Defining Independence in the Digital World

In the year 2002, I wrote a long piece for my own publication The Eclectic Screening Room, entitled “Us, Mainstream Independent Pop Culture and the Whole Damned Thing.” Its central theme explored how mainstream pop culture absorbed a lot of what thrived in underground culture, thereby making it harder to define the concept of “independent” (formerly referring to a state of mind and a way of life). In those five years since, the argument has not changed. It is the same wine in different bottles. As the independent publishing scene became over saturated then, so too has the movie world with the proliferation of affordable tools and digital technology. The argument is the same: “How can it be independent if everyone is doing it?”

In the film world, from the 1960s to the 1980s, “independent” referred to those who worked outside of the Hollywood system, making movies on their own terms, compromising nothing for realizing their personal visions– resisting the tantalizing safety net of money and distribution that Hollywood would give if they made their pieces more accessible to the masses. The term would apply to the narrative works of such filmmakers as John Cassavetes, Barbara Loden, Rob Nilsson, Jon Jost, Rick Schmidt or Robert Kramer, to name only a few, and to pretty much all of the non-narrative avant-garde, from Stan Brakhage to Bruce Conner. Regardless of their initial intentions, these works were nonetheless revolutionary for working outside of the system.

And then in the 1980s, such films as John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It turned “independent” into a commodity. The mainstream caught on to these hip filmmakers who made their shoestring budget outside of the system, and thanks to the hype that surrounded these modest, yet inventive films, suddenly everybody realized, “Hey, I can do this too!”

For the rest of the decade, and well into the 1990s, movie screens and video stores alike would be adorned with a plethora of work by hip filmmakers who would be making quirky, low-budget “independent” films. But therein lies the dichotomy. At heart, many of these films were made with commercial aspirations. There is nothing wrong with movies being made for that purpose, but a truly independent work would not jump on any bandwagon–its initial reason for creation is personal expression. Further, many of these films were distributed by small subsidiaries of major studios. In the old days, independent films were usually distributed under the arms of their makers, slowly building an audience as the work traveled from city to city.

Of course, with the proliferation of video cameras and home editing software, suddenly everyone is a filmmaker. Now that the tools are more accessible to everyone and not just the privileged few, the line has further blurred. And now that the Internet provides more advanced stream technology and higher bandwidth is more commonplace, people can avoid the usual distribution channels completely, and have their epics online in minutes, for the world to see.

The argument of what is still “independent” in the film scene is synonymous with how the afford-ability of desktop oversaturated the independent publishing scene. It became harder to separate those who work in the “Do-It-Yourself” world as a matter of choice, from the hobbyists who made a zine simply because it was a fun thing to do.

YouTube is a popular example of how one can get their films or videos seen instantly and by an untold amount of viewers. Still, for every one truly innovative piece of work (like the brilliant “Chad Vader” series) there are about 500 videos of drunken teenagers goofing around in the basement. Now that the digital age has proliferated in the film and video world, the argument is the same as it was for the zine scene a few years ago: “How can this be independent if everyone is doing it?”

But, by the same token, there are fine examples of web-based content that truly uphold what independent movie making really stands for. One needs to look no further than the film section of ubu.com, where hundreds of independent movies, from the 1920s to more recent times are available for downloading or streaming. This site offers a crash course in the independent avant-garde scene, featuring such classic works of Dziga Vertov, George Kuchar or Jack Smith, up to the Cinema of Transgression. It doesn’t get more independent than these. But other fine examples of independent work can be found on archive.org (where in the open source movies section there are very interesting recent films by Jerry White Jr. or Azazel Jacobs), and the massive archive of mediaburn.org reminds us of the first wave of people who used video, and with its portability, took viewers into regions of modern life seldom explored on film.

BitTorrent technology has become a favourite tool for “File sharing” (A.K.A. pirating), but this too has provided a unique opportunity for some fine work to be shown. In 2006 Cactuses, a feature-length movie produced by the Arc2 Project (a collective of high school and college students in Manteca, Calif.), was made available via BitTorrent for free downloading. Not only was this movie seen by a wider audience than that of the festival circuit, it also received high praise for its quality and maturity. A more recent and indigenous example would be the omnibus science-fiction feature Infest Wisely, conceived by Jim Munroe, which can be downloaded in its entirety through BitTorent.

To the film enthusiast that lives in a remote part of the country, the Internet is a valuable resource for seeing films that would otherwise be nearly impossible to see under normal circumstances. The digital revolution has given us more choice and accessibility than before with the proliferation of DVDs and viral videos. Yet with such an advancement, there is always a price.

Toronto’s fabled Festival chain of second-run cinemas closed in 2006, and there were many reasons why people weren’t supporting these theatres anymore. The digital age was of course the major culprit, with people more content to see the DVD at home on their big screen TVs or on their computers. As people spend more time on their laptops, society as a whole gets increasingly impersonal. People become intimate with their digital toys instead of other human beings. (Need look no further than the anti-social bantering of any online message board to see the degradation of interpersonal skills in modern civilization.)

But another key ingredient in the revolutionary notion of “independent” is community. Any voice, no matter how unique, still needs a support group of like-minded individuals who share the central idea of that voice. (Despite the fact that many of the filmmakers cited above made films first and foremost for themselves, they still had an insular society, however small, that supported this work.) In the impersonal world of the digital age, what could be more revolutionary than the simple and (wait for it) “analog” act of human contact?

In that sense, the film scene has continued on a grass roots level. In the Toronto scene, one can still get that feeling of community in the regular Pleasuredome screenings, or other interesting offerings at Cinecycle. But also in the past calendar year, we’ve seen a resurgence of small, regular screenings that have formed a loyal audience. Eighteen months ago, I began a regular screening series to promote my own film publication, but it is a mere pretender to such things as Stacey Case’s marvelous bi-weekly venue, Trash Palace. In a few months, he has built a formidable audience of people that come to see the unique films in Case’s collection. Yet I suspect that the films themselves are not what ultimately matter to most people about Trash Palace. The movies are the catalysts to get people together, just like the Saturday matinee or Friday nights at the drive-in. Trash Palace is a meeting place, yet the fact that we also get to see something that one doesn’t find at the local Blockbuster makes it all the more precious. In addition, we have also seen the dawn of a secret film society that I’m not supposed to tell you about, yet the fact that you’re reading this article indicates that you probably already know about it anyway.

When I published my article on mainstream vs. independent culture, I received e-mails from people asking why I don’t put the magazine online to reach a wider audience, instead of the narrow prospects of trade shows and consignment shops. And despite the truth of these statements, I felt publishing exclusively online would defeat the purpose, as I would be robbed of the reason why I started ESR in the first place: to build a community of like-minded individuals. Despite all of the modern conveniences we have to get our work seen, the digital world should only be a tool, and not the reason for our existence.

In our world and its oversaturation of information, it is increasingly more difficult for the audience and the work to find one another, but there are still genuine voices out there to remind us exactly what the term “independence” really means. For all of the innovative work being made on the fringe, the raison d’etre has not changed in the 80 years since Surrealist AndrĂ© Breton said (and I paraphrase): “I write to find comrades.”

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