Ashes of Time

Video is dead, long live video
by Michael Atkinson  posted February 26, 2009
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Adieu, VHS, and a coin to the ferryman. We'll miss her, imperfect technological slattern that she was, and the reason is as plain as a mote in your eye: videotape's analog homeliness translated to cinephilic liberty. Film is expensive, at every end, and thus some movies have always been unavailable, hopelessly vaulted, hostage-held, even as the streams of delivery have changed over the decades. In the first years of what could generally be termed the modern film culture era, we depended upon urban revival houses and the broadcasting decisions of local television stations to bring us the medium's legacy pathmarks; TV, in particular, from the '50s on, went a long way toward intimately introducing every kid in America to the yesteryear verities of Charles Chaplin, John Wayne, Joan Crawford, and Boris Karloff, to a degree to which adults of that time could've only dreamed. (Not to mention, of course, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Jean Cocteau, Edgar G. Ulmer, et al.—I saw my first Bergman films on PBS during the Nixon administration, and I was not alone.)

Then came home video and VHS, a format distinguished by a heretofore unimaginable cost-effectiveness. Many a thick public-domain catalog (from companies like Video Yesteryear, Kartes, Blackhawk, and Something Weird Video) was filled with copies made without the benefit of a telecine—road-traveled 16mm prints taped right off a screen or a white wall, the camera audio-jacked directly into the projector. Authentic studio-library releases, simply manufactured without the cost of remastering or digitization, were too numerous to always warrant press releases. What's more, anyone could bootleg, given the bare necessities, and there were plenty of privately owned entrepreneurial rental stores comfortable with putting these plain-wrapper babies on the shelves. If you were lucky enough during the '80s and '90s to live near a metropolitan hub like New York, Chicago, or Seattle, you could, as I did, locate black-ops editions of Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues, Peter Fonda's Idaho Transfer, Fernando Solanas's The Hour of the Furnaces, Theo Angelopoulos's Voyage to Cythera, Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris, Juraj Jakubisko's The Deserter and the Nomads, Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, William Castle's Shanks, and many more, not to mention countless illegal dupes made from European and Asian VHS releases. As a devotee of Kim's, Evergreen, and 112 Video on Long Island, I was never contained by the flimsy demands of the law, or concerned with the "rights" attached to films that no one in America could find a profit margin in anyway.

All this appears to do is backlight yet again the reality of how much we have been and still are, as cinephiles, at the mercy of the mass market on one level, and how inherently dedicated we therefore become to undermining the profit mechanisms at work on another. Which is, right now, the good news: the burning has begun. Bellyaching about the loss of VHS's market viscosities ignores a few things about the age of digitization, which, as the music industry has learned, is just as democratizing as it is industrially profitable. There's no shortage of bootleggings to be had now, DVD-R'd from original prints, VHS copies, broadcast or other digital originals. In your contemporary hunting, it should be unnecessary to say you'd do better to avoid Amazon and shop instead at: (piles of films copied from global editions; still a mix of VHS and DVD; has Kidlat Tahimik's The Perfumed Nightmare, Michael Curtiz's Moon of Israel, Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy, Bergman's The Ritual, ad infinitum) (Mostly forgotten Hollywood, including the otherwise unavailable 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Between Two Worlds, Bigger than Life, The Boxer and Death, Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, Rossellini's Europa '51, Pontecorvo's Kapo, The Great Garrick, and so on) (lots of psychotronic junk, but also Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche, Harry Lachman's Dante's Inferno, Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End, Jim McBride's Glen and Randa, Alexander Ptushko's A Tale of Lost Time, Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, and more) (one junkie's gristle is another's filet, but there's also Haynes's Superstar, the TV movie classics Bad Ronald and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, William Castle's Shanks, Ray Harryhausen's Mother Goose shorts, John Waters's Multiple Maniacs and Mondo Trasho, and the like) (the only dependable place to land a copy of Kiarostami's Homework and Through the Olive Trees) (too much 'sploitation, but also Welles's Filming Othello, Oshima's Death by Hanging, Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, Roy Andersson's A Swedish Love Story, and Losey's Figures in a Landscape) (Norman Mailer's Maidstone, Robert Downey's Pound, Jack Smith's Normal Love, Herzog's God's Angry Man, William Conrad's long-rumored noir Brainstorm, the long-bootlegged five-hour workprint of Apocalypse Now).

And these are only some of the U.S.-stationed bootleggers; globally, with merely the expense of an all-region DVD player to overcome, you could uncover enough inexpensive "embargoed" culture to plummet you into bankruptcy. Sure, the unrestored quality of pirate copies won't be perfect, but they're bound to at least equal an average VHS copy, the likes of which never disturbed us terribly in our VCR-library heyday. But even this paradigm is fading into the distance, sneakily undermined by peer-to-peer platforms like BitTorrent, which allow anyone to offer everyone else a digitized film, like samizdat, which can then be burned onto a disc (using one of many other free applications) for everyday viewing, and copied indefinitely. The few standing walls of Jericho are shaky indeed.

For the bulk of us who have not resorted to open-source cinema exchange, the digitization age we're in now has in any case plenty of market room for authentically beautiful, pristinely restored, legitimately released curios and nonpareils. Just in the last half-year, the rarely-seen rescues from the abyss have included Larisa Shepitko's Wings and The Ascent, the German-Indian late-silent landmark A Throw of Dice, Kaurismaki's Shadows in Paradise, Melville's Le Deuxieme Souffle, entire lost chunks of Roberto Rossellini's career, the Bill Douglas trilogy, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Shadow, Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, Burgess Meredith's The Man on the Eiffel Tower, Brahms-Sanders's Under the Pavement Lies the Strand, Larry Jordan's entire corpus, a slew of William Wellman's pre-Code dramas, Borzage's late-silent masterpieces, the Fonda-Sutherland 'Nam-protest doc F.T.A., Duvivier's Poil de Carrotte, Murnau's The Finances of the Grand Duke, and so on.

The restoration and digitization of these films, and scores of others, is more of a gift than it may seem at first—DVDs, cared for properly, will outlive us, like books and vinyl records, but, more to the point, a film once digitized is unlikely to be forgotten, unavailable, or "out of print" ever again. Movies are no longer captured only on ephemeral tape or unstable and expensive celluloid; now, having been purified down to bits, films are more or less immortal, virtually existent, having a better chance than the medium has ever had before at being universally disseminated, immune to age, and free (to an increasing degree) from commodification. Copy-blocking programs are always circumventable, by softwares that are also free for the asking. Whether a film shows up on TCM or on a DVD or in a torrent download or on a privately burned disc, it is inviolate and as impossible to "withdraw" or even regulate as a revolutionary idea or a piece of aural folklore. No one truly owns a film once it's been digitized; it belongs to the world.

Of course, there is still so much locked away in studio cellars and squandered to the neglect of time and greed—personally, I'm still on the prowl for Rivette's L'Amour Fou, Feuillade's Fantomas, Sternberg's Underworld, Watkins's Resan, Borzage's Man's Castle, Hou's A City of Sadness, the entire résumé of Alexei German Sr., and on and on, and I say this knowing that I haven't looked very hard lately, and there's a good chance that many if not all of these can be found online, free or cheap, with the slightest flick of Google-ness. 


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Courtesy trigon-film
The Hour of the Furnaces, directed by Fernando E. Solanas
Photo Gallery: Ashes of Time


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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct