There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a beer over there, telling me I’ve got to raise my standards for film criticism and online content. The man is Christopher Heron, founder of an independently produced, Toronto-based online video magazine that delves into relatively unexplored areas of cinema; he has dubbed this project The Seventh Art.
Issues are released monthly and include thoughtful video essays, in-depth interviews with filmmakers, as well as profiles on other aspects of the film industry such as funding and distribution. It’s barely been in existence for half a year and has already featured acclaimed filmmakers such as Peter Bogdanovich, Bruce McDonald and Guy Maddin. What’s even more impressive than the quality of the product is the fact that they manage to provide it at no cost to the consumer. I turned the tables on Heron (who also conducts the lengthy interviews) to learn more about how they’ve been pulling this impressive task off.
Dork Shelf: Tell me a little about the inception of The Seventh Art
Christopher Heron: Well I had just finished a Masters in Cinema Studies and I really love examining cinema at length but I also don’t like some of the pitfalls that come with academia, so the goal was to create something that filled a niche that was not already filled. Namely, that it would have depth and complexity but it would also be accessible to as many people as possible, which is something that we’ve tried to do with annotations, cutting interviews up into smaller segments and the fact that on the Internet there’s no barrier to entry, there’s no cost.
DS: What have been the biggest challenges with putting this together every month?
CH: Well there are a number of challenges. Getting someone you want that just happens to be in town, that’s always going to be a challenge. There’s the fact that it is a significant production that we have kind of foolhardily assigned ourselves to do every month because there’s just so much work that goes into it. The biggest challenge is still probably marketing. The other aspect of the Internet is that you are in a sea of content and to differentiate your content is especially difficult when you’re only putting something out once a month. We’re modeling after a magazine in the sense that you get a magazine and you’re not expected to read it in one day. But on the other hand, the way people consume content online is that it needs to come out every day and drive them back to that place and remind them that it exists, so we’re developing a system where we release it all at once and then through social media and the website reiterate the different sections to remind people that they’re there and that seems to be working. Again we’ve decided to do something that is completely different from anything else out there and that’s going to create challenges in getting people to develop a familiarity with the form.
It’s equally exciting because I get to see the reactions that people have to the video essays which I’m tremendously happy with because you think that they’re somewhat heady affairs, and they are, but I don’t believe that we should assume people don’t have attention spans which is what most online content creators believe; if it’s longer than two minutes and if it’s not completely dumbed down then you’re not going to have an audience, but I don’t think that’s true at all and we get to prove it with the success of something like the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo essay. People will be intrigued if the argument is clear and concise, and that’s an entire battle that exists, which is what is a video essay supposed to be? And there are certainly contingencies on the Internet that I disagree with wholeheartedly that believe a video essay is about the bottom line of getting people to watch it ergo you’ll get video essays that are actually just reviews of the latest Mad Men episode or a “video essay” that has no narration over the video putting forth a thesis and explaining it like you would expect of an essay. It’s merely like “here are a bunch of shots that I crammed together you can decide if there’s meaning there”, which is more the territory of art but these are being put forth as essays, and to me, that’s not what I want.
DS: Do you plan on eventually monetizing the magazine or selling ads on it?
CH: Well I don’t think that we’d be opposed to it, we’ve worked with sponsors already, which is nice. It’s mostly, as with any project in the new climate of creative projects online that you want to cover costs and if you get anything more that’s fair but I don’t think at any point it was created with the expectation of making money, it was more to create something that didn’t already exist.
DS: But it’s become a part time job for you…
CH: It’s more than that, it’s full time. It’s part time in the sense that it’s after full time jobs but it takes up the rest of the day. That’s the byproduct of it being a monthly thing; people don’t realize how much time it takes to put these together. You’re basically colour correcting, editing, shooting, writing… all of these things are traditionally understood to be for TV shows or film and no one would bat an eye at the amount of work that goes into those. We’re basically doing the same thing so it’s not quite like a magazine in that sense.
DS: This is where you bring in collaborators…
CH: Sure, we wanted there to be a strong editorial voice but we didn’t want it ever be a one person show, that’s what we deliberately started it not to be. My voice is in there in the interviews and the stuff I write and you’ve got the voice of different writers for the video essays but you also have the editing and the producing and the directing. At every stage somebody is exerting influence on what we do, if it’s Brian Robertson determining what bars we’re going to be shooting in…
DS: So Brian’s the bar-tester?
CH: Yeah well we all are, everything is collaborative. For instance Brian as a producer is integral in finding the talent and locations, shooting intros and helping on set. Pavan Moondi is responsible for directing, arranging talent and even a lot of our editing. Then you have our regular collaborators: Chris Clifford, our DP, who’s responsible for how most interviews look. We have had help from Bryan Atkinson, Simone Smith and Scott Matthews as editors. There is a real collaboration at every level.
DS: It must feel somewhat vindicating to have these people volunteering their time and services simply because they have faith in the project.
CH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that a lot of people are excited when we mention what we do. I mean it is difficult and I think that’s the motif at this point is that it’s difficult to do, but it’s worth doing. It’s worth doing especially because we may have forgotten that a lot of our relationship with cinema is mediated by DVDs and the home video market so what we’ve always had is special features and what we’re doing is essentially producing special features every month. That may seem redundant but as everything moves to VOD or OTT services you don’t get those things, you don’t get that contextual content.
DS: But it seems like these aren’t for people who would watch the average studio-made DVD extra features, but more for the cinephiles that seek out the more in-depth Criterion treatments.
CH: It’s true, but I think we aren’t exactly like that. I take your point about the depth of them but for instance the centrepiece interviews, I don’t think that there’s a DVD producer out there that’s ever done anything like that; having that length of an interview, not really cutting it, as far as cutting out material, and that kind of goes towards its accessibility. We do want to open it up to people who maybe don’t know about it. The other thing is when you are buying or renting a DVD you’ve presumably watched the film and liked it, whereas, because our stuff is for free online, we’re always aware that there is a portion of the audience that maybe are not familiar with the films and that this is their entry point to them.
DS: Yeah, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen any Guy Maddin films… especially after watching your interview I was like ‘man I gotta get on that.’
CH: We’ve heard that, not just with Guy but in general, and I’m happy because another thing we wanted to move away from was qualitative criticism, namely reviews and the process of canonization that exists where, when you hear of a director like Guy Maddin, you only are introduced to what are considered the best films and you maybe don’t have the same desire to check out the rest because they don’t have that five star review on whatever site. But when you’re dealing with these interviews that span bodies of work you realize that there’s value in everything at different levels. Whether the final film is a complete success is almost irrelevant and that’s something that we’re kind of moving into with the video essays as well, where the analysis is never about whether this is a great movie that you have to see, it’s more like this is one really interesting aspect of the film that we’re going to analyze. I would stand behind every single film we’ve used in the video essays as being an outstanding film but it could just as easily not be and still necessitate a video essay.
DS: I really enjoyed how last month’s video essay contextualized the critically maligned Godfather Part III.
CH: That’s kind of a little bit of a salvo in the sense that it’s our first kind of throw against reviews. It was savaged when it came out because people had to review it and they didn’t have the luxury of stepping outside of the moment and I think that’s what has recuperated it, is the length of time that’s gone by. Now when you watch Godfather III, if you’re watching it for the first time and you know nothing about it I don’t think you’d have that same expectation that those reviewers did. And the other thing is that the Internet, as much as it is an amazing resource and the reason we’re doing this, it’s also primarily responsible for everybody becoming a movie reviewer. It’s wearing very thin.
DS: Being based in Toronto you’ve talked to a lot of Canadian filmmakers, is that part of your mandate or just circumstantial? Would you prefer to get more international filmmakers?
CH: International filmmakers are definitely an interest, I wouldn’t say it’s a mandate but I also wouldn’t say it’s the opposite. I wouldn’t say we’re just going with who is available to us, I think that everyone we’ve covered is a valuable filmmaker worthy of consideration. You’re always going to be limited to a certain extent by who is available when you physically require them to be there but I don’t think there’s a mandate at any level. I think when you deal with mandates you start to lose that ability to move in new directions with what you’re covering or how you’re covering it and I wouldn’t want, for instance, to only cover filmmakers that I love unabashedly because that would appeal presumably only to myself but it would also discount our own discovery of filmmakers whose films we didn’t watch all of. There are always gaps, there are certainly films from each of the filmmakers we’ve covered that I hadn’t seen prior to interviewing them and I think that’s again a valuable experience because it allows you to get rid of that qualitative judgment, even if a film isn’t considered particularly great, if you want to talk to someone about their career, it is important. And that goes back to Andrew Sarris talking about misconceptions with the auteur theory. One of the interesting things about the French study of a director’s body of work was that it was never about ‘are all the films great?’ and I guess that played into a little bit of Sarris. Sarris was more qualitative, I like that style of movie fandom that was an aesthetic interest. Like when you’re dealing with a director’s complete body of work, you become more interested with the form than you would be if you were just randomly watching the film. That’s something that I don’t think should be limited to certain directors. So realistically we could just interview anyone that came to town and I think that there would be a value at some level in every single one of those interviews.
DS: When you interviewed Bogdanovich, was there any less pressure in knowing that there’s so much to talk about with him?
CH: It was probably the opposite. We tend to speak in depth, in an interview like that you can still be in depth but you can’t be in depth about everything so you have to pick and choose and that’s a little more difficult. There’s definitely a sweet spot where there’s not too few films but not too many and it allows you to speak in depth about each of them in a satisfying way. The Bogdanovich interview on the other hand is great for that same reason because it becomes more accessible when you can’t really go in depth to the same degree. There were certainly films that I had an agenda that I wanted to talk about. To go back to the mandate question, one thing we do want to do is to create interviews that are not simply junket interviews that regurgitate the same things. We want them to have an evergreen quality and to be artifacts that will have value years down the line because you’re talking about things that weren’t addressed. It’s not hard, you would think maybe with someone like Peter Bogdanovich it would be.
I did a significant amount of research about people who have interviewed him before we sat down with him and I can confidently say that some of those were answers that I’d never seen or heard in anything else. Beyond that it allows there to be a depth that creates a great relationship with the director. Like when you said would someone stand up and leave, I don’t think that would happen because a lot of people don’t realize that most artists are treated extremely poorly by 95% of the media they have to deal with. It sounds sad but there’s initial appreciation simply of just having seen the film you’re talking about. You can see in the Jean-Marc Vallée interview his kind of visual shock at simply my having seen the films. He’s not someone with a gigantic body of work, but it says something about the state of the media.
DS: How do choose/ find the video essays?
CH: I wish that there was a rhyme or reason but it’s just whatever we feel passionate about at the time or whatever people we work with have submitted. We have started a system now where we do two a month, we’ve tried a pair a better known film with a lesser known one so you get both sides of the value of the video essay which is a close examination of a film that maybe has never been examined that way. So for example Moneyball or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, literally no one is bothering to look closely at those films, which is ridiculous to me because they’re two films made by directors of some repute as craftsmen and again it’s speaking to what do you talk about in your review? You talk about baseball or you talk about the books with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or remakes, so it’s fun to take a closer approach to these objects that maybe some people feel aren’t worthy of the attention. On the other hand it’s really great to show films that people haven’t seen and maybe that’s going to be the impetus for them to check out Pedro Costa or to check out surveillance camera cinema.
DS: Since monetizing isn’t a priority, would you say the main motivation for marketing and exposure would be to get filmmakers more interested in taking part?
CH: We enjoy immensely the actual process of having the conversation, the creative opportunities that exist in the editing and the shooting and the writing when it comes to the video essay and that’s enough of a reward because at the end of every month I can look at it and be incredibly proud of what we’re doing regardless of whether people are watching it. Because I know that when it was set up it was set up to be unlike anything else out there and that way when I’m saying that I really don’t like all of the reviews that exist on the Internet, I’m not just complaining, I can point to an example of something I work on that is trying to offer an alternative.