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The ‘New Talkies’ are Making New Waves:
Timothy A. Mahr
The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception. ~Walter Benjamin
From The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
To mention “indie film” or “independent cinema”, one tends to relate these words while in conjunction with one another to the recent (within the past decade or so) cinematic ‘movement’ that includes production techniques that may replicate shots, dialogue, plot anchors, etc. familiar to those found in more major, more Hollywoodesque productions. Buying into the more popular idea that if one were to produce an independent film is to create in a rebellious response to that which is considered common, expected, proper, and to some critics, sophisticated, i.e. the requirements found within the world of popular mainstream cinema. This ideology completely overlooks the fact that independent film has been in existence since the birth of cinema itself (dissolving the use of the term ‘movement’ here as meaning ‘trend’ or ‘accepted change/progression within a genre or medium’) considering that the first filmmakers
had nothing to go on except the photographic image (which is apparent in the framing of shots found in very early films). Some individuals might actually turn to a more modest time in cinematic history that gained its foothold during the 1950’s and that impacted the way one creates a film/shoots a frame, and also how one watches a film to this day. The movement mentioned here has been classified as being in a league of its own and never to be repeated. And the term so gracefully placed on the genre, in order to cue one’s recognition and to qualify its traits and characteristics is commonly known as, New Wave. Some would say that this movement in filmmaking style altered the very rubric in which film could be produced. The directors of the New Wave often worked with very low budgets, available light, no studios, and unknown actors and actresses, but in a short amount of time (almost instant recognition came to the movement as filmmakers such as François Truffaut were getting published in the early to mid-50’s) gained a following. Popularity grew around this type of cinema the world over- partly because the techniques and means for production were unlike anything any filmgoer had seen before and also the films portrayed characters within the age range of the audience that were mostly watching the films, i.e. twenty-somethings, or young adults. The birth of the New Wave cinema rings familiar to a more recent “coming of age” style that is spurring up around America called “mumblecore” (as dubbed by the press). And though this term alongside with “bedhead cinema” does not carry any positive connotation on the surface, the IFC Center has helped in giving the movement the lengthy, but more positive name of The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y. or just “The New Talkies” (The New York Times 2007). “The New Talkies” stylistically are very similar to New Wave, but they generally are not limited to such stiff limitations, vis-à-vis one could produce a film in the “mumblecore” style and not be restricted to, say, just
one kind of film format (generally films here are shot in digital video). For instance, director Andrew Bujalski is the only “mumblecore” filmmaker in the foreground that shoots in film and not handheld video/DV (2007). But what is it about this style that gets categorized differently from the rest of modern “indie” filmmaking? Horkheimer and Adorno, discuss in their article The Culture Industry, that, “marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers” (Adorno 1038). What makes the 20 or so films deemed as “mumblecore” stand apart from films such as Blair Witch Project, Central Philippine’s Cavite, and more recently, the 2008 blockbuster film, Cloverfield? All of these films are shot with handheld digital cameras. And with the exception to Cloverfield, they had small casts, unpaid extras, and no sets. Why these films are considered “indie” and not true forerunners to “mumblecore” might have something to do with the inclusion of a more complex plot and lack of focus when retaining an image of the real. “It can seem like these [mumblecore] movies, which star nonprofessional actors and feature quasi-improvised dialogue, seldom deal with matters more pressing than whether to return a phone call” as with the listed films above deal with issues completely eschew from real-life issues that ‘real’ people endure, i.e. no 30 story-tall monsters, no ghosts, witches, and no Manchurian Candidate-like terrorist bombings (The New York Post 2007). The film, Quiet City, written and directed by Aaron Katz at times seems to pay homage to films that focus more on culturally relevant situations and thus continuing cinema’s forever long quest to depict the real, or as what Werner Herzog calls the “Ecstatic Truth” (as in Richard Linklater’s hipster-romance film duo, Before Sunrise and
Before Sunset). Using a tentative script, the young filmmaker and crew set out to make a film specifically to recreate scenes and conversations that have happened to them personally before and during the shooting of the film. Though this film is fictional, i.e. the characters and plot, much of the dialogue was improvised by the actors, as were some of the locations and shots were spontaneous. This film’s expectations were simply to capture the idea of the real and not necessarily to recreate or supplement reality. This concept used to control the meaning or the amount of reality intended within the image is summarized by Jane Tormey as she discusses Baudrillardian terms, […] it is possible that meaning can be more directly symbolic, less plausible and more ‘overtly discursive’, with aspects of description not essential to the message but integrated with the illusion of realism (Tormey 33) So when the two main characters break into their friend’s house to see if she is ok, the film is trying at a reality that may have personal significance to the audience, but more importantly, according to Tormey, the image could be read as being more a symbol for their concern for this person, that in effect has more significance than just playing out the scene with no prior referent. Katz’s film sets its gaze on two main characters that meet randomly at a subway platform, then follows them through their weekend-long Williamsburg adventure in order to find Jamie’s (the female protagonist) friend who is not responding to her phone calls. The situation that Jamie and Charlie (the male protagonist) engage in is not too far from what could actually happen, but the main problem that Katz was facing was convincing the audience that after meeting a stranger for only about an hour, Jamie goes back to Charlie’s apartment to spend the night. Katz tells indieWIRE (2007),
“I wasn't sure about the male lead though. The actor needed to be a very particular kind of person to pull off the character. He needed to be instantly trustworthy for the viewer to believe that Jamie would respond the way she does to him. And for the trustworthiness to pan out as the film went on it had to not be an act.” In order to portray this slice of reality to the viewer, Katz needed to audition and then cast an individual that the actress that plays Jamie (Erin Fisher) would be comfortable with. Other than the casting of Cris Lankenau (Charlie), the actors and actresses were people that Katz and his producers knew and were intimate with. This aspect certainly contributed to the ‘aura’ of the film as it can be viewed by an audience, and further embraced as having genuine value as well as significance (Benjamin 75). Though the film contains scenes that are familiar to the viewer, i.e. the birthday party, and the footrace in the park, and can be read as containing a lack of originality, but for these scenes to become real for the audience, they should not only represent common a posteriori experiences so that the audience can relate, they should be depicted as those real experiences, and not appear to be set-up or blocked in any particular way in order for the film to contain its own particular ‘aura’ (75). If “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced”, then the reproduction of images such as someone candidly blowing a candle out at a birthday party can legitimately be a placeholder for the real experience, i.e. ‘aura’ (74-5). In other words, if one were to take an image of an object, say any ordinary object, then the image itself would then become yet another object. Now the way for that image to have value, meaning, or some sort of authenticity, then the object
that is within frame would have to have some cultural relevancy. The more relevant the object is to a culture, the more meaning the image would have contained in it, but only that much meaning could be held accountable in only the culture that which it was relevant. That is not to say, that similar value-meaning could not be found in the imageobject in another culture, but it would only be considered as such under scrutiny of the image-object as being an abstraction taken from a reference source. The image-object then, to the latter audience, would not contain the distinct significance (decay of ‘aura’) due to the distance of comprehension, no matter how minute, that the former audience could possibly have had (75). In relation to Quiet City, the fact that the image used for this scene is actually Aaron Katz at his actual birthday party, actually receiving gifts and blowing out a candle, does not necessarily make the scene more real, nor does it make the scripted and blocked shots of the party that this particular scene was juxtaposed with more real, but it does bare striking resemblance to something that has happened before to each person of the audience (in reality). So the image is ultimately a simulacrum of that which is real, and by using a Benjaminian viewpoint, we may understand that the entire scene has become its own object, but also it contains an essence, an ‘aura’ that can be shared, and effectively reproduced, that is if the significance can be related to the masses in a way that the masses can be related to the significance. The way that the film starts is unique and is significant to those in the audience that have ridden on a NYC subway. The passing lights of the tunnels through the windows, the unfamiliar person checking the subway map, etc. These are images only relevant to those who have experienced this firsthand. What Katz does to help inform those individuals in the audience who cannot relate, is simply includes the images of
Jamie experiencing this for the first time. Katz is creating for those who are unfamiliar a reference point through simulacra, utilizing what Baudrillard would call the ‘precession of simulacra’, which is that “the representation of the real comes before the real, so that it [then] becomes the real” (Murphie 16). When reading Baudrillard in this way, Katz is not concerned with the viewer who has already experienced this image, however he has captured this image in a way so that if the “representation of the real” here is all the viewer has to reference, they may do so in order for the representation to “become real” (16). This event on a subway train has happened before, and the audience knows this whether they have experienced it or not because it is being shown to us as something that is real. And now the unfamiliar audience has some idea of this reality through the consumption of this particular image. Now, when at the end of the film Katz includes the same image of the passing of lights through the subway window, the audience will know that what they are seeing is this shot of the subway, and therefore will have that original point of reference-representation to turn back to; the audience has now become familiar with the image-aura. Instead of showing Jamie searching the map to find her destined stop, she is now portrayed as being more comfortable, more familiar with the train ride, such as the audience member that is using the image from the beginning of the film as a point of reference. This technique is used by Katz quite frequently in his films; because the basis of his films is often so localized, he has to familiarize to further captivate his audience. Before the first and after the last subway ride that bookends the character(s) development, Katz works with the same image for the opening shot (what is often referred to as the/an establishing shot) as well as the closing shot of the film, thus bookending the entire film itself with this image. The scene is a simple skyline of a
sunset, with television antennae poking up from the bottom of the screen inferring that the viewer is on top of a building’s roof. Now once Katz familiarizes the audience with this shot, he can then (as examined above) recall the image to communicate in more detail what he wants the audience to signify for themselves as being real. While shooting this scene, there happened to be a plane fly into frame. Katz does not include this happenstance during the first time he shows us this image, but as the plot develops, along with the viewer’s understanding of the characters develop, he includes the image as the end shot of the film; this time including the plane that conveniently cut across the frame in the distance. By his inclusion of this scene at the end of the film, something phenomenological happens. Something is communicated to the audience here, or better, it is intended for the audience to react to this shot in a way that is not provoked by the storytelling of dialogue, but through the storytelling capabilities of the image alone. The audience’s reading of this image is left open and free to interpretation, because there is no shot or cinematic sequence following the image to reconfirm any significance that the individual viewer may have connected with the image-symbol. Katz does not give the audience the meaning here, as he would not only be contributing to the “stunting of the mass media consumer’s powers of imagination” by generalizing (marginalizing) what the individual viewer may want the conclusion to be, but by doing this he would also be limiting the story’s possible conclusion(s), i.e. causing the film’s ‘aura’ to “decay” by creating a distance between the individual viewer and their own perspective (Adorno 1039) (Benjamin 75). After studying Jamie and Charlie’s interactions from meeting as strangers on a subway platform to intimately laying their heads against one another to rest (the last time we see either of them in the film), not
only is the audience, but the individual viewer given this simple image to decipher and conclude the story in the way that best fits their subjective projections. In a time when a film is considered good or approvable by critics when it fulfills the expectations of the viewer, and leaves little to the imagination; when “the effort required [by the viewer’s] response is semi-automatic”, and there is “no scope […] left for the imagination”, filmmakers such as Aaron Katz along with the rest of the “mumblecorps” are, in fact, rebelling with their expressions that are on the surface, mundane, ordinary, and to some, narcissistic (Adorno 1039) (The New York Times 2007). But then why is there an increasing desire for the production of such films? If in order to get closer to the real, directors are using techniques that seem “amateurish” or “ambivalent” in nature, then why the need for multi-million dollar budgets and completely un-realistic situations as seen in Cloverfield and also in TV hit shows like Survivor (Tormey 28-9)? Directors like Aaron Katz are using the now familiar and accepted techniques in order to reproduce a type of simulacra that, because of its locality of scope and also its significance and relevance to its viewers, there is something unexpected and new to this movement in cinema. The reproductions that the audience is witnessing is less distanced and more embracive of the individual’s perspective and not marginalizing or invasive as some of the other forms of “independent” cinema have come to be.
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. The Culture Industry as Mass Deception. Cultural Studies. Malden, Mass: Black Well. 1998. Pp. 1037-41. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Visual Culture: a Reader. Ed. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 1999. Pp.72-9. IndieWIRE. Ed. Eugene Hernandez. August 28, 2007. IndieWIRE.com. May 1, 2008. http://www.indiewire.com/people/2007/08/indiewire_inter_100.html Lim, Dennis. A Generation Finds Its Mumble. The New York Post. August 19, 2007. Arts. May 1, 2008. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E6DB1E3DF93AA2575B C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all> Murphie, Andrew and John Potts. Theoretical Frameworks. Culture & Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. 11-38. Tormey, Jane. Photographic Practice, Postmodernism and the ‘Irreal’. The State of the Real. Ed. Damian Sutton, et al. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Pp. 28-37.
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