Homemade tributes to Hollywood classics turn blockbusters into folk cinema. The studios can’t decide whether they are terrified or charmed by the trend
Princess Leia is in a tight spot. Grand Moff Tarkin has informed her of her impending execution and the activation of the Death Star. Our heroine is defiant: "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers!" Only it’s not Carrie Fisher on screen but a grandmother in a white bathrobe and brown ear-muffs, standing in a front room, reading from a cue card. She’s awfully cute. She’s also a harbinger of the end of Hollywood as we know it.
This senior Leia appears in Star Wars Uncut, a shot-by-shot remake in which a legion of amateurs recreated George Lucas‘s feature one 15-second chunk at a time, in styles ranging from lo-fi home movie to psychedelic animation and drag pastiche. Fusing the original’s dramatic momentum, the hyperactive attention span of online moving-image consumption and the heartwarming fellow-feeling of true fandom, it’s the first YouTube masterpiece.
Star Wars Uncut plays next weekend in Swede Dreams, a London mini-festival of homemade tributes to Hollywood titles. Alongside numerous shorts, the line-up also includes Night of the Living Dead Reanimated, an all-animation equivalent of Star Wars Uncut; Flooding with Love for the Kid, a version of First Blood made by one solitary guy in a studio apartment; Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings’s feature about two kids recreating First Blood in English 80s suburbia; and the film that inspired Swede Dreams, Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. In that movie, Jack Black and Mos Def pass off DIY imitations of studio favourites as Swedish editions; their ramshackle production process is called "sweding". Eventually, they learn that there is more pleasure in putting their own ideas on screen for a friendly audience, however imperfectly, than in passively consuming big-budget releases.
That lesson has found an army of adherents. Today, you can sample innumerable sweded movies online: Will Tribble’s 60-second, single-take versions of Kill Bill and Forrest Gump; Lee Hardcastle’s Claymation version of The Thing; the 119 shorts so far created for the California-based SwedeFest, from Citizen Kane to The Hunger Games. The practice has become popular in film and media studies classes worldwide; Gondry has even sweded the trailer to his own film.
Such videos – at least the good ones – are generally received with the kind of indulgent affection that might greet a child’s made-up play; after all, they tap into a childlike love of dressing up and playing make-believe. But to stop there would be to miss the fact that sweded movies are a form of talking back to Hollywood. Along with recut trailers and "supercuts" of familiar tropes, they represent a fledgling digital moving-image culture that presents a radical challenge to the mainstream movie industry. They are created as fun for fans but the ideas of entitlement and agency underpinning these videos will shape how we all consume – and produce – moving images in the 21st century. They are a taste of what comes after Hollywood.
When the movies started, they had the power of gods: the Lumières’ oncoming train, we’re told, had audiences scrambling in fear of their lives. For half a century, moving images were received monumentally and in supplication; the star system conferred on actors an Olympian aura and scale while the only control a viewer had was to decide when to enter or leave the auditorium. Television brought moving images into the home and a generation grew up with them as part of the domestic landscape – less Olympian, more accessible to the insatiable appetites of movie brats such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but still impervious to the viewer’s agency beyond the on-off switch.
Then came home video. Suddenly, you could choose to watch whatever whenever; more than that, you could freeze it, make it run backwards, play it again. Those movie brats were now making movies of their own – in many ways, movies about movies – and a generation grew up treating their creations like storybooks, to be opened and enjoyed at will. Their mythic adventure stories colonised the imagination of this new generation and took on folkloric qualities of universal recognition and, more problematically, universal ownership.
For video technology expanded the ability to make moving images as well as to consume them. Some began to express their devotion to studio output through laboriously imitative projects akin to those once undertaken by pilgrims or apprentice painters: the urtext of sweding is Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a scene-by-scene remake shot by three Mississippi teenagers over seven years from 1982, sometimes under decidedly perilous circumstances. This videotape culture also constitutes the fertile underpinnings of Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow, the foundational texts of digital-era sweding.
The digital era brings with it several seismic developments: that spirit of ownership over certain sentimentally charged stories slides into a sense of entitlement to access any and all moving images on demand, preferably for free; the production of moving images grows exponentially cheaper and easier; and, with web 2.0, global channels of distribution and exhibition become available to anyone with a digital camera and a broadband connection.
The studios are rightly panicked about online piracy, which hollows out the industrial model of production and consumption on which cinema’s first century was based. But that model is moribund. Formerly, film and TV were separated from other art forms by their requirement for industrial-level equipment and huge sums of money. That has changed. We are at the dawn of a new era of folk cinema, created and consumed outside the parameters of the studio model – though, as ours is a cinema-saturated culture, studio output is currently the dominant influence on this new form of expression.
Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones and John Rambo are this era’s King Arthur, Beowulf and Robin Hood – and sweding represents a playful and heartfelt engagement with their myths. Those repeated viewings of Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies in the bosom of the home are surely at the root of both their popularity as subjects to be revisited and the extreme reactions to Lucas and Spielberg’s own cack-handed updatings of their creations. These efforts inspire feelings not just of disappointment but of violation: it’s striking how often rape is evoked in supposedly comic rebuttals, from the South Park episode lambasting Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the song George Lucas Raped Our Childhood featured in the documentary The People Vs George Lucas.
But now aggrieved fans have the means to talk back to power on its own terms – see, for instance, the video The Star Wars That I Used to Know, which combines anti-Lucas sentiment with Gotye‘s music. The same sense of media-savvy pushback is evident in trailers that reconfigure The Shining as a family comedy or Mrs Doubtfire as a stalker horror; and in supercuts that point out how much Julianne Moore likes to cry or how often the word "fuck" is used in The Big Lebowski. All of these are laced with familiarity with, and often affection for, their sources; long gone, however, is the deference once associated with cinema, the sense that it is an exclusive realm reserved for glamorous stars or expert technicians.
Even within the sphere of sweding, the reverential imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation seems quaint. Star Wars Uncut and Night of the Living Dead Reanimated generally hew close to their sources’ framing and screenplays but riff expansively on their visual styles; Flooding With Love for the Kid was conceived explicitly as a rebuttal to what its maker, Zachary Oberzan, perceived as the failure of the 1982 film of First Blood to do justice to David Morrell’s novel. Even Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow, though studio-made, play fast and loose with their mainstream sources and revel in the shared audience experience. These are the things that Swede Dreams aims to celebrate.
Studio panic over online piracy is like railway companies a century ago fretting over train robberies but ignoring the invention of the automobile. Or, to put it another way, Hollywood is to today’s digital film culture what theatre was to early cinema: a convenient model for imitation from which the new form inevitably diverges as its own unique strengths became apparent.
The most exciting expressions of this nascent moving-image culture are yet to emerge but they will expand the aura of cinema to more people in more ways than the old industrial model could imagine. They will have more in common with that grandmother in ear-muffs than with Carrie Fisher on a studio set. Sweding might seem like an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, it’s a new hope.
Swede Dreams, programmed by Ben Walters, is at the Roxy Bar and Screen, London SE1 on 28 and 29 July. See roxybarandscreen.com for details
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