Pool

07.11.11

Canons in the Slipstream

Redefining the Origins of a Film Canon

In the salvaged introduction of an abandoned book project, filmmaker and former critic, Paul Schrader – after much internal debate[1] – stakes a claim for the legitimacy of a film canon, with the idea that, unlike fine art and literature, cinema is a historically transitional art. Schrader[2] posits that because 100 years of cinema is wedged between the word-based narrative masterpieces of the 19th Century and the coming 21st Century of “synthetic images and sounds” there is a temporal sliver from which one can draw a stable set of irrefutable works.  With a foundation in place, he presents a set of criteria barely tweaked from its Kantian origins[3]. Then the introduction ends and Schrader presents a three-tier list.

There is no attempt to discuss the films with his criteria in mind because that would in fact be the book that was never written. Schrader’s decision not to go forward with the idea must be seen as an admission that the creation of a rigid, stodgy, “definitive” film canon is a bit futile to begin with. A true cineaste like Schrader, adhering to the fluidity, populism, progression and amorphousness of the medium, cannot and does not accept the frozen universal, only the malleable and the personal. Any attempt at a canon just amounts to a list by one person, reflecting their passions and sensibility at the time they wrote it – or an amalgamation thereof[4].

Yet, if cinema seems to resist the creation of anything more than a personal list, how do films gain importance in stature? How do certain films get more weight and interest at a given moment in time than almost all others? What governs over fluctuations in taste and preference? Returning to Schrader and his experience proves instructive.

Again: his journey down the canon barrel yields two results. The aborted fetal residue of a book – a theoretical justification for a film canon followed by it’s immediate invalidation – and an existent statement: 60 films. So here we are back to a list; specifically a list by Paul Schrader. But of course, a single list does not a canon make. And in fact, there are many such lists out there. Most of them have less baggage because their authors usually feel no compulsion to justify the implied leap from their personal taste to authoritative exemplar. Like in all fields of taste, the Internet has opened up an endless, relatively democratic plane in which cinema is constantly judged by anyone with an opinion – no qualifications necessary. On a surface level it is easy to assail the idea that Schrader’s opinion might be more legitimate than say, the collective voice of the IMDB: Top 250, or – more analogously – any random list from MUBI or SensesofCinema. In fact, the only seeming difference between his lists and these others, is that its author is a successfulfilmmaker; whereas the compilers of the other lists, by and large, are not. And while in a certain sense presenting this differentiation might seem elitist, looking at the history of such film-curatorial projects, one finds that this single distinction between strictly film fans and film creators, does in fact make an enormous difference towards determining efficacy of influence.

When France was liberated by Allied Forces in late 1944, the Vichy government’s four-year ban on American films was lifted and a deluge of work by Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and many others was unleashed en masse. The entire French public saw them, but they were most ravenously consumed by an intellectual set of teens and twentysomethings, based in Paris. This little crew of cineastes would go on to not only set the theoretical groundwork for auteur theory, in the publication Cahiers du Cinema, but also spearhead the most influential filmmaking movement in the history of the medium – Nouvelle Vague. Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais, Rohmer all voiced their intense critical perspectives in Cahiers, before they took up their vital urge to create the films that they wanted to see. In each of their articles, interviews and year-end lists they were creating personal canons, the films of whom they would soon emulate, subvert and pay tribute to in their own works. As the filmmakers grew in stature and their movies became the rage, their opinions and writing permeated the culture of cinema, influencing which films were to be considered seminal. These avowed fanatics caught the film fever during their formative years precisely because there was a plethora of movies made available to them for gluttonous daylong viewing in filmhouses of all shapes and sizes in every arrondissement. Without consumption their is no canonization, and without this glut of great films from 1940s Hollywood, who knows what direction these young men would have gone off in – or film for that matter. So when the critics became the creators and the creators talked about the movies that were important to them, those were the movies that the film enthusiasts embraced.

This confluence of circumstances surrounding availability, consumption and the deference/influence afforded to creator-specialists, is persistently repeated throughout the popular history of cinema. It is present with the first wave of American film school directors (Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Schrader, De Palma, Lucas, Coppola, et al.) who peeped at the Cannes/Venice/Cahiers-influenced campus film societies and foreign art houses, fell in love with Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard – and then made sure those were the directors whose names and films became indisputable, within all film discourse – casual and academic. It is true of those who grew up watching movies at home during the VHS-era (and later DVD-era), when finding that copy of a lost obscure gem was just as important as watching the works written about in textbooks. This period culminates in Tarantino’s fabled narrative as the lowly video store clerk who becomes the indie film enfant terrible. With countless cine-allusions sprinkled throughout his work and signature passionate rants, like the one an enthusiastic employee might deliver regarding his esoteric pick of the week, it’s undeniable that Tarantino popularized choices from fringe and “low-brow” foreign genres that hadn’t yet been ensconced into an organic canon influential to the average viewer.

Time and again dedicated enthusiasts who become creative specialists view films with a circumstantial availability (mirrored by that of the regular film viewer), and then passionately posit their favorites from that viewing environment as essential. This is then parroted by the general film community, and a few personal lists go from individual to communal to organically definitive. It is reasonable to see how Schrader, a major voice in the cinema of loneliness[5]  might have ignored this more interactive and environmental aspect of canonization. It is not a phenomenon borne of quality (although a level of interesting filmmaking is definitely a prerequisite), but rather something that begins with specialized availability and manifests itself with the reactions of influential voices shaping what is to be revered in the landscape.

Repercussions of a Streaming Canon

“Don’t forget highways were invented by Adolf Hitler and a few others of the same ilk. I don’t think a highway helps knowing and appreciating a landscape. Same thing, for me, applies to the ‘information highway.’”

Jean-Luc Godard via Video Feed[6]

For the French Critics-cum-Auteurs and the American Film Schoolers cinema had not yet entered a state of objecthood. Unlike a book or record, a movie could not be purchased for convenient conjuring and titillation whenever one pleased. Rather, it had to be cherished like the memory of a beloved friend who lived thousands of miles away or if possible visited many times during its initial, local run. When cinema entered that stage of objecthood with VHS in the 80s, and reached its loaded pinnacle with DVD[7] in the late 90s, it lost some of the magic which came from demanding singular devotion, immersion, and image retention. There was a reverence for the film as an experience because there was no other access to it besides sitting in a dark theater.

15 years after the birth of DVDs, cinema has now moved beyond that objecthood, a microcosmic extension of being born in the age of mechanical reproduction, and into a new stage, showing off cinema’s status in the age of transmission – and it’s not the one of radio’s glory days. This age of transmission which contemporary exhibition is evolving in, is different than the one it was born in: transmission today gives the receiver the power to choose the exact program being transmitted.

If we agree that a major part of what films are deemed influential or definitive has to do with accessibility and viewing circumstances, then in order to figure out what the lists of the future might look like, we have to ask ourselves how those two features are defined at this moment. The answer to both factors is largely the same: Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature. It is not Henri Langlois’ curated, 80-foot images at the Cinematheque Francaise, nor the 16mm projections of the USC Cinema Club, and not even the specialty rental store down the street. We are actually in a place much more akin to the following:

A place that is not only everywhere and nowhere, but also anywhere! Defined only by anywhere’s connection speed and your monthly payment, which gives you access to a web server with “every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night.” Netflix Watch Instantly is the apex-birth for cinema in the age of advanced transmission.

I used to dream about that Qwest commercial becoming a reality. I saw it about one hundred times during the 1999 NBA finals, and was excited after every single viewing. The binary imagery and connectivity sound with which it began, gave a vague sense that this future utopia had something to do with phone lines, computers, hackers and the upcoming Y2K. Yet, it seemed completely out of reach at a time when it took 1.5 hours to download the 40-second trailer for A Clockwork Orange. 12 years later the dream has become reality, with Netflix. The only catch is that the utopia might neither be as rewarding as a little boy’s fantasies nor as banal as a jaded motel concierge’s laconic shrug, but an entangled set of viewing circumstances with very complicated repercussions for film specialists and the general public.

If there are any doubts about whether Netflix’s sole intention is to stream all content, one need only look at the company’s very transparent, quarterly slideshows – presenting company projections and goals for the benefit of investors and the market. Referencing slide 5 of ReedHastings’ 2010 ThirdQuarterSlideShow, “We’re now a North American streaming company, that’s becoming a global streaming company.” (emphasis by Mr. Hastings) Several announcements, only one week prior to the publication of my article signal that things are fully headed in this direction.[8] And as a final confirmation that Netflix is not only what is available, but also what is being very actively consumed, a SandvineDemographicsstudyonbroadbandtrendsshows that what started as a little red DVD rental company, now has a 24.7% share of ALL Internet traffic in North America (both upstream and downstream), more than any other single source, by far (more than Youtube and Torrenting combined). Sandvine further projects that “within a few years, >95% of North America’s living rooms will be ‘Netflix-ready.’” That sort of massive penetration into the choices and habits of film viewers surpasses even the highest levels of American movie theater attendance which occurred during the Great Depression. when roughly 65% of the American adult population attended a theater, at least once per week.[9] This is the way people watch movies in 2011 and beyond, and that means that Netflix will now be more responsible for establishing what is available, and in turn what films will be the source for canonical discourse, than any exhibitor or studio – presently or at any other time in history.

With these statistical trends in mind, and an understanding that mass availability combined with circumstantial programming is not only a prerequisite for establishing a canon but a determining factor, I’d like to propose a few ways in which I foresee Netflix seriously affecting viewing habits, factors of availability and canonical choices.

1. Availability

To begin with, It’s important to admit that equating Netflix with the scenario in the aforementioned Qwest commercial is inaccurate. Like the television networks before it, Netflix strikes deals with studios and only has the right to stream material for a set period of time, at which point the company decides to renew the option or not. Currently it does not have every film ever made, not even close. And projections show that financially (no matter how high its subscriber rate gets and how low its churn rate is) it will never be able to stream every film ever made. Of course, serious enthusiasts looking for a rarity will hunt down the torrent or find another option, but again in terms of a film’s ability to catch on towards canonical status, it needs to be available to a large pool of viewers-  and Netflix is that body of water. Apropos, the longer a film is available for Netflix streaming the more likely it is to accumulate a following. To be clear though, this isn’t a popularity contest. Critical capacities are still used after streaming. For instance, more than half of the Top 100 films on Netflix are rated less than 3 stars, as of this writing – implying that even though they are heavily viewed, those films would never attain a revered status from the Creative-Specialists, who still handle the curatorial gatekeeping with a measure of taste. Conversely, if a film is unavailable for streaming it is unlikely to gain any traction. Such films end up being absent from the canonical conversation. In the long-term picture, I believe this will lead to a surprising devaluation of films that are currently touted by the organic canon, if they do not also appear as ready to “Watch Instantly.” Netflix makes decisions based on cost-effectiveness or ease of rights acquisition. This economic reality in turn determines what is available en masse and subsequently what will be canonized.

2. Overwhelming Catalogue

The unprecedented availability of choices is undoubtedly a mixed blessing. Being able to choose from over 10,000 titles at a time is a dream come true. It’s also dizzying, to say the least. I’ve spent several nights searching through the possibilities or adding films to my queue for one to two hours, only to begin streaming a film and pass out within 20 minutes. Presumably if I had just watched something instantly without all that browsing, I would have actually spent the night watching an entire movie, before passing out. Or would I? Another issue with the wide range of choices, is a certain type of streamer’s remorse, able to be quickly remedied. If I find myself not enjoying the aesthetic, acting, score, opening title font, or anything else a movie has to offer in the first 2, 5, 10 or 15 minutes, I will not only think about how I could have picked “some other film” instead, but actually go ahead and easily cancel what I’m streaming and pick “some other film.” This represents not only an attention span gone down the drain, but also a non-committal attitude towards art. That is, if one has relatively no choice other than walking out of the theater or ejecting the already paid for VHS/DVD rental mid-play, the viewer tends to meet the film half-way and stick around for the entirety of the viewing experience. In that entire sitting, one gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what can be defined as transcendent or trite, and potentially be surprising that all of sudden 45 minutes into it the movie has become amazing or cathartic. Without going through temporal art in its entirety, one not only misses out on unexpected fluctuations in quality over the course of the work, but more importantly loses a sense of relativity in the ability to evaluate and judge. It would be impossible to imagine the emergence of Auteur Theory, inspired by the bold American directors, without the equal distaste the Cahiers critics exhibited towards all of the tepid French “Classical” films they had to endure in theaters. Alternatively, one can foresee more sensationally immersive film experiences automatically rewarded in such a viewing environment. The farther along a viewer is into a film, the less likely they are to abandon ship – and in fact after a certain tipping point, will be quite upset if they are unable to finish. Consequently, there will invariably be an incentive to construct films with immediate hooks, knowing that viewership could easily be lost. A popular emergence of films using that specific knowledge to strategize 1st act storytelling would be unsurprising.

3. Robot Programming

Over the course of it’s history Netflix has worked hard to improve its Recommendation Algorithm so that the service could arm viewers with the best suggestion for films they might enjoy based on their viewing history. While this may lead to a level of repeat satisfaction and undoubtedly a few genre discoveries, it also leads to a narrow-minded, robotic curatorial practice. Human film programmers (exhibitors, studios, theater owners) have historically had to balance the market-minded necessity of drawing audiences with their own personal tastes. This establishes a heterogeneous film environment where audiences are comfortable with taking chances on films, without knowing exactly how they relate to their past viewing experiences. Of course there is usually a level of knowledge involved, based on advertising, reviews or genre cues, but there generally isn’t a discreet comparative modality to that sort of knowledge. In the Netflix viewing model, one supposedly knows exactly which available films are related to the films they’ve already seen and enjoyed. This results in a conservative viewing environment where one tends to stick close to the sources of pleasure. And in fact, in a certain way this strategy immediately sets up viewers for dissatisfaction. Direct comparison to high-rated personal favorites psychologically primes viewers for a higher expectation set, than they would have if they were approaching a film with general knowledge but not direct comparison. This practice invariably results in higher rates of disappointment from the viewer, since it is nearly impossible for successive movies to consistently top previous favorites. Quizzically, the algorithm also functions to create comical hybrid genres that purportedly describe a viewer’s taste. The idea of having one’s viewing habits boiled down to “Tortured-Genius Dramas based on real life,” “Critically-Acclaimed Family Friendly Animation,” and “Cerebral Gay & Lesbian Dramas” can certainly make one question not only the entire prospect of being a serious film viewer, but may lead to some existential soul-searching.

4. Interchangability of Films and Television Programs

While Netflix does nominally distinguish between television shows and movies, the fact that both are available mere rows away from each other (with television shows listed in the same manner as a film genre) and are exhibited in exactly the same manner, leads to a blurring between the two mediums. Of course the same audio-visual technology goes into the making of the two forms, but the intention of each experience is entirely different. Television shows are episodic. They are based on a principle of hooked punctuations, which sustain the viewer’s return from commercial interruption. With the emergence of serialized narrative television in the last decade, this principle of hooks has been extended to entire episodes. In light of this, the function of television is to never offer release for the viewer, but rather provide the groundwork for ever-more-put-off dangling payoffs down the line, mixed with a meagre amount of revelation per episode to keep the viewer sufficiently strung along. Movies, in contrast, are generally single sitting experiences, with self-contained stories offering a succession of tense scenes, that pay off with a catharsis somewhere towards the end of the narrative. A wide array of emotions are felt within the 1.5 to 3 hour vessel, and that distinct experience lives within the viewer without long-term temporal commitment or the manipulation presented by plodding narrative elements used to maximize airtime for selling products. Furthermore, movies generally take more artistic risks, since fear of alienation does not govern over a filmmaker’s concern about how many people will tune in next week. These sorts of risks are crucial to advancing audio-visual communication as a language of art and communication. By blurring the line between these two types of viewing, streaming conflates those polar experiences into a hardly differentiated one. It is difficult to effectively process favorite viewing experiences, much less canonize them, if the qualities of an impostor can be easily substituted for the genuine article.

5. Distractions of the New Viewing Environment

With the rise of Web 2.0, we have officially entered the the 21st Century of synthetic image and sound which Schrader was referring to. The strange element of synthesis of course is not only that most experiences are completely mediated or quickly recapitulated through mediation, but that everything is mediated incessantly and without fail. Viewers are no longer merely looking at but also generating content – and the content on display is their life and reality. The systems with which one accesses this mediated life, is located within the very same browser that one Watches Instantly on. Consequently, there is an obvious competition, not from REAL life (the rare fire in the theater) or even other forms of mediated content (all available television channels), but rather a construction of life which often employs a cinematic framework to compelling personal effect. Unlike cinema, one can directly interact with and modify this narrative. In this world, it is not uncommon to interrupt the “immersive” film viewing experience by reading or writing an email, checking out facebook, videochatting with a friend or even reading about the movie that you have just stopped watching. The semi-passive place one’s brain goes in order to engage with the dream-like logic of a movie, is very different than the active one needed to process and respond to one’s own 24-hour mediated life story. By jumping between the two, or sacrificing the former altogether, the ability to truly enter the world a film is constantly crisis, and with it the cathartic power of the viewing experience.

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Of the 80-some-odd feature films directed by Jean-Luc Godard, four of them are currently available to Watch Instantly. One of them is a lesser entry in his pinnacle 1960s catalogue, Alphaville. The movie is Godard’s attempt to subvert both science fiction and detective stories, an early genre mash-up in cinematic post-modernism. Like much of his work, it is loaded with absurdity, violence, a beautiful woman, radical imagery, and brazen, insightful philosophizing. The opening lines of Alphaville offer an amazingly prescient configuration of the way in which today’s “information highway,” manifesting movies in streams, is changing not only how films are canonized and which films are canonized, but in fact how contemporary experiences may be taking the place of cinema altogether.

You can take a look by clicking here, but only if you have Netflix Watch Instantly.

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[1]Schrader tracks the birth of the Art Canon to the 18th-Century bourgeois embrace of Kantian notions of judgment and value, then outlines its presumed implosion in the face of 20th-Century moral vacuity and technological reproduction. This of course is merely to differentiate art, literature, et al. from film which simultaneously a synthesis of and excluded from, these much longer traditions.

“Canon Fodder,” Film Comment. September/October 2006.

An article also easily located, along with much of Schrader’s other critical writing,  on the author’s personal website at http://www.paulschrader.org/writings.html

[2]Citing film theorist Dudley Andrew, who himself is riffing on Walter Benjamin. ibid

[3]beauty, strangeness, uniformity of subject and matter, tradition, repeatability, viewer engagement, morality – viewer engagement being the only film specific factor. ibid

[4]See the BFI Sight and Sound Poll, which combines the votes of prominent critics and directors, once every ten years, to make two “definitive” lists.

[5]His collaborations with Scorsese/De Niro on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, as well as Mishima, his biopic of Yukio Mishima come to mind, amongst an entire oeuvre of generally alienated and tortured souls.

[6] 1995 Montreal Film Festival (translation by Henri Béhar)

[7] Ignoring the relative specialty status of Laserdiscs, DVDs were the first format to offer filmmaker commentaries, behind the scenes documentaries and deleted scenes, all on the same piece of media as the movie itself, and be fully embraced by the viewing public at large.

[8]OnJuly 5thNetflixannounced that it would expand operations into Central and South America by the end of 2011, marking its first entry outside of the North American Market and giving it accesible in the entire Western Hemisphere.  OnJuly 12thNeftlixannounced it would be eliminating its 3-year-old $9.99-plan with unlimited streaming and 1-DVD-at-a-time by mail, into two plans, that would equal $15.98 to retain both features. I’m under the assumption that most people will opt for the $7.99 stream only plan.

[9]Statistics from Film Historian Richard Koszarski’s An evening’s entertainment: the age of the silent feature picture, 1915-1928 – See Page 26

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