I hear a lot of talk about “large scale”, big movies, HUGE stakes, as opposed to small films. Usually by that people mean big budget vs. art house, Hollywood vs. independent and so on. With the advent of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and the decreasing cost of better and more realistic digital effects, studio tent-poles have become animated pictures with some humans here and there. Is it about the humans anymore? I don’t know. It seems to me, it’s all about extreme spectacle, in terms of “how much can we destroy?”. What I’ve noticed is that people tend to confuse the “size” of the film with the meaning of the story.
Hollywood studio films have always been about size: The bigger the better. Big A-list stars, big productions, huge sets (or green screens) and even long runtimes – Is that automatically a bad thing? Of course not. I’m trying to say indies are better than corporate products or anything like that, although my vocabulary certainly betrays some bias! There are good films in both camps, that’s not even worthy of discussion we all should know that by now. Yes, there’s also good films from every country and every decade of cinema. Moving on, the “problem” I’ve noticed is that people tend to mistake the commercial stature of a picture or the amount of CGI related destruction involved with its greatness in terms of themes.
Superhero films are all the rage these days, they’re everywhere it’s only a matter of time before people will be sick of them and wonder how they almost exclusively enjoyed consuming those for the past decade or so. Okay, it seems to be a long-term trend, but I hope people will get tired of those comic book adaptations and stop taking them so seriously already: It’s ridiculous. Anyway, the real issue is that these people tend to see “smaller” independent films as irrelevant or uninteresting, because they are not “big”. Okay, maybe an art house film won’t show you a metropolis get invaded by aliens or destroyed by whatever cartoony malevolent force, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be big, just maybe in other ways. Blockbusters are about big explosions and action set pieces. If you asked people who like them what they are about thematically they probably could tell you, but that’s not what most of them are interested in.
Movies are about entertainment, they are considered the most “accessible” art form (although that’s debatable) and I’m not saying a film that is “just” entertaining is bad or has no right to exist. To me however a “good” film, one that I would consider to be on my favorites list, should have something more than that, something deeper. I don’t feel like any of these summer blockbusters are that deep. Mostly whatever message they have is watered down, diluted and tailor fit for the masses. Everyone can see it, it’s that obvious, oh and don’t forget people abroad have to “get it” as well, because now American films have to appeal to China and Russia and Brazil and all those great new markets, so the simplification is taken to a whole new level.
Aside from that, most of these gigantic, bombastic movies forget that one of the most important thing are the characters: The human element. People need to be able to connect to the film otherwise they won’t feel anything. A shortcut to that are character archetypes and a very “emotional” orchestral score. That’s fine and well if you like being manipulated, but it’s also empty and shallow. More interesting to me are character pieces, films about a single human beings life. To me a film about the human experience and human nature is the biggest possible in terms of emotions, feelings and themes. There is no need for those characters to save humanity or similar silly and unrealistic plot devices to discuss life. A Werner Herzog documentary on death row will affect me more deeply and inspire me to think more than any Avengers film, besides also having a more cinematic feel and aesthetic.
You can agree or disagree, but it’s the same basic idea of journalism. Reports about millions of deaths are sadly irrelevant to us, but if you show a single human being or a family and their tragedy or loss we are suddenly able to relate and understand. That is precisely why people are dissatisfied with how some films portray the destruction of entire cities. Aside from the unrealistic fact that not many people die, most of those people are faceless. Oh, and remember we are talking about PG-13 films, which honestly every time I see that rating for an action film I will just assume it’s going to be unrealistic, because if buildings were to collapse on people in real life they would fucking die.
So if you want a movie that is genuinely big you have to earn it, and the way to do it is by “scaling down”. Make it about the superhero, make it introspective, but most of all be honest. If a city is destroyed people die, deal with it. It might not be pretty to look at, but you’re the one that wanted to destroy cities, so now face your consequences. It seems to me people are afraid of dealing with real emotion and so they hide behind preposterous conceits and spandex.
Again, this whole discourse may sound like me taking a dump on blockbusters, but I’m actually not opposed to them. I do enjoy some of those movies, especially the ones from action auteurs such as Bay, Snyder or Emmerich because if anything they distinguish themselves visually. What I dislike are generic looking rip-offs of those directors that somehow, for whatever absurd reason, have the feeling they’re better. It is regrettable that what cinema has come to these days is sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots, but that’s the way things are. It’s all about brand loyalty, and certainly there’s a similar aspect in the auteur world as well, because films are “risky” goods for costumers who don’t know what they’re going to get, but I feel that some movie goers could benefit from expanding their horizons a little bit.
I hear a lot of complaints from mainstream movie goers that there aren’t many good movies coming out lately, but of course if you only watch a certain type of movies you’re going to run out of stuff to watch pretty soon. Try and watching films you wouldn’t normally watch and who knows they might surprise you and don’t give me any of that large-scale bullshit.
Today I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tim Buel’s short horror films are readily available on YouTube. Three of the Californian filmmaker’s shorts have been uploaded so far: Unaired (2009), On That Day (2010) and Outcast (2011). Every one of those is well worth checking out, especially if you’re a genre fan like yours truly.
Unaired (2009) is Tim’s spin on the found footage sub-genre. It revolves around a television crew, shooting a reality show on paranormal phenomena. Much like in Grave Encounters (2011), the troupe ends up being stuck in a real haunted house, unlike that movie (that came out 2 years later) this one shows you less, and that’s why it’s more successful. It’s also half the runtime and overall feels more fresh and fun. The filmmaker realizes the faux documentary angle is a gimmick and understands its limitations, but manages to respect the “rules” the format imposes and doesn’t sway from it.
I watched this one last (I started with On That Day and then went on to Outcast), but I would have to say this is my favorite of his. As a huge fan of the found footage/paranormal sub-genre I’ve seen a lot of formulaic and poorly executed films, but this one is actually quite intense and gripping. It really sucks you in and doesn’t let you go until it’s done, and that’s what you want from a good genre picture. If you know anything about sound design there’s also something for you to appreciate on that level.
On That Day (2010) is Buel’s vision of the classic zombie apocalypse, set in the suburbs. Unlike most zombie flicks in this one the characters are ready for it and seem to be excited about the idea of killing the undead. What sticks out in On That Day is the kickass soundtrack/score, composed by Tim himself. Again, although we’ve seen zombie films a hundred times, this one is definitely done with a lot of feeling, for what works and what doesn’t. Being a sucker for everything with a suburban setting of course I was going to enjoy this one. Clocking in at less than four minutes this is his shortest short.
Changing sub-genre once more with Outcast (2011) Tim does a vampire film. In his own words this is: “A short film about a normal young man who is turned against his will into a creature of the night. He must now live the life he didn’t ask for as an Outcast”. Personally I think that the vampire sub-genre is the trickiest one to succeed in, because of its complexity. This one managed to keep my interest because of the romantic subplot, which was handled and balanced very well with the horror elements in the film. The Trent Reznor-esque score and excellent sound design help enhance the experience, while creating a very specific mood and atmosphere. Being his newest available film I also noticed an improvement in the visual department.
All in all Tim Buel’s films are fun and refreshing takes on old and dusty horror tropes. His shorts distinguish themselves for their tone and atmosphere, but also their heart and genuine love for the genre while combining his passion for music. Besides being multi-talented he also seems like a very likable guy, which translates into his scripts and films in that you like spending time in the worlds he creates. His cameos are always fun to spot and prove that he has a sense of humor. He also seems to have a lot of fun doing these movies with his friends and family, which is always the key ingredient in crafting a successful film, or any piece of art.
Tim Buel is also the co-host of The Golden Briefcase podcast on FirstShowing.net with fellow filmmaker Jeremy K. Kirk. Every week Tim and Jeremy are joined by a guest that is as knowledgeable and charming, to talk new releases, trailers and topics related to the films hitting theaters on the respective weekend. Tune in for great recommendations and get to know their guests, through funny and insightful discussions.