Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Digital Cinephilia and Consumer Control

By  · Published on June 22nd, 2010

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been reveling in the death of the chain video store. Part of this is my knee-jerk reaction to anything impersonally mass-produced and explicitly corporate, as the now-defunct Hollywood Video and the drowning Blockbuster were for so long the insurmountable Wal-Mart of popular consumer movie libraries. But I did have more specific complaints with these stores, from the proliferation of hundreds of copies of new releases in favor of a variety of older titles to Blockbuster’s refusal to distribute NC-17 movies to each of these chains’ ghettoization of foreign cinema to a single, solitary shelf (if that).

I’ve considered myself a cinephile for about the past decade, but subscribing to Netflix in 2006 no doubt changed greatly how I’ve interacted with my love for movies. No longer did I have to rely on the availability of any blind visit to my nearby video store with a limited selection, and no longer did I have to schedule my viewing time around a five-day return limit less I incur a late fee. But, most importantly, it was the queue that made the difference: a wish list of movies that I had always wanted to see suddenly became an accessible, deliberately planned to-do list. Now I could engage in cinephilia in a systematized fashion, even viewing films from a given famous director I had not yet been exposed to in chronological order.

To say that Netflix successfully caters to the needs of the cinephile is no insightful, earth-shattering revelation. Mailing DVDs across country allows an expanded library of films to be available to the given subscriber that puts the chain video store to shame, and the push for more Watch Instantly titles in the past few years has been a forward-thinking policy, making the demand for hundreds of titles all the more immediately available and readily supplied. Netflix is a successful business for a very simple reason, making good on the specific demands of its consumer base. And while the casual subscriber greatly outnumbers the cinephile, the cinephile here is certainly being catered to and benefits greatly from these methods as a whole, and Netflix’s Watch Instantly model is merely part and parcel of a giant push to promote legal, immediate, streaming home viewing of movies via the Internet as a new standard of cinematic experience (iTunes, Hulu).

And while I endorse the Netflix model and go out with a smile on my face to each closing Hollywood Video in my region to buy their liquidating titles, I’m hesitant to give in to the idea that this sea change in home video viewing is an unequivocally good thing, for the closing of Hollywood Video’s doors and the reception of red envelopes in mailboxes or video on images on computers all over the country potentially herald, in turn, a slow but inevitable death of the video store at large.

When I lived in New York City, Kim’s Video (opened 1987) was one of the essential institutions for cinephiles, providing tens of thousands of titles both obscure and accessible, and organizing their collection by director and country to cater to urban cinephile geekery rather than the arbitrary and annoying genre delineations of chain stores (what, exactly, is ‘special interest’?). Its multiple locations around Manhattan, especially the St. Mark’s store (Mondo Kim’s), were a safe haven for the serious moviegoer, playing controversial art films like Last Tango in Paris on the surrounding televisions and employing an appropriately snobby staff of hipster movie geeks who would give you a look that said “you’re not welcome here” if you ever dared to ask for the latest Sandra Bullock movie. When I left the city in May 2009, the only Kim’s left was a small location on 1st Avenue, and the 3-story Mondo location had been boarded up for several months – a depressing sight for a Manhattan movie nerd if there ever was one.

Kim’s closed down, speculatively, for several reasons – competitive Manhattan rent prices, poor business decisions, arguably bad PR from a police raid in 2005 – but the most obvious source of dwindling business for the NYC establishment was no doubt the sea change in how people rent movies for the home. And while it remains difficult to feel sorry for Blockbuster or Hollywood Video existing as casualties of the obvious benefits provided by Netflix, it’s difficult to see the great individually-owned video stores in cinephilic cities fall by the wayside as well. If Kim’s can’t survive, who can? Now, as an Austinite (for another month, at least), when I visit Vulcan Video and I Love Video (an Austin establishment since 1984), I enter the expansive selection of their seemingly still-bustling stores with an understandable degree of trepidation, fearing that one day, even in a city that loves movies as much as this one, not even they can’t survive the switch to digital home distribution. I’m primarily fearful of this because I know that I’m partly responsible for a decrease in business, and as a regular Netflix subscriber, although I’m an overt supporter of these stores, I’ve taken my business elsewhere for the sake of convenience.

While Netflix is exciting in its convenient availability of thousands upon thousands at any given time, one’s entry into cinephilia often has to do with an added worth provided by a film’s limited or exclusive availability – my years of growing up in Waco, TX, for example, where hardly any foreign or independent films have been exhibited theatrically or made available at video stores, rendered those films more enticing, mysterious, and exciting when found. Thus, a sudden wave of availability provided by services like Netflix and the like kills that initial sense of wonderment. Look back at any Scorsese interview as he recounts an emergence into cinephilia only realized through the occasional retrospective at a nearby movie theater; the exclusivity – in this instance, of not having home video at all – emboldened the cinephilia.

But there are less nostalgia-driven arguments for the necessity of the video store for the cinephile. The video store not only provides a physical and sometimes social space for cinephiles (the snobby attitude of Kim’s employees, for instance, provided a sense of unity and exclusive community amongst only the most serious of cinephilic tastes), but a transparency of consumer choice and control. With a video store, the physicality of picking up the DVD and bringing it home allows you to know exactly what you’re getting when you get there. I Luv Video here in Austin, for example, still provides VHS tapes for rent, not because they think this is some sort of preferred method of viewing for the cinephile or casual renter, but as a means of preservation, knowing that some films have still yet to be commercially released on DVD in the US and that sometimes different versions of films are released on different formats. (Being a cinephile, after all, sometimes means being a technocrat of the antiquated and the analog.)

Additionally, there are commercial and legal limitations when dealing with a mail or information-based home video distribution company, namely the fact that Netflix doesn’t (and probably can’t) distribute DVDs of foreign regional codes, which gives individually owned video stores a major plus in terms of selection. Some titles get in continued legal tangles with domestic rights issues, thus relegating them to the wishful “saved” section of our queues as they, meanwhile, sit waiting for you at the nearest independent video store, ready to be viewed on your laptop or multi-region player. Sure, Kim’s crossed the blurry legal line of multi-region distribution by selling Region 1 bootlegs of foreign region DVDs (I still have on my shelf the carbon copies of Ken Russell’s The Devils (still not available on DVD here) and Pasolini’s Salò (released before the Criterion reissue)), but they undoubtedly catered to a consumer demand that Netflix simply can’t.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the lack of transparency within Netflix itself. The company has had a practice of making a certain release of a DVD the one definitive edition available within their company, and often it’s not even the version advertised. For example, I recently rented Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express to show friends, but instead of sending the Criterion release whose cover is displayed on the site, they sent the far comparably ancient original release which featured far inferior sound and video quality (as well as a bizarre, rambling introduction by Quentin Tarantino). So, renting with Netflix provides less certainty than going to a store and actually holding the physical object itself. And Netflix’s long-but-successful slog to make most of their library available on Watch Instantly provides even more problems, denying consumers the selectivity of certain audio and subtitle tracks (e.g., JCVD, for instance, was available only with English dubbing on Watch Instantly for awhile) and video options (e.g., Cronenberg’s long-elusive M. Butterfly was (if not is still) only available in pan-and-scan when viewed this way), not to mention a total lack of access to special features. In short, the largest potential problem with mail or digital delivery distribution is the arbitrary formation of a certain release of a film – or a certain way of viewing a film – to be the definitive, authoritative, possibly only means of experiencing it. Netflix in this case chooses convenience in favor of accessibility and demand on behalf of cinephiles, relegating and limiting consumer options and control even as they make more titles more available.

For more than 100 years now cinephiles have decried changes in how we view movies as a “death” of cinema – from the Eisenstein-led moral tirade against sound film in the 20s to fears of the rise in popularity of television in the 50s – and each new technological development ultimately proves that cinema isn’t dead, it’s only become a little different. In fact, our entire experience of cinema since the days of Lumière have been defined by change rather than stasis, proving cinema to be infinitely adaptable to any technological change or revolution in how we receive or experience movies. Cinema has never embodied one ideal form or served one ideal function. Cinema existed before video stores opened, and it will continue to exist after they close. But along the way, cinephiles must be wary of the illusion of choice – that availability, accessibility, and convenience don’t always mean consumer control. In order to ensure that cinephiles still have the freedom to choose the way they experience films. To ensure that the greatest potential number of options are reasonably available to them when venturing to watch any given film, the cinephile must demand a transparency of choice so that home-and-computer delivery distribution can progress and satisfy our demands rather than limit and determine them.

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