Blog: Donald Harrison

Over 2,500 artists each year submit work to the Ann Arbor Film Festival, a venue where the dime turns on provocative indie and experimental fare. Our pow wow pick of the week is the fest's executive director Donald Harrison, who'll be addressing the film industry vs. film as an art, and regional notions of a creativity crisis.

Post 2: Film Beyond the Formulas

I am not a film snob*. I believe that film is an art form that should be appreciated and experienced by everyone. But what does this mean "film as an art form?" Aren't all movies art?

Today we are spoon fed formula-based media on almost every screen we see. Think about the last movie, TV show, web video, or commercial you saw that did not have a clear point of view, story or soundtrack designed to cue your feelings. Find that hard to do? Most of us have become so accustomed to receiving media as passive viewers that it's become normal, expected, and prescribed.

Enter experimental film: beautifully nuanced landscapes that widen your attention span; flickering, vivid, abstract images; animation techniques you can't even describe; dynamic edits and layers, free form and fragmentary clips; evocative soundtracks or sometimes no sound; no plot; no characters; no clear point of view. Finding yourself in unfamiliar territory? Artists exploring what's possible with the art form of film are only limited by what can be presented on a screen.

I believe that we need more intervention in what we see and hear on the screen. We need to not only become more comfortable challenging ourselves as active viewers, but we need to embrace it, work at it and get used to thinking actively with films. Ask most teachers and they'll tell you the most powerful learning comes when the students' synapses fire and they "get it" on their own. I believe that same holds true with films that invite us to enter their reality and have our own individual experiences.

In my last post I argued that Hollywood's running out of original ideas. Recent evidence in a Newsweek article points to a growing creativity crisis in the United States. I suspect these are related, as our country places a high priority on commercial success as a measuring stick for artists and getting the "right" answer in the classroom. Where is the room for risk-taking, imagination, experimentation, discovery, and failure?

I believe that many people are ready for more than spoon fed media formulas. They're hungry for more original fare when it comes to film, TV and what they encounter on the screen.

In recent critics' polls, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was practically a consensus "film of the decade". It's a movie that disrupts the conventional narrative formula it follows. Avant-garde Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest non-linear feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (his short film based on this feature also won an award at the 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival). Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's unconventional western, Meek's Cutoff, received the most critics' praise recently at the Toronto Film Festival.

So what does it mean that Jackass 3D screened at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC? I think adventurous times lie ahead for film-going audiences. I certainly hope we are willing to embrace the challenges, risks, and rewards offered by filmmakers pursuing their full artistic visions.

* Film snobbery - a definition