Web Slingers

Web Slingers -
Rebecca Rodriguez and other short-film makers find a new home on the Internet.
Brian Libby, Willamette Week

It's a lazy, showery Portland afternoon, but Rebecca Rodriguez is beaming. Less than a year ago, Rodriguez was a struggling actress scarcely known outside Portland's insular film community. But today she's a filmmaker whose name is bouncing around Hollywood like a volleyball. Rodriguez's fast lane to prominence illustrates an exciting new marriage between short film and the Internet. Although shorts can be as tantalizing and brilliant as any multi-hour opus, until recently most have gone unseen outside of film festivals and occasional screenings at places like the Northwest Film Center. But the medium has found a new home on the Internet, where its brevity makes for an easy download and can hold a fickle web surfer's attention from start to finish. Not only do the Internet and technology like iMac's desktop editing software help do-it-yourselfers make and exhibit short films cheaply, but it's also helped filmmakers like Rodriguez find the kind of attention in a few months that would normally take years. "I go from periods of extreme anxiety to extreme elation," says Rodriguez of her experience. "I'm trying to just enjoy this, but I have a really clear sense that at any moment it could turn into nothing."

Log onto reelshort.com, a popular site operated by Universal Studios, and you'll find a free download for Rodriguez's Soul Collectors. Clocking in at seven minutes and set on a damp, rocky swatch of Oregon coastline, the film chronicles an alternate version of the afterlife where one's soul is gathered up by what appear to be celestial garbage men clad in coveralls. Like Rodriguez's other short, Floater--the story of foreplay interrupted when one lover needs to take a shit and the toilet won't flush away the evidence--Soul Collectors emerges beyond its bare-bones plot with an unbridled sense of perversity. Like an impish schoolgirl, Rodriguez loves to stare down solemn taboos and laugh them off.

Although Soul Collectors and Floater were not do-it-yourself projects (Rodriguez employed an experienced crew), she completed filming of both in a single weekend and promptly sent them to the Seattle Film Festival, where they caught the attention of reelshort.com and Atom Films. Soon Soul Collectors was a fan favorite on reelshort.com, and Cinemax began asking about Floater. That led to meetings with Universal's senior vice-president of production about directing a feature.
But while Rodriguez's rise has been meteoric, it's not completely unplanned. "There are two really important aspects to the process: Creativity and business," she says. "These people aren't looking to discover the next filmmaker. They've got a business to run. I thought about that before I made those films. I wanted things to work to my advantage."

While there's no doubt the Internet has created exciting new opportunities for filmmakers and film fans, many of the well-known sites are, like Hollywood studios, geared toward more commercial fare. Take 405, a fan favorite on ifilms.com that chronicles a jumbo jet's crash landing on a Los Angeles freeway. Made by special-effects technicians Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, 405 is dazzling, hilarious and very smart. But it's also a calculated move to ascend the ladder of feature filmmaking. You won't see these guys on the small screen again anytime soon. "If you want to just be a filmmaker and express [yourself] using film, then go out and shoot a red dot for two hours," says Rodriguez. "But if you want to get a meeting with Universal or Amblin or whoever, if you want to get the big agent and get the big movie deal, you have to position yourself. You have to ask yourself what kind of film is going to attract attention."

Like anything else on the Internet, finding more challenging fare outside the mainstream takes a lot of searching. But for those willing to look, there are more opportunities than ever for people to see the kind of experimental and avant-garde film and video that in the past would never have reached Portland. And it's not just for your computer. There's a growing movement called "microcinema" that uses web-streaming technology to view noncommercial film and video in a communal, theater-like atmosphere. Here in Portland, for example, Stumptown Coffee offers "Internet Film Night," where you watch webcast movies over cappuccino with friends. Whether you're an aspiring Hollywood player, lover of film, Internet junkie or underground dweller, the Web provides an opportunity that can't be ignored. But the tension between artistic integrity and commercial feasibility remains. The Internet is just another arena for the ongoing struggle.

Willamette Weekly 2000


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