Red alert, all movie supergeeks: This week debuts FilmStruck, a streaming service that may well be something like the answer to our impoverished cine-prayers. Birthed out of the Turner/TCM hive, co-cultivated with the Criterion Collection, and outfitted with the back libraries of Kino, Milestone, Janus, Flicker Alley, Zeitgeist, First Run, Icarus, Oscilloscope, Film Movement, and Global Lens, plus a few old-school Hollywood archives, FilmStruck appears to be a resource curated by someone who actually knows something about film. For a certain kind of cinephile, the kind as interested in the WWI-era serials of Feuillade as in the newest Cannes awardee, it may fulfill the promises that proponents of digitized viewing technology have been making since the video stores started closing. (Full disclosure: I’ve written for most of the major players involved, and will be one of the first to type in my Visa number.) But the question remains: How many of us hungry movieheads are still out there?
Another question: Is movie streaming the future, or already the past? Can convenience save “serious” cinema? Is FilmStruck, in the age of Netflix domination and binge-TV junkiedom and theatrical-revenue downturns and iPhone solipsism, a whole lot but a little too late?
Not at all, Chicken Little, as it happens. According to Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck, market research has found 15 million adults sufficiently “passionate” about movies, and familiar with stream viewing, to constitute an audience — a fraction of Netflix’s membership, but more than enough to sustain the niche service. “We’re just following consumer behavior,” she says. Likewise, Peter Becker, president of Criterion, sees ours as the best of all possible eras to be a cinephile. “I think we’re living in a golden age for film culture,” he says. “Never have there been as many revival houses in New York and rep houses everywhere — even Omaha.” The Criterion high-end publishing arm is steadfastly performing like gangbusters — FilmStruck is designed to provide an ongoing venue for Criterion’s massive junk drawer of original extras, archival supplements, and audio commentaries — and TCM, perhaps miraculously, is “thriving.” “We’re seeing a boom of genuine interest in cinema, and it’s being driven by its availability,” Becker says.
Certainly more films are more easily available than ever, and being rediscovered and restored all the time…but am I alone in the sense that watching Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Buñuel’s Viridiana on a ten-square-inch Android screen while riding the train is the last step before no one watches them at all? Critic David Thomson once likened the difference between watching a film on an old-fashioned TV and watching it in a full-size theater to the difference between watching a fish tank and having a whale pass by you underwater. Today, if you’re watching a fish tank smaller than a paperback, surrounded by real-world distractions, what chance do old or challenging or subtitled art films have?
“Ozu on a cellphone is terrifying, but who knows?” says David Bordwell, the country’s most revered film studies prof. “I saw my first Ozu on a small Sony Trinitron. I think the history of technology shows that convenience — low cost, portability, adaptability — will always trump quality. Maybe the best images we ever had were created on big-ass cameras running orthochromatic nitrate. But for both makers and consumers, what is cheapest and most flexible is going to get the widest use. I think that from a consumer’s viewpoint, having so many ways to ‘consume’ movies is a plus. Movies have changed from ‘appointment viewing’ to convenient ‘customer is king’ viewing. That might dilute the experience in certain ways, but multiplying options is good.”
Bordwell freely admits to belonging to the rarefied tribe. Even so, he says, “From a selfish standpoint, the proliferation of sources — not just physical media and streaming but bootleg copies of unreleased classics — has certainly helped my research. Every day TCM pulls up and dumps a dozen or so classic movies on my lawn. As somebody who traveled to archives in the U.S., Europe, and Japan to see films that are now as common as dust bunnies, I can’t bewail this explosion of access.”
Nor would anyone. Barbara Klinger, professor emerita at Indiana and author of the definitive viewing-mode analysis Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home, also exudes the sunny progressiveness of the cinema-enabled. “I don’t see convenience in movie watching as a dilemma. In fact, it has enhanced the presence of movies in U.S. culture and elsewhere. Rather than equating the movie screen with a potentially lost film culture, I think the new explosion of access is fascinating for what it can tell us about the diversification of kinds of film cultures that have arisen in the wake of these newest developments, while acknowledging that the big-screen experience — in fact bigger, with IMAX — is still very much in the picture. In my opinion, new modes of access haven’t stifled the process of discovery. One of my earliest experiences with Netflix was happening across and watching Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, which would have never happened in my ordinary experience, even as an academic and teacher, since this director does not fall into my bailiwick.”
Klinger is, like most people, crazy for the “personalized and privatized” mode of moviegoing. “This way, the film becomes part of domesticated space. There’s the issue of how annoying some people find the experience, or the expense or the hassle of travel, of watching movies in a public theater, given how their comrades in the theater behave. Watching alone can be a preferred mode of viewing. In terms of our ability to control the experience itself once we’ve gained access, today’s options once again go back to the video era and the ability to time-shift outside of broadcast control. I see the benefits of viewer control in terms of being able to fast-forward, rewind, pause, etc., but this is only if one accepts the viewer’s ability to interfere with the sanctity of the film, which I do.”
I know, don’t say it: Worry about technology’s circumstantial attack on culture is something you do at your own peril. Movies are a technology, and always have been. It’s more than likely that FilmStruck in particular, and perhaps the entirety of the streaming landscape, will only help sustain film as a medium, however cinema’s future incarnations and digital bump-ups might evolve into something not quite like movies at all. Your choice is clear: Embrace the flow, and maybe resort to the permanence of physical discs when it’s important (FilmStruck will offer 500-odd movies at a time, with 80 or so newly “refreshed” every month, and you’ll have no say as to which ones). You could pine for the daydreamed, giant-screened, million-film-library “black box” movie palace that will never exist, or you could relax and float downstream.
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