Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Purity

In attempting to figure out how I'm going to shoot a film for my senior project (if indeed I am to shoot an entire script, a prospect still uncertain), I've looked to various schools of thought and methodologies on low-budget filmmaking and have come to realize the limits not just of certain ideologies, but of all pigeon-holing and classification.

Of particular curiosity to me is the Dogme (Dogma) 95 movement of Lars von Trier, and Robert Rodriguez's 'Mariachi Style' of film-making. Dogme 95 is an extreme in independent film circles, with a number of requirements such as no additional lighting or post-production tinkering (like a soundtrack), rules intended to take the focus away from big-budget artifice and put it on characters and story. A noble goal, to be sure.

These standards proved so ascetic, however, that not even their proponents were able to live up to them. Dogme 95 films were "certified" after filmmakers took a "Vow of Chastity" which speaks volumes about how misguided the whole endeavor was. One is either chaste or not; either a virgin, or not a virgin. As the failure of Abstinence-Only Education shows, for most such lofty expectations are impossible.

Yet 335 films were officially catalogued as Dogme 95 films, even though surely some corners were cut along the way. Is this pragmatism? Compartmentalism? Turning a blind eye? I can't speak to the filmmakers' intentions, but I would suspect among them is a desire to strive for an ideal, even if it is essentially unattainable. This probably is true for any group, whether political or religious. Eventually the founding members did away with the approval board and left it up to the consciences of the individual film-makers themselves, to check a box saying they "truly believe that the film ... has obeyed all Dogme95 rules as stated in the VOW OF CHASTITY." Of course, it need not be a matter of belief. The requirements are quite specific and concrete; either they have been followed, or they haven't.

Rodriguez's philosophy is based less around artistic self-immolation than pragmatism. He doesn't see lighting and camera setups as impediments to budgeted film-making in themselves, only when given too much license, and so the hallmark of the Mariachi style is cutting costs at all cost, usually through creative solutions. This certainly made for effective filmmaking for El Mariachi is particular, but it's important to note how much circumstances dictated the way that film was made. For one thing, it was Rodriguez's first, and he was operating on very limited resources. Cost cutting was not (just) a heroic, principled stance but a necessity. The movie was also made in Mexico. Granted Rodriguez encourages aspiring filmmakers to make use of their surroundings and connections, but this is a bit bigger than that: it's simply cheaper to get just about anything done in Mexico (or by Mexicans, hardy har har).

For my part, if I decide to make an entire film (and I would like to, provided I can overcome and subvert my limitations) for my senior project, I would love to have the extra thousand dollars of grant money that my school is offering. It could mean a difference in technology (like a detachable hard drive to save all my raw footage on) and props (a $25 dollar Jesus portrait, for instance) as well as an ability to feed my people, making them much more likely to take the time out of their busy schedules to help me--and allowing me to stay on campus and edit instead of go home on break to earn grocery money. Rodriguez has been making movies as part of the studio system ever since Mariachi, and while he has always been one to keep costs down, he's never made another movie like it. But that doesn't make him inconsistent. He's just making the most of his circumstances, whatever they happen to be.

Having a belief system or ideals is fine, perhaps necessary; but one's behavior and policy should always be tempered by reality and on-the-ground conditions. That goes for waging war, and making movies, and everything in between.

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