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Alongside Night, the Movie

At Porcfest X last month, J Neil Schulman treated us to a screening of his own movie adaptation of his 1979 novel "Alongside Night". I admit I came with low expectations, but I was happily surprised: it's actually a movie worth watching — and I speak as the guy who didn't hesitate to walk out of half the last few movie screenings I had paid to attend. The movie certainly wasn't as easy to watch as your run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster, but it also has perks none of the cookie-cutter Hollywood stuff has; it doesn't try to fight the big studios on their own terrain, and instead compensates limitations of the budget with creativity.

On the plus side, the story will be a delight for all libertarians, yet still quite enjoyable for everyone as a decent action flick: indeed, a positive energy radiates from the movie, that is contagious, despite all the shortcomings. Libertarians will of course particularly enjoy not just the general plot, but also the hundreds of small jokes and references in the background; this background humor alone makes the movie a must see for all libertarians. But everyone should be able to enjoy the action thriller, with a love story, the political mystery, with plenty of humor, the economic exploration, with insight. The action scenes are not artificially spectacular and stretched as in a John Woo movie, but short and to the point, and realistic; this will rejoice actual amateurs of guns and military technology.

Reading the novel, I remember it had given me the impression of having been written with a movie in mind; the adaptation into a movie script was therefore probably easier than for other novels; still, it's a different medium, and the adaptation went rather well. Actually, the movie format works much better for the plot, which I think isn't that solid, since in a movie you don't have time to think too much about the weaknesses as the action unfolds. It's not that the story has big holes in it, but more that the bad guys make for a rather weak opposition; I expect real world bad guys to be both individually not as competent yet collectively stronger, making shallower plans that have more redundancy, thanks to much more robust networks or allies and henchmen, that, when they disintegrate, lead to much more chaotic and decentralized violence.

Now, there are many ways that the movie betrays its being an amateur production, but the worst was the acting. The lead actor, in particular, was not up to his role: by and large, he failed to convey the surprise and marvel, the worry and fear, the enlightenment and commitment, and other emotions that his character goes through. Even other actors deliver but a slightly better than mediocre performance overall; it's not quite as bad as I feared it could have been, but still a far cry from any kind of method acting. And there, I blame JNS: whether as an author, a director or a producer, he just didn't put enough thought into the emotional life of the characters. That's admittedly a failing common among the "rationalists" (NT on the Myers-Briggs) who constitute most libertarian intellectuals, and I readily admit to sharing the trait — but still I express my disappointment at Schulman, who would better have asked for help from someone who cares.

Other signs of amateurism are with the camera lens work or lack thereof. There again, JNS' team does a better job than you'd expect from amateurs, yet a job that falls short as compared to work by real professionals. Understandably, JNS could not afford large movie sets, and he resorted to narrow camera angles or computer-aided editing; but the result just isn't compelling: the camera framing sometimes make me feel crippled or claustrophobic, and the editing wasn't always convincing; the central Mall scene, for instance, is both enlightening and downright funny as far as the script goes, and the acting is mostly convincing for once, yet at the same time the editing and background sets are just bad.

In the end, "Alongside Night" is far from a perfect movie; but it's still a lot of fun, and a movie worth watching. And in the end, that's what matters: I know a whole lot of big studio movies, with much more production value, or at least production cost, for which I wouldn't say as much. Importantly, J Neil Schulman pulled it off without much help, going against the Establishment — for that he deserves not just our congratulations, but our admiration. Hats off, JNS.

Comments

Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

I really appreciate this review. It's perceptive and thoughtful.

But in a recent article of my own I address the issue of how independent films are perceived as less "professional" than megabudget studio movies precisely because they are produced for a fraction of the cost. See my article "Movies: Mind Over Money" at http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com/2013/12/movies-mind-over-money/.

The major actors, producers, and filmmakers of Alongside Night are all established professionals with prior professional credits so calling their work amateurish is in my view simply a misstatement of facts. This statement can be verified by going to the Alongside Night page on IMDb -- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1667061/combined -- and clicking through on each name to see prior work in other feature films -- many of them produced by major studios -- and network television.

Calling the work of professional indie filmmakers "amateurish" is -- whether intended to be or not -- a way of dismissing the entire indie film industry and empowering the major studios the output of which is narrowed to a much smaller set of types of productions reflecting the values of a self-reinforcing establishment-filtered elite.

Libertarians need to learn not to do that if they wish investors to risk their money making more high-value films reflecting our own values.

So, please don't call us amateurs. Call us what we are -- indies.

And for the record, I consider my cast and crew to be fully competitive with the professional production values of studio films costing many times as much. All we left out was the video-game action.

J. Neil Schulman
writer/producer/director
Alongside Night

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

I don't actually believe in professional vs amateur "credentials", but what I meant is that some aspects of the movie are clearly sub par as compared to what the industry provides, which is detrimental to the value of the movie, though in other ways the movie is way over par.

Visually, there were some disappointing elements; for instance, as I said in my review, in many scenes, the lens and framing were too narrow. But I lack the knowledge of even basic technical vocabulary there, so I can't discuss the matter competently, much less offer positive advice. However, an aspect of movies I do understand, to a point, is scripting — maybe not enough to write a successful script, but enough to analyze one and identify some glaring mistakes.

And a glaring mistake is in the exposition of the economic backstory. Kevin Sorbo's explanations sound tin and break the rhythm of the movie without successfully delivering the intended meaning. A big studio would never have let that be part of the movie script. Instead, the information would have dished out in some visual way, through action and side remarks. Easy? No. But an essential part of the job of the script writer.

Speaking of the script, big studios have a formula that works, and every movie script writer should know it by heart: Save The Cat! Certainly, you can depart from the formula, but every time you do it without a mighty good reason, the quality of your movie will suffer. And so indeed it does for Alongside Night.

And here, JNS, I blame you personally as the script writer. I think your script had some great value to it, but it just doesn't cut it overall. Ideology aside, a responsible producer should have rejected your script, by which I mean the version of script based on which you shot the movie — but a good producer would have instead hired a specialist to help you get this fantastic movie to the screen, not buried the project. And so I also blame you personally as the producer.

I think overall Alongside Night is a good movie. At the same time, it failed to be a Great movie. And so I am frustrated. So close, yet so far.

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

If I followed advice constantly being given to me about how to deal with reviews and reviewers of my books and movies, I wouldn't engage here at all. It's common wisdom that arguing with a reviewer puts me on the defensive and no matter what I write is going to be dismissed as self-serving and subjective to the point of solipsism.

I have made it a practice of rejecting this advice because beyond being an artist who writes fiction and makes narrative movies I'm a libertarian who considers that other libertarians need to learn not to favor statist propaganda by applying academic-taught falsehoods by which anti-establishment media is downgraded.

It immediately will strike a reader as ungrateful and argumentative when I do so to a reviewer who has largely been kind.

So I enter the following comments knowing that I have already lost this argument with a significant portion of the readers here. Fuck it. I'm doing it anyway.

You wrote, I don't actually believe in professional vs amateur "credentials", but what I meant is that some aspects of the movie are clearly sub par as compared to what the industry provides, which is detrimental to the value of the movie, though in other ways the movie is way over par.

This is an attempt to make your review "objective." It's not. You're applying your own subjective standards and your statement of what is "clear" isn't you stating a fact; it's you stating an opinion. If you did that throughout your review I wouldn't be here arguing with you because you're entitled to an opinion. What you're not entitled to do is misrepresent your opinion as fact and no matter how kind you are to me, I'm going to call you out on this.

Visually, there were some disappointing elements

No. Visually you subjectively had prejudices that I chose not to accommodate because I made different esthetic choices than you would have made. Admit this and I'm done here.


for instance, as I said in my review, in many scenes, the lens and framing were too narrow. But I lack the knowledge of even basic technical vocabulary there, so I can't discuss the matter competently, much less offer positive advice.

Too narrow by what standard? We shot what we could shoot on the day given the constraints of our shooting schedule and what the various production departments could provide us and in the editing bay we selected the best of what we had available to edit. Sometimes I got exactly what I wanted; sometimes I had to make do with a Hobson's choice. Independent filmmakers can afford fewer choices than studio productions because we have a shorter shooting schedule and each department -- wardrobe, make-up and hair, and the art department -- have less time and money to work with. That's why I repeat that indie filmmakers have to compensate with providing alternative content the major studios would never consider.

(continued in next message)

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

However, an aspect of movies I do understand, to a point, is scripting — maybe not enough to write a successful script, but enough to analyze one and identify some glaring mistakes.

And a glaring mistake is in the exposition of the economic backstory. Kevin Sorbo's explanations sound tin and break the rhythm of the movie without successfully delivering the intended meaning. A big studio would never have let that be part of the movie script. Instead, the information would have dished out in some visual way, through action and side remarks. Easy? No. But an essential part of the job of the script writer.


There's an expression used in software writing that applies here: "It's not a bug; it's a feature."

I do accept that what can be brought out visually in the motion picture medium needs to be brought out visually. That's why I avoided using an external narrative or opening explanatory title cards as means of narrative exposition.

But dialogue is a proper dramatic means of providing information to an audience -- as were the news crawls shown on TV in the background of many scenes -- and I fully understand as a filmmaker that a single viewing of my movie is not enough to take in all information. A movie can be a layered experience as much as any other art form. Not everything can or should be expected to be gained in a single exposure. In fact I would argue that if subsequent viewings of a movie aren't in themselves worthwhile than the movie is hack work. You saw the movie once under less than ideal circumstances -- and I know this because I was there at PorcFest in a media room where for much of the audience the screen was too small and too far away and the sound system was a monophonic mixdown of a six-channel soundtrack. You missed more than you know due to substandard screening conditions and you attribute what you didn't see or hear to a flaw in the production. In essence, it's hubristic for you to regard your single, substandard viewing experience as objective criticism. It's not.


Speaking of the script, big studios have a formula that works, and every movie script writer should know it by heart: Save The Cat! Certainly, you can depart from the formula, but every time you do it without a mighty good reason, the quality of your movie will suffer. And so indeed it does for Alongside Night.

Big studios have a formula that bores the shit out of me most of the time because it substitutes thrill for humanity. I am at war with that because major movie productions are more often than not the equivalent of Aldous Huxley's soma, meant to distract mass audiences from the horrors the statist establishment visits upon them when they leave the theater -- and when they do attempt to provide intellectual content it's propaganda for statist-generated memes such as the relentless portrayal of family life as dysfunctional in movies like August: Osage County and Nebraska. Then you have the endless series of movies that denigrate the human spirit by focusing on the disgusting antics of punks, shitheads, and gangsters -- like in American Hustler. This isn't all studio movies, of course -- just the ones that get major award nominations.

(concluded in next message)

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

And here, JNS, I blame you personally as the script writer. I think your script had some great value to it, but it just doesn't cut it overall.

Your subjective evaluation. And it doesn't cut it as compared to what? Plus, what if I disagree with your standards? Must I write what you like instead of what I like? Write your own movie; get it financed and produced. Go through the process that I went through -- then maybe you have a basis to tell me how to do what I do better.

I relied on the professional experience and talents of the hundreds of people who worked with me during all phases of production. Excuse me if I choose their wisdom over that of someone who wasn't there and applies standards not derived from experience of the process.

Ideology aside, a responsible producer should have rejected your script, by which I mean the version of script based on which you shot the movie — but a good producer would have instead hired a specialist to help you get this fantastic movie to the screen, not buried the project. And so I also blame you personally as the producer.

So your summation is that you know better than me what my movie should have been. How about this: let everyone who watches the movie bring into the viewing experience their own standards of what they like. Let's apply the standards that the movie itself advocates: Let the market decide.

Of course this will never satisfy you because you think your tastes reflect some objective reality.

I beg to differ.

I think overall Alongside Night is a good movie. At the same time, it failed to be a Great movie. And so I am frustrated. So close, yet so far.

No artist is ever fully satisfied with his own work; yet, we do a project the best we can and send it out into the world.

Thank you for the kind words but you'll excuse me if I also think others are entitled to differ with you according to their own tastes. And that will begin to happen later this year when Alongside Night starts showing in movie theaters.

J. Neil Schulman
Writer/producer/director
Alongside Night

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

First, I will admit this: there is considerably more merit in actually making a movie, even imperfect, than in writing a cheap review of it. Once again, I bow to you, JNS.

Second, yes, I have been stating a lot of opinions for which I didn't provide support. This blog post is meant as a short guide to inspire readers to look in given directions, not as an long treatise establishing proven truths.

Third, while I share with you an ideology opposed to that propagated by Hollywood, I still think that on technical issues, including script writing techniques, there is a lot to be learned from the big studios: even they cannot convince the public to come and pay to watch, unless they follow an objective formula for success. There may be other formulas — but whether they work or not is objective. The market doesn't decide arbitrarily, and how to satisfy it is not a matter of randomness, but knowable formulas to be discovered.

Finally, I don't think I have anything to add, except thank you for the movie, and thank you for taking the time to reply.

Re: Comment from Alongside Night's author/screenwriter/producer/director

There may be other formulas — but whether they work or not is objective. The market doesn't decide arbitrarily, and how to satisfy it is not a matter of randomness, but knowable formulas to be discovered.

I'll agree with you that there are knowable formulas that increase the odds for commercial success.

I disagree that there are knowable formulas to create original art.

Alongside Night is an artistic experiment in trying to portray a complex set of ideas that have never been put into a dramatized movie before. It is by intent a work of art that defies any prior formulas.

But if it becomes a hit it will spawn many attempts at imitation -- and if there is artistic skill brought to them some might even be worthy.

But that's true of so much that we value today. After the original Lord of the Rings there were hundreds of "sword and sorcery" genre series that attempted to follow on its success.

Without Bram Stoker's original novel Dracula there could not have been the endless spate of vampire movies.

Without H.G. Wells The Time Machine there would have been no Back to the Future -- or my own Twilight Zone episode, "Profile in Silver."

If Alongside Night fails to win a mass audience your argument that I should have hued closer to established formulas might be stronger, but sometimes nothing but time will tell. The Wizard of Oz wasn't a commercial blockbuster when it was first released in 1939 despite previous success of Oz movies in the silent era. But when it started showing yearly on television it developed an enduring following.

The music of J.S. Bach fell into such obscurity that it might have been lost forever if composer Felix Mendelssohn had not rediscovered it and championed it.

I learned my lessons from prior art as well. I have major influences from filmmakers I adore like Hitchcock and Kubruck, and authors ranging from Heinlein to Edward Bellamy, plus thousand of lesser influences -- but that doesn't mean I necessarily learned the right lessons. Ed Wood in his own movie productions failed to reproduce what was great in the movies of his hero, Orson Welles.

Artists like me do well to remember the emergency advice of Ecclesiastes 9:11: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
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