"BOOM" Tactics:

Surviving the New San Francisco, Soul Intact

excerpted from FAF's RELEASE PRINT February, 2001

by Liz Canning

Whether it was a dream or a nightmare has yet to be determined. These are relative terms. It kind of depends on what you wake up to, doesn't it? I am referring to the years I spent entirely occupied with making my feature film, putting off all (realistic) career-related concerns, teaching public school to get by, going into debt, producing an "ambitious," "challenging," fabulously noncommercial film. When I pulled my head out of the deep sand of creative obsession, I found myself a single woman in her (ouch!) thirties with little to no "professional" experience, living in a city, San Francisco, that had changed drammatically, a city that placed very different demands on me financially, professionally and artistically.

I was lucky to find a position a Film Arts Foundation as the festival director/exhibitions coordinator, which allowed me to make creative use of my filmaking experience while providing me with health insurance and the best co-workers in the world. I was part of what's left of the radical San Francisco filmaking community, and I figured that during the non-festival season I would have time to re-cut and distribute my feature. Then I got evicted.

After the shock wore off, I moved to Marin County, because I am more isnpired by nature and bicycle riding than by anything going on in the city. But I still found myself paying double my old rent, so I've been looking for a second job and pondering the old question: how does one "let the creative juices flow" when mere survival is so distracting? As filmaker Caveh Zahedi said to me, the financial strain imposed by the new economy "limits the amount of time for making art, with all of the concomitant activities that requires: resting, relaxing, having time to think, daydreaming, and so forth."

Furthermore, what happens when you are over thirty and burritos no longer suffice as a daily diet, and Muddy Waters coffee just doesn't keep you up all night so you can edit after-hours for free, and even if you could afford to drown your sorrows at the corner bar, you can't find a seat among the throngs of dot-commers? Lately I hear my parents saying they wish I would "grow up" (learn HTML, Flash, Director and Media Cleaner: wear skirts or at least slacks; meet a Senior User Interface Manager with more stock options than hair), and I wonder, where does my fear of of the mediocrity and soullessness of the "real world" end and my fear of success begin? What's the difference between artistic integrity anda somewhat adolescent refusal to make the necessary sacrifices and "commit to a career?"

I know a lot of artists who are determined to survive the current "boom" without pawning their souls, so I set out to explore their responses. How are filmakers dealing with the outrageous economic growth surrounding us? As I'd hoped, this quest was both educational and therapeutic.

Kara Herold is the maker of GRRRLY SHOW, a sassy, inspiring documentary about girl 'zinemakers.' "Too broke to make art right now," she speaks eloquently for those of us at one end of the economic spectrum. "I look out the window and get depressed," she says. "I live on the so-called 'hippest street in the United States' [S.F.'s 16th and Valencia, according to the Utne Reader], and all I see are crude, self-centered displays of materialism. When I moved from L.A. to San Francisco ten years ago, I was inspired by my neighbors and friends. So many people chose to work part-time and live in group housing so they could pursue creative or alternative ambitions that the mainstream culture didn't support. San Francisco used to be a place where people came to discover themselves artistically and individually. I was a place that supported the Super-8 filmaker, the 'zine-writer,' the spoken-work poet. But now the only way to survive is to work someplace like E-Greetings.com, where if one or two creative thoughts emerge during the break by the water cooler, they'll probably get twisted into some greeting card slogan."

A nostalgia for the freedom and energy of the old San Francisco can be painful, and it has inspired some filmakers to move away. Anne Alvergue is the maker of Nightlight, a meditative documentary on the forgotten and invisible people who work the city's graveyard shift. Despite being an accomplished cinematographer, Alvergue says, "The 'boom' has pushed me to move to New York. I think it would be different if I had not lived here pre-Internet and known this city before the huge influx. It is very hard to see your home metamorphose into a greedy soup of techno-freaks who come in and want to redefine your town. I have lived in the Bay Area for 13 years and I don't have (my own) apartment. That is appalling. I can't afford to rent one now, nor do I have the patience to compete for somehting I could have had at one-third the price five years ago."

Like many artists, Alvergue has found new ways to make money-in her case by editing video for online content providers and selling one of her films to an Internet company. She says it still feels like a raw deal. "This is an economy - and now a culture - dominated by the Internet. San Francisco can no longer hold onto its reputation as a community of artists and the avant-garde. They have fled San Francisco or converted to the Internet and have no time to make films. There are more opportunities out there for filmakers because there are more venues - cable, the Internet - but there are fewer grants, which makes the unknown filmaker reliant on commercial means for support."

According to Caveh Zahedi (I don't Hate Las Vegas anymore), "The economic boom is only benefitting a few people, people with very specific skills. Not being one of those people, the 'boom' has affected me negatively. I don't make the kinds of films that are of interest to those with money." But, even filmakers whose works find a large audience, like Academy Award -winning documentarians Allie Light and Irving Saraf (In The Shadow of The Stars, Rachel's Daughters), have been affected. Light says the new economy is "depressing because it doesn't 'boom' for most people. We have had to work with a more inexpensive format (digital video) and have to do more of the work ourselves. We were unable to hire a crew or post-production help on our last film (Blind Spot: Murder by Women)."

Filmaker Mark Taylor left his job as FAF exhibitions coordinator (my current position) last year. "I learned Web design and moved into a good job doing that for KQED. I enjoy the work, but it is a lot of time spent at a computer, which is not so fun. It's nice to feel there is an opportunity to make money, but you need so much more money to live in the city today that it becomes a moot point. There is less time spent making artl. Less physical space. More time spent making money to buy time and space. Less leftover cash for film."

All of which equals less life. As Allie Light notes, there are aesthetic and emotional consequences beyond the strictly financial impact of the new economy. "The content of our work is influenced by life. That's why it's harder to make joyful films," she says.

Natalija Vekic concurs that the mood in the city is confusing and disaffecting for artists - the opposite of the inspirational atmoshpere many of us came here seeking. Vekic, FAF's seminar assocaiate and co-maker, with Christian Bruno, of the Super-8 film Diggins, is struggling to fund her current project, Girl With The Pearl Suspended. She said tome one day (at the water cooler, probably), "You can't eat a fucking bagel in this city anymore without somebody next to you going on about her portfolio." Or as Anne Alvergue says, "The city is full of people making a lot of money. Sometimes that is a hard thing to swallow. It's a challenge to maintain artistic integrity in this atmosphere." Video activist Jeff Taylor of the Whispered Media collective (The Pie's the Limit) witnessed an incident characteristic of San Francisco's new economy. "A nonprofit that provided prenatal care to poor women was evicted to make way for BigStep.com. Talk about a lack of respect. The name is appropriate - developers adn their dot.com clients are stepping all over everything, and it is hard to sit by and watch it happen." [Actually BigStep did displace 26 nonprofits in order to move into the BayView Bank Building on Mission Street ... but, I think a deal was worked out with the one that provides prenatal services to impoverished locals ... {the misquote is all mine - JT}]

There's an old joke that goes: If you're smart and ambitious, you move to New York; if you're just ambitious, you head for Los Angeles; and if you're just smart, you go to San Francisco. In the days when voluntary poverty seemed liberating, that joke used to find an appreciative audience. Nowadays it gets a chuckle of recognition followed by an awkward, mournful silence, akin to that moment at a high school reunion when, after one or two drinks and a few knee-slapping tales of bygone escapades, there's an uncomfortable pause, a recognition of the distance we've traveled between spontaneity and alienation.

San Francisco used to be a sort of Never-Never Land for artists. It was possible to priortize your noncommercial creativity while maintaining what felt like a great quality of life. Whether you "squeaked by in the old way, doing occasional odd jobs" (like Caveh Zahedi) or got into one of those "brainless but flexible" gigs (like Kara Herold), you could live the way wanted and feel good about it. In the words of longtime filmmaker William Farley (Sea Space, The Old Spaghetti Factory), "The creative work I've done has been an investigation about being alive. I was never interested in money. I know this sounds crazy, because it even sounds crazy to me, but this is the way I have conducted my life." It doesn't sound crazy to me, William. It sounds like the very best kind of sanity, though I understand why you said it. These days we're tempted to start apologizing for living according to instincts we never questioned before.

Not everyone is disheartened by the boom. Dean Mermell has come up with his own solution to the Money/Art dilemna. Mermell is the maker of Modern Life, a cautionary tale about a young corporate couple in danger of losing their spirit to a dot-com world (a popular theme these days). "In a way I'm sort of an imposter," he says. "I've never been to film school, and I only started making movies a few years ago. I was a glass sculptor who got into digital video, and it just sort of took over, becoming a means of expression I never had in the gallery art world." Mermell supports himself by writing about digital video for magazines like RES and Websites like Adobe.com and Equip.com. "Between by freelance writing and video editing gigs I make enough to keep going with my own projects. The 'boom' has definitely enabled me from both a technological and a monetary standpoint. It's money that comes from a strange place-the commodification of ideas and information-and I'm really not sure how I feel about it from an ethical standpoint. But I'm here, I'm doing stuff I love, and I don't know how else it would have happened."

Barry Gilbert, director of the witty, gorgeously shot 35mm narrative short Her Urge, hs also prospered in the new economy. Despite the fact the he's "being booted out for a condo-conversion and moving to L.A.," Gilbert hardly sounds bitter. "I've never had a problem finding administrative work, which I've done to support myself for the last eight years-which I would attribute to the boom," he says. "Her Urge was paid for, in part, by people who had made extra money in the stock market, so the boom helped that way. I have always found it noteworthy that the boom and the Indiewood explosion started at roughly the same time, around 1992. You have to ask yourself, where has all teh money come from to make the hundreds of features that have emerged? I think unquestionably the boom has played a large part in creating opportunities for independent filmmakers."

Gilbert is unabashed about his own commercial inclinations, and Her Urge demonstrates an aesthetic sensibility that should be wonderfully marketable in L.A. for Gilbert, "San Francisco is a fabulous place for documentarians and a good place to start for indie narrative types, but it's very tricky to support yourself here on film work. So I would suggest taking advantage of the great resources (like FAF and BAVC) to develop yourself, and then decide whether you're ready to hack the big time."

Of all the participants in my survey, only Jeff Taylor responded positively to my question, "Have you found the 'boom' inspiring in any way?" For Him, the changes wrought by the new economy - displacement of individuals and organizations, the gentrification of neighborhoods, the ascendancy of the profit motive - have provided a clarion call to media activism. "Like many artists, I have had to focus on what is happening to my space and to the other artists who have been moved out," he says. "Now I am focused on the 'boom' itself. For our next project, Whispered Media had been thinking about juxtaposing images of newspapers praising 'the surge on Wall Street' with images of public housing being blown up, while newscasters talked up the 'economic boom.' The project is now more focused on the families that are being moved out and the resistance movement that is forming. We are thinking of calling it 'E-boom: The Sound of Displacemnt.'"

Taylor continues, "The 'boom,' has also made me appreciate my long-term neighbors in this city. I look around when I'm on the street, and just the fact that I recognize someone who has been here for awhile is enough for us to nod at each other, as if to say, 'Hey, you're still here ... congratulations.' It has brought many people together. I also feel that it has brought a new level of clarity to our current situation in America. Any form of comfortable denial is getting increasingly delusional. Nothing is sacred. The short-term profit motive has superseded every institution and killed all the old gods. Class war, with its fangs bared, is back. The more people who see this - who feel it in their bones - the better. People are starting to realize that if things don't soon change substantially, we will all end up in a high-tech work-mall."

Toward the end of my survey, I met with my pal Sean Dana, a former bicycle mechanic who, in the space of nine months, transformed himself into a full-on After Effects "sound sculpture" wizzard. He's got his own digital equipment (paid for, in large part, by assembling bikes) in a suite at Insurgency Studios in San Francisco's Mission District, where a collective of young mediamakers have created a truly collaborative atmoshpere for both commercial work and art. Sean is on fire, immersing himself in new technologies and new creative relationships, and he's learning all the time. This gives me hope.

So, there it is: some filmmakers are riding teh wave, some dodging it, some are being swamped by it, and some are boldly seeking ways to roll it back. After completing my survey, I went for a bike ride so all these ideas could bounce around under my helmet until they fell into place. On the way home I bumped into some friends, and one of them, Christopher Keiser (the best dressed cyclist I've ever seen, who has told me numerous times that I need a new helmet), said, "Liz, we need Final Cut editors bad right now. Call me Monday on my cell." Chris works for a small San Francisco company called Kontent, which was created within a large advertising agency, Asylum, so that employees could tackle riskier, follow your bliss-type projects. I'm not exactly sure what kind of movies they make, but I tend to assume the best about people on bikes. As icing on the cake, Chris mentioned that he and Tom Boss, the man behind San Anselmo's Film Night in the Park summer screening series, need help curating a digital video series in Fairfax, my new hometown.

Out of nowhere, I had been handed an incredible opportunity. Nevertheless, I immediately began my paralyzing habit of overthinking. Let's see how fast can I kill this opportunitiy with analysis alone. How many confilcts can I find where there need be none? The ideas spinning in my head lead me to recall and absurd yet insightful self-help text that was once prescribed to me by a very smart, slightly insane friend. Despite the mildly offensive, 1950's pop-psych tone of 'The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers Who Underachieve (William Morrow & Co., 1989), authors Adrienne Miller and Andrew Goldblatt reach some worthwhile conclusions. "The Hamlet Syndrome" is their name for the paralyzing attitude that equates any kind of financial success with a betrayal of more noble, artistic aspirations. It "is characterized by an inability to decide between the heart and the dollar. The typical artist, Hamlet, takes a poorly paid, uninvolving day job and spends his nights and weekends toiling at his true calling, dreaming of day when the world recognizes his talent. While inaction effectively preserves his purity of heart, it puts the dollar further and further out of reach."

Even as I was talking with Chris, I could hear my artistic heart arguing with my dollar desire, finding excuses not to take the job:
HEART: For heaven's sake, it's an ad agency (evil, evil, stay away)!
DOLLAR: Come on, Liz, it's the part of the ad agency where the offenders go to repent.
HEART: I've never used Final Cut Pro - I'm an Avid editor.
DOLLAR: Everyone says if you know one editing application, you can learn them all.
HEART: It's a corporate gig. Wouldn't I come accross as the totally funky, bohemian unprofessional?
DOLLAR: It's freelance. Yippeeee!
HEART: Where's the security, young lady? The structure? The benefits? What happens if ...?
DOLLAR: Isn't that my line?

The score's tied, so for the tie-breaker I turn to Miller and Goldblatt's recommendation: "Hamlet has to stop looking at his heart as the greatest obstacle to success and start looking at the dollars as his greatest obstacle to contentment ... He should follow his heart to the fullest! ... If Hamlet has a course of action that appeals to him but he's not quite sure whether to take it, he shouldn't wait for a surge of courage or more information, he should just go out and try it!"

So it looks like I'll be signing up for a Final Cut Pro class at FAF. As I cycled home through the redwoods that day, breathing the crisp fall air, I felt a little grin coming on, and there was a new spring in my pedal stroke. Still, as I reached Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, with its swift and constant flow of Range Rovers and Turbo VW Bugs, I began to ride more carefully, and my memory of Jeff Taylor's words mixed with the sound of traffic. "Please, don't become another part of the problem," he said to me. "Dedicate yourself to exploring the many nuances of the drastic changes that are taking place. Lend your vision and your skill to this struggle - the strugle for authenticity and affordability for artists in this city."

Liz Canning directed the experimental feature Orphan of the Airwaves.