John Bohn: Reconsider the challenge of the small-budget film aesthetic

By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 21, 2013

What are the dreams of the aspiring dreamers? It’s natural to believe that dreams are the most expansive terrain of who we are or could be. However, we still must see them for the enclosed spaces that they are; the world limits the imagination and channels it into its course. While consumer culture and mass media have been able to increasingly draw the artist into their fold, those who look to make a living off of art are faced with the restrictive demands, visions and values of an industry.

Obviously, I am not the first to pull down the curtain and reveal Hollywood foremost as a business. While it would be sloppy to imply that Hollywood is synonymous with the Oscars, the award ceremony functions as an institution part and parcel of the film industry; it postures itself as legitimating works and performances. Even if the actors, one by one, step up and say that anyone could have won, winning an Oscar opens up opportunity and determines the allocation of resources.

Taking a step back, I wonder, when talking about how good other films and performances are, do any of these actors include in their acknowledgement the films of the other, lesser-known categories? How about the films that were rejected or never even considered? Or a step further: Do they think of those who couldn’t afford the endeavor, who never got money for their projects?

This last point is highlighted in the art of film. Technological and economic conditions are real and concrete concerns for the film industry. When Victor Hugo sat down to write “Les Miserables,” he could have conceivably written any story. Recasting the literary process in terms of film, he could have chosen any event and portrayed it through whatever series of shots he desired. In the most crude and unforgiveable of terms, the lens of his mind was free to go as far as the mind could take it.

Who then sits down to produce the film? With a large cast, depictions of a violent struggle and, one cares about historical accuracy, the details of the period — someone very privileged. I don’t mean to ignore the theatrical adaptation in this account. Obviously the grand historical narrative of “Les Miserables” has adapted to the confines of the stage, but film unleashes the mind from the finite dimensions of a material stage. CGI technology and a large budget have a similar effect on the notion of what is possible.

But, in regard to amateur productions of film, do we think of it as clamoring at the limits of budget and technology? Is amateur film judged in light of what it cannot do? I’m worried that the answer is “yes.”

As the Community Culture columnist, it is the locale with which I am most concerned. Therefore, I ask the Oscars: What use does your award ceremony have for the aspiring filmmakers at the University? In a certain sense, the arcane training process of replication falls apart in film practice; we can’t go out and do what they do because we don’t have the means to do it. However, what if we were to avoid thinking of local amateur film as a merely transitory state toward the bigger and better things of the Oscars? Let’s carve out a place for our own aesthetic with its own forms and devices, critics and producers.

Instead of conceiving projects too grand for our available canvas and unhappily making sacrifices, let’s turn the limitations into resources of our imagination. Artists on a budget have already shown their ingenuity over the years. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” is the first that comes to my mind. But what about taking one step further, or one step less? With the economy in its current state, I think this is an appropriate time to reconsider the experimental challenge of budget art.

I would argue that there is an untapped pool of aesthetic possibility where the progress of technology and the summit of budget cast shadows. I will also argue that the prevalence of such art would be a healthy alternative to the aristocratic productions that have a near-monopoly on the medium.

So, again, when we look to the Oscars for inspiration, where does it take our minds? For me, elsewhere other than seeing and embracing the freedoms of our limitations.