Yesterday I screened my film How Is One To Live? (2012) at the Shooting Wall Film Festival. All and all it was a success of one sort or another. But after the screenings, when all the filmmakers mix and mingle, I got into a conversation about film literature, more specifically texts that deal with film history during the twenties and thirties. The consensus I reached with my fellow filmmaker was that the literature which is most readily available on that time period in the history of cinema deals almost exclusively with the Hollywood studio system.
I personally cannot fault the historians or the publishers of these texts their concentration on Hollywood, it was a fascinating era in cinema for both quality and innovation. However, the neglect or perhaps even the ignorance of these texts of the cinema occurring in Germany at the time is a tremendous oversight for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the German studio UFA represents a distinctly European “dream factory”, whose financial set-up and mode of production illuminates by contrast its American counterpart. Secondly, some of the greatest talent in Hollywood began their careers at UFA; Josef Von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, Fritz Lang and Edgar G. Ulmer being among the most infamous.
Secondly, UFA was a studio that was financed and partly controlled by the state, the exact opposite of Hollywood’s capitalist center of industry. This had a polarizing effect on the kinds of productions mounted by UFA. These productions fall into two unique camps. The first are the highbrow works of art spear headed by the visionary directors listed above. The second is more akin to the B-Movies of Hollywood, quick, cheaply made works of superficial escapism (though not without aesthetic merit). The involvement of the state colors the films at UFA with a political agenda far more overt than that in your standard Hollywood film at the time. It was believed in Hollywood that a politicized cinema would create divergences in their already sensitive audience demographics, a point made all the more clear by the subtleties with which Andrew Sarris would be able to asses Hollywood directors as true auteurs.
Which brings us to the present, where Hollywood still fears diversity in its demographic reports and has, as a result, remained non-political with very few exceptions. Hollywood hasn’t changed very much since the thirties; only the economic mechanisms of their various systems of production have metamorphosed. But there is no UFA in today’s world. Nowhere on Earth is there a state run studio committed to “high art” and political commentaries. Instead one must look to the anarchistic realm of underground film.
Access to film and video equipment has empowered underground film beyond all expectations, allowing underground films to flourish as the only direct opposition to the Hollywood mainstream. The influence of underground film today is a far more subtle and painstaking process than the work produced at UFA before the rise of Nazism.
As the lack of literature on UFA and its relation to Hollywood suggests, opposition against the dominant powers of commercial production is often relegated to the most obscure corners of the cinema. Those readers familiar with the video store culture of the nineties can recall the once difficult task of locating the films of Kenneth Anger and Nagisa Oshima on VHS. Even on DVD, a number of films that represented alternatives to the standard are often difficult to locate, for instance there are no Mark Rappaport titles currently in print any more.
Underground film has suffered the same fate, not because of a lack of aesthetic unity, but because audiences do not know that underground films exist due to a lack of physical unity. Consider the regional cinema that took the Independent film scene by storm in the late seventies as a prime example of physical unity amongst filmmakers as a kind of opposition. The Regional filmmakers found a marketable novelty out of their unique circumstances that enabled their films to begin to enter the mainstream consciousness. The failure of the Regional filmmakers wasn’t due to quantity or quality, but to a lack of aesthetic growth and stylistic diversity (remember that it was stylistic diversity that set the UFA films in a much higher regard than those films made in Hollywood).
The Shooting Wall film festival attempts to accomplish a kind of hybrid of the aforementioned approaches to Hollywood opposition. In one respect the filmmakers who dominated the screenings were all-local to Philadelphia, and are in a state of almost constant collaboration with one another. But each filmmaker represents a unique aesthetic, and each film inhabited a distinct approach to film, either as a video, a video essay, a film narrative, or as a documentary. That all of these films are shown together represents uniformity in interest and in cause. In this respect the lack of conformity becomes a kind of conformity in and of itself. Shooting Wall implements no genre categories or any means of critical assessment other than to present all of the works as “films”. The refusal to adhere to common festival practices, with all of their labels and awards, has an equalizing effect on the audience’s assessment of the presented works.
If one wanted to decipher the exact purpose behind the Shooting Wall film festival, to locate the motivations behind the opposition to Hollywood and the mainstream, one need only look to Joshua Martin’s film Unavoidable Spectacles Or The End Of Time (2013) that screened yesterday. But of all the film’s shown, it is only Joshua Martin’s film that addresses the necessity of opposition not just for aesthetic development, but to literally put quality cinema in the hands of the people, allowing the people to dictate what kind of cinema is produced with what kind of political commentary (a perspective Martin advocates almost as efficiently as Peter Watkins in his film The Freethinker). Heath Schultz addresses the politics of images in his Society Of The Spectacle (2013), which also screened yesterday, but Schultz’s film relegates its own “call to arms” to the subtext of the film. In contrast, a majority of the films, including my own and of course Marc Dickerson’s satirical “documentary” Agony (2013) address the cinema from a less urgent and more scholarly approach. But this has only been the second Shooting Wall film festival. In the next couple of years it seems highly plausible that, like the Regional filmmakers of the seventies, the Underground will find a physical unity that is coherent enough to usurp the power of the mainstream within Philadelphia, much like the DIY music scene did about a decade ago.