“In the town of Osijiek, Croatia, Eduardo Flores, a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia and a follower of the Catholic sect Opus Dei, called his colleagues to his own press conference.
At the event, he announced that he could no longer be merely a spectator in the war that pitted Catholic Croatians again the Serb Orthodox-dominated Yugoslav Army. From that day onward, he, Eduardo Flores, would throw away the pen in order to take up the gun.”
—From Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest
Last December, as we were trying to get our annual Sundance issue to press, I worked on so little sleep—and so much caffeine—that I began to suffer chest pains. One night my heart rate shot up so high that I felt certain I was having a heart attack. The only reason I didn’t go to the hospital is I hadn’t paid my health insurance in three months, and couldn’t afford the emergency room visit. Instead, I jogged around my apartment for an hour, shadowboxing (this relaxed me for some reason), and fell asleep sitting against the wall.
But the Sundance issue, which I briefly thought was killing me, features an article that makes that suffering worthwhile, at least in retrospect. Arch in tone (“And we shall fight until our oppressors—those gold-diggers in their glass cathedrals, greenlighting the next comic book sequel, the next board game adaptation—retire in shame and controversy”) but genuine in sentiment, MovieMaker’s Manifesto was our call to arms for truly independent filmmakers.
“If French film in the 1950s was a convalescent in a hospice,” it begins, “as Godard and Truffaut claimed, the Nouvelle Vague euthanized the patient in his sick bed.” And we continued:
Fifty years later, and 6,000 miles west, American multiplex movies are not a patient withering on an operating table, but an occupying army of investment bankers with nothing worthwhile to say, and infinite money to say it.
Independent film functions, to some degree, as a counterpoint to this culture of $300 million re-make blockbusters that clog theaters from March to October. But the proprietors of those gargantuan, loud, and soulless films remain a stalwart enemy. If you disagree, throw away this magazine. But if you concur that the tentpole-philic studios are noise mongers—hawking brightly colored, artificially flavored abominations—you should also agree that we need to disembowel the system that whelps them.
Independent filmmakers are trying. (We know you’re trying.) But mumblecore is a dull penknife wielded by a child, nipping at the monster’s haunches. To fundamentally change the power structure, we need a cavalry 10,000 strong, swords drawn, charging toward Hollywood on lathering steeds.
If small, autonomous movies are going to mount a coup against the Hollywood blockbuster, they must strive to be more ambitious. “How many American directors,” we asked, “are ready to risk their lives for a film about two 20-somethings whispering in bed about how they’re drifting apart? None!”
Since writing the Manifesto, though, like Eduardo Flores in the epigraph, I have felt increasingly like an armchair general shouting orders at the television. Who am I to criticize my contemporaries for failing to change the world with their movies? Am I in the trenches with them, fighting to make a living with deliberately non-commercial films? No. I sit in the safety of my office, with the safety of my paycheck, writing about film like a hypocrite proselytizing on the street corner: advertising faithfulness, but possessed of a dubious faith.
A few months before I started at MovieMaker, I wrote and directed a film called Eel, a deliberately dense, ambitious, and largely unmarketable film. It is an intellectual work, with a vicious emotional core, both patient and unstable in form. In other words, it’s the ambitious film I most wanted to make, shot on a truly independent budget (under $50,000). At least some of the acting in it is brilliant. It may, to the right audience, be a good film. Perhaps more than that. To others it will no doubt be an impenetrable morass. But it reflects the values of the Manifesto. In fact, the Manifesto’s introduction began as a monologue for Eel’s main character, Haytham Bisherat.
I accepted the Managing Editor position last year knowing I would be putting Eel on hold indefinitely. But it’s time to finish the film. And it’s time to figure out how turn a profit on it. Leaving MovieMaker is painful. I’ve given thousands of hours trying to make this publication the best it can be. I’m proud of the improvements we’ve implemented over the last year, I’m haunted by those we haven’t, and I’m terrified of a future that doesn’t involve the magazine. But, as Voltaire once wrote, “It is vain for the coward to flee; death follows close behind; it is only by defying it that the brave escape.”
Timothy Rhys, thank you for the opportunity to let me rebuild this magazine with you. I know I leave MovieMaker in capable hands. To those of you who have read my work and put up with my pomposity, I appreciate the hell out of it. I want independent film to be, as the tagline of this magazine advertises, an art and a business—in that order.
Senior Editor, Ret.
Follow James Kaelan on Twitter @weregettingon, or write to him directly at kaelan [at] seedandspark [dot] com.