Siding with small businesses is like siding with cupcakes, low humidity or Motown singles: you're siding with unassailable goodness, friend. If you support small businesses, you support the American ethos, or at least the historically overcelebrated, cliché version of it. Nobody has a problem with small businesses, not even the I-see-threats-to-shark-tank-capitalism-everywhere-including-but-not-limited-to-in-my-utility-shed-and-on-Etsy crowd.
But owing to what I imagine are primarily economic factors, small businesses don't dabble in online video. Beyond repurposing their traditional 30-second spots on the web, they don't do anything at all, really. It's understandable when one thinks of it in terms of resources: If you're shaving margins paper-thin in order to compete with the big-box seller down the way, you probably don't have 65 grand to drop on getting Topher Grace to cyber-shill on your behalf in a clip with viral ambition.
That's why I'm thrilled to have been turned on to "Ink & Paper," a student project that doubles as one of the most clear-eyed portraits of circa-2012 small business you'll see online or off. Sure, it dates back to last January and, admittedly, I was only made aware of its existence thanks to the miracle of mirth that is Patton Oswalt's Twitter feed. But the short, which documents the plight of Los Angeles' lone remaining paper merchant and old-school printer, does more to brand its subjects - and, by extension, their dying trades - than do most traditional marketing efforts.
Both McManus Morgan (the paper seller) and Aardvark Letterpress (the printer) peaked as businesses years ago, in an era where there was actual competition. Now, they're the last of their kind, at least in the greater LA area, and their challenges relate mostly to day-to-day survival. Neither proprietor asks for pity, but their self-assessments tell a sad story, one unlikely to have a happy ending. For example, the paper seller mentions an "electrical issue," defined a few beats later as an inability to pay the bill.
We're taken inside their shops - dark and dingy, yet meticulously organized - and walked through their ancient processes (the "injection of molten lead," which sounds like a bad classic-rock radio promotion, is involved). But rather than have the merchants testify, the student-auteur guy who made the clip, Ben Proudfoot, lingers on small details, like an unrung, unmoving bell rigged to the printer's door. At the same time, he subtly calls attention to the claustrophobia - physical and otherwise - of both shops by shooting the merchants from far across the room. The overall effect: a harrowing portrait of pride and defiance in the face of economic decay.
The clip doesn't come out and say "it's tough out there, man" or "damn right we should celebrate the virtues of hard work and perseverance," or otherwise plink away on the liberal harp. Rather, it announces, "Here is the reality of two specific situations" and lets the viewer draw his own conclusions. It's an astounding piece of work, rendered even more so when one factors in Proudfoot's precocity (he's 21). If he can accomplish this much with a nothing budget, imagine what he could pull off with the cash IKEA or Adidas or General Mills might unearth from their break-room sofas? Dude's a serious talent.
Along those lines, maybe I've stumbled on a small-business idea of my own: find a way to scale the production of brand/marketing videos so that small businesses can afford them. Anybody with film/tech skills up for a collaboration? If we can produce something 1/300th as illuminating and affecting as "Ink & Paper," we'd have brandfolk knocking down our doors.