Underground Film Journal
More » Underground Film News

Underground Film And The Tyranny Of The Technical

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that Douglas Rushkoff video interview I embedded the other day, the one in which he counters the myth that all online content is “free.” However, prior to discussing the issue of “free,” Rushkoff also mentioned how the Internet has evolved over the past 20 years or so from a free-form place of personal expression to a highly-structured, commodified marketplace.

In many ways, the Underground Film Journal follows exactly the evolution that Rushkoff maps out, from being a goofy HTML-based hobby of self-expression to a very rigid website that delivers advertising to its visitors. (And by “rigid” I mean in navigational structure and in that I only write about one topic anymore.)

But, on the other hand, as Internet technology has improved over the years, the ability for underground filmmakers to share their works of personal expression with a large and nearly infinite audience has increased dramatically. As I demonstrated previously, part of the definition of “underground film” is: “It is a film conceived and made essentially by one person and is a personal statement by that person.”

Yet, there is still a heavy resistance to promoting, or even embedding, so-called “underground film” on film websites. I think I’ve said this before: It’s an odd situation that there’s still an “underground” when it’s possible for what was once nearly impossible to see, is now easily viewed by nearly every person on this planet. Yet, it goes by mostly unnoticed, unembedded and un-commented upon. So, what’s the disconnect? Why is there a resistance?

Well, I spotted the below in a movie review on another indie film website:

I tend to watch movies with a critical eye, ready to pounce on any technical-flaws, writing inconsistencies and acting problems.

Then, Glenn Kenny posted up a list of films that don’t follow continuity and could only come up with 10 entries, totally overlooking the work of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Craig Baldwin, Damon Packard to just name a few underground filmmakers who either ignore or muck around in continuity.

Not to pick on these two people or articles specifically — really, you should read Glenn’s site daily if you don’t already — this is still how many explicitly judge films: Strictly on their technical merits and limitations.

True, film is a very technically-based artform, both due to the equipment needed to produce it and in the ways that every film is constructed. But, there’s an over-reliance on judging all movies first by the technical standards set by Hollywood and other mainstream productions: Narrative flow, acting style, “proper” cinematography, sound recording, etc. Do they give out an Oscar for Best Non-narrative Filmmaking? No, didn’t think so.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong for admiring and critiquing a film for its technical achievements. And underground filmmaking doesn’t mean just slapping together anything willy-nilly and calling it a film. But, what’s even more interesting, to me anyway, is that technical experiments in underground filmmaking tend to bubble up eventually into mainstream filmmaking.

Modern-day, fast-paced editing — whether a blessing or a curse — is an evolutionary growth from single-frame editing techniques pioneered by ’60s underground filmmakers. And early computer filmmaking experiments by the guy who coined the concept of “underground film” as we know it today, Stan Vanderbeek, may look a little goofy now, but where would CGI effects be without somebody starting somewhere like Stan did?

But, here we go: Here’s another cranky lament (via Chuck Tryon) about the dire fate of film criticism online, where accredited experts who have trained specifically to be able to judge a film by its technical criteria are getting squeezed out by “young punks” like me who don’t know what we’re talking about. Well, actually, he’s not talking about me, he’s talking about evaluators of strict narrative, technically “correct” filmmaking. And, anyway, I’m probably not classifiable as “young” nor “punk” anymore by a long shot.

The message is clear: Personal expression in filmmaking is fine as long as the filmmaker is playing by the proper rules of technical achievement. Underground films that break popular notions of technical achievement do get appreciated and enjoyed by purveyors of the strictly technical, either as modern aberrations of the norm or fondly recognized rule breakers of yore. And there’s almost always a disconnect of experiments that happened in the past and the idea that anybody is doing anything similar today.

Maybe that paradigm flew when underground film really was underground and difficult to see unless you lived in a big city and had a pass to the film society group. But underground film is here and it’s now and you can watch some and evaluate it right this very second. Ah, you probably already know that because you’ve been on this site before.  You know where it’s at. However, in case you haven’t, go click that link.

And that’s why I think it’s important to build a strong underground film loop. There’s strength in numbers. The days of the lone voices spread out in the ether are officially over. Underground film doesn’t have a strong history of continuous writers. Jonas Mekas wrote his Movie Journal column for the Village Voice, but when he stopped nobody took his place. That’s when print outlets were limited. The Internet is limitless. (As far as we know so far, anyway.)

Don’t stop to judge films by the old criteria of technical achievement. We need to create a new language of a new technical frontier.


Underground Film Feedback (10 comments)

Sorry, no new comments allowed, but please read through our comment archive.

  • Jacob W. says:

    Good stuff here Mike…

    I think you should get your hands on a copy of Elder’s manifesto “The Cinema We Need”. Though it deals with a whole host of issues (many specifically aimed at the climate of the Canadian cinematic landscape of the time), one of the core arguments is for the development of a ‘new technical frontier’ that incorporates aesthetically material that would normally be considered a ‘mistake’, etc.. Not all of it is on point (if you’re gonna start throwing mud naturally some of it is going to spill on yourself), but its written with a great deal of passion (and total disregard for the then status quo)..

  • Thanks, guys! Glad you enjoyed it.

    Jacob: I’ll have to track that down!

  • Great article! Alot of emphasis on technical prowess (often dressed up as high production values) on alot of the lo-budget indie and underground films I’ve worked on.

  • I think one of the issues with the underground and now DIY movement (which I love, by the way) is that many times new filmmakers don’t even know the technical rules they’re breaking. On the other extreme is this super-unified studio system where every i is dotted and t crossed. Somewhere in between the two is the good stuff. Can’t wait to see what comes of all this.

  • Good article, Mike. I feel the best advances to the medium come with a naive approach to it, and not so much with a paint by numbers systematic rigor of what a film should or should not be. One of the most important characteristic of the form is voice, and if a film becomes too mired in the formulaic–that voice tends to disappear completely. The core tenet behind any bit of personal expression is the freedom of self to do so–and there isn’t one “correct” way.

  • Michael: I agree. Once upon a time, the word “amateur” wasn’t an insult, it was simply a descriptor. Now it’s a condemnation. And passion doesn’t count for anything and can be a thing to be ridiculed.

  • Love the article, Mike.

    As a lo-fi filmmaker, and I guess I am considered underground hehe..it is frustrating that main stream fests don’t accept my work because they might not follow the rules of conventional filmmaking.

    Completely non-narrative stuff does have a home at the underground fests but the biggest mecca for those films both feature and short is Ann Arbor. Though I’ve never been, I avidly look at their lineups in the past and have spoken with filmmakers whose films screen and it seems to favor experimental and unconventional over straight forward narrative. Ann Arbor is also recgonized by the Academy but only the film that wins the Best Narrative Award ironically.

    And though it’s great for a short filmmaker to receive attention from the academy, unfortunately it leaves such innovative feature films by directors like Guy Maddin and Craig Baldwin out of consideration.

    I know my films aren’t mean for everyone and I certainly know they aren’t mean for high end fests but it makes me feel really good that folks like you and festivals like BUFF, AUFF, Coney Island and Spooky Movie have welcomed me and my work.

    I say just keep promoting these fests and more, show us more gems like Heavy Metal Parking Lot and urge filmmakers to walk off the beaten path to find new ways of telling our personal stories.

    We’re underground and we’re punk…so let’s flip off the man and freak the squares!

    • Brian: I really think that it’s been to the site’s detriment that I haven’t covered Ann Arbor in the past. I’m hoping to change that this year. I did post up some preview announcements of theirs recently and hope to put up their full lineup when it’s announced.

      And I do think that filmmakers who work in genre filmmaking, such as yourself, are the most screwed by “the system.” Genre work, especially sci-fi, doesn’t make it into the mainstream nor the artsy fests — unless the work is especially mainstream or artsy. Then, most film websites don’t cover that middle genre ground either — unless it’s a genre website, and even then underground-ish work gets covered as if it’s an inferior product, but acceptible to watch. If I had the time, I’d start covering the genre fests in more detail. Somebody needs to do that.

      Lastly, you’re right, we just gotta keep doing it. Perseverance and being aggressive — even slightly — do count for a lot.

Post Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *