Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Things I Never Need To See In Another Student Film.

I like student film. This is lucky, because as caretaker of the archives for New Zealand's most prominent film school, I see a lot of it. In student film, the raw and unrefined clash awkwardly with the primally brilliant and the precociously savvy. It's exciting and fun.
However, both my occupation and my enthusiasm, I feel, render me more qualified than anyone on this earth to assemble the following list. I present now, Things I Never Need To See In Another Student Film. (For bonus points, head over to film dot tom and see how many of them I managed to include in my own tenure at film school...)

1. A Character, Immobilised In A Chair, Having Violence Done To Them.

For some reason, this is the single most common motif of student film: a hapless sort (usually male) is tied to a chair by (often masked) captors, and has unpleasantness performed upon him. Said unpleasantness may take the form of psychological taunting and/or threatening, but in the vast majority of instances is an only mildly imaginative act of physical insult, which may or may not be fatal but will undoubtedly involve much yelling and screaming. As may well be expected, a shocking twist is often provided in which this process is revealed to be a repeating cycle, the movie's chosen unfortunate being only the latest victim in a series of assaults that form some sort of twisted game or ritual.
The overwhelming popularity of this scenario is inexplicable: of the eleven classes whose work I have catalogued, almost every one contains (usually multiple) instances of this scenario. I say "almost" only because my cataloguing is as yet incomplete; classes whose work remains Out There In The Aether may well be holding onto it for fear that if I get it, their names will be added to the list of People Who Have Made Violence-In-Chair Movies.
The easiest solution I can offer is that anyone who goes to film school can be expected to have at least a passing familiarity with Reservoir Dogs. An unconscious desire to replicate that picture's most infamous sequence could explain the vast amount of shockingly similar material; but that doesn't do it for me.
For one thing, film students as a collective actually revere Quentin Tarantino a lot less than you might expect: if the scenario were yanked from an Aronovsky movie, a more solid case might be made for plagiarism, but as it is, anyone who wants to reference Tarantino is more likely to just lay down Tomoyasu Hotei's Battle Without Honor Or Humanity as the backing track to a hyper-violent experiment in Michael Bay Editing.
I'm more likely to pin this scene's prevalence on some shared, unconscious interest in the juxtaposition (I'm serious here) of the kinetic and the immobile, the prone captive and the inescapable theatricality of the captor suggesting a brutal, ritalin-psychosis interpretation of the relationship between filmmaker and audience. All budding artists want to affect the whole damn world; when students' first film involves The Chair Scenario, it says something rather disturbing about just what kind of effect they want to have.

2. But What Will We Do With The Body?

It's rare that a class will make it through a year of film school without making, between them, at least one "blackly comic" movie revolving around the scenario of recent (often accidental) murderers and their tribulations in disposing of the corpus delicti.
Usually, these movies will explore the absurd meshing of pathos and practicality inherent in such a situation (cf. popular motion pictures such as Very Bad Things, Shallow Grave and, arguably, Deliverance). The tone will be pitched on a continuum somewhere between Psychopath Drama With Snickering and Absurdist Comedy With A Corpse. Often there will be humorous riffing on just who might be least likely to find themselves in this predicament: you're much more likely to see the dumping-versus-dissecting debate taken up by a pair of unpopular high school kids or demure suburban ladies than, say, two seasoned mobsters. (Hitmen, while by no means absent from the student film universe, are mercifully thin on the ground - particularly in comparison to their prevalence on the commercial-art-film circuit).
This scenario seems more popular with scriptwriters than it does with directors: projects concieved by their eventual executioner tend toward the showily visceral, whereas the perceived treasure trove of potential Wryness that is the Body Disposal Movie will always beckon to the scriptwriter desperate to prove themselves the next Tom Stoppard. However, your humble tour guide here confesses remembering that at one time in the mid-1990s, variations on this scenario enjoyed a spate of popularity among sitcom writers wanting to appear edgy - for a time rivalling "it's Thanksgiving and they're all stuck in the one house and forced to air their grievances" for the title of Most Popular Stock Plot.
And how many of the writers for Roseanne can you name today?

3. The Elderly: Delightful!

From the examples given above, it may seem like film studentry is a field dominated by the post-adolescent male obsession with grievous bodily harm. It is.
However, student film doesn't have to be all murder and mayhem. A good way to make this point is by making a damn good movie with characters in it; not such a good way to make this point is by making a movie about how geriatrics are actually lively and sprightly and full of beans and your grandmother listens to Fat Freddy's Drop and you might think that life ends at 50, but here's a glad-to-be-grey posse dedicated to growing old disgracefully!
At first, the huge volume of aren't-old-people-charming movies vaguely bugged me because it seemed patronising and glib. The vibe you get from these pictures is that people really wanted to make a movie about hedgehogs or donkeys, but old people were the easiest-obtained docile animal a crew could corral before the camera.
But what really leaves a nasty taste in your mouth after watching an accumulation of these movies is the way they all seem to be created according to the exact same principle: in response to facile Scorsese knockoffs by people who can't spell Scorsese, the only alternative is to be so damn Charming that your movie sets itself apart as a Charming statement on how very Charming old people are, not that the statement itself matters, as long as it's delivered in a way that is, unequivocably, Charming as a motherfucker.
Which is not the case. The opposite to "Bad Movies United In Their Nihilistically Bloody Attempts At Stylishness" isn't "Bad Movies United In Their Stylishly Charming Attempts At Effervescence".
It's "Good Movies".

4. Tool

It frustrates me when I'm archiving a movie and it has copyrighted music in it. It frustrates me because it illustrates, on the part of the filmmaker, either serious unimaginativeness and limited taste (it's very rare that I'll come across a copyrighted song that isn't widely known; not only is it always extremely popular musicians, it's usually their best-known singles that get used, somewhat damning the "unique personal connection" argument before anyone's even made it); more commonly, it suggests that this filmmaker is the sort of person who'll get very serious and earnest about how they reckon culture belongs to everyone and how if a song is this important to them (see above) they'll be damned if they'll let, y'know, Teachers or Copyright Law or Festival Organisers (damn those proxies of the Hegemony!) tell them what they can and can't do with it.
And that's just great, Charlie, but the fact is, if you use Stinkfist in your movie, you can't do shit with your movie. Because copyright law is bigger than you, no matter how open your third eye is, so all you're doing is making life difficult for Muggins here who has to archive your movie and can't use it in any promotional materials or external showings; I'm always finding places I could use well-made material so that everyone would see how great your movie is, but oh, sorry Jack, nobody's ever going to see your movie, because you couldn't figure out a way to get your point across without using fucking Stinkfist in the pivotal scene.
And as you may've gathered, I don't use the example of Tool at random. I like Tool. But no other band can hold a candle to them for sheer numbers in the Plagiarised By Film Students stakes. Whereas professional filmmakers just have to use Angel by Massive Attack (Or If Sad, Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah), student film seems to resonate much more at the harmonic level on which reside such notions as "Hooker With A Penis is deep" and "lyrically speaking, Aenima is not an asinine song". Both of the above are things I enjoy, but then, I also really like Orange Chocolate Chip ice cream, and I've never seen that in a movie. And that wouldn't even invalidate you from festival play!
Good music used inventively is never going to go out of style. While I take issue with, say, using Stinkfist or Angel as mood-build pieces - as First Tracks, these songs are already essentially mood-build pieces, so to co-opt them for the exact same purpose isn't so much reclaiming culture for your own narrative purposes as it is nicking someone else's chops - I'm the first to admit that imaginative use of well-sourced music can elevate your movie to high art. But with respect to everyone who feels like their movie just has to use the most popular songs released by the best-known bands of their time: Try Harder.
If you have to break copyright, at least do it in a way that's a little imaginative. Here's how bad it gets: in a relatively good movie I was cataloging recently, the climactic sequence features the main character's descent into an electro-nootropic hell of some sort. On the soundtrack, cosmic arcing sounds and far-off menacing buzzes reinforce the (rather admirably atmospheric, actually) visuals. This impresses the viewer for about ten seconds, or as long as it takes to realise that the filmmaker is so fucking lazy that he's just dropped an extract from the several-minutes-of-artistic-noise from the end of Aenima into his movie.
Really. Stealing someone else's music and not doing anything new with it is bad, but stealing someone else's sound design because you couldn't be bothered doing your own? You might as well just put the camera in front of one of those damn plasticine-models-fuck-in-pools-of-excrement music videos and go off and make a cup of tea.

5. Flatmates

I submit that there never needs to be another piece of fiction made whose premise contains the notion of "flatmates" ("room-mates" to you world-ruling types). In case that's too easy, what I mean to say is that if you cannot make your movie without expunging any trace of the notion of "flatmates" from the Essential Elements, I want you to stop making your movie.
An allergic reaction to both the Stylish Action/Thriller genre and the Coffee-And-Cigarettes genre, the Flatmate genre intends to waggishly thumb its nose at the extremes of both: ridiculing badly-made examples, while providing a counterpoint to the well-made. Scoffing at the notion of Style, the Flatmate exponent will promise that his movie delivers naught but two guys sitting on a couch and it's at once (1) as stylish as any film needs to be; and (2) charmingly guileless and earthy (though, of course, he won't use those words).
Similarly, the Flatmate movie seeks to dethrone those mythical latte-sipping beret-wearers who synarchically rule our culture though nobody ever actually knows any of them in the real world. By attacking the stereotype of the haughty intellectualist, the Flatmate filmmaker will assume the role of urbane poet-of-the-people, his bearing suggesting that he is the first person in the history of the world to combine an enjoyment of movies with a passion for sport. His movies are dripping with this presumptuous arrogance, their scripts endless variations on the theme of, "did you know that afro-wig-wearing Rugby-drunkards are actually really fun guys? Of course you didn't, because I'm the only filmmaker in the history of the world who's keeping it real". (Not thst Rugby-drunkards aren't fun, you understand: I just don't need to be told it like it's some sort of revelation to the world of cinema that Sports Are Fun Too).
On the rare occasion that the Flatmate movie manages to sidestep this miasma of sports-and-beer-are-actually-amusing bullshit, it will instead fall into the pit of "we have interesting conversations in our flat; what if our life were an absurdist comedy/horror movie?" These movies are marked by sets whose walls are lined with posters for mediocre movies and Lord Of The Rings, procured by one of the filmmakers' friends who works at a cinema. The plot will basically serve the same function as that of a porn movie, only instead of shambling awkwardly between sex scenes, the Flatmate movie shambles awkwardly between reheated conversation that obviously sounded really good the night before it was written, or possibly scenarios borne out of said conversation.
The third act will see either the ubiquitous Wacky Flatmate do something Really Wacky, or the protagonist Sink To Wackiness. Hilarity will not ensue.
Why the Flatmate genre is particularly spurious and worhy of retirement should be obvious: it's a bottle genre. The Flatmate movie takes "write what you know" to obscene levels of mundanity never dreamed of by anyone who advocated the principle: visually, tonally, narratively, the Flatmate movie is stuck within four drab-colored walls between which nothing ever happens. Nobody's life is so boring that it needs a Flatmate movie to lift it from the doldrums. Nobody is so boring that the only movie they can think to make is a Flatmate movie. I guarantee: there are better movies for you to make.

6. [Name Withheld]

There's two or three actors round town. They're not very good. They're not much to look at, and, more importantly, they can't act to save themselves. Obviously, they've been bitten by the acting bug big-time, because if they had any damn sense, they would've quit long ago.
And I just keep seeing them in student films. One in particular has been in about a half-dozen films in the past three-odd years, never putting a jot of characterisation or energy into a role. I'd be embarrassed for him, but I'm much more angry that he's wasting my time by being onscreen. I alternate between feeling badly for the poor directors who've had to work with him, and getting pissed off that they wouldn't really work this guy, eke a performence out of him. Because this isn't fair. If I wanted to see ugly people who couldn't act, I'd go to a play!
Your movie is not worth these kind of compromises at the casting stage. Your movie is not worth taking a knock and casting a hack in the main role on account of they didn't have work that week and they bought you a beer. Your movie is not worth casting an actor in a pivotal role when they have no charisma whatsoever, someone who'll bring zero energy to the role and sink everyone around them. Your movie has a tone and a spirit all its own, and it deserves actors who will work with you to find that tone and guide the project to be everything it can be. And your movie deserves for you to work your fucking ass off for the actors, rather than just trusting that they've been onstage a couple times, they'll know what to do when the cameras roll.
If you disagree with the above, your movie does not deserve to be made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

cool man come visit another kiwi student film maker