Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Gifts #1

Many years back I made a small Buoy Archive (which shall forever remain hidden) with a one chip video recording of a high school performance by a punk band that my brother had formed which was killing it in the youth clubs around Canberra. They were having so much fun just creating together, as kids, as fellow musicians and playing to other people as a gift, expecting nothing in return, that I was completely reinvigorated and inspired. It felt, in that high school moment, something like this overused old quote from Lester Bangs:
"Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive. It's something that's human, and I think that most music today isn't. ... To me good rock 'n' roll also encompasses other things, like Hank Williams and Charlie Mingus and a lot of things that aren't strictly defined as rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock 'n' roll, or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It's a way of living your life."
It is so incredibly hard to find this attitude in filmmaking, and in Australian filmmaking specifically. There is so much expectation of what the film (the product, the content) will bring back to the filmmakers that the actual act of offering up a joyous creative experience as a gift to your audience has been deadened. Why can't a film be an immersive sensory or pleasure based experience in the same way as seeing your favourite band in your favourite venue is? Why can't there be enough attitude, joy and generosity in the act of making the film that the audience can't help but be buoyed by the experience of watching it? Instead, we strategise how a film will take us, the filmmakers, somewhere else - status, reputation, critical acclaim, Hummers. What the act of making the film will return to us. It is no surprise that the local discussion of film has become totally hijacked into a discussion of financial 'returns'.

On the other hand, there is another approach to film, which is all about giving. I don't know if generosity is necessarily Bangs idea of rock'n'roll but, strangely, in this day and age it feels like it. What if you make something in that spirit of offering up an experience for the joy of the people sitting in the room with you... the room being any audience and you being the film itself. I love to watch a band play and love those moments when you know that they are sharing the experience as intensely as the audience is. Their songs come alive in the eyes of the people who love to experience them in the flesh. Films don't often give you that buzz that comes from a filmmaker knowing they are giving it up to you, inviting you in, letting you be a part of the creation. Instead films are bigger, flashier and smarter (or dumber) than us and we can't give them anything back except for a ticket price. We certainly can't give them our fanaticism or our hearts.

I loved the anthropologist Marcel Mauss' book 'The Gift'. In it he explored the ways that many preindustrial societies relied on the gift as a form of expanding their social and intercommunal relations. A gift given was a complex thing which metonymically embodied social, communal, emotional, spiritual and economic relationships with the recipient. The gift encouraged reciprocity which strengthened the ties between the giver and the recipient both individually and culturally.

Apologies to Mauss and anyone who has studied ethnography but, to my mind, the communal arts like music and film can and sometimes do work in this way. Of course, commercialism kills this, but so do filmmakers who don't think of what they do as offering a gift to their audience. A film can be an offering of enormous complexity that invites the recipient to reciprocate, either through inspiration, through high expectations, through inserting themselves deep within the film experience, through love of the experience or through taking the film out into the world with them. It communicates something of the world it comes from and embodies values and experience and philosophy as well as the emotions, narrative and character insights that sustain any storytelling form.

It would be a beautiful thing to see a film and feel it is a gift. Recently, in domestic cinema Samson and Delilah felt like this. Bastardy, too. Internationally? 35 Shots of Rum. Ballast. I'm struggling here.

One of the reasons T and I have spent much of the past few years making two enormously demanding feature music docos is to extend the gift of what the music and the musicians give to us. I sometimes think I should be spending more time on writing and making fiction but it is so hard to resist making these flicks when there is so much joy to be had in them. I am kinda snobby about the music I listen to but I have a much looser love of any music that is made with generous creativity. One of the reasons we made Words from the City was that, at the time we made it, Australian hip hop MCs were in this incredible period of making music that was an open, evolving form. It had more punk attitude than any of the punk I was hearing but also expected the audience to give back, to demand more, to expect more. Likewise, we have spent three years making Murundak after first seeing the Black Arm Band play together and realising their gathering, their songs, were an invitation to be a part of something. Those songs were a gift. We hope that the film will be our reciprocity.

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