2010: Year Of The Underground Film Loop?
Traditionally, a “film loop” is just that: A strip of film that has its beginning and its end spliced together so that it runs in a projector as an endless cycle. Creating film loops is a staple of underground film and expanded cinema performances. However, lately I’ve been thinking of the phrase “film loop” in a broader cultural sense.
I first became aware of the “loop” phenomenon when I was writing a weekly news and humor column for Movies.com, back when that site was owned by Disney. It was my job to read and keep up with the mainstream movie blogs and make jokes about the big news, e.g. trailers for new films, casting rumors, set photos being leaked, plot details being spoiled, directors being hired. Fun job while it lasted.
At the same time, I also used to read — and still do read — lots of indie film blogs. So, with all this movie blog browsing, skimming and reading, I started to see patterns to emerge, particularly in which blogs referred to each other. Mostly this was done by broad genre: The horror blogs stuck to their stories, the mainstream blogs reported on each others’ leaks and the indie film blogs discussed indie film business.
That’s when I started to think about film “loops,” with each loop referring back on itself with very little crossover between them. One could spend all their time in the “indie film loop” and not even know the mainstream loop exists. But the one loop that nobody knows exists is the underground film loop. Know why? Because it doesn’t exist.
I already wrote about this recently. Instead of having a “loop,” underground film has a void. I’d like there to be a loop and, to be honest, partly for selfish reasons. One of the tough things about getting a wider audience for this site, I believe, is that it exists outside of every film loop and the survival of websites is generally based on good linkage.
But also, I remember a couple years ago I was reading the transcript of an old discussion between Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage where they were hopeful about a future world where every home had an 8mm projector and everybody in the world could rent and appreciate underground films in their own home.
Well, people don’t need 8mm projectors, but that future world dreamed of by two of the masters is here — and in an even more accessible fashion. However, while the ability for that world to exist is with us now in theory, in practice it doesn’t. And it should.
It’s still a new world. It’s only been recently that a plethora of classic underground, experimental and underground films have been released on DVD. It’s only been recently that the true DIY aesthetic of filmmakers affordably being able to release their own, modern underground work on DVD. And then, of course, there’s the immediate distribution of the Internet.
As somebody who tracks these films, I know there’s an audience out there for them and even though there’s no “loop” I’ve been trying to scheme of ways to create an illusion of one that could hopefully build into a real one. Although there’s no underground film blog loop, one sort of exists on the social media circuit, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. So, I’ve been thinking of how to use those tools better to facilitate better conversation rather than just one-way directives.
One thing I get frustrated about with having a blog is that, say for example, I write about a DVD release that I think everybody should see, a post goes up, stays on the homepage for two or three days, then disappears into the archives. That’s how mainstream film blogging works: It’s almost all about what’s out now.
But, I think with underground film, there was to be a constant drumbeat — without being spammy and annoying — to keep reiterating that these films are out there. I get new Twitter and Facebook followers all the time who may not go into my the Underground Film Journal archives to know all that’s out there. And what’s great about underground film is that you can watch a film, post about it anywhere and start engaging with the filmmaker, which I think would build up a “community” feeling.
My thoughts on all this aren’t completely solidified yet, so I hope this doesn’t come across as just nonsensical rambling, but I want to start writing about this kind of thing publicly so as maybe to solidify things in my own head and, hopefully, generate the kind of discussion I’m looking for.
Underground Film Feedback (14 comments)
Sorry, no new comments allowed, but please read through our comment archive.
This certainly isn’t nonsensical rambling to me! I’ve been collaborating on a print zine with various focuses (humor, feminism, and queer-interest among them), and I was hard-pressed to find ANYthing for the first issue’s underground film article. I was pretty much forced to write about something I already knew, which turned out to be Sarah Jacobson’s “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer.” Then I found Bad Lit, and it’s certainly made life easier for me. I’m sure that the entire historic and contemporary underground film community is far too much for one person to cover. While this site is great (I wouldn’t know about “SpaceDisco One” or “Treevenge” if it weren’t for Mike Everleth!), I would love to hear more about the films of G.B. Jones and other truly subversive filmmakers. Although, maybe others just don’t exist.
Now THIS was probably nonsensical rambling!
Good article. Great food for thought. Part of the problem is just defining what “underground” is.
I thought of my two films as “underground” and both were good enough to be considered as such by the Boston Underground Film Fest people (among others) but not by Chicago Underground FF or very many other so-called “underground” fests while a lot of crappy films were. I don’t particularly know what that term means anymore. It’s also frustrating as hell to send out copies of your underground film to people and find out two years later that they still have not viewed it.
So while I applaud your sentiment I don’t know if this will work – I hope it will work, it’s good to start somewhere…
Eric: Thanks for the kind words. Always nice to find out who my readers are and what they like. I’m not familiar with G.B. Jones, but I think there are a good deal of good subversive filmmakers out there.
Although, that might depend on what one defines as “subversive,” whether it’s just confounding notions of structure, or examining taboo subject matter. You might want to look into the filmmakers associated with the Cinema Abattoir DVDs I write about for a start.
Charles: You’ve given me a good idea for a post about the difference between the different “underground” fests because they all have different notions of that word.
“Underground” has never been truly defined, which is actually why it’s the word I stick with over experimental, critical, avant garde, etc., because I can cover all those things. But, on the other hand, it does pose a problem: Just what the hell does it all mean anyway? (Another good idea for a post!)
I think that needs to be addressed. Awhile back the head of one famous underground film fest was on the Withoutabox message boards and he asked filmmakers what “underground” meant to them and no one could give a satisfactory answer. Some had no idea what he was talking about. I think that “underground” might be the new buzz word, the way “indie” was a few years back…now every actor does an “indie” film once in awhile to boost their cred…
“Well, people don’t need 8mm projectors, but that future world dreamed of by two of the masters is here — and in an even more accessible fashion. However, while the ability for that world to exist is with us in practice it doesn’t. And it should.” — M.E.
Mike, I am with you on all of the intricate questions you ask in this post! Bad Lit and Marcos Ortega’s Experimental Cinema, are the most vital, essential sites for covering underground and avant-garde cinema in its local, personal germination in cities and COMMUNITIES around the world. You are on the frontier!
I wish that after 10 years in experimental cinema, I could share this knowledge with more people. I’m trying to think of new forms for this knowledge, to transform it into a format that people actually want . . . :)
Have you ever considered making videos of yourself discussing underground cinema, and posting those online, maybe like those punk rock cable shows in the 80s? You have such an engaging voice and style, I think that it would be fantastic!!! :) Just brainstorming . . .
I’m so glad Bad Lit is here. (You are one of the few blogs that links to me. :) xoxo
I don’t know if “underground” is quite a buzzword yet. (Actually, I kind of wish it were as I’d probably get more traffic.) But I do see a variation of the phrase “I’m as underground as they come” by some filmmakers being used much more often, so it may be on its way. But, to me anyway, “underground” doesn’t just mean nobody’s heard of you, although that’s how it’s being used.
Re: actors in “indie” films. A movie that’s really grown on me over the years is Tom Dicillo’s Living in Oblivion. And one of my favorite lines is when the “big name actor” character yells, “I’M ONLY DOING THIS MOVIE BECAUSE I HEARD YOU WERE TIGHT WITH QUENTIN TARANTINO!”
Reportedly, that character is based on Brad Pitt, who, of course, went on to be in an actual Quentin Tarantino movie.
I think a huge part of the problem is that readers have so few opportunities to view the films you mention on this blog — at least traditional indie films have a slew of fests to play at (and a shot at NY/LA distribution).
Until major fests start programming more adventurously (unlikely in this economy) or underground films find a way to circumvent the festival industry (like music has with the blogosphere), the underground film scene will suffer in obscurity.
I remember a time as long ago as the early nineties…there was a zine convention at the Park Plaza hotel. Huge zine con, well organized, with FactSheet Five, Ben is Dead and a ton of famous and not-so-famous zinesters there. There was also an “underground film” screening. Most of the films were so incredibly bad I wanted to puke — I should find my zine where I reviewed them. The only really, truly great film that not only could be called “underground” IMHO but was also well made was Sarah Jacobson’s excellent “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer”. The other films were just poorly made, unfunny and idiotic. But somehow they fell under the “underground” banner, probably because they a.) were not well-made enough to be submitted to regular film fests and b.) had a slight weird quality to them which made the filmmakers think they should be under this category. Whatever.
“You are one of the few blogs that links to me.” — JM
I could say the same about yours! Marcos does run a nice site. I’ll have to do a post about who is in “the loop” already.
And I really liked your personal decade post you put up recently. I liked looking at all the posters to see who was being screened. One of the reasons I started doing the Underground Film Journal the way I do was just to archive all this stuff because it goes so quickly and people wonder what happened.
I’ve had a few people suggest I make videos, but I have a strong aversion to being on camera. Maybe I need to get over it.
qwerty: I don’t think that’s the problem at all. I believe that’s the perception of the problem.
I strongly believe that the “problem” — if it can even be called that — is that the traditional mainstream and indie “loops” as I’ve described them are a closed system that are very tough to break into, which is why I think there needs to be a unique underground loop. Get enough people talking about these movies and they’ll start to get seen.
“Underground” films play at all kinds of festivals and get released on DVD. There’s an audience for them that doesn’t write about them, which is what I don’t know why. I do write about some extremely obscure films, like my 2009 Movie of the Year pick, but I think mostly I write about films well in advance of when they can be seen by a wide audience, so that may be why that perception exists.
But I also have enough examples of writing reviews of once obscure movies on the festival circuit that suddenly get released on DVD and suddenly those reviews get lots of hits. So, people are watching these films and want to read opinions of them.
I guess you’re right, Mike. My logic is a bit circular. After all, if there were an underground film loop, more of those films would get attention and more would get programmed. But I would just like to point out the difference between, say, the indie music scene and the indie film scene.
Take a band like Animal Collective — they are as far from mainstream conventions as many of the “underground” films your review on this site. And yet Animal Collective is covered in every major art/music publication and invited to the biggest music fests in the world.
Hardly the same kind of exposure and attention that is given to adventurous film. And I think the reason is that “underground” music is so widely available — just takes a few sec to download “My Girls” from a blog. Question for oyu: Do you think film can do something similar? Is it possible to have a film blogosphere that streams or offers underground films for download (with filmmakers’ permission of course).
I don’t know if streaming film can imitate exactly streaming music. There are streaming sites out there, like Snag Films for documentaries, but I don’t know if the business model can support undergrounds. (And I wonder if Snag Films is making any money via its streams.)
With streaming movies, if you have a popular website, you’re probably going to end up paying up the butt for bandwidth. (Streaming video isn’t exactly free for the provider.) A streaming site is going to need good advertisers and make smart, profitable content partnership deals. I think that’s why Snag Films acquired indieWIRE out of the gate, since they had good advertisers.
But, for undergrounds? Again, the issue is that nobody writes about these films. Snag Films doing something bold like buying indieWIRE gets lots of press and attention early.
I don’t think streaming is IMPOSSIBLE, though. I just wish I had a better head for business to figure it out.