The Revolution Will Be Televised
From sex and lies to the Blair Witch, from rental to production, video dominates the decade
By Jim Ridley
JUNE 28, 1999: Ten years from now, when the Nashville Scene is celebrating its 20th anniversary (or its sale to Wheels & Deals), the 1990s may be remembered most for the explosion of independent cinema. You'll turn on TNT's "Naughty Nineties" week, and there you'll see Clerks, El Mariachi, and other 16mm wonders all cleaned up and made nice for mass consumption. But the decade's biggest story is probably sitting right there in your own home: on your TV stand, in your VHS stash, and in your closet, charging its battery. In just one-tenth of the century-long history of cinema, video has irreversibly altered the ways movies are made and perceived, from the mere presentation of films on tape to the development of low-cost, high-quality digital camcorders.
And yet the argument rages as to whether video has expanded film's possibilities or killed them. Pro: Video rental has made the cinema's greatest works readily available to a mass audience. Con: Sure, but they're chopped, panned, and scanned to fit a TV screen--the equivalent of viewing Picasso's Guernica with its right side torn off. Good: Video cameras have made the tools of film production accessible to anyone. Bad: Now any fishstick with a camcorder can shoot his own flavor-of-the-month opus and clog the channels of distribution that much more.
Even the mid-'90s proliferation of video "collector's editions" and "director's cuts," from extra snippets of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct to an entire alternate ending for Fatal Attraction, is a mixed blessing that treats films as perpetually unfinished objects, to be upgraded and discarded like software. The makers of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me even shot extra scenes specifically for future rental editions. As a result, we may be producing the first generation that will demand its art in versions 2.0 and 3.0. Such editions only point out the relative ephemerality of videotape, which, unlike film, can be reversed, deleted, and taped over again.
Given the ways audiences and filmmakers have been conditioned to respond to movies by the advent of pause, rewind, and frame advance, it's appropriate that the decade's single most influential filmmaker would be Quentin Tarantino. Even if you didn't know Tarantino's background as a video clerk, the sheer volume and profligacy of his movie references indicate that he's downed more than one bag of Doritos in front of the tube. From the stop-start, forward-backward time scheme of his films, though, you could argue that he's the first director whose movies mimic the function of a VCR. Pulp Fiction comes with its own chapter headings and easily scannable vignettes. Fittingly enough, a scene deleted from Pulp Fiction's release shows John Travolta being grilled in camcorder footage by Uma Thurman. You can find the scene on the collector's-edition video release.
It's hard to think of a good movie that ushered in more awful trends than Pulp Fiction. (Maybe Blue Velvet or Halloween.) Jokey sadism, slumming ensemble casts, gun accessorizing, ostentatious pop-culture name-checking--all these can be laid at Pumpkin and Honeybunny's feet, along with the smug, self-conscious quirkiness of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Clay Pigeons, Mad Dog Time, and two dozen other pseudo-hip gangster/outlaw sagas. Yet the true direction of the decade is better illustrated by a pair of movies that bookend the past 10 years--one that hinted at the video revolution to come, and one that exemplifies it.
In January 1989, a provocative low-budget American drama called sex, lies, and videotape emerged from the U.S. Film Festival as a sensation. The story of a voyeuristic loner (James Spader) who uses videotaped interviews to explore his subjects' deepest truths and fantasies, it made a reluctant role model of its 26-year-old writer-director, Steven Soderbergh, and went on to win awards and raves around the world. Not that it matters, of course, but it also made back a buttload of money on its $1.2 million cost.
For that alone, sex, lies, and videotape would have been a watershed film. It convinced studios and distributors that gold lay in untapped veins of independent cinema. It made the U.S. Film Festival--that's Sundance now to you, bub--the arbiter of the rumbling indie-film movement. It made a power of its fledgling distributor, Miramax, by grossing an astounding $30 million--an unprecedented amount for an indie release that didn't feature topless coeds or headless teens. Much of its success was due, no doubt, to the first two nouns in its brilliantly marketed title.
But it was the third noun that sparked the imagination. sex, lies, and videotape did something that was considered taboo for a drama: It incorporated cheap, grainy video footage at length into a feature film. Experimental filmmakers had been working in video for decades, but its inferior picture quality was anathema to the mainstream. Soderbergh finessed that problem. Within his framework, the starkness of the taped interviews conveyed immediacy, truth--the kind of legitimacy conferred on network news footage. In awarding the film the Palme d'Or at Cannes 10 years ago--a move that outraged partisans of another revolutionary American film that year, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing--juror Wim Wenders said that sex, lies, and videotape offered nothing less than a glimpse into the future of movies.
Fast-forward 10 years, to a sticky summer night last weekend at a friends' house in Franklin. My wife and I have brought the evening's entertainment: a tape of a movie that was picked up last January for wide distribution, just after it was shown at (you guessed it) the Sundance Film Festival. All we know is that it's supposed to be scary, and different. An hour and a half later, terrified and impressed, we scramble to turn on the lights. The future Wenders predicted has arrived.
The opening titles of The Blair Witch Project inform you that in October 1994, three student filmmakers ventured into the woods near Burkittsville, Md., to shoot a documentary. They disappeared; the only thing found was their equipment, and the tape inside. The hand-held camcorder footage (actually shot by the three actors), with its rough sound and jiggling images, starts out innocuously enough, until the filmmakers lose their way in the woods. Then the unearthly wails begin, and the occult symbols, and the campsite attacks--but let's not give too much away.
What makes The Blair Witch Project, conceived and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, so diabolically effective is the way it parlays all its no-budget restrictions into strengths. Though unusable by Hollywood standards, the shaky, often poorly framed picture and variable sound quality only enhance the feeling you've stumbled onto an actual document. So does the unfamiliarity of the no-name cast. The movie's modest means of production are inseparable from its overall impact. When The Blair Witch Project opens in theaters around the country this summer, Myrick and Sanchez will have managed to sneak into megaplexes a movie that doesn't look much different from your dad's vacation tapes.
Which is pretty funny, considering all the expensive upgrades movie theaters have made in the past 10 years just to lure people away from video. In 1989, Nashville was dominated by the Carmike chain, and its lack of competition resulted in mall theaters that were woefully out of date: squawking sound, dim projection, ratty seats. As the Knoxville-based Regal chain stepped up its presence, Carmike built theaters that were greatly improved but still behind the curve. It took the gut-punch whammy of Regal's Hollywood 27 at 100 Oaks, with its stadium seating, giant screens, and immediate lion's share of the moviegoing audience, to traumatize Carmike into refurbishing its theaters.
However, the distribution logjam that sent so many people to video stores over the past 10 years still hasn't ended. Last year, I decided to revisit all my year-end Top 10 lists from the past decade to see how strongly I felt about the movies I'd chosen. Looking back at the films' original release dates, I was stunned to discover how many movies I hadn't been able to see until months or years after they'd been released. In a couple of cases--Dead Man Walking comes to mind--those movies would've occupied the top slot on my list. In most cases, I had to wait until the movies were on video, usually in mutilated form. Takeshi Kitano's drama Sonatine, which never played local theaters, made my list last year, but on TV the cropping is so half-assed that a widescreen bottle-rocket fight doesn't show who's fighting.
If you grow up with nothing but movies on video, you don't know to expect anything else. Big-screen revival programming, like that available last year at Sarratt and the Watkins Belcourt, gave local moviegoers a chance to see why people give a damn about movies like The Searchers and The Wild Bunch--movies that show up on TV cut, censored, speeded up to fit a time slot, or shorn of their meticulous widescreen compositions. But the convenience of video rentals is killing off revival houses and art theaters, as staffers at Sarratt and the Belcourt both bemoaned earlier this year. At the moment, both theaters are gone. Now comes word that George Lucas is spearheading an effort to bring digital projection to the nation's megaplexes in the years to come. As much as I love The Blair Witch Project and the conceptual triumph it represents, I fear a coming wave of movies made on video that look like they belong on video.
In 1989, the year I started writing about movies for the Scene, Nashville had 109 screens, and only one--the Bijou at AMC's now defunct Fountain Square 14--was showing foreign and independent films. This year, Nashville has 186 screens, and only one is showing foreign and independent films. That's progress. OK, so the Regal Green Hills Commons 16 sometimes slips up and shows two, or even three. But that's still not what I'd hoped for 10 years ago, as a video-store clerk and part-time writer in Murfreesboro.
So here's my dream for when we meet again, 10 years later. The Nashville Independent Film Festival has moved back to the beautifully refurbished Belcourt, whose neon marquee lights up Belcourt Avenue. The night's program consists of movies by Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, and Takeshi Kitano, all shot in Nashville with local crews. Recording it all is my 8-year-old son, on a featherweight Sony digital camcorder. He's working his way up to 16mm.
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