Sunday, February 9, 2014

Time of wonder

In the most recent issue of Cineaste magazine, Dina Iordanova writes about how the Internet has changed the world for lovers and students of classic films. She notes: “we now deal with a profoundly transformed landscape of availability for rare cinematic texts, an environment that has never existed before, not even a year ago, and that is getting richer by the day, evolving in an extraordinarily accelerated manner through both paid and free channels.” She observes that whereas it was probably only plausible to study the full range of cinema in the past by living in a major city, it can now be done from anywhere (Iordanova herself says she lives “in a remote Scottish fishing village”). The abundance and opportunity is thrilling, but not without caveats: the online material is often chaotic, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, and this aspect of the Internet calls out for greater curation and guidance for the uninitiated. Still, she concludes, “the future holds more promise than our present hopes and imaginings can foretell.”

Plugging holes

I know entirely what she means – in the last few years, I’ve plugged most of the holes in my mental list of films I wanted to see, some of which had been there for thirty years. A film like Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 Anatahan – which I cite more or less at random just because it’s the most recent thing I found on there – isn’t available on DVD and never shows up on TV; to my knowledge, it hasn’t played at the Bell Lightbox or its predecessor during the last twenty years (although of course there’s always the chance of overlooking some stray screening, which sort of underlines the point). To all practical purposes, for “normal” people with no privileged connections, Anatahan has been a lost film. I’d tried in the past to download it from online, but for some reason it froze at 87% (an example of the recurring bumps in the road of access). But when I tried again the other week, it downloaded within a few hours, and I watched it the next day. No matter how many times I experience things like this, it still seems like an unimaginable wonder.

Iordanova specifically excludes considerations of copyright and remuneration from her article. I’ve generally tried to download things only when there seems to be no way of paying for them even if I wanted to (although my record in this respect isn’t perfect). YouTube poses a problem because as a huge visible archive operated by a major corporation, it seems reasonable to assume as a base premise that one isn’t abetting illegal activity by accessing whatever you find on there. I proceeded on this basis for a while, absorbing all sorts of rare treasures. But a few months ago, when I came to the end of Georges Franju’s Thomas the Impostor, I got a message saying the film – and other wonderful material posted by the same source -  had been removed due to repeated complaints by copyright holders. Counting myself lucky that the removal had happened in such a way that I’d still been able to see the end, I assumed that was that.

Keeping it legal

But I’ve subsequently noticed that the film, and the rest of the related archive, turned up on YouTube again, so I guess it’s not easy to thwart a determined apostle of art cinema. It’s usually impossible to know then whether films like this are there “legally” or not, and even when it seems they’re not, is the virtue of staying away always clear? Put another way, should we respect the rights of the legal owner of an inaccessible film such as Thomas, if the owner’s only plan for it is seemingly to keep the film from ever being seen?

Trying to keep things legal can be wearying. I subscribe to, which offers a rotating selection of thirty mostly somewhat obscure films at any one time. I was excited that one of these, recently, was the Korean film Oasis, until it transpired that the film came only with Norwegian subtitles, an unbelievable idiocy for a service being marketed in Canada. This then raised a further moral question – would I be justified in downloading a useable version of Oasis, since I’d sort of paid for it already? Similar questions arise in my mind when I try to PVR something that’s on cable (for which I pay for many, many channels), and the recording doesn’t work, usually because the Rogers Nextbox often seems to reboot around 3 am on Tuesday morning. To me, such questions are considerably greyer than the ethics of downloading, say, the current Hollywood blockbuster, which I don’t see any justification for at all. But I guess I wouldn’t raise the issue unless I had some doubts.

Still, this is all just to say it’s a work in progress, and incidental to the main point, which as Iordonova describes is simply the immense richness of what’s available. Time and time again, I find myself thinking back to my teenage years, when I’d read about magical-sounding directors like Bunuel or Ozu, with no immediate hope of seeing anything they’d made. This had its positive aspects of course – when I did somehow manage to view even one of their films, it was a supremely exciting event. It’s also true, no doubt, that billionaires can find reasons to speak warmly of the years they spent cold and hungry. It’s a continuing amazement to me that, decades later, I have fifteen Ozu films on my shelf now; several others are on YouTube as I write, and several others again can be located elsewhere.

Shifting constraints

So the constraint has dramatically shifted, from access to time and capacity. More and more, I deal with this regressively, by playing within my teenage wishlist, ticking off unseen works and revisiting core ones. I know this limits the time I might spend opening up new frontiers, but at least it’s a somewhat informed choice; others would and should make it differently. If I were a teenager now, given how much more sprawling the body of great work is now compared to thirty years ago, I don’t think I’d know where to start. (In the Lightbox bookstore recently I saw a book seemingly intended to help with this problem, titled 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die, but as the cover consisted of a still from Life of Pi, and my random opening of it landed on The Muppet Movie, it may be most effective at enhancing the relative appeal of death).

Obviously, no one with access to a modem should ever have to complain again about having nothing to watch. But that’s a paltry way of expressing the richness of the opportunity available to us. Without ever leaving our remote fishing village or equivalent, we can be educated and stimulated and thrilled and nurtured beyond all measure. The challenges I’ve noted will presumably dwindle with time, but the gift will endure forever.

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