Approaching MicroCinema

I remember reading about the film “Castaway” at some point during college or shortly afterwards. Robert Zemeckis had decided that in order to give the film its own unique look and style, that the entire island sequence (probably 2/3 of the film) would be shot without any lights.

And, later in the same article, I read that they had brought a crew of over 100 people to the island. Even then, early in my career as a filmmaker, I found this immensely disappointing. A crew of one hundred for a series of scenes with one actor wearing a loincloth, lit by the sun?

I remember thinking about how much more interesting it would be, dramatically and creatively, if it had been just Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks on that island for a month, making a movie together. But of course they are both artists of MacroCinema – if the idea occurred to them at all, it was probably a lighthearted joke. From deep in the mindset of MacroCinema, it would be ridiculous to bring fewer than 100 people to make your blockbuster film. Of course you need a full camera crew (8-12 people), wardrobe and props and makeup and scenic artists to make sure that every palm frond is just so – not to mention reflectors to bounce sunlight around, so that there’s no doubt about the fact that Tom Hanks is still a Major Movie Star, even in a film without lights.

And then there’s all the infrastructure required by those teams of people – food, lodging, scheduling, payroll, transportation. It’s really easy to get to a crew of 100 and a budget of many millions in the world of MacroCinema, whether you’re using lights or not.

I think the terms MacroCinema and MicroCinema are useful because they attempt to describe a form in a way that’s more productive and exact than “Hollywood” or “Mainstream” or “Independent Film” or “Experimental Film.” For instance, the films at the Cannes Film Festival, even though they are art films, international films, films made by artists – are still MacroCinema – following narrative conventions, for a large screen and wide global audience. Likewise I would argue that most or all television (even on the internet) is MacroCinema as well. You can watch it on a small screen, by yourself, and it can be really good, but it still fits the same criteria of production and distribution.

Feature films like Clerks or El Mariachi or Slacker or hell, The Blair Witch Project – though they were made extremely cheaply, and to some degree they experimented with the formal qualities of the cinematic narrative, qualify, I would say, as nascent or aspirational MacroCinema. And certainly all of the “independent films” that have been made in the last 30 years that have been less successful, many thousands of them no doubt, fall into the category of MacroCinema – one need not achieve one’s goal of mass distribution to an audience of millions, but the intention is usually clear based on the choices made in conception, production and marketing.

So MacroCinema and MicroCinema are potentially useful ways of describing a whole cultural constellation of moviemaking: an intention, a practice, a process, a way of interacting with the moving image at all stages, from conception to making to sharing.

Our local MicroCinema screens all kinds of things, including classic films by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock – which were certainly made and distributed initially as MacroCinema, with big movie stars, to reach a broad audience. But in this day and age they have become appropriate content for screening in a MicroCinema, with a small group of like-minded individuals who are excited to get together and appreciate “The Lady from Shanghai” together.

I think it comes out of a desire to relate – to the image, to the characters, to the people who made the film, to the other people in the audience. MacroCinema is essentially vast and impersonal, MicroCinema is essentially small and personal. Talented stars and directors (Zemeckis, Hanks) have a gift for seeming knowable on-screen, for creating an illusion of closeness. Microcinema trades this industrial illusion of closeness for something closer to an actual, tangible closeness – and sacrifices some of that mass industrial appeal and profit in exchange.

An upcoming post will be about actually defining MicroCinema – we’re getting there. And, better terms than these may come about at some point – but this is the best I’ve come up with at this point. We definitely need better language for talking about this – Macro and MicroCinema are merely my best effort so far.

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