Friday, July 2, 2010
One of the most film-geeky sequence in Truffaut's "Day For Night" in the one in which the young Jean-Pierre Leaud steals a still of "Citizen Kane," his fetishistic totem to a mode of American studio movie productions, and a purloined souvenir from the unobtainable mysteries of film appreciation in an age (1973) when you had to watch everything at a local repertory house or late at night on t.v. when the local station happened to program it.
Series of books were released in the late '60s and '70s that discussed film and produced goldfish-scale black-and-white stills, miserly and like manna, such as the breadcrust-size A. S. Barnes series that revealed Bunuel, French cinema, Dreyer, or the Marx Brothers. The "Focus On" series, also defunct, edited by Donald McCaffrey focused on Chaplin, Welles, science fiction, D.W. Griffith, Bonnie and Clyde, the western or Blow-Up.
Where did such enthusiasm for publishing go? Did we really have a cultural hunger and imperative to read about such seemingly generic or specific topics? Playboy published "Sex In The Cinema" issues every November, using the excuse of grabbing stills of cinematic transgressions with naked people to suggest the mysteries popular films really held. "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea" (1976) was about much more than Sarah Miles with no clothes on.
Films had a limited availability, not easily viewable after they disappeared from theatres. An entire subculture centered around stalking and tracking down elusive showings, late at night or at conventions, or unannounced on the bottom of double bills. The stills and second-hand reviews that were published had the power of discovered evidence, skeletal relics outlining the details of the bodies of the texts, the nuances of the photography and players, the sensual pleasures held within the time spent with the actual film, unspooling in real time, one time only, a late night rendezvous.
They were poured over like a Maxwell Demon gatefold, being undecoded as best they could until we could unlock the mysteries the films ourselves, in person, face to face. Until then, we had to take Baxter's or Clarens' or Hoberman's word for it. I read every word Kael wrote in the '60s and '70s, in part to ensure myself that I could trust her.
The days of discovering films through all these secondary ephemeral stills and critiques is over. It used to be hard. Movies are so easily accessible through the Internet through streaming or bit-torrenting under the radar, or from video-on-demand from the studios themselves, often before theatrical release, which is suicide, that they have lost their aura as events.
Films have lost their aura as important. Any title is available almost anyway you want, almost as soon as you want it. Television distributors have already given up trying to get us to make appointments to drive us to their product. They'd much rather throw it at us any way and place we might pay attention, an act of desperation and promiscuity. We have Hulu and Netflix and NBC.com and YouTube, and soon Sezmi and Zillion.tv.
Seeing films used to be work - you had to pay attention, pour over the listings and be aware of the rep houses who might have a quirk in their scheduling that would schedule "Transatlantic Tunnel" (1935) or "The Wild Party" (1975) because the bookers read the same articles in Cinefantastique you did. ("Tunnel" showed with "Phase IV" in a mad programming strategy.) Now they show up without announcement or explanation. Who rented "Anti-Christ" (2009) from Time-Warner Cable thinking it was an "Exorcist" rip-off from Italy? Films will be delivered digitally to all 3 of your screens and they will be in bite-size pieces and ubiquitous.
No longer sacred or special objects that we must travel to in order to enjoy. We don't have to leave our couch, and so they are no longer objects to be revered. To have access at your fingertips is to not feel the need to steal those stills from behind the grate, to decide what is worth the risk of getting slapped.
It used to be hard to publish opinions about films as well. Even writing zines required patience, a certain design sense - or specific lack of one - explicitly applied, and pages and staples to be lined up. Photos to be chosen from the delicious few available for your lustful duplication.
Now there's no more friction. Now all is instant, ubiquitous and promiscuous. We've lost the need and the value of having to wait to see what the secrets are to be revealed by films, carefully and in their own time. Even if they are worth working for. It devalues not only the work in making them but in the work in viewing and enjoying them as well.
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The author acknowledges the contributions to this discussion of Bruce Fletcher, of Dead Channels and of SF Film Club, which we don't talk about.