I don't know Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and Wonder Boys, but like most of us do with people we admire from afar, I've occasionally speculated on the things I don't know about him. Not the lurid People magazine details, but matters more like how he arrived at certain conclusions that have made him the writer that he is.
One thing I've imagined about Chabon is that sometime in the course of writing Kavalier & Klay, he realized that his virtuoso's ability to write the "pulled down from style heaven" sentences attributed to dissolute novelist Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys had ceased to satisfy him, and "epiphany" stories (the kind that peak when life-changing truth hits a character with life-sapping predictability) had become anathema to what he wanted to do. That the story-writing that dominates the "literary" fiction landscape was not storytelling at all—at least, not the plot-driven, page-turning storytelling that fired the young Chabon's imagination as a comic-book reader and made him want to spend his life making up and telling stories.
In my version of the story, this understanding brought Chabon to a career-changing crisis of faith, from which he emerged determined to put storytelling ahead of story-styling and counting on his characters' internal struggles to carry the action. Chabon was nowhere near as guilty of inner-monologuing as most, but his efforts to shed his epiphanist skin have borne some extremely enticing fruit.
Chabon seems to have taken this 180-degree turn at roughly the same time that Tom DeHaven and younger guys like Jonathan Lethem and Dave Eggers were shaking up literary fiction with a pro-comics, pro-page-turner stance that's all about action and storytelling and carries hints of the populist that clash with the sensibilities of the literary world. Chabon's most recent books, a novella about an aged Sherlock Holmes (The Final Solution) and the forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (of which I've miraculously managed to secure a reviewer's copy), are gritty (albeit mystical and millenarian) detective stories.
Has Chabon reinvented himself as what condescending literary types dismiss as a "genre" writer? Maybe, but what matters is that he's forced the folks who gave him a Pulitzer to reconcile the notion that someone they've welcomed into their rarified air is just as happy to climb on the genre junkpile, littered with comic-book hacks, graphic novelists, and purveyors of horror and mystery pulp.
Of course, we have our own divisions and caste systems in the moving-picture world, and pro videographers usually get slotted near the bottom, if we're counted in the continuum at all. Some of that is projected self-perception, and I'm always encouraged to see videographers shedding the lowly labels in any appropriate way they can. I recently came across a prominent videographer's description of himself as "one of the most dynamic filmmakers in the United States." It's a bold statement, and one that struck me, at first, as pretentious, even though I dig his work immensely. It's one thing to describe yourself as a dynamic videographer, and videographers who succeed in making their video cinematic have every right to call themselves "filmmakers" or "cinematographers." So maybe a cutting-edge videographer claiming comparable filmmaking credentials is not so absurd.
In terms of creativity and technique, the line between event video and film isn't nearly as clear as most people believe. I once saw an interview on the Independent Film Channel with Richard Linklater, whose early '90s hits Slacker and Dazed and Confused made him an indie-film icon. Linklater acknowledged that in the strictest sense, he hadn't done an "indie" film since Slacker, because his subsequent films had been backed by major studios. But he maintained that his work was "independent" in the creative sense. What makes you an independent filmmaker, he said, was not the size of the studio that distributes your work, but rather, "it's making your own movies."
However much event cinematographers may style themselves "artists" and align themselves artistically with the film world, they're almost always doing commissioned work rather than original productions. And, long-ago landmarks like the Sistine Chapel notwithstanding, we tend to think that commissioned art isn't art at all, since it didn't spring organically from the mind of the artist. But isn't a studio film to which a director simply signs on—script, cast, and market strategy in place—essentially commissioned art?
To me, it's not so much a question of art/not art, or filmmaker/not filmmaker. Event videographers, in the truest sense, are genre filmmakers. We're doing commissioned work within a predefined structure, and, at our best, infusing it with creativity, innovation, passion, and storytelling. Maybe we won't see an indie icon like Richard Linklater "step down" to the event video genre anytime soon—the way Pulitzer laureate Michael Chabon seems to be descending to the lower-brow world of genre fiction.
But the more we step up, the more we break down the walls (or remove the ceilings) that separate us from them, and the less those distinctions will matter. Obviating such distinctions is more in line with what Chabon is trying to do, rather than simply forsaking the wine-and-cheese scene for the beer-and-brat crowd. And as long as we continue to pursue the same storytelling arts that drew Chabon back to plot-centric writing, our own all-indie genre will look more cinematic every day.
Stephen F. Nathans is editor-in-chief of EventDV.