Like Theo, I participate in the mourning of the American repertory circuit from somewhat of a remove. Basically, I never had a repertory cinema while growing up (although I did experience one vicariously by watching videotapes of Woody Allen movies) so I feel little sense of deprivation. Instead, I’m part of the generation of movie-lovers that embraced television and videotape as soon as they were available. What other way was there to access older American movies, let alone foreign film?
I grew up in a southern Colorado steel town with a population that hovered near 100,000. It offered little to speak of in the way of “culture,” film or otherwise. Whatever sense of film history I had at that point came either from Dialing For Dollars, the afternoon movie-and-a-sweepstakes program, that I’d tune into occasionally or, more commonly, from the Friday Shock Theatre telecast. Shock Theatre was one of those late night science-fiction and horror program slots that, I’ve since learned, existed in just about every city of any size in the U.S., broadcasting a cheery mix of indisputable classics and unmitigated schlock. So while I’m sure I frittered away too many hours on unspeakable crap, it was local television that fueled my abiding interest in genre films, and that gave me some historical context, thank God, for such inexplicable occurrences as the De Laurentiis remake of King Kong.
As for so many of my generation, the touchstone events of my early viewing life were the theatrical releases ofStar Wars (George Lucas, 1977), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), and Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), which topped off my seventh, 10th and 13th years, respectively. But the other distinct recollection I have of my days as an incipient movie buff is that the game changed completely when cable TV came to town. It may be hard to believe now, but back in the early 1980s, cable TV had what seemed like a healthy eclecticism – you could catch up with Bergman, Buñuel, and Fellini (not to mention Cronenberg and Carpenter) late at night on Cinemax, in between screenings of Bilitis (David Hamilton, 1976) and Emmanuelle in Bangkok (Joe D’Amato, 1976).
Cable TV programmers have grown more conservative, to the point where base Hollywood crap has monopolized the lineup for years. But the cable insurgency only predated the videotape revolution by a few years. And the basic difference between cable TV and videotape is the difference between a repertory movie theater and your own private screening room. While I tracked down Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1980) andEscape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981) of my own volition, I sat through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972) and From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman, 1980) not because they were the films that I chose to watch but rather because they were what was on.
So I’m a movie brat who loved seeing movies in theaters, but who had many formative movie experiences, by necessity, on video – which perhaps acclimated me early on to the idea that a video image, however compromised, could be a satisfactory cinematic text. When I took film classes at the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage used to tell us that video should not, could not, be considered art. Needless to say, the classroom found his attitude hopelessly retrograde (this is the same CU class that would eventually give birth to South Park). But Brakhage’s sincere perception of video as an affront to the film aesthetic made it hard not to admire the purity of his stance. While color on film was absolute, he lamented, color on video is “wherever you turn the knob.” His underlying belief was that the artist could not cede control of the film experience – and of the image itself – to the viewer.
When you move a film out of the theaters and onto video, of course, you give the viewer complete control. He can twiddle the dials to brighten the darker corners of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), he can saturate the colors so that The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948) looks cheap and gaudy. He can fast-forward to the good parts (and I’m predictably alarmed at how many otherwise competent human beings claim to routinely zip through “the slow parts” of an evening’s rental). He can watch Sharon Stone cross her legs again and again, or slow the motion of Chow Yun-Fat vaulting across the screen, handguns blazing in both fists. He can answer the phone, he can put a pizza in the oven, and he can flip over to channel 2 to watch the ball game. And if the film is offending or boring, he can hit stop and rewind and be done with it. (The writer here is referring to a hypothetical viewer who is obviously male – eds.)
More than anything, video is easy. It’s been argued that only a culture of convenience would accept the fuzzy phosphor glow of a VHS tape as a reasonable substitute for the experience of seeing a film in a proper theater, with an appreciative audience. The Third Man, for instance, looks really good on DVD. It looks even better in a movie theater, but not even residence in the New York metro area guarantees a good time at the movies. Few movie experiences are quite as satisfying as a Sunday evening screening of The Third Man at the impossibly ornate Castro theater in San Francisco, filled to about 50 percent capacity with like-minded moviegoers. In New York, it played at the Film Forum, an admirable NYC institution, but also a boxy venue with so little ambience that it may as well be the big screen TV in an eccentric friend’s basement. (And your friend’s basement may well have more eclectic programming!) The local multiplexes in the suburbs where I live are so dreary that I often wonder why anybody in his right mind would pay the going rate of eight bucks fifty for the experience of being herded like cattle into a neon-framed auditorium that smells of urine, where a film will be projected out of focus, out of frame, and with tinny sound to boot.
If I long for a return to the era of movie palaces and real repertory cinema, it means I’m nostalgic for an experience that I never had. The cheapening of the movie theater experience during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, when lavish single-screen movie houses were either subdivided into sterile, coffin-shaped spaces or closed down entirely, along with the sudden arrival of video technology, means that our generation was one that regarded the movie theater as a social venue – you’ve got to get away from your relatives at some point, after all – rather than as the cinematic cathedrals of which some moviegoers hold fond memories. So while more discerning viewers made a point of finding a decent auditorium, the general mediocrity of shopping mall-based multiplexes meant that, for most of us, the low-resolution image of a videotape was an acceptable substitute, particularly if we wanted to bypass the middle-of-the-road tastes of local programmers in favor of the likes of Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch.
Moreover, there are a few things that video excels at. Most importantly, it’s both portable and copyable, which means it can be easily shared among like-minded viewers. Despite differing video standards, an American viewer with any degree of resourcefulness at all can secure dodgy copies of films that have been deemed somehow unprofitable for the U.S. market.
Naturally, Hollywood hamstrung the more recently devised DVD format with copy protection and regional coding aimed specifically at the prevention of such intercontinental sharing. Still, any cinephile with the time and energy to invest in bootleg versions of obscure films is probably part of the solution for world cinema, not the problem. For example, it’s likely that years of unauthorized video copies helped create word-of-mouth demand for the recent Takeshi Kitano renaissance in the U.S., with four of his films cascading across our screens in the space of two years. Yes, the tireless efforts of film series programmers helped, but I dare say that far more people knew Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989) from grainy video copies than from its various one-shot U.S. screenings over the years. And, notwithstanding its recent perfunctory theatrical release (one week in New York, another in Los Angeles), the vast majority of U.S. viewers will encounter it for the first time on their TV screens, not in theaters.
In the last five or six years, the Internet has changed all the rules and opened up a new world of pleasures for the video hound. My shelves are dotted with illicit videos — work prints, imports, and unrated director’s cuts whose image quality could charitably be described as “watchable” — many of them the result of tape-for-tape trades arranged online at the spur of the moment. After spending a moment or two at a Web search engine, DVD owners can read step-by-step instructions on “chipping” their players to handle movies from all territories and bypassing copy protection systems, to boot.
Video technology has also helped create an entirely new form of film scholarship — the “special edition” of a movie on laserdisc or DVD. You can watch Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) on laserdisc, and then you can watch it again, with a secondary soundtrack featuring the irrepressible Scorsese and crackerjack film editor Thelma Schoonmaker discussing the creation of the film in great detail. At their best, these supplements stand as lively contributions to film history (the director’s commentary on his Taxi Driver (1976) settled a long-standing argument I had with a film teacher over whether Scorsese borrowed an unorthodox dissolve effect from Shane [George Stevens, 1953], to my great satisfaction), and offer the next best thing to a formal education. At their worst, they’re simply disposable, with no harm done.
But does a well-stocked video collection denote a cinephile or just a videophile? It’s hard to say. Certainly the DVD revolution has contributed to film appreciation in healthy ways, not least by pushing widescreen video transfers, which preserve the crucial elements of visual style that are discarded by broadcast and cable TV, further into the mainstream market. Movies like Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) and The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca, 1998) that barely played outside the major metropolitan areas are suddenly available to open-minded viewers across the country in pristine video reincarnations – even in the hinterlands, where a handful of online outfits will deliver rental DVDs to anyone with a street address and a mailbox. (That’s where the alignment of global power-players like Sony behind the DVD format really counts – the film releases from their boutique distribution arms get near-archival quality treatment on the new video formats.) And if the great majority of “home theater” enthusiasts are far more interested in the big boom from their subwoofers than in the availability of, say, the Hou Hsiao-hsien catalog, well, it’s always been that way.
Given all that, somehow the act of viewing a film on video seems more sterile than seeing it in a theater. Besides the obvious differences in circumstance and properties of the image, there’s also a presumption that video is a solitary pursuit. In my experience, however, movie fans do gather together in groups, whether it’s in the theater or around the TV. And even if the viewer is a lonely one, the Internet means that he’s no longer removed from the possibility of a lively film culture. Despite the prevalence online of a lowest-common-denominator fixation on unremarkable genre films and interminable adolescence, there are pockets of keenly observed criticism and personal testimony. The contributors to this essay exchange are among those helping build a cat’s cradle of terrific film resources online, abetting one another without adhering to any particular ideology or aesthetic. Probably out of a discontent with the dwindling resources dedicated to film in the traditional media, we onliners are defining our own film culture as we go along. That can’t help but be a good thing.
What’s missing online is a real sense of community, in any but the most transient terms. We need the sort of self-selecting think tank where writers with comparable tastes and concerns in the age of MPEG, MP3, and AOL Time Warner EMI can chew up and spit out theories and ideas in the spirit of the old Cahiers crowd. Much as I love the open forums provided by the Internet, they operate almost by definition at cross-purposes to themselves, as sniping from opposing camps deconstructs arguments to the point of absurdity rather than helping construct new ones. Publications like The New York Times and Salon take a game stab at creating “community” around film discussions, but the discussions that ensue tend to the diffuse – soundbite discussions peppered with moments of insight from a few hardy posters who really shouldn’t waste their time contributing to a community that gives them so little in return.
Frankly, what’s required to create such a haven for serious thinking about movies online is the sort of healthy elitism that runs counter to what the Internet purportedly represents. In short, to exploit the Internet, we must overcome its freedoms. Unfortunately, organizing an Algonquin roundtable in the electronic domain also takes time and money, resources that are often in rather short supply among online cinephiles.
But David’s point about the decline of serious general-interest criticism, and its ramifications for the mass audience, is well-taken. I think anyone who delights, as I do, in writing about film for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of posting it online and then corresponding with readers, is acutely interested in encouraging moviegoers to engage more actively and thoughtfully with the art form. Yes, it sometimes seems that I’m writing for a like-minded audience of similar online critics – but the occasional emails I receive from high-school students, housewives, mathematicians and even the filmmakers themselves suggest that the reach of online writers, even those who toil in isolation, is considerable and sometimes startling.
It’s hard to understate the importance of nurturing cinephilia online – with digital exhibition of full-size moving pictures finally a reality, both theory and practice of what we now think of as cinema are on the verge of a sea change. Whether that transformation occurs for better or for worse, the cinephiles need to leverage digital communication to grow their longstanding infatuation with the celluloid image. Digital media brings us an age where the same megacorporation owns the movie studio, the publications that review the movies, and the wires that deliver the digital versions of those movies directly to the viewer. If it helps small voices be heard over that formidable ruckus, the Internet may well deliver a second century of cinephiles from video-bound solitude.