“The Amazing Catfish” is only one of the many small films opening in and around this summer studio tentpoles, but it’s getting tougher to see any of them in a theater.
We all know that, in the real world, art is inextricably bound up with commerce and has been for centuries (at least). But art is even more closely tied to technology and has been for millennia ... tens or even hundreds of millennia. Quoting from the archive of Archaeological Institute of America: “The discovery of pigment in an early Middle Stone Age deposit in Zambia suggests that early humans engaged in body painting rituals as early as 400,000 years ago.” The earliest pigments may have been naturally occurring — blood, fruit juice, soft mineral deposits — but the subsequent chisels, brushes, and engraving tools didn’t make themselves. They were once as fresh and new as last week’s photo manipulation cellphone app.
It’s just that technology moves a tad faster nowadays. These words are not being written with ink, pencil or blood (except metaphorically speaking). So let’s skip over Gutenberg, Eastman and Philo Farnsworth and fast forward to our own young millennium. It’s not a news flash that digital technology has changed everything, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and often in directions impossible to immediately predict or determine.
Thanks to the advent of digital cinema, filmmaking became vastly cheaper than it had been for a hundred years. It’s hard not to see the resultant democratization of film — no longer really an accurate word — as a good thing. No need to kiss up to some studio boss or banker or even your rich parents. The means of production are now affordable to anyone making more than minimum wage.
We have that to thank for the emergence of, say, Shane Carruth, who made the remarkable “Primer” for an alleged $7,000. But for every Carruth there are a hundred talentless hopefuls making movies on their digicams or even cellphones.
Among the downsides is the sheer flooding of the aesthetic marketplace. The indie revolution is a wonderful thing, but it has resulted in the number of theatrical releases — in L.A., at least — more than doubling in a few decades. In terms of sheer quantity, the chaff grows at a faster rate than the wheat. Foreign and indie films with any hope of attracting an audience used to have several weeks to do so. Now only a tiny fraction get that opportunity. Many that would have had a chance — and many more that deserve aesthetically are worthy of one — get a week on a local screen before joining the overwhelming number available through cable, disc, and digital download.
There are only a dozen new titles opening on Friday, which makes this a slow week; the number is more often 20, give or take a few. “The Amazing Catfish” (opening at the Playhouse 7) is the smallest of small films — a simple, gently poignant Mexican movie about a young woman with no family and an empty life being absorbed into a family with problems of its own. It’s good — not great — but engaging and emotionally affecting.
The problem isn’t just the big studio films — “Jersey Boys” and “Think Like a Man Too” — which aren’t even playing in the same ballpark.
The problem is the competition within the art-house world. How long will such a film last up against “The Last Sentence,” a controversial drama from Oscar-nominated Swedish director Jan Troell? Or the clever mini-budgeted sci-fi puzzle movie “Coherence”? Or the multi-award-winning Dutch thriller “Borgman”? More to the point, how long can any of them thrive against each other and the five or six other competitors for the same small pool of ticket buyers?
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).