Thriving Small, Living Large
What micro-budget and minimalist cinema can teach superhero blockbusters, and what they can learn from each other.
Chew on this while you can.
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature film, from the early 90s, was the highest-grossing independent film for about a decade. This fact was my introduction into the world of indie filmmaking - yes it was - and things haven’t been the same for me since.
Every day now, I learn of a new film that breathes outside the mainstream systems, outside of the blockbusters, that exudes such passion despite and in spite of all kinds of odds. Film festivals are in abundance thanks to the proliferation of online venues (as predicted and championed by filmmakers like Arin Crumley) and the kind of in-person curiousness that remains from the mid-90s indie daze out of Sundance. And while distribution has become a bit more accessible, there’s always the anxiety that a film will go unwatched and unloved, ultimately to be removed entirely and shelved as a memory.
New technologies, same problems. Well-curated video stores acted as a kind of film school for many, from Quentin to Kevin, and a place to exhibit to, like Troma and those wicked underground horrors. Still, in the end, it was the corporate monster of Blockbuster that put an end to Mom & Pops (and ultimately itself), becoming the one-stop shops to rent Steven Seagal flicks from. Mostly Steven Seagal flicks, in fact. Maybe Tetsuo The Iron Man, if you were lucky.
Indies have always had to fight for their place at the table and for their piece of the attention pie. Face facts - the studios and platforms just have more resources, and as time goes by, they commiserate more and more, accumulating properties and talents like mad.
The original TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was both an anomaly and a product of what was to come. The first entry was an extremely successful independent production that many people hold in lovely regard to this day, but it all came at a cost - sequels, and remakes. Franchising, as Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, got excited about. Not to suggest that TMNT was a pure and "holy” entity from the get-go, but it does represent the classic “drop in quality” trope that plenty of films in a series has.
“You can’t beat the original.” Not every sequel can be The Empire Strikes Back, another interesting anomaly mind you. For the sake of conversation, let’s stick with the radioactive animals.
There’s just something that nags at my brain about TMNT being the highest-grossing indie for many years. It’s quaint to think about a relatively low-cost comic book movie being such a hit now, in this era of mega superhero films, with bankable stars and incredible visual effects, designed and crafted like water cooler discussion, but for young and young at heart fanbases. The sheer level of domination that this genre now has over all others is nuts, driving obsessives to completely force studios to change things mid-making. It’s rabid out there.
Is TMNT responsible? No. Tim Burton’s Batman? Not really. Blade or X-Men? I don’t know. But when an even smaller movie than TMNT, The Blair Witch Project, overtook its financial record in 1999, it showed that with the right marketing strategy and creativity, any filmmaker and film can reach the masses and change shake an industry, at least for a time.
TMNT represented both the potential for indies to break through and for money-making interests to sacrifice quality for quantity. Blair Witch Project shook things up, but also suffered a similar franchising fate ultimately (though I rather enjoyed the recent BW sequel/reboot).
A microbudget beat a bigger indie. An indie beat a comic book movie. Attention and quality combined equaled success for all involved, no matter what their futures held. The Matrix movies came from humble filmmakers, and still rock. Artistry can be found in the MCU, and new styles have been toyed around with in the DC universe.
There can be a bridge between the small and the large. Between the micro and the galactic. There’s room for both if an effort is made.
A Secret Society Engages Through Isolation
Some of the best efforts being made on the indie scene, past or present, is in the resourcefulness found within minimal production tools. This is a "no duh” statement, but one that for the most passionate and tragically hip among us, is completely true. Call it grassroots, call it underground, call it backyard or non-union, call it whatever - the filmmakers who inhabit these spaces go for broke out of their own realities. No money? Nothing to lose!
I think of the Peter Bogdanovich film Nickelodeon, and how it featured a "patent war” between the independents and the ruling studios, back in the very early days of silent cinema. I think of John Waters, and how he’d show his early dirty work in hyperlocal and ironic places, like churches. I think of how Zachery Oberzan, in his apartment, by himself, made an adaptation of First Blood completely solo.
I think of these things and I smile because they represent how certain "restrictions” go only as far as you’re willing to accept. Sometimes, there’s a freedom to do anything when you have to start from zero. And what more of a ground-up approach can one start from than during a pandemic.
Filmmaker and supporter of all things independent, Sujewa Ekanayake, directed The Secret Society For Slow Romance, made during the Covid-19 lockdowns in New York City. Like many storytellers across the world, from Tik Tok to Vimeo to Youtube to beyond, Sujewa used isolation as a source of imagination and a setting for something honest about the times, and progressive thinking about the future.
Secret Society, for its early lags and repetitions, is a superb display of positive reinforcement of ideal ideas among the artist community, as represented by two individuals (Sujewa and his co-lead Alia Lorae). Shots are easy, simple, but effective, sometimes drifting effortlessly and with whimsy from conversation to cutaway. The two just talk and talk over dinner and drinks, over long moment-to-moment stretches of time, about what they want to accomplish, how to accomplish it all, and what impact these accomplishments can have on the world. It’s a sunny film on the inside, even as the world has turned dark everywhere else.
The short film anthology Cinema-19 was composed of multiple diaries and experimental clips, all during lockdown too, and Quaranstein looked to tell the stitched-together tale of Frankenstein’s Monster, in pieces, from horror and sci-fi filmmakers all participating remotely. Both projects were expressions of creatives coming together to make art, either as a means of describing interpretations of events or to just entertain. Like them both, Secret Society was made out of global tragedy and with a mind to observe and entertain, but as a network of one and in a single home setting, Sujewa’s film reached for something that was actively optimistic and positive.
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I don’t believe that it was just Sujewa’s genuine personality and outlook that drove the more idealistic aspects of his film, but rather it was also the contribution of his DIY means and stripped-down aesthetics that made The Secret Society For Slow Romance such a beaming picture. Under the pressure of his brand of filmmaking and the environment which everyone was experiencing together at the time, this "pick up a camera and shoot” attitude only bred into the film a further need to remain and project such brightly lit thoughts.
Not As Fast, But…
If there is one superhero film that I’d describe as being truly slow-moving, it’d have to be Zack Snyder’s Justice League, aka the #SnyderCut. This sounds silly, as most of the movies in this genre are all too quick to hit their massive endings, but I feel that Snyder’s edit, which worked as his improved do-over as well, fits this bill - and not just because of his fast slo-mo tendencies. There are character-establishing action sequences that, while extravagant, are paced and paired down, to allow room to breathe and take in what’s happening, and to capture each and every movement of reaction and body language. He came a long way with this version of his vision from framing Clark Kent in front of a Jesus Christ portrait in Man of Steel - not to suggest that he’s completely moved past these grandiose and brash compositions, but… eh.
For sure, there is an artistic craft to be found in major blockbusters. For the money being spent and the many people being hired, there has to be. Signatures and decisions are drawn into the canvas of every frame built, sometimes challenging committee mandates that, without a strong enough voice of opposition and clarification, can bring down a film to an assembly-machine package. Most comic book movies do feel this way, with repeated story beats and types of villains, to standard cliches and fake sentiments plotted to jostle us in our seats, not to make us think for a time after.
Independent filmmaking isn’t always so pure, sometimes just copying more popular cinema but on a smaller scale to gain some kind of attention. But, every so often, you get something truly unique.
Fast Color was and still is an under-the-radar and under-appreciated superhero indie that is more a family drama turned origin tale than anything. It’s not really based on any specific property and is not an adaptation of anything that came before (though there may have been some inspiration from the X-Men character Storm). Director Julia Hart made a movie of grand spirit and personal stakes that didn’t nab the attention it sought, but nonetheless is a fine example of a combination independent film and superhero blockbuster, minus the box-office takeover.
It’s a story of a dried-up Earth, now in a massive water shortage and worldwide drought. A mysterious young woman played by a tormented and on the run, Gugu Mbatha-Raw has abilities that can alter the weather around her, however, she feels this is a curse and not a blessing. Through family mend-making and revelation, she eventually discovers the strength within to pursue the potential of helping and changing the world. Fast Color too moves slowly, but without the crutch of or patience for Snyder’s four-hour duration. There are generational lessons to be learned here, and forgiveness to be had, both of others and of the self. It acts as if there is no time like the present to tell its story, and it’s right.
Its desert landscapes and desolate towns work as a boon for the dread and dead feelings of the planet it lives on. When the colors as suggested by its title brighten things up spectacularly, you see how flashes and splashes of lights, simple as they are, can make fireworks for the senses, more than a fight between good and evil ever could. It may not always be as easy as that. We could all just be in a grey, trying to get along as best as we can. Maybe superheroes don’t have to punch others to save the day.
Maybe films don’t always have to be huge to be bombastic.
There is much that both independent filmmaking and blockbuster spectacle can learn from one another. An attention and quality gap exist between the two, but it doesn’t have to be this way, and not even for all that long. Some may feel that indie storytellers signing on for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just an example of "selling out,” but why can’t it just be a case of someone being rewarded with keys to the kingdom, so to speak. Being given a larger sandbox to play in, in a way. Perhaps this is always what they wanted. Let them have it.
There is artistry with either size of motion pictures, and there is also, frankly, the potential for garbage. No matter what, remember that a mutated turtle comic book flick and a film shot in the woods swapped the highest-grossing independent recognition, and both held onto this record for a chunk of time.
We’re not in an Endgame. Not yet. A girl from Idaho can make the most important film ever with just a camcorder and a dream, as much as James Cameron can push special effects boundaries with something like Avatar.
Keep the faith.