From El Mariachi to Tarnation to Sky Captain (the short film), there have been plenty of recent D.I.Y. triumphs that filmmakers of lesser means could look to for inspiration —so many, in fact, that James Longley’s one-man-band war documentary Iraq in Fragments almost seems a mere feather in the cap. Actually, Longley’s feature represents the true beginning of The Future of the Movies. But it takes a little historical perspective to understand why.
Video technology has made it possible for poor folks and/or cheapskates to make something like a movie for a good while now. The hitch has always been that the results never quite looked like film. Video has scan lines and moves at roughly 30 frames (60 interlaced fields) per second, while film is a seamless bed of chemicals on strips of translucent celluloid travelling at 24 rock solid frames per second. There are a lot of other factors that differentiate film from video (image resolution, depth of field, optics, contrast ratios ), but Iraq in Fragments proves that what counts most is the rather short gulf between 30 fragments of life and 24; between an image rendered like the teeth of two interlocking combs and an image as supple as an oil painting.
24p is the technology that allows digital video to fool us into thinking that it is film. It delivers video with no scan lines (the “p” is for “progressive scan” and the 24 is the frame rate). George Lucas used 24p on two Star Wars prequels, and indie films like Jackpot and Sex and Lucia got gorgeous imagery with it. The filmmakers shoot with High Definition 24p cameras, employing a whole raft of engineers and post-production wizards to massage a cold video signal into something you could call cinematic without stammering. The entire process costs millions of dollars.
In 2002, Panasonic introduced the first 24p prosumer mini-dv camcorder, the dvx-100. It was a miracle: For around $3,500, the price of pimping your ride or your patio, you could capture footage that had the dreamy characteristics of cinema. Like other camcorders in its class, the dvx has the manual controls filmmakers desire (aperture, focus, shutter speed, etc.), so low-budget shooters around the world started churning out films in 24p. But because the dvx records to mini-dv, a format with only a fraction of the resolution of HD, its best format for presentation was said to be DVD, not 35mm theatrical screenings. (The best short analogy for the uninitiated: It’s like when you scribble something on an uninflated balloon (dv), then watch the doodle stretch and become faint as you inflate the balloon (35mm blowup).) The mushy tape-to-film transfer of the early 24p indie film November doesn’t look much better than those of pre-dvx (yet still landmark) films Bamboozled and 28 Days Later. If you were serious about making films for the theater, the argument went, you had to invest a small fortune in HD.
Iraq in Fragments blows this argument out of the water. Shot in various regions of Iraq on a dvx-100, and later a 100a (the second generation upgrade), transferred to 35mm and projected on the big screen, it is as beautiful to behold as Days of Heaven. As I ogled this beauty recently at New York’s Film Forum, I found my hands clasped in front of my chin as if in prayer. I could not believe that I was watching the product of a camera Uncle Lou might use to document his vacation sexploits. The film has every ounce the intimacy and majesty of Malick at his greatest. From its strobo-kaleidoscopic opening to the rhythmic, ruminative sequence that shows how the Iraq invasion transformed men of reason and faith into violent muhajadeen to the hushed third act, which juxtaposes the weather-beaten faces of a Kurdish farm family with billowing black smoke as suggestive as any natural phenomenon in a Werner Herzog opus, this film dares you to call it anything but pure cinema.
In April, 2003, James Longley entered a freshly shocked and awed Baghdad with his dvx and a laptop loaded with Final Cut Pro, shooting handheld with a camera he calls “the best low-budget filmmaking tool around.” He recorded entirely in natural light, taking advantage of the warm diffuse sunshine bouncing off stone and mud; door frames and windows blown out from overexposure without the expected horrendous clipped whites; the tactile, revelatory quality of shooting with long lenses/shallow depth of field along with short lenses pushed close to the subject (see Amores Perros); the pulse-pounding effect of a high-speed shutter in scenes where the tension is otherwise subliminal.
Iraq in Fragments is the first camcorder movie with no excuses. It has arrived on 35mm film in theaters with the help of a transfer to HD, expert color correction and tape-to-film scan,but the fact remains that it was captured on a
camera most Americans above the poverty line could afford. A reasonably priced 24p HD camera now exists (the Panasonic AG-HVX200), but the HD propagandists downplay the associated costs of hardware and memory cards required to shoot and edit in that format. The industry pros tout HD as the medium for serious filmmakers. (Longley himself plans to shoot his next project in HD.) But Iraq in Fragments is the future because it can be projected onto a big screen without calling the average moviegoer’s attention to its format’s supposed limitations. This means that a no-budget 24p filmmaker can refer to Longley’s movie when hawking his own homemade, handmade masterpiece, and if said filmmaker has anything within miles of Longley’s Sundance-sweeping gift for storytelling, visual composition, editing and sound design, said distributors will listen up. Even though Longley benefited from the HBO Documentary Fund and other financing, his choice of camera gives the fabled “garage Kubricks” incentive to put down their grant applications and pick up a camera to shoot as they please, in the real world, on their own dime. This is what cheap turntables and faders did for restless Bronx youth in the late 1970’s. With their shoe store paychecks the kids upgraded to samplers, drum machines and mixing boards. Longley’s triumph fills me with hope that a fresh generation of Kids from Nowhere will grasp the connection between those 24 coveted frames and a public imagination that still gets its most vigorous workout in the darkened theater; that they will use the charisma and authority of cinema to sing in as confident a voice as aristocrat-auteurs like Mann, Scott, Scorsese and Spielberg, without having to set foot in their clubhouse. As it is, the dv kids are working wonders on DVD and the festival circuit.
The quiet miracle here isn’t that film is dead but that an authentic working class cinema has a shot at more than token, Focus/Weinstein-moderated access to mainstream audiences. Corporations deliver the technology and the crowds, sure, so they must be reckoned with. But isn’t it preferable to pitch to these behemoths a virtually complete, ready-to-exhibit, fully professional motion picture rather than a script or story that can be “developed” into dust?
Still, this miracle has a short life span; more are on the way when 24p HD goes bargain basement. What’s at stake for our media elite is the prevailing notion of filmmaking as the sport of kings. Rich people are supposed to make movies, poor people are supposed to watch. When the movie business finally gets it’s century-late shot of true democracy, nothing short of social upheaval should occur. Alright, now.
Steven Boone is a New York-basic critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism. This is his first article for The House Next Door.