Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Value of Filmmaking?

I just finished shooting a short film and, as the holidays settle over us, I’ve been thinking more about the value of filmmaking. Not the value of filmmaking to the world or in the culture, but its value for me personally. Why do I bother to make films? What am I actually getting out of this? Where is it all going?

Barring any improbable uptick in my public film career (you know, that fantasy where Michelle Williams wants to be in your film) my films are not going to be discussed in film classes or shown in retrospectives anywhere. I’m not bound for either fame or fortune at this point.

This post may have the tone of a well-settled academic essay but do not underestimate the many likely holes in my logic. This post is a stab at talking about something important. Please let me know what you think.

Extrinsic value is the “exchange” value of a thing. If someone pays you $25 to work for an hour, that’s the extrinsic value of that work. The work may or may not be satisfying. If you find satisfaction in the work, that’s the intrinsic value.

When we talk about art of any kind, I think there are some clear levels of intrinsic value; different kinds of satisfaction we get from making anything creative.

First, there is the fundamental, childlike satisfaction from simply making anything: a mark on paper for example. This is pretty much something that every filmmaker (and artist) experiences. For your first film, it’s the sheer wonder that you had something to do with creating this luminous wonderful (to you) thing that is a REAL film!

This first level has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with just coming into existence. “We did it!” is enough for all to rejoice. For me (and probably for most of you) my first experience with this kind of intrinsic satisfaction probably came with a coloring book at age 3 or 4. And this kind of satisfaction pretty much happens most of the way through grade school. But with your first film project, there is a renewal of wonder and satisfaction simply because the thing exists now.

The second level amounts to the beginning of craft. My second (or third or fourth...) film now exhibits some aspect of craft that I recognize as “professional” or perhaps just “cool.”  “Look at how I rolled focus from him to her. Cool, hunh?” Perhaps I should describe this as film student satisfaction? We are striving to get beyond the simple “showing up” level of satisfaction by demonstrating the craft that we are able to achieve.

The third level, perhaps only slightly different from the second, depending on your background, is consciously imitating some film or TV show that you admire. This can occur at any level of craft but my point is that the intrinsic satisfaction is linked to the recognition that your thing (a freeze frame, go to black & white) is specifically an imitation of some work you find cool (NCIS act breaks, for example).

These “levels” are obviously not as different or clearly distinguished as my analysis implies. Nor are they immature or unsophisticated in any fundamental way. I’m pretty sure that accomplished filmmakers get these satisfactions from their work. And I am convinced that many indie wannabe filmmakers get much of their satisfaction from these kinds of things.

But, in my opinion (and experience), to go beyond these “levels” requires finding a personal connection to the work. Often the most accessible kind of personal connection is with documentary of some sort. I am attracted to a person, a place, an organization, a problem on a personal level, so I turn my filmmaking to this subject.  I rejoice in the celebration of the subject I care about.

If my form of finding a personal connection flows toward a fictional approach, this leads me to the story. And if telling the story is the satisfaction in making my film, then caring about what it means both to me and to a viewer becomes important.

The above could be thought of as the “fourth level” in my analysis. Whether documentary or fiction, the filmmaker is now driven by a personal connection to the material and by the desire to share this with a viewer.

Which hits the brick wall of filmmaking: finding an audience. Once we care primarily about the impact on a viewer, once we are basing our satisfaction on how successfully our craft supports that impact, we need an audience.

But the problem of reaching an audience is a classic and difficult problem. The most common solutions involve relatively large resources, marketing thinking and access to the public square, access which is typically purchased with celebrity. It’s the fame & fortune problem.

I think that local communities become critical at this point. My audience will never include millions but it could potentially include a community of local filmmakers and film appreciators. This is what motivated me to create a film series whose work was drawn entirely from local filmmakers. (That film series failed to find its audience for a variety of reasons.)

It’s a difficult goal to achieve but one that we all need.