movie about such and such, and reception shows how close the production came to audience expectations.  So, if a highly anticipated blockbuster has a huge opening weekend, Monday morning, execs start discussing sequels even though it generally takes about six months for public opinion to catch up and settle the score.  Studios leverage the audiences willingness to watch a property they want to see, even if it is not handled appropriately, so the cycle if broken, is only done so by accident, being either exceptionally good or disastrously disappointing.

Independent films generally aim to make movies.  There are some driven storytellers out there who are very skilled and do their best work, free of the shackles of the studio system, but some directors find the resources available through studio backing are indispensable.  In the world of independent film there is a willingness to look the other way for the sake of supporting art, or perhaps damning the Hollywood machine; But there lie several motivations behind independent film production.  We like to pretend it is for the sake of art, but mostly indie film makers only want to make movies.  Content doesn’t even come secondarily.  This system is ironically even more dependent on revenue because the funding is sought after and less available than funding dumped into a promising franchise, or star vehicle from one of the big guys.  It’s also worth noting that independent films that do get funded by successful producers are somehow seen as inferior, or not true indie film despite being some of the best independent work out there.  For the other folks out there, the focus on just making movies is as tragic as the course of just making money, because they are happy just to be working and either don’t know how to achieve excellence, don’t want to, or are simply not qualified to.

No matter where you are making movies, or who you are making movies for, it should always be about telling a good story.  You can blame budget for substandard special effects, but hiring good writers, directors and actors are not contingent on signing a higher pay check.  This is why the idea of independent film is so appealing.  Potentially, much more can be accomplished provided that the artists are serious about creating something substantial and that their choice of medium is conducive to the talents they are afforded (photography and music come to mind as frequently neglected skills in the world of independent film).  This is where just making a movie gets in the way of possibly making a great movie and opting for convenience is just as bad as any politics in the traditional studio system.

Unfortunately, there is a double standard where indie films are concerned.  They are allowed to be awful and credited with being original, or somehow more legitimate than a mainstream production.  This is the only way that I can reconcile the positive ratings given by audiences to a movie like Grabbers on two separate platforms.  The movie bumbles between genres and never realizes the potential of the premise, lacking heavily in the dialogue department and sadly formulaic without any seasoning or spice.  The blandness is dampened further by utterly uninteresting visual style and terribly monotonous music.  In fact, the creature effects were the movie’s only real strong point.

Such a promising concept is transformed into a boring and sloppy attempt at crossing genres without truly nailing any of them.  This is another problem that indie film struggles with.  It’s also why anytime I hear the word “dramedy” I turn and run the other way.  The reason is simple.  Untested unskilled filmmakers ought to start with more focus, learning how to master one genre before attempting to fuse two together.  A sci-fi/horror is plenty to work with for a novice.  A sci-fi/horror/comedy is unthinkable unless you have the craft down and are able to maneuver between both styles with pinpoint precision.  Grabbers is a muddled mess, failing to be either scary or funny, and with no heart beating underneath the bare bones formula it pales in  comparison to the one liners anyone would use to win you over.  The term “dramedy” is the most common example of indie film failing to tap its soul.  To attempt it is useless.  You cannot have a great comedy without good drama at it’s core.  And all the best drama feeds off of the fuel of comic relief.  A dramedy attempts to give both genres equal billing where one, by necessity, must outweigh the other in order to find success.  The result is almost always two poorly executed genres and an unsatisfying movie.

I don’t know why dramedy is so popular among indie fare.  I chalk it up to inexperience and trying to do too much too soon, or maybe the writer feels that life is neither all that funny or all that serious and wants to capture that view.  Either way, it makes for a stunning waste of time.

Advertisements

Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.