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Monthly Archives: August 2012

The warmth of spring is enticing Sydney every now and then only to retreat leaving winter to remind us that its still just August (barely). But as the season is clearly changing, so is mine.

I officially signed the document that extends my contract in Australia for another 6 months (with a month off for Christmas). Of course I didn’t expect this turn when I left the US in February, but here it is. I will be directing and producing a documentary series in conjunction with my work. It is a great opportunity to follow a story, develop a motion picture experience, and have a guaranteed audience by the end of it.

It isn’t the fictional epic I have cooking up in my back pocket (a strange place for an epic to be cooking?), but it is an opportunity to really gain some experience in both development and production. Also, I get to live in Sydney for another 6 months, I’m not complaining.

Even though I have been working up to this point, I do get the sense that my work here is finally beginning. Of course, it could completely fail, but if we don’t risk, what really are we doing?

 

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At some point someone decided that making “Christian films” was a good idea. It wasn’t.

When I tell people in the Church that I am a filmmaker, they often cite the latest flick produced by “that one church”, calling these films successes in motion picture.

“Finally,” they say, “there are films that are made by Christian’s for Christians about Christian themes.” They then proceed to ask how the alter call scene will look in my films.

I struggle with how to respond.

I have no intent to discourage faithful believers, especially those living out their belief in places more difficult to do so. But I believe the Church to be making a grave mistake in this realm.

It doesn’t take much digging around to see that so called “Christian” films bare a striking similarity to those of the Adult industry. In both cases, the motion picture medium is simply a means to an end. The filmmakers introduce their characters and send them directly where they want them to end up. There is no need for skillful storytelling or even entertainment value along the way, there is one goal in mind, one chief end to this story. The protagonist will end up on their knees. Um, as in, at the altar.

Of course the mechanics of each genre are completely different, and the goals are different. But neither have any use for the important elements of visual storytelling.

What use is there for character development? The protagonist enters the story with an issue they need to solve. They undergo a transforming experience and their situation brightens. Both films seem to end with riding into the sunset. Figuratively, of course.

Both are inexpensive to make and require little artistic skill on anyone’s part to create. The vast potential of the written word becomes explanation, the beauty of movement and light becomes presentation and by the end, magic has been transformed into commonality, and the mystery of human existence and its Creator becomes nothing more than a transaction. Both genres are guilty of this.

Of course anyone who has experienced US cinemas in the summer would argue that mindless blockbusters are just as guilty of telling bad stories with one goal in mind (ticket sales). This is absolutely true and undeniable proof that there is a need for truthful storytellers.

As people who understand the depth of the story of human kind and the one who created them, we should be well-versed in bold, creative, impacting stories. Yet we consistently butcher one of the greatest stories ever told.

Have we forgotten the stories of the Bible? Tales of courage, passion, anger, and love fill the pages of the Good Book. In what world is a life with Christ easy and clean? Since when was God a vending machine?

A more disturbing thought: perhaps these types of films communicate something about our own theology. Perhaps we really do believe that to follow Christ means to insulate oneself from suffering. Maybe the sterility of these films projects our fear of the unknown and the messy.

And in our fear we offer something to the world that is completely unhelpful, all the while, not realizing that we have the potential for so much more.

After seeing the finale of the modern interpretation of Batman come alive to the screen (the largest IMAX screen in the world, that is), I’m struck by how successful this trilogy has become. Several filmmakers, great filmmakers in their own rights, have attempted to bring Batman to motion picture. Why has Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s interpretation of the comic character held millions of us captive?

What pieces do these films utilize that allow the viewer to walk away with such a memorable experience?

Obviously there is the element of cinematic entertainment. No one walks away from a film with positive reviews if they didn’t thoroughly enjoy themselves. If entertainment requires the possibilities of what we couldn’t possibly dream supported by the suspension of disbelief, there is a lot of work for a filmmaker to keep a modern audience engaged.

But of course, there is the issue of substance. Artists may see the importance of cinema with substance, but does the viewer who has no connection to media production see the importance of telling good stories?

The modern re-sketching of Batman has created an opportunity for a cinematic character to come out of the screen and into the very heart of today. To the detriment of some unfortunate reviews, The Dark Knight Rises pushed this element father than most films at the present time.

Naturally pitched as rivals in the box office, the financial figures for Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises have been under the watchful eye of investors and cinephiles. Where one takes the audience onto a flashy, quick, witty tale of distraction and fun, the other plunges headlong into the very weights that droop the shoulders of most audiences who flock to see the latest in distractive technology.

The Dark Knight Rises hardly allows the viewer to leave the theatre with a criticism of unbelievably or clichés. This is a film grounded in realism, as have been the previous two films.

While the typical superhero battles other-worldy evils, the protagonists of The Dark Knight Rises fight very familiar villains of our own world.

Imagery of failing banks, terrorist attacks and the fear of the collapse of Western civilization all play important pieces in the modern retelling of Batman. There is talk of an overturning of tables, an image made very powerful by the raucous, post-reckoning court room presided over by The Scarecrow (who we recognize from Batman Begins), which evokes images of revolutions in this world’s history.

The wealthy, elite mastermind behind the upset of Gotham’s infrastructure suddenly finds himself under the weighty hand of Bane. That single gesture signals the collapse of the power of the virtual and ushers in the new reality.

“You’ll wonder how you could have lived so large and left so little for the rest of us,” is whispered into Bruce Wayne’s ear by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, fantastic!). These are not words of a seductive, cat-like burglar, these are the words of millions of oppressed across the globe, made powerful by the chants of the prisoners from the deep pit where Batman finds himself banished.

Even the character of Batman is no longer a one-dimensional comic book superhero. There is an unprecedented amount of vulnerability in Christian Bale’s portrayal of the once unbeatable caped crusader.

Not only is the man physically deteriorating, but also his resolve is weak, highlighted by the moment of utter frustration as he faces the most physically terrifying villain of the series. After being crippled and cast into a pit, there is a need for Batman to start from the beginning, even encountering a vision of his former mentor Ra’s Al Ghul.

While delivering visual spectacle, the coordination of dozens of moving pieces and a talented cast, The Dark Knight Rises blurs the lines between fiction and reality. As culture drives cinema, cinema informs culture.

When our own fears and triumphs play before us in epic scale embodied by masters of craft, cinema becomes more than entertainment and truly utilizes the power of story. When Bruce Wayne sheds the safety rope, risking everything, and makes the jump, it is us making that leap across our insurmountable task. The stakes become ours.

And that is truly good cinema.

I was asked to comment on the future of motion picture outside of the United States for a resource website for young filmmakers.

The industry is changing along with the world. The chances of becoming a director or producer on a $100 million dollar feature film are about as slim as winning the lottery. Most people assume that to be a filmmaker they have to move to Los Angeles, get into the culture, become “Hollywood,” suck up to everyone with money and fame and then, one day they might have the chance to make the film they want to make. They will finally get their shot at those elusive 15 minutes.

In fact, the world is becoming burned out on the same films told in different packages. We are a generation that has grown up with motion picture in many forms from such a young age. We are experts in movies, stories told through moving images. There is nothing new for us. We are bombarded by images all day, everyday. We spend more hours looking at screens than we do engaging with actual human faces.

What do we do about this?

As those attempting to become creators of that visual content, how do we stand out? How do we tell stories that people will engage with? How do we rise above the clutter?

The important thing is to think outside the box of Hollywood. New places of motion picture are popping up elsewhere in the world. Nigeria now makes more films than the United States. India makes the most, by far, but even China is becoming a new center for cinema.

To assume that our only hope for making a living is in Los Angeles, California is simply not true.

With the changing trends in production and distribution of films, the possibilities are endless. Instead of being a consumer, become a producer. Even as filmmakers we can easily become blind consumers. We simply follow in the footsteps of other filmmakers that have created a pathway to the “dream.” Now more than ever we have the ability to create our own path. There may even be positions and industries waiting to be invented.

Most importantly, there will always be a market for stories that move us. Whether they are 30-second vignettes designed to attract us to a product or if they are feature length films we watch in our home theaters, people will always be taking in stories that hit us where we feel it and ask the tough questions we ask.

The parameters of how those stories are told and how they get distributed are completely up to the imagination of anyone willing to explore the possibilities.