Since the advent of high definition digital technology, movies should be cheaper than ever to make. Yet more money than ever before is spent on their manufacture. The reason is that the people who are making the movies dont know what they are doing, so they hire, at great expense, warehouses filled with technicians to make their movies for them. What they themselves cannot accomplish, they pay others to do. So much so that $500 million is an acceptable budget for an A picture, especially when the potential to make twice that much in the first weekend at the box office is there.
Independant film was traditionally defined as a film made outside of the studio, often with non-union workers. Today, with most of the studios having lost their autonomy over the films in which they are involved, an independant film may now be defined as a film made made with private investors, even when some of those private investors may represent the remnant of a studio. I am nostalgic for the days when a movie opened with a grand announcement that it was a 20th Century Fox, a Universal, or an MGM Picture. Today, we often have to sit through five minutes of production credits before the title. Studios no longer have an identity, even when they are involved in some obscure capacity.
Independant film makers were mavericks who could buck the system because they didnt need the system. they knew how to write and direct, had professional relationships with DPs who had all the knowledge of studio film making but none of the restraints, and knew how ro cast a picture with actors who were more interested in their roles than their own market value.
Since it is relatively easy to get something on the screen that looks like a movie with just a little bit of financing, the market has been overwhelmed with independant product that is worse than anything since the porno explosion of the seventies. Having covered the Seattle International Film Festival from 1999-2009, I have been torturously aware of the drop in quality of the indie market. Still, I continue to seek out the one in a hundred sincere artistic efforts among the festival flotsom and when I find it, the search proves worthwhile.
I recently stumbled upon a film with the compelling title Cicada Song. It is the first feature by director / writer Michael Starr, and featured, aside from Joseph Bottoms and Kim Reed, a largely unknown but somewhat experienced cast. The story, a mystery concerning shady real estate deals and disappearing chilfren, promised to touch on subjects such as the precarious and often hostile relationshops between Latino and white Americans. The film begins with grisly and horrific images of a battered woman struggling for survival in the wildernness. The first thing I noticed was that her wounds were not exploited by the make up or camerawork. The presiding shot was a high angle view of her head from behind, so that the ugliness of the facial wounds were downplayed. The second thing I noticed were two women waking up in bed together, exchanging loving morning greetings, with no exploitation of their LGBT orientation. And rght though to the end, this love affair was written and directed with every bit of tenderness and strenth that any relationship deserves. When moments in the film came wherein their orientatiion was a factor in a scene, it was never either downplayed or exploited. In fact, Lyndsey Lantz and Jenny Mesa take the prize as my favorite movie couple of 2019.
I was also very much taken with the way director/writer Starr dealt with the racial aspects of the story. The tension between the whites and the Latinos was always present, even in the most minor circumstances. And the fear of deportation provided a major motivation for the silence of those victimized .
Ryan Griswold’s cinematography captured the envirvonent with such a precise eye that it is difficult to believe that he has had but a decade of work on shorts and television to his credit. He is somebody to watch. The music from Alex Williamson is equally fine, and the theme song playing over the end credits settles the mood of the film perfectly. You wont want to get up until the song is complete.
I was much more interested in the characters, their situations and interactions, than the uravelling of the mystery. I imagine this may also be the case with Starr, as well as with his people both in front and behind of the camera. People dont make a movie simply to give the audience a joyride with a few protracted moments of tension and relief. Starr has some important things to say here, and he was lucky to find the people to share his vision.
As I mentioned earlier, when you have people who know what they are doing, and why, you dont need that much money to make a great little film.