Celebrating small cinema in the age of streaming giants — Tone Madison
The heart of winter is traditionally the time of great cinema. We’re all catching up with December’s deluge of feature films, and the titans of the previous year are represented in the dawning nominations for the Oscars. And then there are the New Year’s Eve world premieres at Sundance in the snowy town of Park City, Utah. The festival generates buzz for surprising stars and expected hits, providing a timely guide for many North American moviegoers.
With growing security concerns, Sundance moved to a full virtual version at the last minute with paywalls of $20 per screening. It may have been beneficial in terms of ratings between January 20 and 30, but the average person and even the dedicated movie buff may still have found it a bit pricey. Counter-programmed Slamdance, a true blue indie festival, launched in 1995 by a grassroots collective of filmmakers tired of “relying on a large oblique system to present their work”, took a similar step into the virtual-only realm for its 28th edition. However, their entry fee: a relatively generous $10 for all of their lineup (128 entries, as I counted) available from January 28 to February 6.
During this 10 day period, in the middle of town towards the theaters on campus – and once in Market Square – I managed to watch 23 movies (6 feature films, 17 short films) through the app Slamdance on my Roku. Their various categories brought together the standard “narrative features”, but also housed more intriguing and idiosyncratic work under labels such as “unstoppable shorts” and “department of anarchy”. Even without a centralized venue or location, this online edition of the festival was an incredible showcase of microbudget filmmaking from around the world, all available for less than the monthly price of most streaming services. In the era of big cinema and conglomerates that stifle our attention, the small cinema appears simply as a panacea, a palate cleanser. But that hasn’t always been up to me.
Brandon Colvin’s Micro-Wave Cinema series, which ran from January 2014 to April 2018 on the UW-Madison campus, was my portal to this modern underground world. Several Sundays each semester, Colvin would set aside room 4070 at Vilas Hall, the usual venue for the UW Cinematheque, to show films produced with great passion and poise but considerably less money than anything attached to a big studio or what we usually call “indie”. (As a bonus, he often hosted virtual Q&As and occasionally brought in guests.)
From my first participation in Joy Kevin (dir. Caleb Michael Johnson) in October 2014 at one of my last for Torment the hen (dir. Theodore Collatos) in March 2018, it was utterly rewarding to see tight-knit teams creatively creating humorous and exciting features on shoestring budgets. The joy of watching these films is manifold, especially when observing the freedom of the craft and the airy running times, as it is typical to see feature films of 70 to 85 minutes. And that excitement is often tied to how these films capture location.
A number of Slamdance films this year took place in larger cities, such as Los Angeles in The civilian dead (directed by Clay Tatum) and Ratification (dir. Eric Colonna), New York in Shout fire in an empty theater (dir. Justin Zuckerman), and Toronto and neighboring Mississauga in Retrograde (directed by Adrian Murray) and therapy dogs (dir. Ethan Eng). But it was just as interesting to see beyond their places in movies like Ferroequinology (dir. Alex Nevill), a documentary about train travel, partly set in northwestern Nevada. Hannah ha ha (dirs. Jordan Tetewsky and Joshua Pikovsky) was shot in Dedham and Sharon, Massachusetts (combined populations of 43,000), rendering suburban streets, backyards, parking lots, train stations in the kind of intimately hazy heat that would surely be muted or cut in the final cut into something intended for major festivals.
When the Wisconsin Film Festival comes to Madison every spring for eight days, it’s a time of figurative and literal rejuvenation. Browsing through the festival’s “Wisconsin’s Own” schedule always builds anticipation for their global showcase of shorts and features that capture a similar spirit as well as niche locations to some of those at Slamdance. Sense of place helps viewers develop deeper connections with student filmmakers, amateurs and professionals who have roots in our state.
For several years, David Klein of the ingenious but now defunct Madison movie site LakeFrontLine used to preview the film festival by posting “five-question” interviews with as many Wisconsin filmmakers as he could reach. I worked closely with Klein for a few years on the site, and his ambition to continue local conversations in conjunction with the broader dialogue around cinema nationally has definitely rubbed off on me. In recent years, we have tried to follow his example. Your Madison’Cinematic coverage of his included interviews with national personalities like Ricky D’Ambrose, Zia Anger, Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, but we spent time with locals like James Runde, Carol Brandt, and Alex Miranda Cruz and Noel Bravebird’s Miranda, whose 90-minute feature Madison shot Draw the line is now in its final stages of post-production and fair fundraising ahead of a public premiere.
Whether you cover it in an official capacity or simply enjoy it as a viewer, new independent and local cinema deserves our collective attention. Your Madison and platforms like Slamdance, NoBudge, OVID, and Mubi offer an array of reasons to invest our time in these microbudget movies, both for their innovation and as a remedy for the more common monotony.