Moviemaking and Authority

Last Friday I attended “The Age of Immersion”, a talk about cinema by two famous names in Hollywood – Walter Murch and Matthew Robbins, moderated by Professor Andrew Feenberg. And I thought, these moviemakers are on one side of an issue, and I am on another. The nature of authorship and authority is changing. Their belief in their authority as creators lies so deep in their souls that they do not even realize it is challenged.

This is perhaps understandable. It was clear that these two men love movies. Robbins spoke of losing himself in a favorite film clip despite watching it on the tiny screen of an iPod. But then he is self-selected – he chose film, he made films and became them, he devoted his life to them. He isn’t just immersed in a video clip; he is enveloped in a culture and in his own life. It means more to him than it does to me or to most people – and it should.

As I said, the talk was about immersion. These men, Murch and Robbins, are so close to it – so immersed in it – that they do not see the outside. When they talked about immersion, it was a technical problem of realism and simulation. They spoke of the control offered by digital media, and about some of the costs of that control. The discussion revolved around computer effects, animation, how these things are done and how they are perceived. Script wasn’t mentioned. Symbolism wasn’t mentioned. Character appeared only as the features and mannerisms of animated characters. The audience was barely discussed.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

In the nearly twenty years since I first heard those lines (from a teacher who dismissed them) the image has never left my head. The words aren’t realistic. They need no technology. They need only an author – and me, the audience, to imagine my personal vision.

Someone asked about the Internet and the proliferation of amateur movies. Robbins was dismissive of the tremendous quantity of poor attempts online, alleviated only by the tiny fraction of one percent who might become brilliant filmmakers. Murch responded that in attempting to make films, amateurs could learn about the challenge of filmmaking and better appreciate quality. It took Professor Feenberg to point out that participation can have its own rewards.

Robbins and Murch are so secure in their belief in the division between audience and creators that for them the freedom brought by low-cost production is the freedom of an audience to experience their films, the freedom to see their films. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees: that hundreds of thousands of amateurs are making movies because they want to create. They want to express themselves. Whether their efforts are objectively bad is largely beside the point.

What is the noblest achievement of film – or of any creative product? Is it entertainment? Expression? Truth? Immersion? Does it matter whether there’s a product at all? I realized afterward the question I should have asked:

Is it more immersive to watch a film – or to make it?