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Not the Voice Coppola Would Expect: Microcinema and Its Challenge to Public-ness

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Rethinking the public sphere through the microcinema movement.
Kyle Conway and Elizabeth Galewski

Issue #74, December 2005


As digital video technologies have become more capable and less expensive, fans of the microcinema movement—which takes its name from the intimate venues where filmmakers with small budgets, typically shooting with digital video technology, screen their films—have made some provocative claims. “Anybody can afford to make a movie today,” writes novelist and filmmaker Sherman Alexie in the May-June 2003 issue of Utne. “The moviemaking process has finally become egalitarian and populist. You can buy good video cameras, quality sound equipment, and effective editing systems for $10,000 or $5,000 or $1,000 or $500. Over the course of a few months or years, a poor reservation Indian kid can collect $1,000 worth of discarded aluminum cans from ditches and garbage cans, spend $500 on her equipment, and then spend another $500 to make a movie about the sad beauty of aluminum cans and their relationship to Native American health, economics, and politics.” Or, according to an article in the Winter 2001 issue of MovieMaker by Joel S. Bachar, co-founder of the web-based distributor Microcinema International, and scholar Taso Lagos, “What this so-called ‘democratization of the medium’ means to moviemakers and their audiences is that the leveling of the playing field will allow more unique and diverse voices to be seen and heard. There is no doubt a revolution is happening in the film and video industry and, now, everyone can be a part of this history.”

Digital video has generated great enthusiasm, but is it justified? After all, new technology often takes to market with promises to usher in an era of infinite possibilities, an era that ultimately never sees realization. For instance, many expressed similar hopes when camcorders first came on the market in the 1970s and 80s. None other than Francis Ford Coppola explained in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, “For me the great hope is now that 8-millimeter video recorders are coming out, people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And that one day a little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder. For once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed and it will really become an art form.” For the most part, statements such as these have done more to perpetuate and exploit various figures of idealized Otherness—the poor Native American kid, the “fat girl in Ohio”—than to explain the technology’s actual potential to inaugurate social change.

Walter B.,microcinema star

Microcinema supporters would have us believe that this time, however, it’s different, and that moviemaking is finally positioned to give rise to new voices. They point out that as media technologies converge, many of the obstacles facing earlier independent filmmakers are disappearing. Digitization has improved the production values filmmakers can achieve, and digital editing software has made professional-quality editing possible on consumer-grade personal computers. Meanwhile, distribution has become easier because filmmakers can share their videos over the Internet. These differences, they assert, will allow amateur filmmakers to go beyond private home video and enter the public sphere in a definitive and politically transformative way.

Does microcinema actually have what it takes to make good on its promises? Can microcinema films serve as a means of social and personal transformation? Do they really open up a path by which political change can be brought about? In the context of this Bad Subjects issue on intermedia, we would like to consider these questions in light of Jürgen Habermas’s conception of the ideal public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. For Habermas, participation in the public sphere allows citizens of a democratic state to contribute actively to the formation of critical public opinion, which in turn allows them to influence the state’s actions. By his formulation, the public sphere is accessible to all—within it, in fact, equality is institutionalized—because participation is governed by norms of rationality and the issues discussed are of universal interest. Participants maintain a disinterested attitude toward the debate so that the strongest argument carries the day, regardless of who makes it.

What makes this form of rationality possible, however, is that communication takes place within the realm of commonplace language. Messages mean—quite straightforwardly—what they appear to mean. For this reason, Habermas distrusts the image: its meaning per se is not straightforwardly reducible to language. So our question is this: what happens when an audiovisual medium such as digital video is brought into something resembling a public sphere in the form of microcinema? We suggest that microcinema does hold the surprising potential to open up the possibility for political change. Against Habermas’s conception, however, we suggest that microcinema’s ability to do so hinges on the very fact that it retains the capacity to be private, even while it makes something of a public appearance. Microcinema has the capacity to stand opposed to publicity in key ways, which enables these films to question what passes as rational within the public sphere. It is microcinema’s potential to move between the public and the private, rather than its supposed momentum to leave the private behind, that can make it a force for change.

Habermas, the mass media, and microcinema

Even as fans celebrate microcinema as contributing to the democratization of the public sphere, Habermas himself has signaled distinct distrust of audiovisual media, and especially the mass media. By his account, the same market forces that allowed the public sphere to emerge in the 18th century, when ideas began to circulate as print commodities (and thus lost the auratic quality that they had once had when the “monopoly of interpretation” belonged to the church or the state), also brought about the public sphere’s demise. When the public sphere was at its peak, there circulated a large number of newspapers such as the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Guardian, and bourgeois property owners had various means of access to their production. Newspapers served to circulate ideas and to generate face-to-face discussion in English coffee houses, French salons, and German Tischgesellschaften or “table societies.” This situation changed, however, with the advent of film and the broadcast media, which demand considerable capital investment to set up and operate. Access to the means of production is more limited, leading to a situation that Habermas likens to the feudal society that preceded the emergence of the public sphere, where the few speak on behalf of the many and the many, unable to speak back, can only consent to their representation by the few.

To a certain degree, microcinema, whose do-it-yourself ethos is often compared to that of punk rock, gets around Habermas’s objections that control of the media is in the hands of a privileged few. But not completely. Another part of Habermas’s gripe with the mass media is that they have contributed to the depoliticization of public discourse by working to attract the widest possible audience. In other words, the media have evacuated rational discussion from the public sphere and replaced it with mere entertainment. Viewed from this perspective, the problem with microcinema is that many of the genres popular among microcinema filmmakers are exactly those that the mass media have established. Of course, there are filmmakers who strive to push the limits of those conventions or work outside of them altogether—the microcinema movement is quite heterogeneous. Even then, however, such efforts would be meaningless if viewers didn’t recognize the conventions filmmakers were trying to violate.

It would seem, then, that the microcinema movement has no contribution to make to the public sphere—or even to debates about the public sphere—as far as Habermas is concerned. Yet the very fact that microcinema trades in mass media conventions may actually give it the unexpected potential to open up a subversive space.

Microcinema’s riposte

Some microcinema films, it must be said, do appeal to a certain earnest rationality that would meet Habermas’s criteria for deliberation within the public sphere. For instance, Tona Williams’s Earth Wall documentary series (2004), made for the Madison, Wisconsin-based microcinema Wis-Kino, focuses on the construction of a garden wall behind a neighborhood grocery store and features people talking about how to build a sense of community and how to use environmentally friendly construction techniques.

The majority, however, do not. The Wis-Kino film How to Be an Influential Woman (Sara Choate and Marcus Trapp, 2003) is one such film. Instead of advancing a message that strives for rationality, this film takes an ironic stance that seeks, quite precisely, to question what passes as rational within the mainstream. The film’s use of irony serves to cast doubt on previous commonplaces and open a space in which questions can emerge.

Title Screen

How to Be an Influential Woman adopts the visual vocabulary of a 1950s instructional movie, evoking certain normative notions of family and gender roles. For instance, filmmakers “aged” the three-and-a-half minute black-and-white film by adding simulated scratch marks in postproduction. The movie opens with a title screen reading The Happy Home Development Series “How to Be an Influential Woman,” while cheerful instrumental music plays in the background. It then cuts to an image of a woman in her 20s wearing 1950s-style clothing and drying dishes. She looks up as a male voiceover says, “Well, if it isn’t that swell gal Margaret! Busy as a bee as always, I see. Say, Margaret, you’re a real classy doll. Can you share any tips for other young women in our audience?” Beaming into the camera like June Cleaver, Margaret promises to give us “five tips that can guarantee you a happy and fulfilling existence.”

The rest of the movie is organized around these five tips. Tip #1 stresses that a young wife should keep her home clean, so that it will reflect a “well ordered lifestyle,” and Tip #2 suggests that she should plan dinners carefully. According to Margaret, this will let the woman’s husband know that she has been thinking about him all day. Meanwhile, the music bounces on. The first breath of incongruity arrives almost exactly halfway through the film, during Tip #3. At this time, Margaret advises the audience to “use stockings to cover any unsightly bruises,” even as she pulls black hose over a bruise on her upper thigh. She then recommends that a woman “be a little more interesting and fun” when her husband is around, since he might be weary from work. In an aside, she comments, “After all, you don’t want him to become angry again, do you?” The viewer remembers the bruise on Margaret’s leg and wonders whether or not her husband is physically abusing her.

Tip #4 begins with Margaret lying on a bed, framed in a medium shot with the torso of her husband bobbing rhythmically above her. She addresses the camera and tells her viewers to “be sure to act interested as you and your husband engage in your marital responsibilities.” She then turns her face up toward her husband and exclaims without much conviction, “Ooh, honey, that feels so good—keep it up!” In the next scene, she instructs young women to spike their husbands’ drinks at night every now and then, so as to avoid sex. For Tip #5, Margaret is talking on the telephone, making plans to meet a friend at an upcoming potluck. She hangs up the phone, turns to the camera, and admonishes her viewers: “And it’s a good idea when you’re at those social outings and family functions, never openly discuss your abortions.” At the end of the film, Margaret appears back at the sink, washing a dish. Her final words of guidance? “And remember,” Margaret smiles at us, “sometimes the best way to please yourself is to please others.”

Marital Respoinsibilities

In this film, what goes forth as a wide-eyed, sincere performance of conventional, middle-class femininity circa 1950 surprisingly turns into something different than expected. The gap between the ideal and the actual becomes clear—the perfect housewife that Margaret is supposed to represent is gradually revealed as little more than a set of artificially constructed appearances. The film achieves this incongruity by bringing together commonplaces that everyone already knows about the conventional feminine condition. Before watching the film, for instance, we knew about 1950s housewives. We also knew about domestic violence, women’s reputation for sexual fakery, and abortions. None of these ideas are new. Yet these two sets of commonplaces about femininity are not usually set side-by-side. In doing so, Choate and Trapp open up the possibility that conventional constructions of femininity might actually be seen as highly contradictory.

This makes for a potentially uneasy viewing experience. What is going on here? Is Margaret being serious? Is the film a satire? Is this a commentary on 1950s conventional femininity? Is this a critique of femininity today? What did femininity mean back then? What does it mean today? As one of the authors has found, his undergraduates tend to find the film unsettling to watch. He notes that a “squirm effect” kicks in about halfway through the movie—some students laugh, others gasp, while the rest don’t know what to do—suggesting that the students are not certain what to make of it.

Irony and its productive potential

It is precisely this uncertainty that irony strives to produce. Things we used to take for granted—our collective memories of the 1950s housewife, our understanding of domestic violence, female sexuality and abortion—can now become topics of debate. In this way, the film’s multiple ironies open up a space in which questions can emerge. In addition, it makes a critical intervention in a wide range of existing discourses. The film’s potential for subversion depends on viewers’ familiarity with a larger set of texts, including television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, as well as ways these texts have been mobilized to advance right-wing social agendas. In other words, it works by deploying images and ideas commonly found within the same mediatized realm that Habermas holds in such contempt.

Yet this ironic deployment of commonplaces also cannot be divorced from the realm of the private. How to Be an Influential Woman relies on privacy not just because Choate and Trapp espouse a viewpoint that is different from the mainstream and not commonly found in the public sphere. They have not just “given voice” to this marginalized perspective and otherwise left the integrity of the public sphere intact. The film does not seek “public” status in Habermas’s restrictive sense. Indeed, it might not even recognize the adjective “public” to constitute an honorific. Instead, the emergence of Choate and Trapp’s private perspective within the context of the Wis-Kino microcinema—and from there onto the worldwide web—strives to open up the possibility of subverting the lauded rationality of the public sphere. The film stands against public discourse in important ways, and in so doing, it enables us to see public discourse—usually taken for granted, considered to be reasonable—as potentially quite strange. The point is not to make the film wholly public, but rather to overcome the resistance encountered when private perspectives are dismissed or negated within the Habermasian public sphere as “merely” private. That is, the point is to bring members of the general public into a more intimate relation with this particular, private point of view, with the hope of making a new beginning.

Irony’s virtues also constitute its limit, however. While the film may have destabilized the commonplace and effectively thrown our preconceived ideas into uncertainty, it finally does not provide us a way of making sense of what we have seen. Problematizing what we previously took for granted, this ironic cynicism remains ambiguous and neglects to articulate any answers of its own. Irony has an individualizing effect—sprung forth from a private perspective, it appears in public so that private individuals can make of it what they will. Some will adore the film, seeing in it a repudiation of women’s mandatory self-sacrifice, a condemnation of conventional gender relations, and perhaps a critique of the oppressive structures that persist in contemporary American culture. Other viewers, however, may well find the film absurd, detached from reality, or perhaps even arrogant. These are common means by which such ironic performances can be and routinely are dismissed.

Suggesting that the world could be and perhaps should be different from how it is, Choate and Trapp’s ironic film opens established ideas to revision, interrogating that which we thought we knew. In opening up this space for questions, however, their ironic stance does not help determine the answers that should finally emerge. Open to interpretation, the film draws upon its very privacy in hopes of escaping the bounds of the public’s common sense.

What Coppola’s not expecting

What does this mean for microcinema’s potential to “democratize” the media? The productive ambiguity of Choate and Trapp’s ironic stance brings into relief a paradox that underlies the points of view expressed by Sherman Alexie and Francis Ford Coppola. On the one hand, Alexie and Coppola are excited that people who wouldn’t have been able to make films before will now have the opportunity to do so. On the other, they’ve already prescribed what those films should look like. Microcinema should be about “the sad beauty of aluminum cans and their relationship to Native American health,” or it should simply be beautiful, like Mozart. Alexie and Coppola do not expect to be surprised; their perspective does not anticipate the kind of self-risk that is necessary to identify meaningfully with others across lines of substantial difference.

So what happens when the “poor reservation Indian kid” or the “fat girl in Ohio” doesn’t want to make a film that conforms to pre-existing definitions of beauty?

As this question suggests, the “democratization of the media” that microcinema has the potential to bring about might not take the form the movement’s supporters have envisioned. Microcinema can exceed the horizon of the expected; it offers more than an exercise in perspective-taking that politely leaves everyone’s perspectives intact. It also suggests that Habermas’s model of the public sphere might not be sufficient for understanding microcinema as a forum for discussion and interaction. As How to Be an Influential Woman demonstrates, microcinema has the potential to bring viewers into relation with a point of view that is not sanctioned as belonging to the public sphere. In this way, it draws Habermas’s insistence on earnest rationality into question. Such rationality, in Habermas’s scheme, guaranteed predictability. Moving beyond it guarantees risk. Acts of communication, whether or not they take place within the context of microcinema, might fail. But they might also succeed, and their success won’t be limited by our preconceptions of the form they should take.

Useful links:

Wis-Kino: http://www.wis-kino.com/

How to Be an Influential Woman: http://www.wis-kino.com/films/Influential-Wom.html

Elizabeth Galewski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Rhetoric program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Communication Arts Department. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley and her M.A. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Kyle Conway is a Ph.D. candidate in media and cultural studies in the same department. He occasionally makes films for Wis-Kino.

Copyright © Kyle Conway and Elizabeth Galewski. Benjamin image: Mike Mosher, 1997. Stills from "How to be an Influential Woman": Sara Choate and Marcus Trapp. All rights reserved.

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