So far in this three part series have proposed two theories, the first was a challenge to filmmakers: give artistic vibrancy a higher valuation in the process of measuring success by shifting our purpose, and the second was an opportunity for filmmakers: make onscreen drafts. But I have not yet discussed the value of theory itself.
What is interesting to me here is that: as dismissive of theory as our industry is, it is built entirely on theory. Each time something is tried, it is testing a theory. Each time a theory works, it becomes a truism. Sometimes it is easy to see where theory is having an impact, for example in the 1970s the auteur theory directly influenced what got made and by whom. The theory that artistic works can affirm ideals is a much more ‘hidden’ theory though – it didn’t declare itself, but subliminally it is the theory which studios were acting out for many years. The Classical and Romantic theories of art are, as noted in the post about stating your purpose, locked in battle over who makes art, how and for whom, but these ideas are rarely cited in conversation.
Given this, my third proposal for measuring success by artistic vibrancy has to do with measuring much later – not only against the initial critical response, though this is interesting and valuable part of developing theory but by checking back a year or more later and asking: is your film being theorised? Is it generating theory? Has it done something significant enough in its process, purpose, stance, or interaction with the zeitgeist to generate the attention of someone looking back later and analysing?
Just a few examples of Australian films that have generated theorising include: The Boys (Woods, 1998), Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Elliot, 1994), Muriel’s Wedding (Hogan 1994), Somersault (Shortland, 2004), What I Have Written (Hughes, 1996), Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce, 2002) and, of course, earlier films from The Term of His Natural Life (McMahon,1908) through to Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975) and many more. Our industry’s artistic vibrancy can be measured in part by how thought provoking it is and whether its efforts catalyse ideas about changing forms, approaches, purposes, culture, making and consuming films.
It takes confidence to theorise or to make something bold enough to generate theory. Both of these actions involve sticking your neck out, stating your ideas unequivocally. It takes maturity to allow theory to be part of your thinking, but there is no need to fear that intuition will be squashed by theory – when considered and absorbed in a useful context, theory strengthens and supports intuition. Film theory, coming as it does long after the box office take, and being an indicator of the ongoing impact of a film is also a way of indicating my final specific proposal for measuring artistic vibrancy:
We push, we pull, we natter, we chat, we berate and exhort, in short we care enough to comment. It is remarkable how difficult it is to change someone’s view of the quality of something through rational argument – probably because responses to movies are not just rational, they are emotional and visceral, too. But perhaps the measure of success is ‘the care factor’. Does it register on enough people’s care factors to make a noise, a blip in cultural consciousness? Do people care?
This can be measured online, nowadays by how many hits, how many comments, how many people vote on the ‘freshness factor’ of a film on the Rotten Tomatoes site.
A longer-term measure of influence will, however, be the visible influence a film has on films that come after it. It is easy to see the influence of The Boys on Animal Kingdom (Michod, 2010), of Mad Max (Miller, 1979) on Hollywood actions films, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975) on Priscilla Queen of the Desert. There were two years, from 2005 to 2007, when every student I had would bring in a scene from Somersault to show their influences or intentions for how they would make their films look or feel. Influence is not intellectual, but it does promote a smarter film industry. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, it is a good idea to know what has come before you and how it shapes your own outlook as well as the outlook of the audience for your film.
It takes confidence to acknowledge your influences, but you rarely, if ever find an accomplished artist who is not very clear about what has influenced him or her and very happy to acknowledge its impact. It is sign of maturity to recognise your influences and of even greater maturity to be influential. Using influence as a measure of success actually promotes artistic vibrancy as a value and consideration as well as strengthening the signature of our industry.
5. Self esteem
It takes confidence to state your purpose. But, it also creates confidence. If you know what your purpose is, you can activate the creative skills that will achieve it in writing, directing, producing and all other creative inputs into the process.
Certainly making onscreen sketches will build confidence, just as any rehearsal or preparation would create confidence for performance or testing. Drafting a work onscreen will create confidence that something you do with millions of dollars will be more likely to find its audience and art. Innovating in process will give our industry confidence to manage change and a battle plan for addressing change.
By spending less money and sketching, articulating purpose before production, valuing theory and influence as measure of success we could revamp the zeitgeist of our industry and eradicate some of the cultural cringe. We could also do something even more important: make fantastic, innovative, off the wall work. Make work that moves ideas forward, rather than following behind them, because we recognise the ideas we are working within.
My final argument is not so much an argument as an exhortation for courage and wildness. Purposes change – identify yours. Processes change - embrace the possibilities. Theory changes and changes the world we live in. Influences change and ours could be wider. We don’t make a lot of money, so we have little to lose and lots to gain by being brave, creating in new processes with strengthened purpose, bigger ideas and not looking over our shoulders. Confidence can be gained by measuring our success in these ways, and confidence is itself a measure of our success.