Some Thoughts on CLOUDS
By Don Thompson

With the film CLOUDS behind me, as well as the often painful but marvelous process of creating the film, I felt compelled to write about that process, and about what the intentions behind CLOUDS are and were. I'd like to talk about the critical response to the film, the nature of independent filmmaking today, and then move to wider considerations of the relationship between film and society, as a reflection on the current state of things, so to speak.

Many people spoke of CLOUDS as a spiritual film, although I didn't really see it that way. I don't really in fact see myself as a religious person per se -- certainly not in the narrow definition of the term often associated with religion -- but just a person with unique and individual experiences, and those experiences rising out of my mind and perception of reality. As such it would be fair to call me spiritual to the extent my experience is spritual - but under that definition all people are spiritual. Suffice it to say that I believe it is the "spiritual" nature of CLOUDS that some critics found so off-putting, even while others embraced the film and were open to it. The film has always been to me a grand Rorschach test, a kind of mirror that reflects back on the viewer more about themselves than about the film. As such, the film is primarily an absence, as it invites the viewer to imbue it with their own mind, rather than to shove and bully its way into one's consciousness. CLOUDS is patently anti-violent in its style; it meanders leisurely down its course, and does not push the audience along.

So much of the critical reaction to the film was then, I feel, as much a reflection of the reviewer as of the film, given that reaction to the film was broad and diverse. Certainly there have been other recent films that have generated this kind of diverse reaction. DANCER IN THE DARK comes to mind immediately, and more recently Ethan Hawke's CHELSEA WALLS (at least its festival reaction). And one could say all films are in fact this way to some degree or another. To me, CLOUDS generated extremes of opinion that were surprising, to say the least. Some reviews reflected out-and-out hatred, and left me wondering what that hatred was all about. Now if everybody hated the film that would be one thing, but when others tell you how marvelous and beautiful and remarkable your film is, and others hate it, that's another.

The issue really is to me broader than CLOUDS and the specific reaction to the film, but I think rather reflects more generally on the state of independent film, of art and society in general. First, CLOUDS was deliberately anachronistic and patently aiming to push the buttons of so-called progressive intellectuals who in reality have become the status quo of the supposed "independent" film movement. The independent film movement is pretty much dead in the U.S. (although there are some dim hopes of its resurrection), and has in reality become the bastard child of Hollywood and pretty much serves, explicitly and implicitly, the requirements of its corporate masters, AKA, "the marketplace."

But how can I say independent film in the U.S. is dead? Certainly independent films are made, shown, screened, win awards and distribution, and go on to put their mark on society. Even CLOUDS in its own way is a sign that independent film is not dead. What I mean is that truly independent cinema is rarely seen by a broad audience in this country, and that the mediators between art and the wider community barely exist, and that the structures and institutions that should support independent artists and cinema are dysfunctional.

These mediators should exist on many levels in an alive and vibrant independent cinema, but primarily they must be represented by producers and distributors who rediscover the meaning of courage. Moreover, a critical community that rediscovers its own courage by embracing unknowns and not just sanctifying those already sanctified.

What disappointed me about some of the critical response to CLOUDS is that the film seemed like such an easy target, and that some of that response seemed to be a turf mentality reaction to quotes used by non-mainstream press in the initial advertising of the film. My gut tells me that placing a full-page ad in the New York Times prior to opening (which we did), and to have quotes from non-mainstream New York reviewers was not, in hindsight, wise and that New York mainstream reviewers reacted accordingly. But if this was the case, which it might not be, then why? The one thing I am certain of is that it isn't because CLOUDS is a bad film.

Let's even assume, as many believe, that CLOUDS is a great film. So why the hatred? As I said, I made the film to be deliberately anachronistic and to counter some trends both in independent film and society at large in the following ways:

First, the film is not cynical, but assumes idealistically that people can and want to seek some measure of beauty and truth, and that human beings are in fact capable of understanding and grasping what those words mean.

Second, the film lacks violent and quick editing. The audience is invited into the space of the scene rather than pummeled forward. We in the west seem to squirm in silence, as we have been so trained by advertising and mainstream media that an empty space is suspect, wasted -- an inefficient use of film real estate.

Third the film is reflective, not superficial. It demands thought and does not tell you what to feel or think.

Fourth the film invites the viewer to an epiphany beyond language and in fact beyond the film itself. An epiphany that a) not everyone is open to or b) not everyone believes is possible or c) not everyone understands.

Fifth the film pretends at philosophy. It assumes philosophy is appropriate and fertile territory for exploration for film, and not just set-dressing for yet another dissection of more common themes -- that ideas can in fact still have an impact, and that in fact there are ideas yet to be explored, discovered and integrated into society.

Sixth and most importantly, the film is feminine. Men sometimes hated the film because embodied in its theme and style is a wholly feminine view of the world. While the central character of CLOUDS is a white male, he is nonetheless "passive" and the focus of the film is on compassion, sacrifice, the primacy of image over language, an emphasis on natural context over plot-driven narrative, and the embrace of the cyclic and the whole rather than the linear and mathematic. All of these elements conspire to assault the male mindset that has come to dominate the world and particularly an American culture bent on beating the consumer mentality into every single soul on this planet. Often the nature of that beating takes the form of hyper-stimulating cinema that bruises the psyche as it numbs us into consumer automatons.

As such, CLOUDS was essentially a non-violent protest against the current cinema. A sit in, if you will, against the mainstream media, but also against all the progressives who focus narrowly focus on the (sometimes important) issues of sexual identity and adolescent rebellion instead of more pressing and salient issues of spiritual emptiness, political apathy and social injustice that if addressed in a vibrant independent cinema could form the basis for real and relevant social change.

In other words, if independent cinema somehow means rebellion against mainstream cinema, then it means rebellion that is massaged, manipulated, and appropriately packaged for consumption. It is a rebellion that is in fact often co-opted by Hollywood, and often trivializes violence and sets to make us uncaring and callous, and thus easy fodder for a political/corporate machine that sees us more as statistics than human beings. It's the Coliseum all over: feed them stupid media and television, drain their psyches so they'll never organize politically or otherwise. CLOUDS, indirectly and covertly, is a film that undermines the mindset that supports that world -- that is, a mindset of cynical manipulation, hatred of nature and of the feminine (for fear of loss of control), fear of intimacy, and the embrace of consumerism over humanism.

I will posit that that mindset has made us such a slave to the so-called marketplace that many of the supposed progressive reviewers of the more enlightened mainstream press -- be that The New York Times or The Village Voice or whoever -- have in fact become their opposite: conservative and intolerant protectors of the status quo. Ironically, this adherence to the status quo is guised as tolerance, a faux permissiveness that tolerates rebellion against social norms in increasingly antisocial ways -- all in the service of a kind of never-ending adolescence that seems required to keep consumerism churning along. It is this adolescent idea of freedom without idealism or responsibility that turns on itself and becomes self-destructive.

I am not talking about a return to Victorian morality, but rather a return to the idea that being an adult is a good thing: that we as a society need to grow up, because not growing up has many implications, including an abusive global economy, trashed environment and entrenched social injustice. We can no longer afford our extended adolescence where personal desire is given precedence over global well-being, and all in the name of freedom and democracy.

Does this mean I don't support social tolerance and freedom? No, it means that social tolerance taken to its selfish extreme means continuing to push the envelope of tolerance until the point where we will tolerate self-destruction. Thus arises the abuse of free speech in irresponsible ways, exploiting the dark side of human nature because we are titillated by that -- and touting all of this cynically under the guise of free expression. Yet one realizes on analysis that such expression is well-crafted to ensure that it doesn't undermine the corporate monoliths that market, distribute and profit from that expression. Just as abstract art is so well accepted in the lobbies of Wall Street brokerages, so films like BLOW sit well with the cineplexes of suburbia: castrated rebelliousness, no longer wicked, but nostalgic, safe and effectively commodified.

That is the nature of the beast. The beast is, in essence, our own lack of self awareness, and for those that are aware enough, that they use that awareness to more effectively manipulate, market, and profit from ignorance and the darkest venues of the mind. The beast is lack of courage, and belief that courage somehow can no longer fit into the equation when it comes to anything, because courage will ultimately mean sacrifice and loss of profits. And if courage is discussed, it's in hindsight; if you believe Speilberg and Randall Wallace, all the heroes died in WW II, in PEARL HARBOR and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. God forbid we would be courageous now, and question the slavery to things that we tout in the name of freedom.

That CLOUDS attempted to stir up within the minds of its audience reactions that ultimately question many assumptions about ourselves and our society made it unsafe and to some, unacceptable. To others, they found such questioning to be refreshing and mysterious, an exploration that buttressed and supported their own journey. And that to me is the ultimate gratification: to see that you as an artist have connected with another human being. That in a moment of intimate expression it is possible to whisper in the ears of so many people in a darkened theater that I do care. That I do care about their suffering, and in my own perhaps futile way would like to help heal them and through that process heal myself.

July, 2001

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