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Underground Film And The Tyranny Of The Technical

By Mike Everleth ⋅ March 2, 2010

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.

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