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Perception Is Everything

Movie reality, the struggles of indie cinema and the metaphorical relevance of 'Toy Story 3'

By Jason Gargano · December 22nd, 2010 · Movies
Summing up a year is always a tricky proposition. It’s even trickier at this late date in our rapidly fracturing cultural landscape. Consensus on anything — from our politics to the very nature of reality — is more fleeting than ever in a world where context is obliterated by encroaching, fast-moving technologies that allow us to create our own narrowly defined headspaces.

And yet trends inevitably emerge, from the painfully obvious (3-D will save the movie-going experience and allow us, the traditional distribution monopoly called the Hollywood studio system, to charge more per ticket!) to more interesting/telling patterns (the emergence of conceptually complex films that blur the lines between reality and illusion, truth and fiction, satire and sincerity: I’m Not Here, The Social Network, Inception, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Shutter Island and even Black Swan, to name only a few examples).

But, as someone who values unique, personally driven stories told in creative ways, the most distressing cinematic trend is the continued fracturing of independent film. Some perspective: Only a few dozen of the more than 5,000 titles submitted to the Sundance Film Festival actually make the cut each year, and of those only a handful get any kind of theatrical release.

The combination of the post-Pulp Fiction bubble (which resulted in the rise and fall of several indie-nurturing distributors) and the recent worldwide economic recession has made it tougher than ever for smaller films to make their way to the marketplace and into an actual big-screen theater, which is still the best way to experience a movie. (Video on demand/Internet distribution is no doubt a growing opportunity for indie filmmakers, but that's topic for another day.)

Leland Orser, a veteran character actor who made his full-length feature debut with the intimate, affecting drama Morning, confirmed the conundrum when I interviewed him earlier this year.

“Independent film is in big trouble,” he said. “There are people out there who want to make independent films and to tell their stories.

All of the specialty houses at the major studios have closed. All of the distribution arms do not want to put the P&A (prints and advertising) money out for movies like this. Distribution for these movies is dying, and it’s dying fast. Many films are getting lost because of it. Films that five or 10 years ago would have gone to our local art houses are no longer making it.”

This is where grassroots entities like the Cincinnati Film Festival (CFF), which brought 100 films to the area over nine days in October, come into play — Morning screened at CFF and other festivals across the country.

“Festivals like this one in Cincinnati are picking up the slack,” Orser said. “They are, in fact, becoming our modern-day theatrical distribution outlets. This is where people who are interested in good, independent films can see them in a theater.”

In fact, local enthusiasm for film seems at an all-time high as organizations like CFF, Cincinnati World Cinema, the Southern Ohio Film Association, the area version of the 48 Hour Film Project, Film Fringe and enterprising filmmakers and movie buffs of every stripe continue to fight the good fight. I suspect the same thing is happening in cities the world over.

But that doesn't mean it was a fruitless year for some of the films that did make it to a theater near you. David Fincher’s The Social Network has emerged as the clear critical darling (and it’s also approaching $100 million in box-office receipts), rightly garnering praise for its entertaining, surprisingly suspenseful look at the rise of Facebook and its nerdy head-honcho Mark Zuckerberg (played by a never-better Jesse Eisenberg). More than that, Fincher’s deftly crafted film perfectly encapsulates our uncertain times, touching on everything from issues of class and the perplexing state of capitalism in the 21st century (amid an economic meltdown of epic proportions a smart, ambitious kid can still go from nothing to a mega-billionaire in a few short years) to our ever-more-complicated ability to truly “connect” in a contemporary culture that pimps the illusion of intimacy and authenticity via less concrete and/or tactile means.

Given our elusive notion of reality, it’s curious that 2010 was such a great year for documentaries, that supposedly “fact-based” bastion of truth. This year alone has given us such diverse docs as Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Exit Through the Gift Shop, A Film Unfinished, Catfish, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Elephant in the Room, Last Train Home, Restrepo, The Tillman Story, I'm Still Here, Waiting for Superman and the locally spawned 4192: The Crowning of the Hit King, all of which opened in Cincinnati. Yet several of the aforementioned films — most acutely Catfish, I'm Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop — raise as many questions as they answer, altering the idea of what a documentary is and should be.

Finally, if the year at the multiplex was even less rewarding than usual for those with discerning tastes, it was refreshing to see that 2010's top-grossing film, Toy Story 3, was also one of its best. Pixar's latest triumph in its nearly unprecedented string of success offered everything the year's big-budget extravaganzas did not (or at least didn't do as well): multifaceted characters, adventurous filmmaking and an emotionally involving story that was surprisingly dark and intense. How many kids' movies have the balls to place its heroes on the verge of extermination via a big, seemingly nice purple teddy bear that betrays and misleads Woody, Buzz and friends multiple times before leaving them for dead in a fiery, hellish furnace?

In fact, one can see Toy Story 3 as a metaphor for the state of our broken political/economic system, in which naive regular folk (Woody, et al) believe the powers that be (the purple teddy bear and his minions) still have their best interests at heart.

Or maybe it's just a fun animated love story about the triumph of consumer capitalism. Maybe it's both. Maybe it's neither. It's your call.



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