Every Man a Murnau

January 20th, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

In the past few days I’ve been reading up on the digital video scene, which includes a lot of forays into online reviews of software, hardware, books, and other stuff. As usual with any area of human endeavor, there’s a lot of spec-waggling and a lot of plain old dickishness on display from the gearheads. I’ve been trying, when not burning cycles on dealing with Roy (who’s back at the vet with bleeding and general listlessness after his surgery) and other concerns, to figure out the eloquent way I’d rebut this sort of fetishism.

It’s sort of discomfiting because we’re only a few years into the digital video revolution, and there’s already a growing sense that some of the people it empowered have forgotten that the appeal of this tech is its populist value.

But what the hell do I know, and what do I have to offer by way of rebuttal except a documentary about a vet’s office and some jumpy footage of ducks? Not a lot, outside a recently developed awareness that so much of what we take for granted in film is the result of work done at the dawn of the form. It took about three decades to establish the basics of film language, and everything else has been layered on, or is effective because it’s a useful reformulation of the basic grammar that has meaning because it bucks the expectation. The technology available during that period is so crude and sucky as to defy description, and it’s true that few people are watching “The Great Train Robbery” because it’s a thrilling movie to this very day, but out of that awful technology, bad film stock, and complete confusion as to what an audience would be able to bear in the way of storytelling with moving pictures came the foundations.

And even if a particularly feckless movie buff comes along and says the early classics from Porter, Griffith, and the rest suck because they don’t live up to what we’ve got today, we’ve got things like “The General,” “Man with a Movie Camera,” and others that are compelling by any standard.

So along comes a guy who’s getting a ton of attention at Sundance this year with a documentary he put together using video and Super8, and who edited the whole thing with a copy of iMovie because he just isn’t interested in upgrading to, say, Final Cut.

Some Mac-heads will probably gleep all over the screen because they’ll think it proves the inherent superiority of Apple gear for this kind of endeavor, but the inspiring part of this story is the way it shows we can tell great stories without a lot of stuff. The fact that the guy was using iMovie and remarkably lo-tech gear also shows the importance of editing and the need for little more than the basics to do that part well, and in a manner that’s coherent and watchable by others.

It may be that the director who put the film together won’t ever do anything again. In many ways, the movie is his life’s work and it sounds, to judge by the story, like we wouldn’t want him to have to endure what he did to produce this one. On the other hand, it’s nice to know that the means are in hand for a lot of ordinary people to have their shot at producing that one great piece, even if that’s all they have in them.

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