Gaining film literacy outside of a $1,000-per-credit-hour university course has somehow gotten harder since I’ve grown up. Blockbuster (my first employer) all but destroyed the local video store unless you live in a coastal megalopolis, and then, after no more than a decade ruling over the ashes of the industry, it was torpedoed by a combination of Netflix’s convenience and backlash from its own greedy late fee policies.
In the wake of that implosion, in the age of digital saturation that’s followed, it still feels impossible to just find a classic or important foreign film. If you want to look at great works on the canvas, there’s always a museum or public domain reproductions online. If you want to read the foundational works of the great poets and playwrights, take a stroll to any of the thousands of local libraries scattered across the country. If you want to watch The Wild One or Citizen Kane, movies woven into the fabric of the collective American culture? What are your options?
You can sign up for Netflix’s (separate and expensive) monthly DVD-by-disc plan—a service which has stopped carrying titles I distinctly remember it had just a few years ago (although I have no evidence to back that up). You can outright purchase certain foreign films, like Lee Sang-il’s 2013 Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the Western, Unforgiven, but only if a $50 Blu-Ray excites you. Amazon, Google Play and even YouTube offer some coverage, but at sometimes absurd prices and often in questionable formats. Streaming services, too, typically butcher aspect ratio—one of the most important choices a director makes.
Netflix and Hulu’s streaming services, meanwhile, offer up convenience and little else. Sure, they stream fairly fast and integrate into your devices with reasonably well-programmed apps, but it often feels as if you can’t find a movie that’s more than five years old, and as my colleague Jim Vorel just wrote, services like Amazon feature infuriatingly obtuse browsing that hides the real depth of the material offered. As more studios and channels (wrongly) think people will buy into their own proprietary streaming services, these streaming titans are left to squabble over fewer and fewer options. We truly live in a world made worse by draconian copyright and public domain laws.
That said, if you are a true (Cuban/Asian/White, Paste-contributing) cinephile and want to pony up as much as $100 a year for the service, FilmStruck this week announced that it has gained access to 600 titles from Turner Classic Movies’ sister company Warner Brothers’ catalog as a result of that studio’s streaming service shuttering. For their own part, Warner Brothers has said their goal was to consolidate the two services rather than have them compete. (It’s almost as if they acknowledge that people consider such expenses less essential than the inescapable Netflix, which people bought into a decade ago and demands a slowly growing share of their meager-and-shrinking-due-to-wage-stagnation entertainment budgets. Almost.)
FilmStruck already streams the bulk of the Criterion Collection, which is not at all a bad place to begin if you’re interested in broadening your cinematic horizons. With this addition, movies like His Girl Friday, Forbidden Planet, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Groucho Marx’s A Night at the Opera, Rebel Without A Cause, Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are finally available on something that doesn’t require you to pay per view, wait for a disc to be mailed or outright purchase a physical copy for the cost of a nice dinner (or an inferior digital copy with no special features for the cost of a middling dinner).
There are still drawbacks. FilmStruck’s service has consistently lagged on every device I’ve used to stream it, irrespective of what sort of internet connection I had access to at the time. And as I said, there is a $100-a-year price tag attached, more if you don’t pay up in an annual lump sum. The value corresponding to that cost has certainly increased with the addition of TCM’s movies, but it’s still out of reach for many and prohibitively high for many more.
I want to be clear: I don’t believe I am or anybody is entitled to simply demanding to be spoon-fed Sunset Boulevard (which actually is on Netflix) any time we want, for arguably no money. I’m saying that such movies are foundational art in the same way Huckleberry Finn or “Beowulf” are works of art: works we collectively share as an inherited culture. Affordable, public institutions, paid for by you and me, have arisen to enshrine those works of art, and the idea that you would be denied the experience of enjoying them because you haven’t got 50 bucks handy is ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be nice if cinematic works of art were similarly curated?
Kenneth Lowe is ready for his close up, Mr. DeMille. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his writing has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read more of his writing at his blog or follow him on Twitter.