I recently watched the retrospective video of Paul Miller’s (The Verge) 12-month experiment where he unplugged completely from the internet to see if he could “find himself again” as a human being. Beyond its fascinating insight into the life of an individual whose whole world revolves around online activity, Miller’s journey immediately got me thinking about the impacts of the omnipresent internet on traditional filmmaking.
Much has been written and said (with just cause) about the incredible power of the web for artists from all walks of life, be they studio moguls or basement content creators. It has breathed new life into the independent scene and, coupled with emerging low-cost digital technology, given a voice to legions of creators everywhere to express and share their works across distances never before imagined in their wildest dreams.
What is naturally less discussed is the detrimental effect that this mass information tool has had on the quality of the material being created in the first place. Instant access to data at all times has also created a feeding frenzy for content that is reaching 1980’s nuclear arms race proportions.
The net has given people from all walks of life the instant ability to harness the knowledge of the greatest thinkers, plunder archives and boundless resource databases, and educate themselves on virtually any topic imaginable. It has also given rise to unprecedented plagiarism and imitation and broken the sanctity of privacy and intimacy in a way that we will never be able to come back from.
For someone of my generation (born at the end of the 70’s), the net has had a mostly double-edged effect on our social and creative lives. On one hand it has opened horizons that existed only in our imaginations (and science fiction) and empowered us with tools for almost any endeavor, but it has also deafened many of us with a tidal wave of information that we were not prepared for.
We are old enough to remember a life without internet, smartphones, laptops, and 24-hour media, and while a great number of us have fully embraced the digital revolution, some part of us is reeling from the noise, short-circuiting. We are in many ways the first generation of cyborg experiments that periodically suffer critical failures and physically reject new technology.
The greater question I have is how all this is affecting my ability to be creative. What is all this technology doing to my brain? Am I writing better, more relevant material? Have I fallen victim to the pressures of an all-knowing-ever-present technological regime where every thought and sensation I experience is measured and edited for maximum appeal for the masses? What is becoming of the private me, the part of me that sees and hears and tastes in such-and-such a way as to give me the ability to speak with a fresh and original voice?
Maybe I should also unplug to find out.
There seems to be something profoundly off about what we all consider entertainment these days. Don’t get me wrong, we are living in exciting times when comes to cinema, television, and content in general, but the popular themes of the day are cause for a bit of concern when one takes the time to look under the surface. If you don’t believe me just take a moment and consider the kind of programs that are currently dominating our imaginations:
Game of Thrones: A riveting, character-driven swords & sorcery epic drowned in death, intrigue and sex as various clans brutally compete for supremacy while they await a great cataclysm.
Dexter: A charming serial killer that conveniently directs his murderous impulses at “bad people” while the audience cheers on his profoundly problematic system of justice and morality (or lack thereof).
Mad Men: The depressing life and times of a handsome womanizing sociopathic charlatan and the spiritually bankrupt society that’s collapsing around him.
Breaking Bad: The rise and fall of a mundanely detestable everyday man whose dishonesty and desperation take him to the top of the criminal world, cruelly destroying everything and everyone in his path.
House of Cards: The story of reprehensibly charming manipulator and his machiavellian ascent to the highest seat of power in the free world as he routinely breaks the 4th wall to make us his unwitting conspirators.
The Walking Dead: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival porn designed to celebrate the inherent greatness but also the abject horror festering inside every human being’s psyche.
These are all brilliantly written, directed, and acted shows with lavish production values that showcase the very best storytelling in the business today, but what also binds these hit shows together is a kind of stark portrait of our modern-day preoccupations as a society. Vigilantes, antiheroes, and lovable criminals are obviously not a recent invention, but it’s hard to deny that they are more popular than ever and that their current supremacy speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.
Are we making these shows and watching them religiously because we are subconsciously praying for the world to end? Maybe we just want an end to the way things are at the present with mass corruption, war, staggering economic disparity, disease, hunger, apathy, environmental catastrophe everywhere. Storytelling has always been a kind of social therapy where we could, as a people, debate and dissect our hopes and fears. Maybe all this dark subject matter is healthy in the end, maybe we just are exorcising our social demons.
Many theorists believe that there exist a set number of possible plots for any given story. The number of possibilities will vary somewhere from 7 to 20, but the main idea is that every novel or film inevitably follows one of these core concepts regardless of how they re-arrange the details.
Logic dictates that to attain any semblance of originality in storytelling today, one is better served focussing on their unique perspectives rather than trying to re-invent the proverbial wheel. This is perhaps the reason why modern storytelling seems to have veered significantly toward character-driven plots where the individual perspective/experience may provide a far fresher canvas of possibilities than the continual revisiting of man vs nature, man vs man, and other redundant scenarios.
That is not to say that we don’t crave the classics; if the track record of cinema and art in general has proven anything it’s that nostalgia never goes out of style. We love to see the medium challenged from time-to-time, but audiences will generally want a steady stream of the kind of stories they already know. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling we get from knowing that the next hour or two will be spent alongside a rugged hero that will be put to the test, but ultimately send the bad guy tumbling into a chasm with a well-placed one-liner and a devastating karate kick. It offers a kind of satisfaction akin to booting up a video game you’ve already played through a dozen times; it’s really about being in control.
Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre in cinema, rely on a very fundamental and repetitive set of directives that haven’t changed very much since their inception. The formula has been played with considerably, but the basics remain strikingly the same; the key is addressing mortality and the fragile nature of the human body/spirit. This is a prime example of a type of storytelling that does not need to be re-invented so much as infused with more character-driven plots that surprise and challenge the medium.
Horror films have unfortunately been in decline for some time now, mass-produced and diluted into tween exploitation schlock cinema with endless sequels and prequels. Even good exploitation horror in the tradition of Wes Craven’s The Thing or Hellraiser has been supplanted by hollow, mediocre franchises like Paranormal Activity and SAW that do little beyond serving up the same tepid soup of tropes and cliches with few discernible elements of originality or substance.
All is not lost however; the advent of the HBO-led television renaissance, that has been yielding potentially the most worthwhile storytelling in recent memory, is breathing life (or death?) back into the horror genre with breakthrough series like American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, and host of other chilling series that seem to be getting back to basics. Many of the tropes and cliches can be found in these shows as well, but the style and finesse of some of these programs proves that you can go home again, hit up all the familiar spots along the way, but somehow discover entirely new frontiers of terror and entertainment.
Michael Hession and Nicholas Stango
for Gizmodo / 2014
Music: Twinkie by Podington Bear
Escape by Kenny Mosher won First Place in the Light Iron REDuser 4K Portrait Contest at The NAB Show on April 15, 2012.
Directed by Kenny Mosher
Assistant Director: Jon Schindler
Music by: Pat McInnis
Special thanks to saa
A 2012 Showdown Visual Production
The exponential growth of cinema as an entrainment medium owes much to the rapid acceleration of technology over the past half-century. Film has become a near-tangible dreamscape where modern society works out its cultural values and collective fantasies. Where history books record timelines and social movements, film has become the chronicle of our musings and contemplations.
Society has changed its relationship with film; what was spectacle is now a neatly packaged product that comes in various flavours and is immediately accessible. Cinema has become such a constant in our lives and has in some respects coloured our world-view to the point of creating a kind of fusion of reality and fantasy.
Film is many times idealism, and in this deliberate idealizing the world around we must consider the possibility that it has distorted our perceptions of what is real. Human relationships are a perfect example of this phenomenon; how many people now suffer emotionally because their social lives do not more-closely resemble “the movie life”? How many romantic relationships suffer due to fantasy-accelerated expectations? The meticulous artifice of cinema has confused us into thinking that our lives should play out similarly to what we see on the silver screen. We feel disappointed when it doesn’t.
This delusion seems to have also overtaken the movie business itself in many respects. The advent of the DVD era has cracked the profession of filmmaking wide open (perhaps by accident) by loading movie releases with additional content to get the market to legitimize the format. The standardization fo the “featurette” has given the viewers almost complete access to the craft and raised a new generation of “smart-fans” that discuss, critique, and dissect film like never before in its history. The flip-side of this coin is that in this exposing of the industry many people, including new filmmakers, have formulated romantic notions of what it is to work behind the camera.
Again, this is not a negative thing in of itself, only something that must be considered thoroughly because it can easily lead one to confuse making film and engaging in the filmmaking fiction. Both exercises will likely produce a film, but which approach is more likely to yield quality material?
If you are a filmmaker then take the time to consider how much more productive you may become if you let go of these Hollywood notions of writing, directing, and producing, and concentrate your energy on knowing exactly what these roles entail and how to do them in a way that will benefit your project the most.