Eh, Maybe ‘Selling Out’ Isn’t So Bad After All
Hey, how’s it going? I made a movie called The Mend. If you know me—if, say, we’ve talked to each other once, or if you follow me on Twitter, or you share my last name, or you passed me on the street, or you acted in The Crucible with me in high school—you know that I made a movie called The Mend. I won’t shut up about it. I have, in the past six or seven weeks, gone from being a reticent air-quotes “filmmaker” who would, only when asked, grumpily burp out that he’s recently completed a feature-length movie, to being a whore—a publicity-craving, personal-brand-burnishing whore who would sooner dine on turned horsemeat than let you forget his movie is on iTunes. And Amazon. Vimeo On-Demand? Sure. And of course it’s available to stream on Vudu, which has the same pricing structure as the other “platforms,” but carries a slight edge of enticement for some viewers, presumably because its name, Vudu, is sort of relaxing.
In short, I have been cheapened. I have cheapened.
When I was navigating boyhood, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a great deal more earnest talk of “selling out” than there is now. “Selling out,” as I vaguely understood it—I had yet to make any of my own money, after all, and could only really hope to sell my stacks of Garbage Pail Kids or my excellent-to-mint CD of The B-52’s Good Stuff—was when an artist compromised his integrity by “selling” (“lending”) his art or face or “essence” for a sum far greater than a common consumer could afford, usually to an unfeeling and lame corporation, for the sole purpose of profit. The residue of non-commercial popular art ( “commercial” in this sense meaning “free to make obscene profits but not free to be used in stupid commercials, man”) was still sticky enough from the authentically authentic ’60s and ’70s that, hypothetically speaking, a rock band of four MLK-quoting Irish pacifists avidly shilling for a portable music player would’ve seemed outlandishly tacky. In 1989, the year I attended The Who’s farewell tour when it stopped by the Cotton Bowl, I felt pretty certain that their cock-rockin’ compatriots Led Zeppelin would never, ever sell one of their jewel-like, Tolkien-steeped tracks to a videogame. Or to Cadillac. Or to Christian Dior. And I felt more than pretty certain that this was it for The Who. They’d had a good run, after all. Safe travels, The Who! Thank you for this final concert in the year 1989.
In what ways could popular artists sell out in the Time Before Social Media? Here are some hazily remembered examples for the Millennials to pore over, saucer-eyed: licensing your music or body or face for an advertisement; displaying unironic joy in your own music video; touring with the Smashing Pumpkins; publicly flaunting the material advantages of fame; charging more than a nominal fee for a performance; announcing an album release date at an awards show; acting in pretty much any television show; and—a more current example—creating a website in your own name. (This is why, to this day, I have refused to pay what I assume is a reasonable fee to register johnmagary.biz.) In a world that, to my hopeful, idiotic young eyes, favored the good and right to triumph over the cynical and bad, these were the boundaries for artists as I understood them.
But anyway, yeah, so the movie’s on iTunes. It was shot over a period of twenty-five days in 4K digital in a 2.35 aspect ratio and has a 5.1 Dolby Surround mix, and now you can watch it on your fucking phone. I am somewhat ambivalent about your ease of access, dear consumer, but with a gun to my head I’ll admit: watching the movie imperfectly is preferable to not watching it at all. Many a key movie in my life—Taxi Driver, say, or Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up—was first experienced on VHS on an unremarkable tube television with “tron” somewhere in its model name. I absorbed these movies just fine. Indeed, I suspect strongly that, had I first seen these films on pristine 35mm prints in a hushed cinematheque, their impact would have been no deeper. A good movie will connect through the poorest of delivery; the viewer just has to show up and, against all odds, pay attention.
The theatrical life of The Mend is not over. It had a solid, small run in a theater in New York and another in L.A., and continues to screen for paying civilians in a few arthouse caverns around the country. After that, colleges maybe, rep houses, little museums. And if the gods are kind, I suppose, some time in the far future it’ll be anti-absorbed from The Cloud and projected onto a virtual screen for an Oculus experiment called “The Movie-Watching Experience: Feel It as They Did.”
But really, I can’t say I’m unsatisfied. The movie is more or less having the life I’d expected a small movie like it to have: itinerant, ambling cockily from city to city, meeting up with strangers in the dark. I don’t know what it’s doing, but I know it’s out there. And if it’s causing ripples, it’s causing ripples I can’t see.
Unless the ripples make it to Twitter. Twitter, as sad as this may sound, is the only place, short of an in-person Q & A, where I have some sense of control over how the movie is received and framed. The control is an illusion, but it’s near impossible to resist. How could I—or my brother Jim, who’s running the film’s official feed—pass up the opportunity to write, “Hey, thanks, man!” to the kind person 2000 miles away who’s told all his followers he loved The Mend? To alert a group of mostly strangers—as of today, 617!—all at once that the movie’s playing in Santa Monica or Albuquerque? To track down every last scrap of ambivalent or negative criticism from Twitter’s non-critic majority and ponder all the dissatisfaction I’ve caused? To be able to quantify crossing daily streams of others’ encouragement and my own crippling doubt? I mean, man, Twitter’s fucking great!!
This is, of course, not what I imagined being a filmmaker would be like. I grew up thinking that the film would—must!—speak for itself, and that promotion would be left to…the promoters. There’s been lots and lots of talk about “barriers” “breaking down” in the independent film world, that a filmmaker can’t “build” a feature film and expect to have an audience show up without also “building” a “following” or “fanbase” and doing lots of “outreach.” And well, I guess I’ve come to realize that this buzzy notion of outreach, while total bullshit, is also, without major marketing muscle backing you up, necessary total bullshit.
I don’t know if people would still see The Mend if I did not, in part, promote it myself. I will never know. I’m sure I will promote my next film on Twitter. I will continue a “dialogue” with “followers.” It will demystify the movie a little too much, it will do no favors to my productivity, and it will probably make me look a little desperate, but the virtual socializing will also, hopefully, shed some light—on the art itself, on pesky/crucial details like screening times and locations, on “what people are saying,” on who I am and who you are.
As I said: total bullshit. Total sell-out bullshit.
As I said: The Mend is currently available on Vudu.
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