An Artistic Underground in the Shadow of the Franchise

Upholding the Empathetic Integrity of our Entertainment Industry

Frances McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech

The winning song at the Oscars this year was, “Remember Me.” Even though it wasn’t my top pick, it still inspired the rumination…what shall we be remembered for?

I am a fan of the Oscars. I am taken in and uplifted by the excitement of the annual golden gathering for the silver screen. What is exciting, for me, is not just seeing who wins but joining in the process. The buildup, watching the nominations, investigating what new innovations are out there.

If we are led to only support the winners of the awards and the branded blockbusters, we lose out on gems that feed the most intrinsic part of ourselves.

Loving Vincent for example, was nominated for best animated film. It was the first 100% hand painted film. It was made by hundreds of artists and, for me, was a mind-blowing innovative experience. Not only was it like stepping into a Van Gough painting, but it brought me closer to him. Van Gough was an artist who struggled and never achieved commercial success, during his lifetime, but was quietly committed to ushering deep beauty into the world. He also reflected beauty in people that the world might have labeled as plain and unworthy of recognition.

In a recent interview I heard on WNYC, Ben Fritz talked about his book, “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies” and how movie franchises– like Marvel and Star Wars — may replace simpler heart-felt movies that rely on big star power to succeed at the box office. For example, he said that a movie like Rain Man, would not be made by a major studio today because it wouldn’t be considered a money-making venture. Ben interviewed one of Disney’s execs and asked him if he enjoyed the Oscars. The executive said that he did enjoy them but they had nothing to do with his business. The implication is that artistic expression is all good and fine but not exactly practical. What he considered practical seemed to be making money hand- over-fist with branded franchises.

The heart of artistic expression isn’t practical, it is essential.

Empathy, the ability to connect and relate to one another, is what makes any form of art worthy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love and support many of the franchise films. It would be my hope that part of the financial success of those films could be slated for the support of smaller budget films.

Also, our culture is on the verge of slipping back into the Wild West. Having our movies mainly portray “good guys” constantly fighting “bad guys”, allows guns and lasers to fill the atmosphere with a huge smoke screen.

If we are coming to the place where studio budgets preclude making films like To Kill a Mockingbird or even Casablanca, we need an artistic underground. Each of us can be part of it.

If you like a movie, an artist, an album or a book that is not being pushed by mainstream media, talk about it, post it, tweet about it, blog it, spotlight it any way you can.

Become an artistic investigator. Public libraries are actually palaces of wonder that have managed to keep their doors open. Go through those doors. Engage the librarians, they are Jedi Masters of the literary force that appears invisible to the eye blinded by branding.

One film that I’ve written about before and still haunts me was an unexpected find at the library. Still Life, will most certainly go under most people’s radar. It was not animated, it was minimalistic. It did not utilize magic or high action. It was sparse, gracefully slow and so beautiful. It was not the film we thought it was going to be. If it had been, we would have thought it was quaint and forgotten it.

It was profound.

The hero of Still Life, is a solitary man who brings dignity to those who die alone. He looks for family and friends and if none can be found, he researches and writes their eulogies, selects their music and attends their funerals. He stands as a witness to their lives and upholds the beauty they held. I will never look at life and death the same way again after watching this film.

Still Life, movie 2013

We can become too used to our need to be entertained and fill in the spaces of our lives. It is refreshing to return to the grandeur of subtlety. We are being showered with gifts all around us every day that call us back to being.

We can support local artists, musicians and independent filmmakers, financially and by attending their gatherings, exhibitions and concerts.

I imagine that the brave souls along the underground railroad, or the resistance during World War II, were daunted by the overwhelming odds they faced. Still, they persisted, knowing in their hearts that the human spirit prevails. While saving the integrity of our entertainment may not be as immediate or dire, the stakes are ultimately as high.

In 1980, the movie Somewhere in Time, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve came out. It was overshadowed by the Blues Brothers at the box office. The actors were on strike at that time and were not able to promote it. Somewhere in Time would have been a film that was merely forgotten, but there was a rising number of fans that discovered and supported this romantic science fiction drama. In 1990, the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts, formed and still meets to this day. As a result, the film has become a cult classic.

If enough fans rise up to support meaningful movies in the shadow of the franchises, we will be joined by actors, directors and even executives.

As a musician by trade, I was recently struck by an article that advised musicians who wanted to have commercial success to stay clear of writing songs that were “too smart” or had more than three chords. So this red flag, doesn’t adhere only to film.

Uphold the integrity of the arts. Join the underground. Vive les arts!

Originally published at on March 12, 2018.

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