Maryland Film Festival is an exceptionally collegial one. It’s on the Northeast Corridor, easily accessible by train, so lots of New York-based filmmakers come down for it. It’s a noncompetitive festival (no awards, no juries), so it sparks no sense of competition. Its main annual event, the Filmmakers Taking Charge Conference, is a daylong gathering of those whose work is being presented in the festival, plus some other participants in the independent-film world, including distributors, programmers, publicists, and critics (I was one of them). The discussion takes place behind closed doors and is strictly off the record, so everyone on hand speaks freely about personal and business matters (which, of course, in the world of independent filmmaking, often intersect), and bonds by way of this frank talk and sudden mutual familiarity. What’s more, the independent-filmmaking scene, in which filmmakers work together, participate in each other’s projects, and lend each other a hand, is by its very nature a collegial one of shared aspirations and mutual appreciation.
Yet with collegiality and community comes the risk of complacency, of pride in mere belonging, of a sense of a community that’s both self-selecting and exclusive. It’s a risk that finds its double in a technical peculiarity of independent filmmaking, the crisis of image resolution. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, the producer’s representative John Pierson godfathered an entire generation of independent filmmakers (his book about the experience is “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes”). When he founded his production company, he called it Grainy Pictures, because the grain of 16-mm. film that was underlit, due to scant time and money, was a distinguishing mark of independent filmmaking. Grain and technical roughness in all dimensions of filmmaking were a sign of spontaneity, immediacy, and authenticity. But now an ordinary cell phone features a video camera of a quality similar to that of the highest-grade professional-level video cameras of a decade ago, which means that the default of low-budget filmmaking is no longer a rough image but a smooth one. Any grain on film is the product of a self-conscious and conspicuously chosen and crafted artifice; and the world of independent filmmaking runs the risk of a frictionlessness akin to that of its instantaneously high-tech images.
That’s where the festival’s screening of “My Last Film,” directed by Zia Anger and starring Lola Kirke, Kelly Rohrbach, and Rosanna Arquette, comes in. Nothing I’ve recently seen matches its moment-to-moment fury of pure imagination. It starts with the classic independent-film trope of an actor confronting the trials of her art and her business, but quickly veers off into comic dimensions that I don’t even dare hint at for fear of spoiling its joyful surprises. “My Last Film,” as its title promises, is a sort of comic cinematic apocalypse, something like Anger’s version of Chantal Akerman’s first film, “Saute Ma Ville,” a drolly pugnacious and pain-seared outburst of frustration at the amiable and decorous quasi-professionalism of the world of art cinema and independent filmmaking. It’s a sort of Grand Guignol of genre and genrelessness, in which the very branding of independent film, the circuit of artistic practice and critical terminology, the very pride in self-motivated creation, are undone with a radical derision that’s matched by an original style, one aided and realized by the audacious camerawork of Ashley Connor. I’m deeply impatient to see a feature by Anger—if that’s the direction that her inspiration pushes her.
What if the systems that have developed around independent films—including wondrously humane ones such as this very film festival—risk congealing into another set of norms? What if, in a time of YouTube and streaming video, the pipeline-hustle of seeking distribution and awaiting theatrical release, as well as the prospect of standing hat-in-hand before the gatekeepers of release and review, suddenly seem antithetical to the spirit of the cinema itself? And what if, as a result, the contours and (as James Gray calls it) the architecture of the feature film itself appear, to an audacious creative spirit, as a needless obstacle to free-spirited and constant creation, to the surface-tearing and screen-rending immediacy, the perpetual crisis that makes independent cinema necessary and keeps it vital? Feature filmmaking won’t end any time soon—it’s what most filmmakers, no less than critics, love—but it may begin to change, for instance, arising out of clusters of short films (as “collective: unconscious” does), to shrink, or to grow into double-wide vehicles, such as Bruno Dumont’s “Li’l Quinquin,” made of a collection of episodes of fifty minutes or less. Though Anger’s short comedy may well find its place in the cinematic ecology, and Anger herself should find a place in the realm of production, she nonetheless looks past the current world of independent cinema with a spirit of revulsion and revolt that’s majestically energizing.