“At this time, a theatrical release still says something about the work,” says Joe Swanberg. “Having it play in theatres legitimizes the film in a lot of people's eyes. There is a level of quality control that exists for films released theatrically. Someone saw it and decided it was of a certain merit.”
Swanberg, unfortunately, is right. Theatrical distribution is generally accepted as a seal of approval, something that separates the cinematic wheat from the amateurish chaff—and something needed more than ever in a world where any idiot with a camera and a computer can make a movie. The logic of this belief is somehow left unscathed by the fact that most cinemagoers have come across plenty of “approved” films they can’t believe anyone would ever want to make, let alone distribute. But it would surely crumble completely once one discovers the range of talented filmmakers whose films have consistently eluded distribution.
Thirty years ago, such a hypothesis would have been impossible to prove; however with the advent of the internet, a lot of these filmmakers are eminently accessible—albeit without the trusted seal of approval. But surely our viewing choices should be defined more by our own faculties of taste and judgment (and those of trusted friends) than the economic calculations of a film distributor. And, in a world where culture is increasingly diverse but media is increasingly streamlined, our viewing choices must equally be defined by our own active searches. The state of cinema can no longer be judged by what reaches our cinemas (or even always our film festivals) or gets reviewed in the Irish Times. The democratic free-for-all that is the internet is an unparalleled resource in this regard, and one could do worse than start with the following names.
Rob Nilsson, Caveh Zahedi, and Joe Swanberg have, to varying degrees, used the internet to promote and distribute films that would otherwise have had a very restricted life. They have in common distinct and uncompromising personal visions, and while all American, are each based outside of the LA-New York cultural duopoly. (Interestingly, all four have also performed in their own films, and each employs some sort of improvisation or unplanned filming in parts of their work.)
Rob Nilsson must surely be one of the longest-running and most prolific American filmmakers no-one has ever heard of. Since his Camera D’Or winning debut Northern Lights (1978), the 67 year old director has created almost 20 feature films, almost all shot on video and in what he calls the “Direct Action” style of total improvisation. Likely to be his most impressive achievement is the now almost-complete 9@Night series: nine interlinked features all set around the Tenderloin district of San Fransisco, with a cast drawn from the acting workshop Nilsson has organised in the area since the early ‘90s. Nilsson has also taken “Direct Action” abroad, shooting improvised features in places as far-flung as Japan and Jordan.
One of the reasons you probably haven’t heard about any of this, is that since 1987’s Heat and Sunlight, none of Nilsson’s films have received any commercial distribution—that’s around 15 films still waiting to be released. In fact, after a few years, Nilsson simply decided to stop sending his films to distributors, believing “that the business and aesthetic climate was not yet ready” for his work. Since then, the internet has been his primary means of getting word out about his films, and for the moment, it’s also one of the few places you can buy them.
The only problem with the internet, reckons Nilsson, is “that every other serious person competing for the ears, eyes and minds of real people has the same soft/hard wares. So it comes down to the same thing,” he says. “Who is listening? I think fashion, timing, public mood, political circumstance, personal DNA (or NBC or MOMA) all contribute to the canonization of accepted style.”
In Nilsson’s view, “There is still an invisible zeitgeist, manipulable, usually by the loudest and cleverest, but also ineffable, guided by forces one would never imagine could amount to anything. … The Internet enables the old opinions to square off against the new ones. But what else is new? I'd be foolish not to use the Internet and, equally, to count on it. With or without it, the problem of the artists is the same. What do I see? What do I feel? What compels me?"
Nilsson has an infectious, almost evangelical fervour about his way of making films, and through an increasing media arsenal (he now has a newsletter, a blog and a podcast), he’s communicating that fervour to a growing number of people. Admittedly, that number may not yet be enough to make for even a modest box office opening weekend, and its growth is primarily dependent on festival appearances and non-internet media coverage such as this. But one of the reasons Nilsson’s passion is so infectious is that he shows no sign of discouragement. Rather, he seems to relish the challenge—and Nilsson’s prolific output is testimony to the viability of such an ethos. The fact that filmmaking is now so eminently affordable, gives him, to a certain degree, the luxury of patience. For the moment, Nilsson can afford to wait for the rest of us to catch up.
Caveh Zahedi’s painfully honest (yet often hilarious) autobiographical films, which vary in style from re-enactment to cinema verite to video diary, have for several years been available only through his website. But he has only really begun to engage creatively with the internet since his most recent film, I Am a Sex Addict, became his first to receive commercial distribution.
Since then, the 46 year old Zahedi has kept a blog detailing his experiences of the marketing and distribution of his film, and a series of video blogs featuring outtakes and behind the scenes footage from Sex Addict. While ostensibly devices to develop interest and buzz in the film building up to its release, thanks to Zahedi’s probing honesty they became in a way extensions of his own filmmaking. Zahedi’s blog gives frank and detailed accounts of the litany of compromises and tough choices he had to make (as well as a few that were made without him) during the distribution and marketing of Sex Addict, as well as hilarious, if sometimes petulant, rebuttals of negative reviews the film receives. Zahedi even occasionally goes completely off-topic, posting short videos of recent experiences he’s had—allowing the blog to temporarily become a sort of online version of In the Bathtub of the World (2000), his year-long video diary film.
While the extent of Zahedi’s engagement with the internet may be more circumstantial than anything else, now that his film has received the hallowed seal of approval, and the strings that come attached with it, it’s extremely relevant to an understanding of him as a filmmaker. The uncensored, independent nature of the internet provides a free discursive space, unfettered by the negotiations and concessions inherent to commercial exhibition—and consequently makes it possible for Zahedi to publicly comment and critique on the distribution process at the same time as he participates in it. It means, for example, that when Zahedi is asked to censor a behind-the-scenes film from his DVD because of scenes showing one of his lead actresses snorting cocaine, he can both concede to the compromise, and write about it in his blog, and post the uncensored version on his website.
Zahedi’s (now discontinued) blog received on average 150 hits a day “which is small,” he says, “but is definitely a larger fan base than I've ever had before. At one point, I was getting about a thousand hits a day on my blog, but that only lasted for a week, and had to do with a very public fight I was having with Mark Cuban, who owned the Landmark Theater Chain and had pulled my film from distribution because of a fight he was having with Comcast, who were simultaneously making my film available through video-on-demand.”
Alas, wider attention tends to depend on outside sources. More people probably know his name because of his appearance in Richard Linklater’s (distributed) film Waking Life, and Sex Addict’s trailer appearing on Apple’s website, than any of his own internet endeavours. (And, in case anyone might imagine the distributed life is any rosier, it should be noted that Zahedi has yet to make a penny from the release of Sex Addict.)
“Had it not been for the internet,” says Swanberg, “I don't think it's likely that I would be where I am now in my career.” While Nilsson and Zahedi are, at best, cautiously optimistic about the benefits of the internet, seeing it as just one more tool to promote their films with, one gets the sense that for Swanberg, the web is just as integrated into his life as filmmaking is. In fact, Swanberg had already set up his own website before he began seriously making films. Based in Chicago and only 25 years old, Swanberg has so far directed three feature films, all of which owe something of their existence to the internet, as well as several shorts and the unique 12-part “web-show” Young American Bodies.
For him, “the internet has been incredible helpful not just in the way I make films, but in the way my work has found an audience. My first film, Kissing on the Mouth, came to the attention of the SXSW Film Festival, because of a 10 minute clip of the film I posted online. With my second feature, LOL, we actively used the internet in the production of the film. I was collaborating with many of my fellow filmmakers long distance, and we were sending files back and forth throughout production and post production.” Swanberg (who makes his living through freelance web design) has created websites for each of his films, including blogs documenting the making of each, and cast and crew listings which give not only individual bios of the participants but also links to their MySpace pages. (The films, of course, all have MySpace pages too.)
All of this would be merely another case study of America’s technology-addled, exhibitionist youth if it wasn’t for the fact that Swanberg is offering some really fascinating work through these means. Swanberg’s low-key improvised dramas place him among an emerging group of young American filmmakers (check out also Frank V Ross, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers—each of whom also act in their own work and, in fact, have all performed in Swanberg’s films) whose work bypasses the studied cynicism and posturing of most so-called US independent cinema.
What sets Swanberg apart within this group is his focus and engagement with technology. An avid web-user, Swanberg is keenly aware of both its drawbacks and its benefits, enabling him to both critique its effect on human relationships (in his film LOL) and use it as a medium for talking about relationships through his web-series Young American Bodies. YAB is also the only film mentioned so far that engages with the internet as a viable medium for filmmakers in its own right.
“Young American Bodies was always conceived of as an online show, meant to be viewed on a computer,” says Swanberg. “The way we shot the project had a lot to do with knowing the time length and final size of the presentation.” The result is a unique serial format, somewhere between a Cassavetean comic strip and an unscripted soap opera, and not to be underestimated since as, Swanberg points out, “More people have seen each episode of this project on the web than have seen my first two features combined at Festivals and other screenings.”
Yet, for someone so engaged in the internet, Swanberg is surprisingly down-to-earth about the prospects of internet exposure. “Where some people might have seen the opportunity to showcase their ability to direct a major motion picture,” Swanberg says he “saw the opportunity to showcase small little films that didn't belong on the film festival circuit or on TV.” Rather than an avenue to “bigger and better” things, Swanberg is “more excited about the space it has created for the films that very few people are interested in. It means that a film that might only appeal to fifty people can be available to those fifty people. That's an amazing thing.”
This article was originally commissioned for and published in Film Ireland 113.