Regional Filmmaking & The Cinematographic Langue

Regional cinema is more alive than ever, the availability of various means of film production has enabled just about anyone to contribute to the cinema.  Every major city seems to have its own epicenter of production, or at least exhibition.  With all of the contributors to the medium of film it’s peculiar that the arrangement of signifying units that compose a film have become locked into a generic message and function.  These units, be it a scene, sequence or act, in any kind of film, seem oriented more towards specifically cinematographic tactics in narrative filmmaking.  The independently produced short and feature length underground films of these various regions do not appear to be concerned with the inherent symbolic and philosophical ramifications of the narratives they have invented.  Style for style’s sake is as meaningless as technique for technique’s sense if a filmmaker is unable to control or predict the meaning behind the arrangement of these units in their films.

Christian Metz once commented “a semiotics of connotation brings us closer to the notion of the cinema as an art”.  But what I find is the overwhelming motive of most regional films is tied more closely to a semiotics of denotation; the old fashioned idea that the cinema is strictly entertainment.  Today, when the majority of the population perceives the cinema as an art form, this kind of moviemaking forgoes any critical significance and therefore any meaning.  If, as Metz argues, “the cinema took over some of the attributes of a language”, it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to exercise control over the meaning and interpretation of the units within the film they have created which communicates through a number of signifiers, whether they know it or not, a wealth of information to the audience.  If a filmmaker is unable to determine the meaning of his/her images, and the added meaning of their arrangement on even the most basic level, then they have failed to accurately communicate anything.  The failure to communicate in a film relegates that film to the world of expensive hobbies.

An untrained filmmaker such as Norman Mailer managed to align the signifying units of his films to communicate what he originally desired before production.  Mailer, a novelist before all else, sifted through his footage, selecting moments for their clarity of message, and then coordinated all of his units to create a coherent narrative.  What Mailer represents in its most basic form is an innovation in tactics concerning the possibilities within the means of film construction (editing).  That through his shortcomings as a director, Mailer was forced to invent his own process that could adhere his films to the processes of an audience.  As an amateur filmmaker, Mailer should be an example to regional filmmakers of the possibilities presented by inventiveness and the necessity of clear signifiers to the success of a film.

Modes of filmmaking with names like “genre deconstruction” and “abstract” have become speculative in the hands of most regional moviemakers.  These kind of terms are passed about not to justify a creative choice, but to excuse the lack of one.  Inevitably, when attending a screening of short films made in Philadelphia, a filmmaker will use one such a term when befuddled by what, from their perspective, appears to be a misunderstanding on the part of an audience member.  However, their own inability to manipulate the signifying units of their film communicated that message quite clearly to all the audience while the filmmaker was completely unaware.  The name-dropping of these kinds of tactics by regional filmmakers has become a defense mechanism, entirely conscious of the fact that the audience anticipates such condescension from the artist, and will defer all expertise to that artist as well.

What needs to happen must happen quickly if regional films and filmmakers are to survive with any critical credibility at all.  Filmmakers working independently outside of Hollywood must take responsibility for the medium, and must no longer be content with a decent plot, nice photography and passable sound.  Contentment must come from making a film that has meaning beyond the image and sound, in which all the components signify something essential to lingual communication, conveying information in terms both abstract and literal.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2012

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