Recently, I had the chance to screen a student film that starred an old friend of mine, written and directed by a kid who’s about to graduate from my alma mater…well, not really my alma mater, since I’m a dropout, but you get the idea. It was shot digitally, like almost everything these days, with a runtime of about fifteen minutes. What did I think of it? Well, it’s always nice seeing this particular actor friend pop-up onscreen, first and foremost, even if it’s just a favour for a budding auteur. The film itself was about the farthest thing from John Cassavetes’ world that you can get. It was probably one of the better no-budget $50 million dollar summer blockbusters I’ve seen. And if you find that statement confusing, allow me to explain. This senior thesis had everything and the kitchen sink. I mean, they really threw it all at the wall and, depending on your tastes, much of it stuck. There were uniformed SWAT teams rappelling down walls, shadowy assassins with laser gun sights, good guys taking down bad guys, bad guys taking down good guys, evil geniuses in secret lairs, tortured hostages, heroes in peril, damsels in distress, anti-heroes not giving a fuck and CG bullet hits and explosions galore. It was epic… it was also about as flat as a pint of beer that’s been sitting on your coffee table for three days.
Why, you ask? Well, for starters, let’s analyse the filmmaker’s intentions, which inarguably can be viewed as giving us a popcorn movie, i.e. style-over-substance. The reason I say that is because how many 21-year-old film school students do you know that have actually rappelled down walls to assassinate a baddie in real life? How many have been kidnapped and spirited away to secret headquarters and tortured until they spilled their precious secrets that could save or destroy mankind? If you have someone in mind, you know some exciting kids. I can’t think of anyone. Pretty much across the board, 21-year-old film majors play out most of their life’s drama in their dorms or at the nearest coffee shop. They don’t traverse the globe in the name of high adventure or life-threatening danger. So, where is this filmmaker’s perspective in regard to what they’ve shown us, the viewer? It’s on the outside looking in, that’s where. With no life experience to match what they’re putting onscreen, we’re getting nothing of substance from the artist making the film and nothing but pure, fluffy escapism. I think kids used to wait a few years before applying the “calling card” mentality to their work, didn’t they? Like, a few years out of school, when the bills start piling up and life starts interfering, when the dream looks like it might be snatched away by those forces our parents always told us would doom our goals to nothing more than whimsical fancy. It’s then that we usually begin contemplating what it means to ‘sell out’ – not on the first goddamn rung. Or, so I thought.
To clarify, I don’t consider selling out to be a bad thing, in and of itself. It all depends on the motive. I’ve spent the better part of this year selling out to any entity that’s paying. Want to buy the rights to this 4-year-old film, with points? Deal. Want me to write your book/screenplay and put your name on it? Deal. If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time. After lurking outside the fire since last century, there’s nothing left to do but sell out. And as the seller, it feels pretty damn good. The trick, as always, is in creative control. If you’re getting paid to craft your vision, the world is a beautiful place. That’s really all there is to it. I’ve got a gang of work coming out this year, but my name’s only on two of the products. It’s the trade-off for being able to do what I love around the clock and get paid for it. I’m okay with that. But again, I’m not a scrapping teenager with something to prove. At 18, you should be out to conquer the world and make it bend to your will, man. You should not be looking to sell out to the highest bidder. We’ve got to build ourselves before we can have anything to break down. If we don’t have our years of idealism, what are we but shills and sell-throughs? And that was exactly the thought this student film left me with. It left me cold. It left me empty. It left me wondering if the new generation of filmmakers really will have zero tangible life experience, only able to mimic the cartoon blockbuster trash of their childhoods, showcasing nothing of the heart and soul behind the work and making ‘calling card’ love letters to the accounting world, the new auteur’s signature.
It’s a scary thing to think about.
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