"TAIL IN THE MUD": MOBILE AND INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING
In an interview to promote his 2020 film Mank, Hollywood film director David Fincher expressed the following: “Look, I believe that the tragedy of cinema today is that we’re only 100 years in and we think we know exactly what it is. We really don’t. What we’ve done is merely refined an experience to a story, which is The Hero With a Thousand Faces over and over again. We beat this drum and we beat it fairly regularly, because it’s a scam that pays out. But if I was to believe that we have reached the limits of what cinema can do, make us feel, talk about, I would be inordinately depressed” (Fear, 2021).
“Only 100 years in,” Fincher said. If we look at the general development of music compared to film, music was still in its infancy when it reached its first centennial in antiquity and it would be thousands of years before it reached the Medieval period and hundreds more before the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. periods. For this reason, filmmakers sit atop a mountain of untold riches within. They need only find access to the bounty of new concepts and forms; ideas to advance the artform to the next stage of evolution.
Any feeling of stagnation or malaise toward the art of filmmaking is out of step with its store of possibilities. Filmmakers must look forward and break through into yet uncharted realms. Luckily, there is staggering precedent for such progress and deliverance!
Approximately 300,000 years ago, our first ancestors appeared with brains capable of complex, abstract and communicable thought on the dusty plains of Africa. Some of the earliest artifacts from this time are mysterious cave adornments. The first of its kind in the biosphere, these early manifestations of creativity demonstrated how our species transcended prosaic existential concerns enough to roam into the realm of art.
But humankind didn’t stop there. With agricultural and scientific revolutions that permitted the establishment of exponentially larger and more organized societies (Harari, 2015), the general comfort and stability afforded to certain sectors of the population allowed for the exploration and development of many more artistic mediums: painting, music, poetry, literature, dance, sculpture, theatre, etc. Along with this multitude of creative practices, the profession of dedicated artist also emerged.
Further along in history, the arrival of moving image technology would prove a seismic boon to the creative marketplace even if its initial usage was as more of a carnival novelty than an exalted artform. The use of this fresh technology was initially associated with technological innovators and magicians (like the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, respectively) more than artists or storytellers. But this prevailing connotation would change soon enough.
As use of the flickering picture technology spread beyond its staring place as a carnival act, a monumental development was soon birthed – film editing! This newly loosed capability to tell stories through film gave rise to an industry hinged upon the uniquely enchanting and newly exploitable properties of the relatively young artform.
While the burgeoning Hollywood film industry in the United States licked their chops over the potential for profiting off screen-projected stories, a different kind of exigency toward this curious play of light and shadow persisted elsewhere. In far-off Soviet Russia, there was more interest in determining how use of this technology could further the cause of their social and political ideology. So, the Soviets funded study and experimentation involving the unrealized potential of cinema. The resulting findings from a group of state-commissioned theorist-filmmakers (e.g., Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, etc.) were revolutionary! Out of their efforts arose a more intense and deliberated regard for image juxtaposition known as montage theory. These Soviet film industry efforts along with the narrative focus of the U.S. film industry underlined the tantalizing possibilities of this celluloid-based phenomenon.
After a second World War and the cessation of major political conflict in Europe, French critics and filmmakers began to regard the most venerated Hollywood film directors (i.e., John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, etc.) in a wholly new light. They argued that film directors, as those in Hollywood, should rightly be considered the sole author of a film in much the same way that an author is to their novel, a painter to their painting or a composer to their symphony. Labeled the auteur theory by film critic Andrew Sarris, this notion along with the increased ease and accessibility of lighter filmmaking equipment, led to a hugely influential movement known as the French New Wave; heralding the consideration of filmmakers as artists more than ever before.
As film studios and industries across the globe grew and consolidated their grasp on all channels of film distribution in the latter half of the 20th century, the means of film production became more accessible and knowledge of the craft more broadly disseminated. The upcrop of academic film production programs easened this development. This unprecedented change of tide allowed outsiders, known as independents, to operate on their own outside of the major domains of commercial filmmaking activity; some ultimately absorbed by the established moviemaking systems.
Toward the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, the digital revolution was in full swing and the implements for filmmaking were at their most democratized juncture. With personal computer-based, non-linear editing systems; an endless variety of silicon-based video cameras; and an infinitely freer digital workflow, filmmakers the world over were more liberated than ever to pursue their art on their own terms.
And what about the introduction of phones capable of high-definition video recording? There are no longer any significant barriers or excuses to prevent aspiring filmmakers from taking up the arms of filmic expression. We’ve come too far from the primordial slime to concede to stultifying corporate interests and stagnate in the face of untold possibility. The most pressing question becomes thus: Filmmaking in service of the status quo…
Or independent of it?
Presenting a parable from Chuang Tzu, one of the preeminent philosophers of ancient China and author of many such wise and humorous stories:
Chuang Tzu was one day fishing when the Prince of Ch'u sent two high officials to interview him, saying that his Highness would be glad of Chuang Tzu's assistance in the administration of his government. The latter quietly fished on and without looking round, replied, "I have heard that in the State of Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead three thousand years and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine. Now, do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honored or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?" The two officials answered that no doubt it would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud; whereupon Chuang Tzu cried out "Begone! I too elect to remain wagging my tail in the mud" (Kennedy and Gioia, 1999).
Aptly titled “Independence”, this parable was written more than 2,000 years ago but its broadly applicable lesson bears some relevance to today’s world of filmmaking. Suppose Chuang Tzu is a filmmaker; Tzu’s fishing is his creative process; the prince’s government is Hollywood; the sacred, dead tortoise is the comfortable existence of corporate employment; the tortoise’s honoring is market appeal; and the wagging of one’s tail in the mud is the messiness of experimentation and attempts to innovate. Seen this way, the parable accurately reflects the underlying conflict between artists and institutions established to profit from the fruits of the former’s labor. Tzu’s emphatic insistence on being left alone to wag his tail in the mud is any filmmaker who prizes new, daring ideas over familiar, safe ones.
Thankfully, owing to the emergence of mobile filmmaking (i.e., filmmaking using smartphones), today’s independent film artists can now function far more easily in the feature-length realm, newly emancipated from the dictates and excesses of Hollywood studios. No longer are indie moviemakers confined to the existence of the proverbial dead tortoise with all its concomitant stagnation and stasis but freed, rather, to wag their tails in the mud with zero interference from the leering moneymen on high.
So, what do films produced under these nascent conditions look like?
Two feature films recently produced out of reach of the tendrils of the Hollywood studio system provide an intriguing answer. David Bush’s 2022 film Phony and Gabriel Rhenals’ 2019 film For My Sister are two examples of mobile filmmaking that suggest, in terms of their textual result and generative realities, the possibilities of film production beyond traditional technological means and hierarchical control. This critical paper will share the similarities found in a textual analysis of both films, covering certain aspects of content (i.e., story, perspective, sociology and semiotics) and formal ones (i.e., elements and aesthetics). This paper will also explore the generative dimension behind the films (i.e., production, promotion and distribution) as well as a brief comparison between Bush and Rhenals as filmmakers.
Phony, cleverly disguised as a documentary film, basically presents an account of two friends Sam and David who hatch a plan to blow the lid off the deceitful world of online dating by making a candid film about the subject. They begin their amateur film project rather casually, identifying the duplicity and contradictions inherent in the online courtship world. However, their ambitious and demanding satirical designs soon begin to adversely affect their partnership and when David’s love interest begins to insist on calling the shots, the partnership between the two friends soon dissolves. Left to his own devices, Sam navigates the fallout with David and his own troubled romantic relationship as he attempts to complete the amorphous and ever-evolving film project on his own.
For My Sister, an openly avowed fictional film, basically follows a young woman named Evie as she struggles to help her sister Tris with a bout of severe depression – a condition that tragically claimed the life of their mother years prior. In Evie’s journey to save her sister, she must contend with her difficult sibling, callous co-workers, sleazy underworld drug dealers, an unsympathetic employer, local law enforcement and the domineering head doctor of a behavioral clinic. Evie makes great sacrifices to help her sister recover from her mental illness and, with the aid of a clandestinely procured miracle drug, possibly for the rest of her life.
In terms of story, both Phony and For My Sister share a salient meta or self-referential quality that the viewer is consistently reminded of throughout each film. This is observed in Phony’s characters’ preoccupation with completing “the movie” and For My Sister’s establishment of itself as edited nanodrone recordings. While Phony presents its principal cast of characters as subservient to the creation of the very film being watched, For My Sister introduces a framing device directly responsible for what’s being viewed and key to the resolution of the film’s central conflict. Phony actualizes this meta-aspect by having its characters frequently (and rather humorously) refer to “the movie” and the variety of ways they intend to shape the final product. For My Sister introduces the company of Reveu, responsible for capturing and editing footage from time-traveling nanodrones, through bookends as well as a brief commercial interlude toward the end of the film. For My Sister also serves its self-referential conceit by an instance of reference to the remarkable non-profit service made by the characters within the body of the film.
With regard to perspective, both films fully dispense with the demands of the ubiquitous and mostly unchallenged assumption of most visual storytelling media under the sun – omniscient or God’s eye point-of-view. Phony accomplishes this by establishing and maintaining that the footage the viewer is watching is culled exclusively from the main characters’ phones with some later shots sourced from the phones of secondary characters. For My Sister’s strategy involves an alike limiting of the visual panorama but, in its own case, determined by time-traveling nanodrones capable of recording scenes which have already taken place in the past. Phony’s use of phones are referenced visually and in dialogue throughout the film to uphold the viewer’s awareness of the inherent phone-based nature of the film while, in For My Sister, time stamps inserted between every scene in the elaborate nanodrone recording serve a similar function. In both films, a finite and restricted logic governs virtually all of the comedic and dramatic happenings; the fundamental source of what we’re watching is definite, known and locatable in the story world.
The sociological concerns of Phony and For My Sister are also rather similar. Both films focus on tested but ultimately sustained and strengthened adult dyads in two different arenas of considerable social relevance: online dating and mental illness. Phony presents two adult male friends Sam and David dealing with matters of virtual courtship and intent on lampooning the problematic double standards and gendered privileges inherent in the activity. Sam and David start by questioning and ridiculing the ritual of online dating and must later contend with their opposite sex partners and a community of local singles as they craft their daring movie project. While Sam and David’s romantic bonds and creative partnership risk dissolution during the film, they are eventually able to mend the fissures in their social couplings and unite to finish their provocative documentary. In For My Sister, two adult sisters Evie and Tris deal with the stigma associated with mental illness, amid both the broader milieu and on a more intimate social scale. While their relationship is never threatened by complete severance, Evie is constantly challenged by Tris’ refusal to accept treatment for her debilitating condition and the alarming byproducts of her aggravating obstinance. However, For My Sister concludes with the sisters affirming their bond and seeing eye-to-eye on the necessity of treatment after Tris is presented with video proof of the lengths Evie has gone to bring her afflicted sibling healing and wellness. Indeed, an intersection of social bonding and topics of considerable societal relevance form the basis of each film’s thematic and narrative fabric.
While the potential symbolic richness of Phony and For My Sister is somewhat constrained by the relatively limited, behavior-focused nature of their cinematography, both films do offer some degree of semiotic fecundity vis-à-vis certain recurring imagery. Such repeated imagery in both films suggests technological determinism as well as female and Black empowerment. To begin with, the increasing role of technology in society is underscored throughout Phony by the characters’ extensive use of their phones to record their many and varied interactions; forming the basis for the filmmaking activity the entire film is predicated upon. In For My Sister, the first visual in the film is of three hovering nanodrones appearing from a white void; being magnified into view, in point of fact. This visual, emblematic of that story world’s radical technological advancement, is repeated three other times throughout the film. With regard to greater female agency and authority in both films, Phony presents a secondary female character who manages to throw a wrench into the gears of the male protagonists’ machinations and spends the latter part of the film calling the shots and morphing the film-in-progress to her liking. In For My Sister, greater female sovereignty is emphasized by focusing on Evie, who is repeatedly taking charge and proving formidable against many male characters in her benevolent quest to help her sister. Lastly, a curious choice is made in both films as it relates to the presentation of Black eminence. In the final scene of Phony, a tall and charming Black man referred to as David Bush is acknowledged as the director of the film the viewer has just watched and well-regarded among the cast who’ve gathered in an anonymous living room. In actuality, David Bush is the name of Phony’s principal creative and is, in fact, white. The Black David Bush is a projection of Black creative power. A similar choice is made, in a coincidental inverse, in the promotional video that opens For My Sister, where a Black man in formal attire oversees the work of the team operating the time-traveling nanodrones. This unnamed Black man is assumed to be the director. The character is another projection of Black creative power because Rhenals, the director of For My Sister, is Latinx.
Phony and For My Sister both commit to having dialogue or the verbal expression of their actors serve as its dominant filmic element. In either film, the cinematography or visual strategy is in full service of the easy comprehensibility of the actors’ staging and the context for their accompanying dialogue audio recordings (with the exception of one scene in For My Sister where the dialogue recording is somewhat obfuscated by the competing ambience of a particular location). Regarding the editing strategy, every scene in each film is guided by a strictly linear, non-expressionistic approach to montage. Apart from one instance of the 180-degree rule being briefly violated in one of For My Sister’s later scenes, no jump cuts or breaks in temporal or spatial continuity occur in either film. Both films exhibit a rapt attention to naturalism and a relatively unobtrusive formal approach. This formal modus operandi is made resoundingly clear in the first substantial scene between the main characters in either film. In Phony, this first scene involves Sam and David hatching the idea for their bold movie project. Here, the dialogue is front-and-center and the visual and editing choices serve to throw complete attention on what the actors are saying. For My Sister’s first scene between Evie and Tris captures Evie presenting a gift to Tris as she leaves their apartment for her college orientation. Here, the dialogue is also center-stage with the manipulation of editing and visuals maintaining full support of the actors’ verbal interaction.
One of the most striking formal choices shared by both Phony and For My Sister is a near-complete disregard for pictorial beauty. In Phony, the characters have direct control over the visuals presented as part of the movie they’re all helping to craft. However, their primary interest is in recording their creative deliberations and courtly behaviors with minimal concern for especially appealing compositions or lighting choices. With For My Sister’s visuals diegetically sourced from time-traveling nanodrones and Phony’s from its characters’ phones, all recording activity exhibits a chief interest in the musings and doings of the human subjects. Indeed, the first impression of the film’s cinematography is its guidance by logic rather than beauty. The exclusive use of practical lighting in addition to the lack of painterly long shots also contribute to the sense that the filmmakers and their filmmaking avatars in their respective films are playing to the mind rather than to the eye. In Phony’s opening candid moments between David and his date, the angle of the phone camera immediately establishes a restaurant setting and its subject with a fairly unexceptional, centered composition. In fact, the angle of the phone’s camera lens in this introductory scene is, like in so many other scenes to come, propped up against a cup or other sturdy object on a table. A proper tripod is seldomly used. Similarly, For My Sister announces its visual scheme in the first scene, following a brief prologue, between Evie and an office supply store employee over the phone. The compositions quickly establish the apartment setting and the nature of Evie’s interaction; the arrangement of elements in the frame, plain and in abidance of convention (i.e., a close-up, medium shot and over-the-shoulder shot). It appears that the governing equation behind both Phony and For My Sister is human behavior over time and little else.
In terms of production logistics, Phony and For My Sister also overlap in several substantial ways. First, virtually all of their cinematography (with the exception of the brief bookends and interlude in For My Sister) was achieved using phones. Second, both films demonstrate a resourcefulness in the face of scarce production value (e.g., the use of available residential trappings, limited visual effects work, a preference for montage over elaborate mise-en-scène, etc.). Third, as the scarce production value suggests, these films were extremely micro-budgeted (i.e., Phony cost approximately $10K and For My Sister $6K) as contemporary independent feature films go. Fourth, both films featured a significant cast size (i.e., Phony employed 20+ actors and For My Sister 30+). And lastly, the films were both the products of two adult males in their early 30s responsible for the entirety of the script and the overall direction of the film; both their first independent features without hierarchical oversight of any kind.
In terms of promotional activity, Phony and For My Sister both used universally accessible tools to entice potential audiences. Posters and trailers were both produced using off-the-shelf software to help promote the film. The posters each feature women prominently. Sensible, as a sizable majority of movie watchers are women and representation is, to some degree, a determinant of audience interest. Additionally, the trailers produced in time to promote their respective film’s release on streaming platforms both establish the basic narrative premise immediately by implementing fairly rapid cutting and sampling a number of moments from the films. Beyond the promotional content itself, social media (i.e., Instagram and Facebook) was also mobilized to a significant degree to garner audience attention. This promotional playbook, while trendy and of modest energy expenditure, evokes the grassroots political campaigns where immediate social circles and local communities are solicited for support. However, the expectations of these promotional strategies were ultimately deemed unmet by both key creatives behind the films. Phony’s IMDb page features 157 ratings while For My Sister’s Amazon page records 65 ratings. For comparison, a major distributor-backed mobile film like 2015’s Tangerine or 2019’s High Flying Bird boasts 33K and 10K ratings, respectively. Writer-director of Phony, Bush wrote, “Of course, I had lofty hopes, but regardless, no, my expectations weren’t entirely met” (Bush, 2022). Writer-director of For My Sister, Rhenals, shares a similar sentiment.
At the time of this paper’s writing, both Phony and For My Sister are available to be viewed on a variety of streaming platforms for little to no cost. While they may not have the benefit of an advertising budget to beckon millions of viewers, the two films are afforded the same amount of screen space on streaming platform interfaces as their top-tier distributor-backed kin; validating the imperative of streaming for micro-budget, indie features. Phony and For My Sister are both distributed by a company named Indie Rights which champions independent features and enables the titles selectively chosen for distribution to land on the most popular streaming services; with Indie Rights entitled to a percentage of any profit. Bush and Rhenals forwent a standard film festival run (mainly owing to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic) and rapped at the door of Indie Rights when circumstances devastated their initial plans. Instead of playing curtsey to Hollywood gatekeepers, Bush and Rhenals proceeded in congruence with how they’d conducted their production and promotion: frugally. The filmmakers’ electing to disseminate their work primarily through a streaming-based model of distribution with ancillary regard for financial largesse heralds a tectonic shift in who and what is free to stake ground on the long-exclusive terrain of the motion picture landscape.
In the face of mobile filmmaking, film theorists Bazin, Astruc and Sarris and their ideas about writer-directors as sole authors (or auteurs) behind a film are vindicated now more than ever. Never has the capacity to produce films on the scale of the primary currency by which the film industry operates (i.e., feature films and TV series) been more accessible to those outside the major hubs of filmmaking activity. With the advent of mobile filmmaking, motivated filmmakers can now, with relative ease, manifest a body of work through their localized enterprise. Astruc’s camera-as-pen idea is fully wrought! Bush and Rhenals are but two microcosmic examples emblematic of filmmaking taking place at the precipice of a new frontier. While differing in work experience (Bush has worked in film and TV in the Louisiana film industry, or “Hollywood South”, for over a decade while Rhenals has worked almost exclusively on his own short and feature-length film productions for two decades in Florida), Bush and Rhenals represent a new wave of independent filmmaking more given to wagging its tail in the mud than being boxed up in a corporate shrine under the auspices of royal magistrates. Bush and Rhenals are active promoters of their work online, exercise an aggressive work ethic (i.e., Bush has written dozens of feature-length screenplays, Rhenals has completed 16 short films and both are also self-published authors) and no doubt see themselves more as artists than mere film directors; artists whose work embody their personal predilections in an auteur-like sense.
By assessing the content, form and production of such phone-shot films as David Bush's 2022 film Phony and Gabriel Rhenals' 2019 film For My Sister, we glimpse the intriguing potential of independent filmmaking newly able to cast off the yoke of conventionally burdensome technocratic and corporate influence.
In response to an interview question posed to Bush about his view on the future of independent filmmaking, he offered up a hopeful yet sensible projection which alluded to the promise of more liberating independence for practitioners of his art: “I do see the gap between ‘big budget’ and ‘indie’ films continuing to broaden as the market becomes more and more saturated with literally limitless projects. The con [of independent filmmaking’s future]… middle budget movies are disappearing and have to be either fluffed out into tentpoles or carved down into micro-budgets. But the pro… the variety of platforms and the ease of access have made it possible for an extremely specific audience to find a micro-niche project. And if that means that we see more films which are willing to swing for the fences narratively, tonally, structurally, etc. rather than trying to hit some four-quadrant sweet spot, well… I love that” (Bush, 2022).
I love that, too.
Fear, David. “David Fincher: The Rolling Stone Interview”. Rolling Stone. January 12, 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/david-fincher-rolling-stone-interview-1096204/.
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York. Harper. 2015.
Kennedy, X.J. and Gioia, Dana (Eds.). An Introduction to Literature (7th Edition). New York. Longman. 1999.
Bush, David. Interview. Conducted by Gabriel Rhenals. November 4, 2022.