Melbourne film writer Adrian Martin recently presented a longer version of this article at the Australian Screen Directors' Association Conference in Sydney.
The conference looked at various perspectives on low-budget filmmaking and also featured a keynote address by US producer Joel Schumacher and sessions by Rolf de Heer and IndiVision Lab participants.
Low-budget cinema has emerged as the new hope for the Australian industry in 2005. Modest productions like Sarah Watt's Look Both Ways and semi-improvised experiments like Kriv Stenders' Blacktown or Scott Ryan's The Magician have stirred more enthusiasm among audiences and critics than several years' worth of movies trying to be glossy and generic. These 'breakout' works also seem to be finally ending the drought in terms of film festival interest abroad.
However, low-budget cinema is an area in which filmmakers need to tread carefully. Despite the admirable adoption of artistic slogans such as 'creativity comes from constraint', and the confident assertion that even normally 'effects-heavy' genres (like science fiction or fantasy) can be handled in ingeniously cheap ways, there is already an abundance of clichés bearing down upon this field of production.
Many filmmakers are looking to an alarmingly narrow range of possible models when it comes to low-budget cinema. This is partly under the prevalent influence of American how-to magazines which assertively promote only two modes of low-budget filmmaking: either the Danish Dogme style, or the familiar 'American indie' (independent) style.
The result, all around the world at present, is depressingly predictable: low-budget films, many of them shot and edited with digital technology, that are essentially talk-fests. Actors wildly improvise for hours, while a hand-held camera zips around them like a dog let off its leash - and the footage is unfussily jump-cut in the editing room, with little consideration for the work's overall shape or form.
In a Film Comment article on the Dogme movies and their international off-shoots, British critics Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat pointed out that these films, including Festen (The Celebration) (1998), "have not been slow in assembling their own stock ingredients. Family get-togethers or family legacies, skeletons in the closet and idiots under the bed. It's an ancient naivety that there is some form of pure or purified cinema that will give us special access to reality." The American film Pieces of April (2003) is an especially awful example of this story form.
Almost inevitably, psychodrama has become a prime form of contemporary low-budget cinema. Psychodrama is all about the masks of polite society - and the volatile traumas (like a family reunion) that allow those masks to be torn off. At its crudest level, psychodrama leaves its ad-libbing actors flailing, as they hurl at each other prompt lines like: "Who are you, really?", "Why are you here, really?" and "What are you after, really?"
Of course, there are some fine psychodramatic films, like A Cold Summer (2003) by Paul Middleditch. But the craze for this kind of histrionics is frequently based on a monstrous misunderstanding of cinema history. Filmmakers such as John Cassavetes in America and Maurice Pialat in France are hailed as the fathers of the 'let it happen in the moment' school of improvisation, but they in fact wrote, planned, staged, worked and reworked their material down to the last detail. Even in his debut feature Shadows (1959), Cassavetes began with improvisation but withdrew the first version of the film in order to rewrite, expand and shape its dramatic structure.
Even when low-budget films tend towards more traditional forms, like the thriller genre, clichés and 'stock ingredients' abound. Audiences can quickly become tired of seeing yet another 'group of people stuck in a house' scenario, or another lazy road movie, or another static 'two-hander' set in a single room which pits cop against criminal, stalker against victim, betrayer against betrayed.
More recently, other clichés have emerged: the social panorama story in which the main character delivers pizzas or washes car windows (thus allowing us to glimpse a schematic cross-section of classes); the layer cake conceit (in which, for example, a movie about making a movie is juxtaposed with the movie being made); or the multiple strand concept (on one fatal day, five characters on separate trajectories will finally meet). These ingredients already seemed stale a few years back in Soderbergh's Full Frontal (2002) and Mike Figgis' execrable Time Code (2000).
What tends to be overlooked in the too-hasty adoption of such facile formulae is that most of what we call art cinema, world wide, was and is made on low budgets. Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Pedro Almodovar never felt constrained to shoot a film within a single set, or throw aesthetics aside for the sake of an actorly gabfest. Nor did they feel the need to embrace a loose, jerky, 'you are there' mode of filming in order to convey the emotion or meaning of a scene.
And there are other models, beyond the rich world of art cinema: decades of B movies that show how much can be conveyed with slender material resources, like the horror films produced by Val Lewton in the '40s or the action melodramas of Samuel Fuller in the '50s and '60s; or the much-less mapped field of the telemovie, which has sheltered such little-known talents as America's Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls Back, 1993).
Ultimately, in the case of Australia as with any comparatively small nation that struggles to make and distribute work in the shadow of Hollywood, the challenge is to maximise the cinematic thrill of a piece, no matter what its budget or genre. Abbas Kiarostami's Ten (2002), after all, employs every cliché of the new-fangled, dirt-cheap digital movie - ad-libbing actors, jump cuts, action constantly on the move - but transforms them in its rigorous match of style to content.
One only has to look at the opening scene of Masculin Feminin (1966), set in an ordinary Parisian bar, to gauge how Godard explored every aspect of filmic form - revealing the space little by little, placing off-screen sounds into the live recording of dialogue, establishing a pattern of intimate exchanges broken by incidents of public violence.
His future collaborator, Jean-Pierre Gorin, described Godard's creative process as "working out what film he could make with this much money, this many friends, and a few interiors". The Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez put it even better: "Give me two photos, music, and a moviola, and I'll give you a movie."
© Adrian Martin September 2005