Hey, the Oscars were last weekend! Now it's time for a round-up of the bad, bad news of the state of cinema in 2009.
How bad? Well, for starters, there's the impending eviction of the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York, maybe the most important distributor of experimental films in the United States. As the NYT reports, Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1, is kicking them out to use the space for some internet radio project:
“All we want is a corner,” said Jonas Mekas, the director and poet who is one of the patriarchs of American avant-garde cinema. “We can’t understand why they are giving her so much space for a project that is just being formed and has not proved itself of any service to the arts community, and at the same time throwing out the only organization that independent filmmakers have to distribute their work.”
Then came the news that New Yorker Films is going out of business. For several decades, New Yorker has been an incredibly important foreign and arthouse distribution force. Not the cheapest source of prints, but an incredible library. At Doc Films, our lovely Ousmane Sembene retrospective and our screening of Kieslowski's complete Decalogue, for example, was made possible by New Yorker. The library will be auctioned off, it seems, but who will buy it? By a corporation that actually cares about cinema, or someone who will extort independent exhibitors with excessively high rental fees? Will it be by someone who focuses exclusively on DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming exhibition, or someone who realizes that repertory cinemas still exist as the best way to see film?
On that point, here's an important article by Anthony Kaufman about the demise of the VHS format. It talks about an issue that I've found many people surprised about when I mention it: that despite the seeming instant availability of so many films on DVD and through Netflix, there are actually far fewer films available to be seen today than in VHS's heyday. In fact, as Dave Kehr points out in an interview, fewer than 4% of the U.S. films listed in the Turner Classic Movie Database are available on home video, and these include some important classics.
I only wish Kaufman's article put a little bit more emphasis on repertory cinemas as opposed to just DVD releases, though he does acknowledge them briefly in a parenthetical. It would certainly be great if all these films we want released on DVD were released, but wouldn't it be better for actual print libraries to flourish, allowing easy access for cinemas to show amazing films in the format they were designed to be shown in?
Another sub-thought: Kaufman talks about the Criterion Collection slowly but surely releasing wonderful films. Like most people, I love Criterion. A great selection of films in fine transfers and the most gorgeous commercial design out there. But does it make anyone else a little bit uncomfortable that, for many people, Criterion is the definition of the film canon? Certainly, it's great when people who have previously never heard of Crazed Fruit suddenly check it out because they see that familiar logo on the packaging. But it just seems a little strange when one company is the only source for young film fans' knowledge of older cinema. It sometimes feels like, to some people, the quality of a masterpiece like Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow is under dispute until legitimized by Criterion.
Anyway, many of these are points I made a few years ago for a piece I did on Chicago Public Radio, by the way (recorded when I had a cold, it seems). Things have only gotten worse since then, it seems.