May 15, 2013
Having run out of shelf space sometime in 2011, I began piling DVD and Blu-ray cases anywhere I could but most of it ended up in loosely-defined piles on the floor. By early this year the situation was so bad I was expecting an intervention from the producers of Hoarders.
Clearly I needed more shelf space, but where? How? In the two rooms I store all my movies and TV shows there wasn’t a lot of wall space left, and finding shelving that made the best use of that rapidly dwindling space was nary impossible. And even the stainless-steel shelving I’ve used in the past remains prohibitively expensive, around $200 a pop for something that’ll hold maybe 600 titles. And I probably had a good 2,000 scattered on the floor.
Then, an inspiration. Yukiyo and Sadie were going to be out of town for nine days, so I resolved to at least attempt to build some shelving myself. I’d build just one set of shelves, figuring if that turned out okay, I’d go back to the lumber yard and build some more.
I wish I had done this from the start. Searching YouTube, I came across several good How-To sites, particularly this one:
I also lucked out in that my local lumber and hardware store, Konan, would for a token fee (30 yen per order) cut everything to order, so I never once had to touch a saw. Although the work was extraordinarily time-consuming, what with not only building the shelves but also sorting and resorting thousands of titles, I managed to build four full shelving units and get everything in place after about 60 hours of work over seven of the nine days.
“If I can do it…” you can, too. Thanks to DVDcollector1974 over at YouTube, even I could figure out how to build these things, and the best part of all is the absurdly low price of materials, about $15 per shelving unit versus the $200-plus I was paying before.
Now I’m all set. There’s plenty of room for all my DVDs, Blu-rays, and HD DVDs for that matter. At least until summer.
May 14, 2013
Moving to Japan ten years ago, I saw an opportunity to lose some weight and improve my health generally. I watched my intake of calories, fats, sugars, and carbohydrates, and I walked for at least one hour roughly 29 out of every 30 days, rain or shine. I was certain the fat would melt away, but after nine months of this routine I don’t think I lost more than 10 pounds.
Why wasn’t I losing any weight?
Next I tried a local hospital, geographically convenient, specializing in nutrition and weight management. They told me very little I didn’t already know, but in wanting to make good I diligently followed all of their advice and submitted to weekly blood samples and other monitoring. After six months I lost… ten pounds.
And then this past January I read an article about the findings of a medical study that had “ME” written all over it. It was one of those life-changing epiphanies. Though Yukiyo had been urging me to stop drinking diet soda for years the findings of this study were still quite shocking. And all of it seemed to apply to me.
Essentially what it says is that diet soda causes weight gain. It doesn’t help keep weight off at all, but in fact destroys one’s metabolism to the point where weight can actually skyrocket and dieting becomes nearly impossible. I began drinking diet soda in February 1985 and, at my peak, was downing two liters of the stuff every day.
I haven’t touched a drop since. For the first couple of months, I switched to regular soda, though limiting myself to one can or 16-ounce bottle per day, and now I’m down to two or three a week. By mid-summer, I’ll limit myself to about one can of regular soda per week.
In its place I’m drinking filtered tap water, lots of it, one-and-a-half liters per day or so.
Within a month I could feel the difference.
And, thinking I may be on to something, decided to add a kind of exercise I never did on a regular basis before: walking up, UP, UP steps and steep hills. Plenty of opportunity for that in hilly Kyoto. The Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kurama Temple, even a stone’s throw from my house there’s Takaragaike Park, where near the Cherry Blossom Forest one can find a long series of steps that provide a decent, 30-minute uphill climb. The first few times I made these walks I prayed that whoever would find my slumped-over body knew CPR, but my stamina has been building gradually, and now all these climbs are no big deal.
I haven’t changed much else. I’m eating moderately smaller portions, fewer desserts, more green vegetables, but eliminating diet soda, drinking a lot more water, and walking up these steps and footpaths are the only real changes I’ve made to my lifestyle, and only the walking involves an investment of time.
The result? In just the last five weeks I’ve lost 15 pounds. That’s a drop in the bucket for somebody my size, but it’s a start. Maybe a real, honest-to-goodness start. I’ll keep you posted.
May 10, 2013
I’d known Chris D. for several years when one day he made arrangements to drop off some Japanese movies a friend of his in Tokyo had taped off cable TV there. When I casually mentioned the appointment to my then-girlfriend, she couldn’t believe it. “YOU know Chris D.?!”
“Yeah,” I said, bemused. “What of it?” I had zero awareness of Chris’s “other life,” as a punk and deathrock pioneer, as the founder, lead singer, and songwriter of The Flesh Eaters (and later The Divine Horsemen), nor did I know then that Chris was also a poet, that he wrote for Slash, that he was an aspiring filmmaker.
No, I knew Chris only through our shared passion for Japanese movies. Each of us admired the classics of Kurosawa, Inagaki, and whatnot, but where my interests and specialties veered toward Japanese fantasy films, comedies, and musicals, he developed an obsession for Japanese gangster and chanbara films. Over time, he amassed a one-of-a-kind personal archive of these movies, most in Japanese only and without English subtitles, maybe second-to-none among private collectors in America.
Initially he wrote about these films in Asian Trash Cinema and Cult Movies magazine, but eventually he received an Artist Fellowship from the Japan Foundation to expand this writing into a full-fledged book, Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980.
Around this time Chris also began programming films, often with like-minded colleague Dennis Bartok, for the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. At their old screening space at Raleigh Studios and later at the restored Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, rarely would six months go by without a major retrospective of Japanese movies barely or never before exhibited in the United States. Instead of familiar classics like Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, Chris introduced American audiences to movies like Black Tight Killers, Go! Go! Second-Time Virgin, and Female Convict Scorpion – Jailhouse 41. He held Raizo Ichikawa festivals and Hideo Gosha retrospectives. On rare occasions, directors like Kinji Fukasaku – who penned the warm forward to Chris’s book not long before he died – flew over from Japan to receive an ecstatic reception to movies a few years before no one in the west but Chris had ever heard of, or movies those aware of them had been dying to see for years.
And so as soon as Chris’s big brick of a book that is Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films arrived at my doorstep, I knew we had to talk about it as well as catch up:
Stuart: What was the specific allure of Japanese gangster movies that made you want to devote so much time and energy researching and writing about them versus other kinds of movies?
Chris D.: I kind of fell into the whole thing by accident from my interest in Japanese film in general but especially genres such as samurai/chanbara and kaidan (ghost/horror story) films. I went to some Little Tokyo video stores in the late 1980s – 1989 or so – and could not find what I was looking for, movies like the Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) series that were not out in America on video at all at that time. But these stores had tons of unsubtitled yakuza films from the 1960s-1970s for rent and I was very intrigued by the great VHS box art (that was mostly taken from posters) and I got hooked renting them. One of the first ones I saw was Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (Jingi no hakaba) with Tetsuya Watari, which is one of the most over-the-top. Incredible acting, directing, cinematography, music…really a 4-star movie. Then I saw stuff like a couple of the Tales of the Last Showa Yakuza (Showa zan kyoden) series, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (Koroshi no rakuin), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jinginaki tatakai), the original uncut Tattooed Hitman with Bunta Sugawara. It was addictive, the experience of watching the films. I had already been into Hong Kong action crime films but the Japanese had what seemed a little bit deeper take on the characters, both the ninkyo type and the jitsuroku type. The tattoos, the swords. Even without subtitles I got the subtext of existential angst running through the films. No matter how much I loved film noir or American, British, French and Italian gangster films (which is a lot), they didn’t have quite the same mystique. Maybe the French (like Melville) come the closest.
Stuart: Unlike me you were in L.A. during the last years of Japanese movie theaters like the Toho La Brea, the Shochiku Kokusai, the Toei Linda Lea, etc., yes? What was it like experiencing some of the movies covered in this book, in those venues?
Chris D.: I totally blew it. I was aware of those theaters but had no idea how much great stuff was passing me by. I just was not connecting with that at the time. I was much more social then and also doing music and I never went when those theaters were still open! I have virtually no regrets in my life, despite some of the funky things that have happened, but being in ignorance of those theaters and what they were showing is definitely one.
Stuart: I contend that your writing on this subject, combined with programming you did in conjunction with the American Cinematheque, was no less than partly and in some cases solely responsible for introducing to Western world audiences some of these amazing films and filmmakers. Is there one film or filmmaker you’re particularly proud of helping bring to the attention of American filmgoers?
Chris D.: The Female Convict Scorpion (Joshuu Sasori) movies I am probably most proud of bringing to people’s attention. Pale Flower, Black Tight Killers, Okamoto’s Kill! (Kiru) but also some of Kenji Misumi’s early 60s films with Raizo Ichikawa (Destiny’s Son, also called Kiru), Sword Devil (Kenki), etc. neither of which have gotten a legitimate DVD release in English speaking countries yet – shameful. Plus of course the Fukasaku films, especially Graveyard of Honor and Battles without Honor and Humanity. Dennis Bartok and I really started the ball rolling, I think, programming those.
Stuart: Of those movies you helped introduce to American audiences, were there any you thought audiences might not take to but which they embraced as much as you did?
Chris D.: There were a few non-yakuza movies that people either loved or hated: Blind Beast, School of the Holy Beasts, Wakamatsu’s Go! Go! Second-Time Virgin. For some people they were too extreme. The same probably goes for later things we showed, too, more recent pictures like Miike’s Audition and Ichi The Killer. People either loved them or hated them.
Stuart: …and were there any you particularly loved that American audiences didn’t respond to at all?
Chris D.: I was a bit disappointed when we showed Masumura’s Hoodlum Soldier and Kon Ichikawa’s The Wanderers (Matatabi). Very small crowds for two movies that are masterpieces. I was also bit disappointed that there wasn’t a more enthusiastic reaction when we showed Pale Flower and Stray Cat Rock-Sex Hunter.
Stuart: You mentioned that Japanese gangster films struck you as a bit weightier than similar Hong Kong films. How so? Are they stylized and cinematically similar but simply have more depth in terms of characterization, do you think?
Chris D.: To be frank, a lot of the Hong Kong crime films from the 1980s, despite their spectacular action quotient and entertainment value, I always found them a bit sloppy and ragged around the edges. Too over the top all the way through, even in lower key scenes. But that sounds like I’m putting them down. I love a lot of them, especially early ones by Johnny To, John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.
Stuart: What kind of relationship did real Japanese gangsters have with the movies being made about them? Do you think even the most cynical ones also romanticized their profession?
Chris D.: It’s hard to say, but I think they undoubtedly were huge fans. I think there was a bit of rational disconnect about any kind of real self-conscious distinction in them between morality vs. “duty”, between what constituted so-called “good” and “bad” yakuza.
Stuart: And were the lines blurred, particularly at Toei, between the management and filmmakers at some of the studios, and organized crime, in the same way Las Vegas once was?
Chris D.: How much is hard to say. Although it was never a secret that executive producer Koji Shundo, who was one of Toei’s heads (and who was Red Peony Gambler star Junko Fuji’s father), was a “former” yakuza. But I just don’t know enough about the day-to-day atmosphere there on the sets and offices if there were more active gang guys hanging around.
Stuart: You mentioned Tai Kato as one of the shamefully unavailable. Why is it that many of the films of some directors, Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki, for instance, are widely available while others (Susumu Hani is another that comes to mind) are almost completely ignored?
Chris D.: Well, I think part of it is because Fukasaku’s and Suzuki’s movies are almost completely set in contemporary time whereas Kato’s yakuza films were almost all in-period, in the Taisho or early Showa eras. Other than that, I’m not sure. Kato’s movies have seen some DVD releases in France, so I don’t know. I think the French have a better grasp, better appreciation in some ways, on Japanese aesthetics in film and are just innately more romantic
Stuart: What would you say are the Top Three movies in your book still almost completely unknown in the West?
Chris D.: That is such a hard question as there are still so many. Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room (Shokei no heya), Seijun Suzuki’s Everything Goes Wrong (Subete ga kurutteru), Senkichi Taniguchi’s Car 33 Doesn’t Answer, Eizo Sugawa’s original The Beast Must Die with Tatsuya Nakadai, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Rose on His Arm, and there are at least 3 of Masahiro Shinoda’s early pictures (My Face Red In The Sunset, aka Killers on Parade, Tears on the Lion’s Mane, aka Flame at the Pier, and Youth in Fury, aka Dry Lake). Suzuki, too, has at least three other 1950s films that should be out subtitled (Satan’s Town, Clandestine Zero Line and Passport to Darkness). The Nikkatsu 6-film series Hoodlum (Burai aka Gangster VIP) with Tetsuya Watari and 10-film series A Man’s Crest (Otoko no monsho) with Hideki Takahashi are both criminally unknown here in the West. Also I might add there is so little available subtitled in English from Koji Wakamatsu, another master, who, despite some of the despised subgenres he worked in, created a significant number of masterpieces
Stuart: When you first started working on this book in 1989, the Internet was practically non-existent, there were no DVDs, no Blu-rays, and very little in English about Japanese gangster movies. Where and how did you acquire copies of the movies you wanted to see, and how did you go about researching them?
Chris D.: Renting unsubtitled VHS tapes from Japanese video stores in downtown L.A’s Little Tokyo and the Japanese neighborhoods in Gardena and West LA. Also, most importantly Yoshiki Hayashi, a Japanese journalist, editor and film buff who became a pen pal after he had read an article on samurai cinema I had written for the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine. His help was invaluable, for a number of years supplying me with impossible-to-see-on-VHS-or-DVD yakuza movies recorded off of Japanese cable and satellite television, sans subtitles, movies from all eras and subgenres. He was also an invaluable guide to poster and book shops, cinemas, lodgings, etc., as well as the prime instigator of my interviews with directors Kazuo Ikehiro and Teruo Ishii, when I spent my two months grant stay in Tokyo in the autumn of 1997.
Stuart: You and I have been doing this kind of writing and researching for more than two decades. When I look back on my earliest writing I cringe thinking, “If only I had access then to the kind of information so easily accessible today.” Has it become easier for you, too?
Chris D.: I wouldn’t say it was always easier, just different. Some ways have dried up and other gateways have opened
Stuart: Conversely, I think we were lucky to be able to do the kind of primary research where we could meet so many directors, actors, and other filmmakers who peaked during the ’50s through ’70s. Nowadays, so many people like Kinji Fukasaku, who wrote the forward for your book, have passed away. Does that connection to that era of filmmaking seem more distant to you now?
Chris D.: Yes, I was very lucky to get to talk to all those people when I did. About a third of them are gone now.
Stuart: Boutique DVD labels peaked about ten or twelve years ago, and they released deluxe editions (some featuring audio commentaries by you) of many of the films covered in this book as well as others you’ve championed through the years. Now the DVD market is in decline while some never-released-to-DVD Japanese movies are turning up on streaming services, notably Criterion offerings available via Hulu. Do you see more heretofore titles becoming available that way? Or are film retrospectives, mostly in New York and L.A., still the best chance to see these films?
Chris D.: Criterion has nine or ten Japanese genre films on Hulu Plus streaming I thought I’d never see subtitled. So yeah, but in some ways, things have just changed without necessarily getting easier.
Stuart: How is your Japanese? When you watch unsubtitled copies of these films, are you able to follow them adequately? And does gangster jargon and/or local dialects (e.g., Kobe-ben) complicate matters?
Chris D.: I am to follow them somehow but I have made little headway with my Japanese. I can read movie posters from the 1950s – early 1980s but that’s about it. My comprehension from spoken is still terrible. It’s a miracle of intuition (and the filmmakers’ visual talent) that I understand as much as I do.
Stuart: Are Japanese film companies helping or hindering the availability of their movies in the West?
Chris D.: Well, they’re not exactly helping but they are better than they used to be. One thing I cannot believe is that a smart Japanese movie studio hasn’t made their movie libraries (particularly their genre pix) available in subtitled form either streaming or on satellite in America by subscription.
Stuart: Is the Japanese film industry capable of making a great gangster film today, or has that time passed?
Chris D.: Takashi Miike made a couple of very good jitsuroku type gangster movies, Agitator and the remake of Graveyard of Honor (although I didn’t have any emotional connection with the characters unlike Fukasaku’s version). I also think Miike’s horror/yakuza pix, Ichi the Killer and Gozu are minor masterpieces.
Stuart: Is there a “Holy Grail” movie you’ve wanted to see for years but can’t for some reason, or a filmmaker or actor/actress you’ve wanted to interview that’s proved elusive?
Chris D.: [In addition to what I said earlier] I’d also add that not one of director Tai Kato’s masterpiece yakuza films have received a legitimate subtitled DVD release in the USA or UK (though they have in France). Shameful. He is one of the masters. Two other good directors, not really masters but good very underrated, unknown directors are both from sixties Nikkatsu, Keiichi Ozawa and Shugoro Nishimura.
Stuart: In what ways, if at all, has this genre influenced your own creative endeavors?
Chris D.: There is quite a bit of imagery in some of my songs from the Flesh Eaters’ albums Ashes of Time (1999) and Miss Muerte (2003).
Stuart: Are there wisps of these films in your music or novels?
Chris D.: No imagery in my novels so far though there is a screenplay I wrote set in 1990s Japan about an American heiress reduced to working in a Tokyo hostess bar because her late Japanese stepfather has lost his car dealership to the yakuza. I’m turning that into a novel called Tattooed Blood. It is heavily influenced by both Daiei’s Woman Gambling Expert (Onna tobakushi) and Toei’s Song of the Night (Yoru no uta) series.
Readers of this blog can click here to order Chris D.’s Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980
May 8, 2013
Special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, dead at 92, would no doubt have been pleased by the surprisingly prominent (and mainstream media) obituaries news organizations like the BBC and CNN are filing, as well the massive outpouring of grief and tributes offered by lifelong fans. Unsurprisingly, in many of the posts I’ve read today on Facebook and elsewhere, many of these fans plan on spending part of their evening tonight watching this or that Harryhausen film, the one that got them hooked on Ray’s stop-motion animation artistry. I might just introduce my 5 1/2-year-old to Ray’s artistry tonight, too.
I was probably five or six when I first saw Mighty Joe Young (1949), the first feature film on which Ray did a lot of the animation. Later, when I was nine or ten, I saw Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for the first time and was hooked for life. I remember soon after begging my father to let me stay up to watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), airing on a school night from 12:35 a.m. but, naturally, my father refused. With a title like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, think of the visions a 10-year-old boy just aching to see it must have had on that sleepless night. The next morning, over breakfast, my father casually announced that in fact he had stayed up to watch it himself. “Wha-wha what?!” asked I, practically spit-taking. “What was it like?” I inquired breathlessly. “Oh,” he said, “it was just a bunch of rubbish.” Agony.
But, through the years, I caught up with all of Ray’s films, including such personal favorites as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years, B.C. (1966), and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Over and over I watched them, at 35mm revival screenings, 16mm college campus showings, and I rented a Super-8 sound print of One Million Years, B.C. from the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Michigan probably 20 times. I watched Ray’s films on VHS, CED disc, laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray.
Nearly 20 years ago, around 1994, I was contracted to write a book about Ray Harryhausen, this hero of mine. I did a lot of research and, back in those days when international calls were quite expensive, set up several telephone interviews with Ray, who’d been living in London for many years even then. We had several long and pleasant chats, and he seemed pleased my questions were not along the lines of “How long did it take you to animate that?” but rather were focused on things like the particulars of his often exquisite lighting, his pre-production and the development of story material, specifics about his role as co-producer on his later films, and his working relationships with the composers who scored his movies.
As charming and as generous with his time as Ray was, it wasn’t long before I realized I had no choice but to abandon the project, to not write that book.
Any book on Ray Harryhausen, at least one written by me, would ultimately have been critical of producer Ray Harryhausen for not serving the best interests of Ray Harryhausen the master animator. Conventional wisdom is that all of the shortcomings of Ray’s movies from 1955 onward rest on the shoulders of producing partner Charles H. Schneer. But my research, including interviews with Schneer himself, suggested Ray had a lot more creative control over their films and much earlier on than is usually assumed. In the later films especially, on which Ray was a very active co-producer, the movies became showcases for Ray’s set pieces at the expense of all else: story, direction, and pacing. Journeymen talent were hired in place of directors, writers, and composers who might have helped rather than hurt these later efforts. Certainly filmmakers like Cy Endfield and Don Chaffey and composers like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa greatly enhanced those Harryhausen pictures while directors like Sam Wanamaker and Desmond Davis and composers such as Roy Budd and Laurence Rosenthal did not. Not that these people didn’t do fine work elsewhere, but I think Ray wanted others to work around his animation set pieces and he strenuously avoided those inclined to put their own personal stamp on movies he saw as exclusively his, even if their contributions would make the movie better.
In my conversations with Ray, without saying so directly, I also asked him about his resistance to technologies that might have extended the viability of stop-motion animation longer than it did. Once he developed Dynamation, Ray’s cost-efficient stop-motion process, he was loathe to shoot any other way. If it had been up to Ray, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would have been made in black-and-white and full-frame instead of color and wide screen. When he made Clash of the Titans (1981), by which point Ray probably should have been shooting all his animation in VistaVision or some other big-frame process (to avoid the obvious jump in graininess during process shots), he was still using methods virtually unchanged since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Even positive reviews of Clash of the Titans damned the movie with faint praise, finding it quaintly entertaining with its “old-fashioned” special effects. When I took some pals to see it they exploded with laughter at the very poorly done process shots of a bird in flight which open that film.
For those reasons I gave up on the book, and I’m glad I never wrote it. (My pal Ted Newsom, who’d already written a multi-issue career retrospective on Ray for Cinefantastique, eventually expanded that work into what I still regard as the best book about Harryhausen’s career, though rather tragically it may never be published.)
No, severely flawed though many of Harryhausen’s films are, we still love them all, watching them again and again partly, I think, to recapture that sense of losing oneself completely in his movies, to be whisked off to a magical land of monster cyclopes, of Medsusas and rascally Archelon, of moon-men and Rhedosauruses.
May 4, 2013
I was struck today by the pros and cons of Facebook, which at various times have enabled wonderful new friendships, rekindled long-dormant ones, but also created enormous conflicts requiring far too much of everybody’s time, time better spent actually doing something productive.
On the plus side, one recent example: It allowed me to reconnect with an old friend and co-worker, George Oakley. George and I worked as bank tellers (yes, I was one once) at Michigan National Bank in Ann Arbor. Sometime around 1991 or so we began to drift apart, partly because he’d starting working at an architectural firm while I had gone off to write movie and video reviews for The Ann Arbor News while finishing my heretofore long-unfinished Bachelor’s Degree. I moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and to Japan in 2003 and we hadn’t had any contact at all in something like 20 years when through Facebook we reconnected.
Last week George and his wife, Nancy, were in Tokyo on business. It was their first trip to Japan, and they decided to take advantage of the opportunity and make a side-trip to Kyoto. I met them at Kyoto Station and after maybe 10 minutes of awkward “Uh…so…What’s New?” chatter, the years slipped away and while I was 20-odd years older, grayer, fatter, and balder (George hadn’t changed much at all, damn him) it was if a couple of months instead of a couple decades had passed. I took them around Kyoto for the next several days and we all had a great time.
But then, conversely, another even older friend of mine, indeed my second-oldest, as of today apparently is my friend no more. We’d stayed in touch since around 1979, with the exception of about 10 years between 1982 and 1992, over something for which I was entirely at fault. But we eventually reconnected and kept tabs on one another, usually with me calling him for a long chat every six or nine months or so.
And then came Facebook, which soon dramatically changed the dynamics of our friendship, a phenomenon I suspect is now commonplace. While he enjoyed seeing photographs and videos of my family and vice-versa, other items I posted made him obviously uncomfortable. I’m an unashamed liberal, and partly I use Facebook to share news items, editorials, Daily Show excerpts, etc, which my fellow liberal friends on Facebook sometimes find useful. I pass along some of their interesting postings, they pass along mine.
This friend’s own Facebook page was, the last time I checked, devoid of political content. As far as I know he’s not a Sarah Palin-type Teabagger type but, I suspect, a moderate conservative similar to my father, a man who’d rather have teeth pulled without anesthesia than discuss politics with anyone, even his immediate family at the dinner table.
This friend, in a tone obviously irritated by my opinions, began questioning the validity of certain articles and links I posted. Fair enough. More than once I naively posted links to articles later exposed as misleading or downright untrue. I would never post anything I knew or suspected to be untruthful, and when, in the past, someone pointed this out, I’ve deliberately kept the post and the corrections up rather than remove it. So, sure, sometimes I get it wrong. So does The New York Times.
The point is I’d rather have an adult discussion about political and social issues, or humor, or movies, or Japanese popular culture, etc. than hear how somebody’s Farmville rutabagas are coming along. I enjoy debating issues like capital punishment, gun control, and the use of drone strikes even (or even especially) with people whose opinion on these matters is the opposite of mine. However, this friend was becoming increasingly exasperated that I didn’t come around to his way of thinking and/or stop posting links he personally found offensive and/or irritating.
Clearly, we were much too far apart to reach a consensus on certain issues. I happen to believe, for instance, that drone strikes set bad precedents, violate international laws, are bad foreign policy, and aren’t even remotely efficient in their supposed intent, with such devices far more likely to kill innocent civilians than somebody deemed capable of carrying out a terrorist attack within the United States. This friend, however, argues drone strikes “save lives” in the same way Hiroshima and Nagasaki allegedly saved lives by ending the war sooner than later.
So then yesterday I innocently posted this video of an “Amazing Stairwell Illusion” with the one-word comment, “Amazing!”:
I can’t imagine anything more innocuous, but my friend left multiple comments exposing the “Amazing Stairwell” as a fake, a hoax, adding, “A solid lesson in NOT posting unverified information, which happens all too often on the internet.”
Well, okay, but as I replied, “So what? It’s not amazing anymore? If I were to post video of a magician’s sleight-of-hand trick would you provide links exposing it as a trick? If I posted the Cookie Monster singing ‘C Is for Cookie’ would you insist that it wasn’t a real cookie-crazy blue monster after all but a mere puppet? All I said above was ‘Amazing!’ I didn’t insist it was real – in this CGI era of ours I’m skeptical about anything I see on YouTube – only that it was ‘amazing,’ which it is.”
“WOW. Just keep re-posting crap and making excuses,” was his response.
“If you don’t like the ‘crap’ I ‘keep…re-posting,’” wrote I, “There’s a Facebook preferences setting that’ll automatically remove me from your newsfeed. Problem solved.”
“Since the maturity level in your choice of what you write … has changed little in 33 years, I’ll go with my original gut instinct of that time. Problem permanently solved.” (For personal reasons I’ve removed a few words from this last comment of his as it was laced with a petty, salt-in-the-wound type remarks not appropriate here.)
What does all this mean? Well, for one thing it means when one posts their opinions, particularly political and religious views, on a semi-public forum like Facebook, they run the risk of alienating longtime friends and family unable to cope with views running contrary to their own.
Henry Fonda and James Stewart were good friends for something like half a century — but only because they never, ever EVER talked politics (Henry was a liberal, Jimmy politically conservative.) If they had lived long enough to open Facebook accounts, I doubt they’d be speaking to one other, either.
Nearly a decade ago, Universal’s home video department began releasing some of its classic movies and television shows on double-sided, dual-layered DVDs, or DVD-18s as they’re called. Some of these played just fine but, near as I could figure, those manufactured in Mexico had extraordinarily high defect rates. In the middle of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or, say, The Ghost of Frankenstein, the DVD would suddenly seize up and the image would freeze into a blocky, digitized jumble and then … nothing. Sometimes, but not often, one could try the same disc in another DVD player or skip ahead a couple of minutes and the TV show or movie might possibly resume playing.
Usually, however, the viewer was simply SOL. To say this was incredibly annoying is an understatement. How could anyone possibly hope to enjoy a 90-minute movie or even a 25-minute television episode knowing that, at any minute, the image could freeze up and you’d have no way to watch the program or movie’s climax?
I raked Universal over, under, and through the coals in my DVD review of Alfred Hitchcock Presents back in 2005. But as an ordinary consumer, I still got totally screwed over and over again. Eventually I just gave up, refusing to buy any Universal Home Video product utilizing DVD-18s.
For their part Universal did absolutely nothing. They never once acknowledged the problem, despite angry complaints all over the Web. Instead they quietly abandoned the format, stopped releasing classic TV titles for a while, then resumed production using single-sided, dual-layered DVDs instead.
You’d think they would have learned their lesson. Then again, other than a lot of bad word of mouth, it didn’t seem to bother them all that much. Sales were probably impacted only slightly. So what if they sold merchandise they knew was basically worthless?
Now, alas, Universal is at it again. Last fall I purchased The Office – Season Eight on Blu-ray. Only it wasn’t exactly a Blu-ray, but rather a Blu-ray/DVD flipper. One side of each disc contains episodes in Blu-ray format, with the other side offering the same episodes in standard-def DVD. Apparently this sub-format is called BD-59.
And, guess what? The same frustrating issues are back. For me, Discs 1 & 2 played just fine, but then Disc 3 began freezing up constantly in the middle of episodes. Eventually, the only way to watch the last several episodes on that disc were to flip her over and watch the DVD, standard-def versions of those shows. Not what I was paying for.
Yesterday, gritting my teeth, I inserted Disc 4 into my player and – behold! – the Blu-ray side of that disc wasn’t even formatted. No data. The DVD-side also refused to play on that player but, with some effort, I finally got it to work, at least with that first episode, on another machine.
Having bought this disc back in September, and limiting myself to 3-4 episodes per month, it’s now far too late to return the set, so I guess I’ll be kept in suspense until the season finale, if I get that far.
I’d really love to hear from somebody at Universal, on or off the record, about these problems, but on a corporate level I doubt they’ll ever acknowledge that they’ve screwed up yet again, or have any plans to offer replacement discs, or offer any help at all.
And isn’t it ironic that, in The Office‘s Eighth Season season’s story arc, Dunder Mifflin fails spectacularly trying to market worthless technology nobody wants. Et tu, Universal?
Last month, my old friend Stephen Bowie and I compiled an instant message conversation for simultaneous publication on both our blogs. The subject was streaming video, but as we chattered back and forth, the topic broadened – inevitably – into the related subject of how lovers movie and television watch what they watch.
I worked with Stephen, a television historian (ClassicTVHistory.com) and a curatorial assistant at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives in the late nineties. Now we live in opposite corners of the world – he in Manhattan and I in Kyoto – but we still correspond regularly about the media we enjoy and, more wonkily, the delivery systems that put it in front of our eyeballs.
As aficionados who both cover the subject regularly in our writing, we have for the past few years shared an urge to shout “You’re doing it wrong!” at the home video industry and its consumers. Specifically, we believe that the shift from physical media to internet streaming as a primary means of viewing film and television is playing out in some alarming ways – ways that may have a longterm negative impact on cinephiles and on a more general public as well.
One of Stephen’s Facebook friends wrote that that taking on streaming video would be “like trying to stop the rain.” But Stephen and I feel that now – before the metamorphosis is complete, and before it’s too late to have any impact on the shape it takes – is the right time to initiate an urgent discussion of the subject. We hope that you will come to share some of our concerns, and that you’ll join in the conversation in the comments.
Stephen Bowie: Just to frame the conversation a bit: It seems like we’re at a sea change moment in terms of both theatrical & home video exhibition, with the digital switchover from 35mm to DCP, and then the apparent movement from physical media to online streaming. And yet, while I’ve read a lot of articles mourning the loss of celluloid, it feels like no one is talking about the latter.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, why is that? And why are people who love film taking it lying down, resigned as they seem to be to its inevitability?
Stephen Bowie: I feel like there was a little bit of a fight to preserve 35mm, but it started too late and was lost quickly, except maybe in repertory houses (which is still an important ongoing battle). But I think that while no one is really happy about striking a match to celluloid, the streaming thing has divided the cinephile community. Or seduced it, perhaps I should say.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I think partly there’s a misconception that every new technology improves upon the one in current use. But here, both with the demise of 35mm film in movie theaters and the trend away from physical media toward streaming and downloading, what’s driving it is actually something else entirely, namely studios wanting to eliminate distribution and exhibition costs.
Stephen Bowie: And everybody gets that about DCP – there’s no clear upside for the consumer – but streaming offers users “convenience,” or the illusion thereof. Shrewd of Netflix to brand its streaming as “Instant!” Also, not only can you watch a movie right now, but you can watch it on your telephone or your tablet.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Back around 2002, when I was working in the Technical Services Department at MGM, streaming and downloading was already, even then, viewed as a foregone conclusion, that even though DVD was a huge cash cow for the industry like never before, and far cheaper to manufacture than VHS and laserdisc, they were already ready to kill that golden goose. And Blu-ray was never seen as anything more than a niche or transitional technology like laserdiscs. And yet both have stubbornly hung on with Blu-ray doing extremely well worldwide. I mean, Blu-ray was never going to be “the new DVD,” but I imagine its success has exceeded expectations.
Stephen Bowie: Didn’t realize it went back that far! Wonder what they’re planning to do to us in 2025.
Stuart Galbraith IV: What Price, Hollywood?
Stephen Bowie: I mean, to be clear, I’m not totally negative about streaming, nor am I being a kneejerk Luddite here. But first, what are your own experiences with the technology?
Stuart Galbraith IV: I should preface this by saying while I’ve never found it difficult to hook up a VCR or DVD or Blu-ray player, for me streaming and downloading are another matter. I have very limited computer skills. I struggled mightily trying to figure out how to do firmware updates on my Blu-ray players, and heavily rely on more computer-savvy people, various friends and my wife, Yukiyo, to anything more involved. It was her, not me, who first became interested in streaming – I was happy to watch only Blu-ray and DVD content – but she ended up getting a Roku for her birthday last fall and later an Apple TV for Christmas. Though she managed to hook everything up with relative ease, the service has been extremely unreliable. Particularly whenever I wanted to watch anything. Partly this was due to us living in Japan yet much preferring to watch Hulu Plus content originating from America. That entailed routing everything through a dummy ISP (is that terminology right?), which complicated things.
Stephen Bowie: And have you actually succeeded in watching anything? How did it look?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Hulu Plus especially almost literally never, and I mean 99% of the time, works properly. Eventually, after Yukiyo spent a great many hours trying to figure out what the problem was, aided by a friend who is literally a computer expert employed by Nintendo, we determined that at least part of the problem was Yukiyo had a laptop that somehow deactivated everything every time she took it out of the house, which was most every day. But the problem still persists and I’ve largely given up on it. The only things I’ve managed to see on Hulu Plus are the first 20 minutes of Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s starring debut (that I once owned on laserdisc, without subtitles) and an episode of Dark Shadows. Mind you, everything is hooked up to the small monitor Yukiyo, not me, primarily uses, which is only a 36” screen or so. Dark Shadows, shot presumably on 1” tape, isn’t a good title on which to judge, but the quality seemed OK. On the other hand, the signal caused the picture to jam several times, interrupting the flow of those narratives. I mean, if the selling point of streaming is convenience, the ability to instantly watch and choose from a wide selection of movies and television shows, well, then, for me so far it’s been a total failure. Between Yukiyo and I, not to mention our friend who spent maybe three hours, so far we’ve invested something like 20 hours resulting in probably less than three hours of viewing.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve sampled most of the streaming providers in the US – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube – and I’ve gotten most of them to work, using my Blu-ray player to send the video feed to my plasma TV. But as you suggest, troubleshooting is like standing on shifting sands. If you have a problem, the streaming provider will blame it on your ISP, and your ISP will blame it on Netflix, and good luck figuring out what’s actually going in. You’re generally at the mercy of how much traffic there is over shared bandwidth in terms of image quality, and Netflix’s servers are notorious for going dead on Friday and Saturday nights. So even if I’m able to learn the technology up to an expert level, it seems like this leaves a lot outside my control.
And a lot of what appealed to me about the evolution of home video over the early 00s was control: more movies available to cinephile than at any point in history before, and often in better condition. That’s one thing that feels like it’s being rolled back.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, there is a feeling of complete helplessness that I find intensely irritating.
Stephen Bowie: Having to learn a whole new technology may be part of the game, and fine, I’ll do it. But I can make a Blu-ray player do what I want if I understand how it works; the same can’t be said of Time Warner Cable.
I’m still worried that we sound like a couple of grandpas, so let me bring us up to what gave us the idea of starting a conversation about this: Over the long weekend last month, Criterion (which has a large, mouth-watering library of rare, streaming-only movies that it has never released on disc) did a promotion where they gave everyone free access to its “channel” on HuluPlus. The catch was, there would be a few commercials embedded in each movie. And what surprised me was that I saw a lot of excitement about this offer in my “social media” world, which is mostly movie buffs. Now, the catch is, you can subscribe to Hulu for a month for EIGHT BUCKS. What blew my mind was, are there really cinephiles out there who will watch Bresson’s L’Argent with commercials just to save eight bucks?! I mean, the last time I watched a commercial was probably around 1995.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The same here!
Stephen Bowie: The fact that cinephile culture has not left them completely behind really floored me. You know, if a Colbert clip or something comes up with a commercial in front of it, I just close the window, immediately – I don’t care what I’m missing. I don’t object to paying for content – if there were a meter on my screen and I could pay, say, two cents for each Bill Maher monologue, I probably would. But you can’t have my time.
Stuart Galbraith IV: With DVD I think what happened was that the studios exploited all their A-list titles as far as they could, re- and re-re-re-releasing them ad nauseum. Cinephiles refuse to understand that deep catalog titles just don’t make anything like that kind of money. I think it was Mike Schlesinger who said Hudson Hawk sold 500 times as many units as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But, anyway, what with Warner Archive, Sony’s Choice Collection and whatnot, even the most obscure films anyone could possibly want are available somewhere, most in video transfers vastly superior to what used to be available on VHS and in 16mm TV prints, and now maybe the only way to market them as “conveniences” available on your iPhone with the press of a button.I mean, sure, if I was stuck on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours with nothing to do, watching a movie on my iPad would be preferable to twiddling my thumbs, but …
Stephen Bowie: At the risk of sounding like a snob, I feel like DVD was a semi-luxury product that went mainstream, and that streaming is a McDonald’s kind of product. (So far.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I agree. Blu-ray was released to the marketplace before it was really ready, hence the endless frustration of consumers who had players that wouldn’t play certain discs, even with firmware updates. Streaming to me is far worse, putting the onus on the consumer for absolutely everything.
Stephen Bowie: I mean, I always thought a great home theater was every movie fan’s goal, and it was just a question of whether his or her circumstances made that possible, or not.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Few of us, certainly not me, can afford to remodel our homes as elaborately as some of the incredible home theaters I’ve seen on-line, or afford the most expensive, top-of-the-line sound systems and players. But big, widescreen TVs got much better around the turn of the century and they became affordable. (I’m amazed what you can get in 2013 for less than $5,000, or even $1,000!) That, coupled with the low-cost, high-quality of DVD made building libraries and home theaters much more attractive.
Stephen Bowie: But now it feels like streaming, and the iPod, have proven that a lot of movie fans really don’t care how a movie looks. Is that true? How can that be possible?
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s like being at a movie theater where the film is out of focus but there’s no one in the booth, and booth is locked so that even you can’t fix it.
Stephen Bowie: And you’re the only one in the theater who knows it’s out of focus! Everybody else thinks it’s supposed to be that way! And that’s happened to me, literally.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Some years back, I was chatting with friends in the lobby of the restored Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, a beautiful 1,700-seat or so movie palace built in the late twenties. A teenager strolled in and saw all the unmarked doors leading into the auditorium, as well as the grand staircase leading to the balcony. Looking at us, totally confused, he asked, “Uh, which theater is the movie in?” I think the younger generation, my five year old included, are growing up watching everything primarily via computer screens, even iPhones. And, of course, TVs are now basically computers themselves, and becoming more and more computer-like with each model. Maybe 20 years from we’ll be nostalgically recalling putting discs into players the way older generations (gulp, myself included) recall affixing speakers to car windows at the drive-in.
Stephen Bowie: One thing we were discussing a while back is how the aspect ratio war was a sort of unexpected triumph – through a probably unreproducible series of events, the movie fans won that battle over the people who didn’t understand the “black bars” at the beginning of the DVD era. It sort of feels like we need that kind of unity and purpose now, not to defeat streaming, but to set some baselines to make it as acceptable for high-end home theaters as well as cellular phones. I don’t care about the medium so much as the file size.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, what drives any business is money. What’s so odd about what’s happening now is that Blu-ray is making a lot of money worldwide, and even DVD is hanging on. People like those technologies. They’re completely happy with them. How much money will Skyfall (2012) make this month worldwide in Blu-ray and DVD sales? Another $500 million? You’re in New York and I’m in Japan, and we’re seeing very different things. In Manhattan video rental shops are all but extinct but, seemingly, they continue to thrive here in Japan. Japan is always on the leading edge of new technologies, so why are people here still renting DVDs and buying Blu-ray discs if streaming is the wave of the future?
Stephen Bowie: And there are still some niche labels that seem to do okay with just physical media (Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory); they’re just not the same ones that were in the game 10 years ago. One factor that may be a tipping point is Warner Archive. If their new streaming service is a success, will they phase out burn-on-demand discs?
Stuart Galbraith IV: What, for instance, would your top baselines concerns be?
Stephen Bowie: Well, again, I can’t get into this too much technically, but it feels like we’re on a collision course in terms of bandwidth: the more people use streaming, the more we’re fighting for the same resources and the more our movies will get compressed or stuttered or cut off in the middle. I also can’t think of any good examples of content libraries that have remastered titles specifically for streaming. Everything – good (MGM’s good HD cable masters on Netflix), bad (Paramount’s atrocious old SD cable masters on Netflix), and mixed (Criterion’s leftovers on Hulu) – is basically an off-the-shelf data dump. That’s kind of scary.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, again, that’s the whole point: spend the least amount of money to make the most amount of money.
Stephen Bowie: Something else that doesn’t really exist in the world of streaming: bonus content. And the lack of an outcry, frankly, has been so deafening that it’s almost a repudiation of that aspect of the DVD era: Naaah, we never really cared about that “film school in a box” shit anyway!
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, to be honest, unless I’m reviewing the disc I doubt that I look or listen to even one-fifth the special feature content on the DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, even when it’s obviously good stuff. If I watch, say, a really great Melville film, instead of spending four or five hours looking at supplements accompanying that disc, I’d rather spend that time watching another Melville instead. Also, does the world really need to see deleted scenes and listen to an audio commentary to Barbershop 2?
Stephen Bowie: Which is hilarious, in a way. I don’t disagree, entirely. But: if I’m going to watch Barbershop 2, I want it to be a goddamn gorgeous transfer, even if it is Barbershop 2. Right?
Stuart Galbraith IV: The transfer, yes. That’s my whole point. The movie’s the thing. Going back to some of your original points, for me watching movies at home has always been about two basic things: recreating the theatrical experience and having access to the movies I want when I want to see them. I’ve no doubt that steaming technologies will improve over time and might even be fantastic and highly desirable within just a few years. But we’re a long way from there at the moment. As you point out, the quality is variable, with a lot of it VHS quality. It’s not reliable and when something is wrong the consumer better have a computer expert on 24-hour call otherwise he’s SOL. Can you imagine inviting a bunch of friends over to watch something this way only to lose your Internet connection three-quarters of the way into the film? Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: Right, and that will happen, the way things are now. I’ll use Netflix streaming as a sort of supplement – for documentaries or so-so TV shows – things I won’t care too much if they don’t look great or are interrupted. But the idea of that system, as it is now, becoming my primary supplier of cinema is terrifying. It could be the end of me as a cinephile, I think. That’s why I’m making a big deal now, while this tech is still in its formative stage.
The arrival of streaming has been a whole foundation-shaking process, for me, of realizing that many movie buffs – serious, intelligent, widely-published ones, in many cases – don’t agree with that, at least not passionately. They’ll watch it in whatever form is in front of them and that’s fine with them. There’s a great irony here, in that just as we’ve reached the point where you can have a great home video setup for a less than astonomical sum – a multi-region Blu-ray player and a 50” or 60” plasma TV for under $1500 total – it’s portability that’s become a more buzzworthy commodity. I know not just film fans but filmmakers (let me underline that, filmmakers) who don’t even own TVs; they watch everything on a 14” laptop. What a waste. I don’t even think there’s a lot of awareness of how much better suited the plasma technology is to cinema than LCD or LED TVs, and I worry that they’ll stop making the plasmas (in part because they’re less “green”). Am I wrong about this, or unfair?
Stuart Galbraith IV: No, it’s not unfair. Perhaps for them it’s a novelty that’ll wear off. I mentioned drive-ins earlier. Drive-ins were a really fun and novel way to watch movies on a cool summer night. Unless, that is, you really wanted to watch the movie. One or two visits each summer was my limit, so perhaps these misguided souls will come around in the same way. Yeah, being able to watch Citizen Kane (1941) on a tablet in the subway during one’s commute is amazing from a technological standpoint. But that doesn’t mean one ought to watch movies that way.
Stephen Bowie: It might be a novelty but for now “them” includes people like Roger Ebert, who used his TV show to explain letterboxing to a wide audience; now he seems to be shilling indiscriminately for whatever he finds streaming on Netflix. Or here’s a quote from Tim Lucas’s blog (Tim being the founder and editor of Video Watchdog, which remains an epicenter of videophile culture): “I watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973) tonight via Netflix on my Kindle Fire HD. It turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful way of watching it, making it a more intimate and book-like experience.” Whaaat?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, Jess Franco may be the only director in the world whose movies might actually benefit from a poor bit rate and iPhone-size screen! Have either Lucas or Ebert been challenged about their allegedly uncritical support?
Stephen Bowie: Not that I’ve observed, although honestly, I don’t know to what extent it’s come up in Video Watchdog (although I should). And it may not be uncritical so much as uncontextualized – they’re saying “hey look, I found this” without the follow-up of “but wait, here’s a better way to see it,” which needs to be there. Consumer reports. Consider this – you write for DVDTalk.com. Where’s StreamingTalk.com? I can’t think of a single website or blog devoted to reviewing individual films for A/V quality on streaming platforms (and there are/were dozens for physical media).
Stuart Galbraith IV: I see streaming as basically HBO, geared for people who come home from work or maybe they’re sitting in a hotel room looking for something to watch. From what I can tell, a lot of these services rotate programming in and out of availability, like pay cable. Who’s to say the movie you’ve been thinking about watching the last three months will still be there when you’re ready to sit down and watch it? Who’s to say it’ll stream properly even if it’s there? Physical media is tangible. Streaming is like owning soybean futures.
Stephen Bowie: Absolutely. In fact, when I first editorialized about Netflix on my blog, I did give them credit for having whole runs of a few shows (Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel) that weren’t complete on DVD at the time. Now those are gone! There has unquestionably been a net loss of catalog titles on Netflix streaming in the three years since I’ve been paying attention. It’s a business model where they can take away anything at any time, which of course is exactly how the studios have wanted it all along. That alone should make film buffs very skeptical.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Of course, this actually discourages ownership of physical film collections. Forty years ago, people with private film collections, often composed of discarded prints found in the Dumpster, were prosecuted, and the earliest days of VHS saw a great debate over the idea of consumers actually owning a copy of a copyrighted work belonging to them.
Stephen Bowie: The idea of renting movies is also sort of a bubble market, without a direct equivalent in music. Without it, I would never have been able to afford to become a film buff. So I guess that’s an argument in favor of the all-you-can-eat $8 Criterion buffet. At the same time, I just hope people who start that way are educating their eyes, and that there are still Blu-rays being published when it dawns on them (as it eventually dawned on me, the teenager who first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 13” TV in my bedroom) that you need to see movies in a better state than that. In other words, the conversation is not just about technology; it’s about how cinephiles (and everyone else) choose to watch movies. The tech is driving the discussion, but it should be the aesthetics that come first.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The thing is I’ve never thought of myself as a “collector.” Instead, over the years I’ve built a video library, a library in the classical sense of it being a resource for me to use in my work, and to be able to lend titles to friends, especially to introduce them to great films they may have never heard of. And it’s already a library I’m sharing with my five-year-old daughter who I hope will continue to use it for the next dozen years or more. Moreover, this library of a reflection of me: my tastes and interests. It expresses who I am.
Stephen Bowie: Yes, although in my case, even “library” is almost overkill. I got over the idea of wanting to own movies pretty early. That’s why it’s ironic that I’ve taken such an extreme stance on streaming, because I’m not married to physical media. So I feel like I’m a potential customer for streaming (or at least downloading in some form) who is being ignored. Because they gotta get it right, and there’s no market pressure to make that happen (yet). I’d be more than happy to let somebody store movies in the cloud for me, as long as it comes with some guarantees that (1) they won’t all evaporate and (2) they won’t look any worse than what I’m accustomed to on discs.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Perhaps subconsciously my determination to build my video library was for exactly the reasons you describe, a fear that what’s available to me now, and in a high-quality form, may not be available tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find working DVD and Blu-ray players 20 years from now. I feel a bit like Harlan Ellison stocking up on Remington Rand typewriters! But what happens if you build a massive personal library on a cloud and one day it vanishes?
Stephen Bowie: You couldn’t do anything, under the current parameters. This is interesting in terms of Netflix: One of the main complaints I see on blogs like HackingNetflix.com is that a movie someone wanted to see used to be there but “expired,” or a TV series disappeared before the watcher reached the end. But while this is seen as a negative, it doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for a lot of users.
I’m thinking now about how many intangibles separate movie lovers on issues like this. I don’t revisit movies nearly as often as I think you do, so the question of having a library is less essential. We’re all aligned or opposed so unpredictably based on the different ways we watch and appreciate movies. Harlan’s typewriters will probably outlive him, but once I bought a few DVDs that were upgraded before I pulled off the shrinkwrap, that essentially cured me of needing to “collect” movies. They will slip through your grasp, one way or another.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s true to a point, but I also have hundreds of out-of-print movies that may never come back. And, when if they do, at least I’ll have the option to upgrade or not and still have the film in some form.
Stephen Bowie: Sure, but I just got tired of playing that game, worrying about whether I should buy something now or wait or…. I mean, this week, a critic named Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece about an obscure and supposedly magnificent Gillian Armstrong film called High Tide (1987), in which he said that it’s only available via Netflix streaming or an Australian DVD in the wrong aspect ratio. I knew – because I keep track of these things – that this was wrong and that Umbrella Entertainment had done an anamorphic special edition of the film a couple of years ago, with a commentary from Armstrong and other extras. But I looked again and now that version, which I never got around to buying, is out of print. There’s a newer one that looks suspiciously like a bootleg, so I’m left with taking a chance on that, spending a lot of time and/or money seeking out the good OOP version, or just caving in and slurping up the Netflix copy, which looks okay but lacks the extras. If you’re not completely obsessive about this stuff, you’re going to go for the last option, right?
At this point, we took a break, experimented a bit more with streaming video in the interim, and then reconvened a few days later.We exchanged links to a few rare films (Luigi Zampa’s To Live in Peace ; Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her So Well ; Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue ) that one of us found on YouTube, which appeared to be unavailable for purchase legally – probably rips of foreign DVDs with added “fansubs.” In the end, neither of us felt like watching them in this form – at least not yet.
Stephen Bowie: Have you “streamed” anything since we left off? (And why am I using quotation marks? I just refuse to confront this without holding my nose, I guess.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I watched a couple of cartoon shows with Sadie, both of which paused in the middle with no clear indication that they would resume, though eventually both did. I also sampled some of the YouTube material you recommended. I’d really like to watch those films … on DVD at least (Blu would be better) … but not on YouTube. It’s weird, I have this innate resistance to watching anything longer than a couple of minutes on YouTube. It’s okay to watch a 55-year-old clip from I’ve Got a Secret or a goofy number from some obscure Turkish musical. But I’d never want to sit through, say, Citizen Kane on my computer. With YouTube on a larger television the picture quality on most stuff is so mediocre, even on my wife’s 36” monitor, I’d rather wait and hope it turns up on DVD or Blu.
Stephen Bowie: I won’t watch anything on a computer monitor, except for cat videos. And if there’s an ad in front of it, I close the window; I just don’t care enough about that Jon Stewart bit, or whatever, to endure being advertised at, even for ten seconds. It’s likely that your AppleTV can play YouTube videos, but the question becomes, will they look like anything other than a pixilated mess on a TV that’s – what size? Probably bigger than mine.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Mine is 45-46”, I think. Exactly. Laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray have spoiled me. Like you said earlier, I can’t imagine watching a movie now panned-and-scanned (although amazingly a tiny handful are still getting released). PD releases from companies like Alpha Video I pretty much can’t look at anymore, except maybe on my laptop while on a 12-hour flight somewhere, where the PQ is about par with what airlines offer. Even regular primetime sitcoms. I watch everything on DVD or Blu these days. How do people stand all those ads and banners and watermarks and 20 minutes of commercials per 40 minutes of show? I’d go nuts!
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, there’s so much to choose from, I just reject a lot of stuff for image quality outright. Fox releases a pan & scan MOD disc? Screw it, maybe in five years somebody will have fixed that, and I have plenty to entertain me in the meantime. But I guess a lot of people make the opposite choice, for gratification now, even if the only option is deeply flawed? I dunno. Not me. (And I want to come back to the ads and banners and watermarks a little later; I have a theory about that.) But: That’s a learned behavior. In the VHS / pay cable era, for the most part, you only had one home video option, and it usually sucked. So if streaming is lowering our standards, it may represent a return to an old norm.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I recently made the decision to buy the British Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out, the well-regarded Hammer film. As you’re aware, the release was controversial because about five seconds of special effects footage was altered, “improved” so somebody believed. Because of this many of the film’s biggest fans are “boycotting” this release. The same thing is happening now with another Hammer title, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, its US title), for which absurdly anachronistic color timing was done in an attempt to make it look more “modern.” Obviously, both were stupid, short-sighted decisions oblivious to the basic tenets of film preservation and restoration. But what angry fans don’t realize is that, at least in the world of home video, boycotts either have no effect at all on commercially marginal titles like this — or they have exactly the opposite effect, which is that bean counters will look only at sales figures (do you really they’ve got the time to research comments on the Home Theater Forum or Classic Horror Film Board?) and never release it again because “sales were poor.”
Stephen Bowie: Personally, I can’t think in terms of the larger picture on this; I make the decision on whether to rent or buy the disc based on whether I want to watch the film in its compromised state. I wouldn’t have bought the British Blu-rays (or watched them if you gave ‘em to me). There are a lot of films and TV shows lodged in this personal twilight. I’ll never watch the first season of Kung Fu on DVD because it was cropped to 16:9 and, as a result, I’ve never gotten around to the subsequent seasons, either. It’s just another damn thing I have to track down the hard way before I can do anything with it. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship with streaming in this regard, too. There’s a basic instability to the image (ironically, it reminds me of VHS or cable noise) and I still haven’t quite figured out how I rank that against other technical flaws in deciding what edition of a film counts as the best available, or whether or not this is perhaps a dealbreaker any time I notice it.
On the other hand, I’m not as inflexible as you might expect. I’m pretty forgiving of good transfers of dodgy film elements. I have a tin ear so bad sound mixes usually get a pass. And I’ll never understand why you would boycott a foreign film because the subtitles are yellow instead of white – that drives some people nuts, but I’m totally neutral on it.
Stuart Galbraith IV: As both a consumer and someone once on the technical services side of things, I think polite, well-researched emails to project managers and others actually handling video transfers is probably the most effective approach. I’ve known project managers who were film buffs themselves, and who really went the extra mile to make something right. Conversely, I’ve also known project managers who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know squat about film history and for them it’s just a job; they might just as well be an assistant manager at The Gap for all the difference it makes to them. On the other hand, an angry email saying, “I SAW this movie in 1958 when I was five years old and it was 1.66:1, not 1.85:1!!!” isn’t going to persuade anyone. A trade ad or article in Variety from 1958 stating the film is 1.66:1 is a lot more convincing.
Stephen Bowie: They’ll either fix it when the first reviews come out because they care, or they’ll stonewall and ignore it. I think fan boycotts and letter campaigns do zilch, sadly. When CBS decided to fix the replaced music in The Fugitive TV series, it wasn’t because people like me moaned about it. It was either because Variety humiliated them in its pages, or because somebody there actually wanted to get it right, or both. As an aside, all these fights over the intermediate aspect ratios are absurd. There’s usually ample evidence of what the original projection ratio was, and yet there’s this handful of battleground films that draw out all kinds of magical thinking as to what the director or DP might have been composing for. I usually applaud completism but I really had a hard time caring about the Blu-ray releases of Touch of Evil and On the Waterfront in all the three ratios.
Stuart Galbraith IV: And because these are commercially marginal titles, it’s not reasonable to expect a home video label to spend $100,000 for home video rights on a ten-second music clip on a movie that’s going to generate $30,000 in revenue. I’d rather see, say, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with ten seconds of Beatles music removed than not at all. Conversely, in extreme cases, such as the removal/alteration of music from WKRP in Cincinnati, fans of that series are clearly better off recording uncut broadcast versions.
Stephen Bowie: There is a clear catch-22 with something like WKRP in Cincinnati, which was always doomed. Gut it with song replacement or don’t release it at all: it’s a no-win scenario. (When I interviewed Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator, last year, I could tell he was still pretty wrecked about it.) And it’s really not a conversation that consumers have a voice in, although it’s encouraging that a few labels have figured out that music clearance can be a marketable commodity. Shout! Factory put out a list of songs in each episode to promote its upcoming China Beach release.
Stuart Galbraith IV: One last comment about boycotting. I find it odd that certain people get so upset about relatively minor things while completely ignoring, or even approving, what I consider shameful alterations done in the name of political correctness. To wit: Via an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, credits on ‘50s and ‘60s movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai being one famous example – are being altered to acknowledge the authorship of various blacklisted writers who either worked without credit or wrote under a pseudonym or through a front. I’m all for placing a title card before the movie stating something like, “Pierre Boulle is credited with the screenplay of the film you are about to see but in fact it was written by uncredited Blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael G. Wilson.” But to physically alter the original film is like the altering of history books, the kind of thing we used to criticize the Soviet Union for all the time. It’s an injustice that should be acknowledged, not hidden away without comment. Why aren’t people complaining about that?
Stephen Bowie: The revised credits issue is infuriating. And it makes me think of another kind of Orwellian technical rewriting I think has been underreported: the replacement on Blu-ray releases of the optical opening and/or end credit sequences with new, digital credits in films where the original background plates can be located. Usually it’s a really close match, but last year this came to light last year when Universal released Hitchcock’s Frenzy on Blu and bungled the new credits badly, even misspelling some names. But I sometimes see Blu-rays of older films where the credits a little too crisp and I worry that this is happening more often than you’d think, and not being documented. With Frenzy, Universal fixed the misspellings after the review copies were widely mocked – but that’s almost not the point, because if you look at the two sets of credits side-by-side, you can see that the font and the size of the type are not really that close a match. If someone in post thinks it’s worth it to alter a movie this substantively just to scrub some optical debris or avoid some unsightly edge enhancement around the original lettering, then they’re in the wrong job.
Then you have more obvious instances where Blu-ray provides a temptation for directors or DPs (like the notorious Vittorio Storaro, with his demented crusade to reframe all his old films in a new aspect ratio) to rewrite their work and then discard, or actively suppress, the original versions. George Lucas has been flayed by the fanboys for this, but William Friedkin and Michael Mann also like to brag about subtly tweaking every new transfer of their films. And I really think Criterion’s indulgence of Michael Cimino, who radically altered the color palette of Heaven’s Gate for their recent Blu-ray, is a bad precedent. Yes, we have an earlier DVD that’s more accurate, but as of now the only High Def edition is the one Cimino repainted. You talk about compromises and when they become self-defeating – well, honestly, I would have preferred that Criterion insist on including an alternate transfer that attempted to replicate the original release prints, and walk away from the deal if Cimino vetoed that.
Stephen Bowie: After we talked last, to make sure I wasn’t being unfair, so I ran a few episodes of Glee via Netflix Instant. This is a show that’s on Blu-ray, and looks great on Blu-ray, so presumably it was sourced from a competent HD master. And when the image had no movement, like a CU of someone’s face, it looked very crisp, like a frame grab from a Blu-ray. I think that’s what people are thinking of when they argue that streaming in HD is superior to standard-def DVD. But at times the image seemed to break down and display a lot of prominent digital “artifacts.” Usually when there was a lot of motion (like in a dance number), but sometimes just at random, it seemed. Sort of like shots of ocean waves or wheat fields in an early DVD! It was like setting the image quality clock back to 1999. So I have summoned the rest of this season of Glee(the third) on Blu-ray, which, thankfully, Netflix still provides – for now.
Plus, just as you experienced, the transmission froze up twice during the six episodes I watched, and each time I had to shut down the device and reboot it. That’s “only” two three or four minute interruptions, but they both came in the middle of dance numbers – really big-time breaking the spell of the show.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: But, people are going to read this and laugh. It’s probably anachronistic to even expect, or try, to watch something without interruptions. It takes a real effort, even for a purist like me, to shut out all the phones and the social media. But we have to do it, and encourage young cinephiles to do it. If you slice up La règle du jeu into ten minute bits, you’re just not going to get much out of it. I don’t care how rigid or old-fashioned that might sound: you are doing it wrong. And, of course, if we have technology that normalizes the interruption (like the dropped call as an accepted feature of cell phone culture) then it becomes harder to argue against conceptually.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I got into a very bad habit with my iPad. I’d watch something then want to look up an actor on the IMDb while I was watching, and then, Hey, let’s check email, and I wonder if that Blu-ray is still on sale? Pretty soon I had completely zoned out of the film. Now I keep the iPad in a different room so I’m not tempted.
Stephen Bowie: Pause the movie for a bathroom break, and hey, might as well check Facebook while I’m up. Bad habit. You’re degrading your own pleasure. Although, you remind me: when I was a teenager and every movie actor was a new face, I had to make myself quit stopping tapes to look them all up in Halliwell or Katz! So ADD is not purely technological.
Stuart Galbraith IV: How do you watch movies? I’m particular to the point where I know I drive certain people crazy. For instance, I can’t watch movies with the lights on. When I have guests over, I make ’em turn off their cellphones before we start. Admittedly, I’m extreme. I once stopped going to movies with one friend because he made a slight whistling noise breathing through his nose that drove me crazy!
Stephen Bowie: Oh, I remember, once I went to your house and we ordered dinner in the middle of the movie, and you got mad when I turned on a lamp just to eat for five minutes. I’m like, do you really want half this pizza in your couch? But, yes, for the most part, I’m pretty intense about stuff like that. My biggest problem now is noise pollution from some sources around my apartment – I have to watch most things at night (as in, weekend all-nighters) and that issue by itself is enough to have me contemplating a move! And incidentally, there’s a nose-whistler who frequents the repertory theaters in New York – could be the nicest guy in the world, but I still get up and move over to the other side of the theater whenever I see him come in.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I often quote the late Gene Siskel who made a great point about spectatorship: “You can only see a movie for the first time once.”
Stephen Bowie: Essential quote from Siskel (so much so, I thought I’d coined it myself!). Particularly since I won’t ever go back to most movies – not out of some Kaelian contempt for the idea but just because my tastes are broad and life is, literally, too short. I still cringe over first viewings ruined in years past. Sweet Smell of Success: 35mm print with a horrible scratch on the audio track for four reels. Still have never managed to “recapture” that film for myself. Just the other day, I got a migraine, the kind where you can’t see properly for a while, right in the middle of Guillermin’s Rapture. I’ll watch it again, of course, but it won’t be the same.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The circumstances in which one watches a film can profoundly impact the experience, much more than people realize. I’d seen House of Wax (1953) in 35mm and 3-D probably seven or eight times through the years. Then the American Cinematheque had a 3-D screening on the Paramount lot (oddly enough) with director Andre de Toth in attendance. The screening was arranged by hardcore 3-D preservationists who knew what they were doing, and it was the only time I had seen the film projected on a silver screen, as was done in the fifties. Although the movie was by this time very familiar, the experience was completely different. Similarly, I first saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm on a medium-sized screen. It wasn’t until I saw it again in 70mm, with six-track magnetic stereo sound, on a 70-foot screen, that I finally “got it.” And of course, it’s not just the print. I’ve had “first time only once” experiences totally ruined because of chatty people sitting next to or near me. My good pal Ted Newsom does this and sees nothing wrong with commenting throughout in a normal voice, even at a repertory theater. But, for me, his yacking yanks me rightout of the experience. Regardless of whether it’s a good movie or a bad one, I want to be sucked right in. That’s where the best movie-watching experiences happen, whether it’s Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia or Wild Strawberries or Night of the Living Dead or Singin’ in the Rainor Jason and the Argonauts or whatever.
Stephen Bowie: And I feel like these points are obvious, but you need to make them once in a while. Nobody’s born a viewing-experience zealot. Somebody has to teach you about aspect ratios and stuff. In my case, it was a slightly older film nerd I met at the library when I was about 15, who wrote laserdisc reviews and explained widescreen and pan & scan to me. Until then I’d never understood how badly TV and VHS butchered some movies. So I think it’s worth it for us to be doing this, even if readers feel like they’re being lectured at (although I hope that’s not the case).
And yeah, I don’t go to first-run movie theaters any more; I finally gave up on fighting rude audiences when texting became prominent. I really miss it. Oddly, when DCP came along, instead of grief, I felt a backward sense of relief, because now I wasn’t missing anything any more! That’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome or something, I realize.
Stuart Galbraith IV: My daughter’s five, and when we sit down to watch, say, Disney’s Cinderella (1950), I make it a point to buy the Blu-ray and, as closely as possible, recreate an idealized movie-watching experience for her. Now, I know a lot of parents out there are more than happy to plop their kids in front of computer to watch the film downloaded from somewhere, or (here in Japan) to buy a 500-yen public domain version of Cinderella that looks like dog meat. My daughter, of course, has no awareness of what I’m doing, yet I’m confident introducing movies to her the way I am, it’s making a subtly lasting impression different from what a lot of other kids are experiencing. Add to that, by running Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Our Gang shorts and Buster Keaton silent films, I’m also getting her acclimated to the concept of black and white.
Stephen Bowie: This is the point where someone will smugly remind us that in the 30s-50s, it was customary to wander into theaters in the middle of the movie, and probably audience manners were appalling, if not enhanced by disruptive technology. Respectful audience behavior is probably another learned behavior (a boon of the film culture movement of the 50s-60s-70s) but it, too, is not something I’d like to see slide back into the muck, which seems to be happening.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Audiences in Japan are much more polite. In ten years my worst complaint was when someone knocked over a beer bottle and it comically rolled slowly down toward the screen over several minutes. Conversely, seeing movies theatrically is now obscenely expensive, yet we’re still subjected to a mountain of ads easily bypassed on home video. And, frankly, home video is rapidly approaching, even surpassing the theatrical experience. On the other hand, I miss the communal viewing experience that, though rare, made certain screenings truly special shared experiences.
Stephen Bowie: Being a child of the home video era, I never really had that. I prefer to watch alone. The presence of other people always distracts me at least a little bit, even if they’re behaving. This is theoretically contrary to the original idea of how movies are “supposed” to be experienced, but I’ll make an argument for it. Plus, TV (and I’m a TV specialist, of course) complicates that; the magazine ads always showed the whole family gathered around the set, but of course TV made private viewing possible.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s learned behavior. Neither of us grew up watching silent movies. We had to learn how to watch and appreciate them. These days I’m game for just about anything, but 30 years ago the idea of watching a four-hour reconstruction of Intolerance was a daunting proposition. In a way I feel part of my mission as a film critic and historian is to introduce people to giving old movies a chance. I mean, I’ve probably gotten at least two dozen co-workers and acquaintances over the years to watch Casablanca, which in most cases was probably the only black & white movie they’d ever seen, with the possible exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. Yet without exception these same people always respond, “That movie was great! Where can I find more stuff like that?!”
Stephen Bowie: I’ve found that my openness to movies has only expanded. Stuff I never cared about at one time suddenly seems intriguing, because I have a context for it, or just a growing curiosity (starting with “furrin” films in film school). DVD, incidentally, came along at the right time to open a lot of doors for me – the technology drove, or fed, my exploration in a really great way. I like your DVD reviews because you’re interested in things I don’t really care about –
Three Stooges shorts, singing cowboys, British TV detectives – but you make them sound like fun; you’re laying the groundwork for me to go there someday. I get really impatient with film/TV “fans” (and this includes some of my readers) whose boundaries are already proscribed.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s certainly true that it’s easier to “lose oneself” watching movies (or TV shows) alone. But, conversely, there is also something magical about experiencing a movie with a receptive, like-minded audience. I regret that audiences can never again experience Star Wars as I did, with an audience that had no idea what they were getting, who by the end was literally cheering at the end. Or evenings in Ann Arbor, Michigan at their “Top of the Park” 16mm screenings of old movies outdoors, in the cool summer air, movies like Double Indemnity and The Band Wagon. I really miss that.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve had that from time to time, but not enough to make me crave it. Conversely, I’ve gone perhaps in the opposite direction…. I’ve gotten interested in the idea of curation – “programming” a weekend, or an evening, or a year of movies or TV shows. Picking up specific ideas (a director, an actor, a national cinema, a widescreen process, an era or movement) and exploring them in depth, or from start to finish. Combining or cross-matching those things: Jean Harlow at MGM or Richard Fleischer in the ‘70s or French ’Scope crime films from the 60s.Or creating ideal double or triple features.Figuring out which movies complement each other; creating flow from one to another.Sort of like ikebana, or fengshui, but with movies. I’m not really interested in having a physical collection, but this might be a sort of equivalent to it.
And of course, to do that is a form of asserting control – of being active rather than passive in what you choose to watch – and one of my instinctive reactions against streaming platforms is that they seem to encourage the opposite. Watch what we throw in front of you, not what you seek out. (Netflix’s famous $1 million recommendation algorithm is based on that principle; conveniently, it’s designed to conceal the big gaps of what movies they don’t stream, and it appears to accomplish that goal very well.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: You have to be open to, if not everything, at least a willingness and curiosity to want to experience the best-regarded examples, if only to further your education about movies. For instance, a lot of hardcore Western fans would never sit through a B-Western, i.e. Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Yet the Bs probably outnumber the A-Westerns ten to one. I often take you to task for sitting through eight seasons of Harry O without ever having experienced I, Claudius or The Singing Detective or even Cracker. If I were to ship you a box of DVDs of that stuff would you commit to spending three hours a week with it?
Stephen Bowie: Honestly, no, but I promise I will get to those one day. Part of my “zen” curation idea is waiting until you’re ready to be open to something to watch it. No “eating your vegetables” viewing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s what good movies do. When, nearly 30 years ago now, I stumbled up Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, I immediately tracked down VHS copies or scanned TV Guide of every other Sturges film out there. (I’m still looking for The French They Are a Funny Race.)
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, I feel like I have a road map (and lots of unwatched acorns tucked away for harsh winters), but I hope there are more surprises I don’t know about yet. And I’m lucky enough to live in a city where you can still see prints of a lot of obscurities that you can get on home video (or stream!). Plus, I haven’t turned my back on the new, unlike a lot of movie & TV buffs, so there’s the knowledge that more stuff I’m going to dig is still being made.
Stuart Galbraith IV: But you have to push yourself a little, or you’ll never get around to it. I avoided Last Year at Marienbad for years but when a cheap Blu-ray turned up, I made sure I watched it that night, to ensure it wouldn’t end up in the great unwatched.
Stephen Bowie: It’s a marathon, not a race. I program for maximum “variety,” so that I don’t use up, say, all the French New Wave movies now – or all of those Harry O episodes, since there are, alas, only TWO seasons – or get burned out by watching too much of the same thing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I do the same thing these days, and take a certain pride watching, say, Pierrot le Fou and Hoppy Serves a Writ on the same evening. Indeed, last night I watched William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which, coincidentally, also turned out to be a Richard Johnson double feature.
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, exactly. Or go in the opposite direction of being a completist. You can take some obscure ‘40s studio director and assemble a dozen of his movies all in a row now, thanks to Warner Archive and the other MOD lines. Or, just to pay the devil its due, watch 35 films (!) by Kinoshita on Hulu that Criterion will probably never get around to releasing on disc. Although that’s very much the exception rather than the rule for deep catalog via streaming.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Again, I’m old enough to remember that if you wanted to watch, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, your options were limited to scanning TV Guide each week and hope one of the six or seven channels available back then might run it. Then you had to sit through commercial interruptions, awkward edits made to fit the film into a particular timeslot, all kinds of crap. My cup ain’t half-empty, it’s a dam burst! Who’d have guessed 30 years ago that one day you could watch This Is Cinerama in Smilebox format, in multi-track stereo sound, on a 50-inch TV in high-definition? Or a restored Metropolis? Or Lawrence of Arabia? Or Snow Trail, an obscure Japanese film I had wanted to see for three decades?
Stephen Bowie: Huge generational shift. I feel like we’re making an “It gets better” video for our teenaged selves. And yet, Dave Kehr always complains that we’re losing films with each technological shift, that lots of stuff that could be rented on 16mm in the 60s-70s never made the transition to VHS or DVD. I think that’s myopic (it emphasizes American studio films over everything else) but it’s a point worth keeping in mind. And it may also apply to US TV –
certainly for classic TV buffs there were shows that aired in syndication just before the VHS era, and thus still remain tantalizingly out of reach. You could see them in 1975, but not now.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Kehr has a point. I mean, it’s weird if not criminal that, say, practically every Jess Franco movie is out on DVD while, say, there’s not one by Tadashi Imai with English subtitles. On the other hand, Kehr’s list can’t be very long now, not in 2013. I sometimes refer to DVD Savant’s “wish list,” published on his site, and I’m always amazed how, every year, a big chunk of it disappears.
Stephen Bowie: Bringing this back to streaming: I haven’t found this on my own Netflix platform yet, but last August some users reported that Netflix was minimizing the end credits of TV shows and some movies, to prompt viewers toward the next episode. There was a lot of negative reaction to this, as intruding upon the experience. And you know what it reminds me of? TV. My prediction is that streaming, which is replacing cable (i.e., cord-cutting), will just become cable once it moves everyone over. As soon as everyone’s hooked, you’ll get watermarks, crawls on the screen, shrunken or talked-over credits and, finally, ads (only now you won’t be able to fast-forward through them).
Stuart Galbraith IV: Oh I think you’re absolutely right. I guess there are some people out there who still turn on HBO and say to themselves, “Hey look at that, Kindergarten Cop! I think I’ll watch the last 40 minutes of that.” But I can’t see that lasting much longer. The idea of a primetime network schedule of comedies and dramas seems to be dissipating into other media, and pay and even free cable don’t seem too far behind.
Stephen Bowie: Which may offer more choice in the short term (the much-vaunted House of Cards marathon option) but not necessarily in the long-term (if ads are embedded and recording for a personal library is blocked). It’s easy to go too doom-and-gloom when a paradigm shift looms (dig my rhyming!), but I do feel like we could be brontosauri, happily chowing down on our physical media while the giant asteroid is hurtling toward us. Ever watch Cinemania? That documentary about obsessive movie fans who will only watch films on 35mm? Well, they were the dinosaurs that got wiped out by the DCP meteor. Are we next?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes and no. Physical media may not be an option for, say, my daughter by the time she’s an adult. But the reality is no matter how hard they try to kill it, people around the world are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, and especially in second- and third-world countries, I don’t see streaming replacing DVD in places like Cambodia or Panama anytime in the near future. There are millions of us over 35 that, while hardly the ideal demographic, still represent billions of dollars of revenue to the home video industry, who aren’t confident about our computer skills, and I just don’t think it’s inevitable like the transition from records to CDs or VHS to DVD because the benefits are countered by an equal or greater number of deal-killer problems even average consumers aren’t going to accept.
Stephen Bowie: I would like it not to be so generational – I’d like for younger people to insist on Blu-ray (and then 4K!) as a niche, sort of like has happened with vinyl, and for some mainstream insistence on better image quality and selection via streaming to get some traction. But still, that’s a more optimistic note to end on than I was expecting.