When the economy was amidst its great crash last fall there was a certain panic in the film world. In Hollywood, production slowed, and some whispered about the end; particularly in terms of independent cinema, there were articles written in major film magazines that the sky was falling, and independent cinema was dead. As a young first-time filmmaker, now entering the film festival circuit, I would like to express a note of optimism about the future of provocative independent cinema. While I fully understand that at the moment the independent film world is in a state somewhat akin to chaos, with most studios having closed there independent branches and distribution for films that lack A-list stars, aliens, comic book characters, or fart and penis jokes becoming more and more of a distant reality, I do think that out there, somewhere, there is an audience for interesting, challenging, and artistic films. I would further like to add that contrary to popular belief, economic and other hardships usually cultivate the appetite for movies and other arts instead of diminishing it. It's when times are tough that most people have a growing desire to turn to art to both make believe for a few hours, or (often) to find a sense of meaning in their time and of their lives.
There's no doubt that when times are hardest is when people turn to art for both reprieve and answers. This is most obviously seen in religion and mythology. Whether or not one is a believer, it's fairly apparent that people find courage, strength, and release through the epic mythic poems, and the vast artwork they inspire, and therefore it is no surprise that the poorest populations are by far the most religious. Art and myth are inseparable, as art is the means by which myth is created and communicated. Now in terms of our own time and place, film is the modern world's most powerful art form. Cinema is the tool by which today's most famous modern artists (directors, actors, composers, etc.) choose to tell new myths. And in times of economic or other hardships, cinema has always flourished. As proof of this, I would point to film history.
Since the advent of cinema, there have been three major national crises, and in each of them cinema has not only survived but flourished. First during the Great Depression, then during World War II, cinema not only survived and became ever increasingly popular (in fact it was at this time that movies had there highest ticket sales), but also made some of its greatest advancements in terms of its artistry. These were the years of Hollywood's great golden age -- films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca were not only packed, but also great works of cinema. Another falsehood is the thought that audiences only want escapist fare during hard times, as in both of these difficult periods the crime films and dramas thrived, actors like Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Muni became stars with hard hitting socially impactful roles, and filmmakers like Orson Welles, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock took the art of filmmaking to new heights. Then, during the next national crisis, The Vietnam War and its following recession many would argue, myself included, that American Cinema hit its peak in terms of filmmaking artistry. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, John Cassavettes, Martin Scorcese, Francis Coppola, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg and Bob Rafelson all flourished making uniquely powerful pieces of American cinema.
In our own time and place I would argue that not only will cinema continue to blossom but thoughtful, artistic, integral films will continue to find their audience. I also propose that it is the film artist's duty to respond to his own time and place. I think part of the reason that independent cinema is having such a hard time right now in connecting to an audience, in that for the last few years it has rarely responded to the times. The deterioration of cinema's artistic value is not only caused by the fact that independent buyers and sales reps scurry from difficult sales but also because filmmakers themselves fail to respond to the world we live in and capture the attention of their audiences.
For my first film (whether or not I was entirely successful) I have not only tried to tell a cinematic story in a original, new way, but I have also chosen to tell a story of a family battling through incredible hardship with the great depression as a backdrop. Weather my film will get audiences lining around the block is highly uncertain, but I think it is important for the artist to respond to the word, to be inspired by it. I would add that I think the fear that many producers or distributors feel at putting out serious, provocative, or even idiosyncratic films is false.
While we would like to look at our own generation as something completely unique against history, I would point out that every generation has probably felt the same. I think inside of people from all periods of time including our own there is innate need for interesting and intriguing art. I don't think people of the past held some special depth that we lack. And while there is certainly a very popular place for men in capes, or dressed as animals, or part men/part animal hero mutants with very large guns, there is also a place, perhaps smaller, for something a little more challenging. Maybe a new model (that will include Internet) has yet to be found, but people of all history, facing incredible hardships past and present, have always been interested in serious art, one just has to find the right way to get it to them.
Asiel Norton is a first time writer/director whose film Redland will premiere at this year's CineVegas Film Festival. The film centers around a family struggling to survive during the Great Depression, and the ramifications of their daughters illicit affair.