The Disposable Nature of Film (or, Why Films Should Be Allowed to Die a Natural Death)

lastrada

It’s been gnawing at me for quite some time, but I could not articulate what it was. There has been and continues to be, as near as I can tell, something fundamentally wrong with the current state of film. The easy explanation in this era of endless remakes, reimaginings and relaunches is that a lack of originality has sucked the life out of movies. But that would be an easy answer, and one that doesn’t really tackle the issue, especially when you consider the fact that originality has always been in short supply within the film industry. The business itself has always been driven by the bottom line, which of course are profits. And that bottom line dictates to a very large extent the art of filmmaking, which in most cases is not so much an art as it is a craft, and in many cases of it being a craft it is a craft that is poorly executed. There is no doubt in my mind that lack of originality and plain old greed has played a hand in choking the life out of film, but this “thing” that has been gnawing at me is something other than that.

A few days ago, while weighing up the pros and cons of embarking on a new film project—an ultra low budget revenge thriller that promises to take up more of my time than I have to offer—I asked myself what my ultimate goals were in making this movie. My goal was pretty simple: to make a film that was entertaining to people who like the sort of pictures that overflow with gratuitous violence and pointless nudity, and then to have those people move on to the next flick, while hopefully recommending mine to a friend. It isn’t a very lofty goal, but one that I felt was realistic. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that my goal was very much out of step with the way film as an industry is today.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, movies were pretty much a disposable art form. Maybe disposable is too harsh of a term, but its pretty close. In the age before home video, a film came out and played in theaters. Back then, a film might stay in a theater for months or even years. Eventually it would move from first-run theaters to second-run theaters, sometimes it might come back into theaters as the second half of a double feature. If a film was really lucky, it made it into rotation on television, where it might air once a year like The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments. But that sort of set-your-watch regularity of a movie being broadcast on television was rare. For a whole lot of films, the initial run in theaters was the extent of its life in the world.

At some point in time it became possible for films to live on in a way that had never been possible. That time, of course was the 1980s, when home video made it possible for thousands of titles to become available for rental (back in those days the retail price of VHS titles was really expensive), and thereby much more readily available. Sell-through pricing on VHS, and then the more affordable, not to mention durable DVD format, increased the life expectancy of many films. Now, video on demand and the Internet have also come into the picture, which is now a massive portrait of a film industry that turns out movies that can be viewed over and over again in multiple formats on multiple delivery systems, in many cases instantaneously. The problem is that this is not how films are supposed to be.

This thing that has been gnawing at me, which I’m sure many will disagree with, is that the quality of film has deteriorated over the last few decades, because the disposable nature of the art/craft of film has been eroded by a business model that allows it to survive, when most films need to die a natural death. Think about it like this: the last great era of American cinema was the 1970s, which saw the production and release of some of the best movies of all time. None of those films were made with a home video audience in mind as either a secondary audience or an additional revenue stream. There was no planning of what bonus features would be on the DVD, because there were no DVDs, and no one ever said, “Just wait to rent it on Netflix.” Either you saw a movie in the theater, or you hoped you caught the edited for television version, which often aired in multiple parts (but really, no one ever said, “I’ll just wait for it to be on television.”).

Here in Portland there was a theater in town called the Guild. In the 1980s, it was a retro house that would run these various themed festivals. This was where I was introduced to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, seeing Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, North by Northwest and The Trouble with Harry all for the first time on the big screen.

Once a year the Guild would program a James Bond festival that lasted weeks, and every weekend I would go see a 007 double feature. For me, it was a special time, because I knew that if I wanted to see From Russia with Love, I had to go to the Guild, because the only other way to see it was if it turned up on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. For whatever reason, I never owned a single Bond movie on VHS, and now, though I have all of them on DVD, I have yet to watch a single one.

Don’t get me wrong, because I do appreciate DVD (I have yet to invest in Blu-Ray or download a video), and I have a massive collection of titles. But I recently realized that the titles I go back to over and over again, be it a film by Billy Wilder, George Romero or Akira Kurosawa, were all made at a time when film was disposable, when there was very little life beyond that first run in the theaters and whatever subsequent revivals might come along. When I think about the best films of say the last ten of fifteen years—the period in which the shift occurred from disposable film to prolonged sustainable runs via home video and the Internet—I see that most films have not been allowed to die a natural death. I mean seriously, does Without a Paddle really deserve to live on in any way other than late-night screenings on cable or a vague recollection of something you were once stupid enough to watch? Even great films like The Lord of the Rings, I suspect, could be better served by being made less accessible to audiences. Accessibility and the consumer need for instant gratification has allowed Hollywood to further corrupt something that was already compromised.

I’m not sure where I’m going with any of this, other than I realize that in making a new movie, I really want to make something disposable. I want to make something that people watch and are entertained by. And if people are so entertained by it they want to see it again, they should really want to see it again, and not feel obligated because they bought the DVD for twenty bucks. Movies that warrant repeated viewings should do so because they have a special quality that has earned it the right to be watched more than once. In the past, this quality is what allowed some movies to enjoy multiple revival runs, and repeat broadcasts on network television. It was how cult films were born. But now every film can be a cult film, whether it deserves it or not. In fact, the very nature of sell-through pricing has made every movie a cult movie, even if that cult is nothing more than the people who were so moved by it they felt the need to own it.

As we move forward with startling advances in technology, making it possible for people to own movies the same day they are released in theaters, I find myself cursing the convenience of it all. I know the days of film being disposable as it once was are gone (although I would argue that most films being made today, while being readily available, are in fact more worthy of being disposed of than ever before). The market has dictated a change from which there is likely no return. But that does not mean that filmmakers can’t begin to think differently, and therefore make movies differently. Right now, there is a pervasive train of thought that guides most filmmakers; caused by the knowledge that movies now have a life cycle that allows it to be seen whenever and wherever. Filmmakers of generations past did not have that luxury, and as a result many strived to make movies that would live on forever, even if they were never seen again.

Instead of producing films with the hope that they will sell millions of discs and downloads, it is time for more filmmakers to make movies that are meant to be enjoyed once or twice, and then left to grow old gracefully and maybe even die. And if a film is good in the way Fellini’s La Strada or Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre are good, then it will endure and survive; not because that’s the way the market is now set up, but because it simply deserves to live on.

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3 Responses to “The Disposable Nature of Film (or, Why Films Should Be Allowed to Die a Natural Death)”

  1. L13 Says:

    “straight to you tube and skipped all other formats”

  2. Mendy Spencer Says:

    David,

    Your article really moved me. In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it a couple of days ago.

    Some may read your piece and come away thinking, “Yeah, the good old days of cinema were much better!” and, “Fuck Hollywood crap like, Without a Paddle.” but the veracity is in your heart-wrenching search for the unattainable reversal of time.

    I chuckled when I read your James Bond anecdote as it nearly mirrors my own; I, too, have all the James Bond films on DVD and have yet to watch any of them but I have many fond memories of seeing them in revival theaters when I was young. I think this is why I feel the need to own them.

    When my grandfather passed away a few years ago, I had the daunting task of cleaning out his home but I marveled at all of the stuff he had amassed; stuff that wouldn’t mean much to you or me, but stuff that was very important to him. Stuff like toilet paper and aluminum foil; he had hundreds of rolls of each. He also had a walk-in, cargo-sized freezer packed with enough food to feed two armies.

    I asked my parents what the deal was with all the stuff and their response was very sobering. They said many of my grandfather’s generation horded the basic necessities because throughout the 30’s and through WWII, those things were incredibly difficult to obtain and they never wanted to be without them again.

    That made a lot of sense and also explained my obsession and compulsive disorder when it comes to film. I own close to 2,000 DVDs, many titles are considered “rare and OOP (out of print).” I still own a laser disc player and VHS player because many films in those formats have never been transferred to DVD. I am an Argento and Fulci nut. I own any film that has the two words, “Laura Gemser” in the credits. If Mario Bava had something to do with it, I own it. If it played in a drive-in in the 70’s or early 80’s, I probably have it in my collection in some format. Why?

    Because, like you, I was raised in a time when the only chance you had to see a film was during its original theatrical showing. There was no way I was catching Foxy Brown or Three on a Meathook on ABC, NBC or CBS (the only stations available where I grew up). If you did not see Shriek of the Mutilated when it originally played, you missed out. Now, all of the popular grindhouse and drive-in films are available on DVD, many in multiple versions (The Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, etc.) and I own them all. Like my grandfather, I have the unrealistic and unhealthy opinion that I may not have access to the bare necessities. Of course, my basic requirements are not pallets filled with Charmin, but a library of films that would put most Mom and Pop video stores to shame.

    I am sort of upset at myself, mad because I have spent my entire life attempting to buy a past in which I was only moderately involved. Upset because I have wasted countless hours in front of a screen instead of living life. If I am honest with myself, the Seventies may have been a wonderful time for films but it was an awful time to be an urban-living American, unemployment and crime flourished. Racial tensions and bigotry were plentiful. In downtown Seattle, there was a porno theater on nearly every corner and a woman was not safe on the streets alone at night. This is not an exaggeration, it is simply the facts.

    It’s funny how we, as film-lovers, watch Shogun Assassin in the comfort of our own homes, but if we wanted to see it in Times Square, when it originally played, we would have had to run the 42nd Street gauntlet and risk bodily injury, or possibly death. Now, we all study these films and rail own about the good old times, but the fact was most of us weren’t there. We’ve created a false importance on a small cinematic sliver of time; a sliver that wasn’t real and one that exploited the urban squalor and decay that many poor souls endured daily.

    No one talks about vaudeville any longer, and those who do are preaching to a mighty small choir. Who in the fuck is Charley Chase and what do Laurel & Hardy have to do with him? Ask anyone who is under thirty and they won’t know the answer (unless they do a quick search for his name with their hand-held device and then they will claim to have known about him for years. Cinema is the going the way of vaudeville. Film is being replaced by digital imagery and cyber art forms (geared toward a new millennium audience) that will take its place.

    David, you and I are victims of art. Let it go and make your movie. Don’t worry about your film falling into the ranks of Without a Paddle (it will anyway). Most likely you are going to shoot your movie digitally and both you and I know that isn’t really a “movie” and if you’ve convinced yourself that it is, then YOU ARE READY for the new medium. Make it available for download and forget about the past. Let it go.

    Long live the new flesh.

    -Mendy Spencer

  3. EGGmockradio Says:

    After reading your post, a large part of me wished I could have experienced film as you did growing up. I was raised in a world of VHS and the beginning of that whole revolution. Only now as an adult does my pallet crave something more than the filmography feedbag. I have started to delve deeper into more classic film, bypassing a majority of what is released in theaters today.

    If there is one saving grace for the gluttony of instant media, it is rediscovery. I don’t disagree with allowing films to die and not having a life of forever but even the world’s most interesting people have biographies. Classic books reprinted and reissued to inspire life in new readers. I think this is important in movies as well.

    In fact, literature is in a place that one day I hope to see movies. There will be classics that will always be. That deserve to live. One will always be able to find the works of classic authors. Thankfully, much of the crap written today doesn’t stay and is shortly found in the $3.99 table waiting to be rightfully clearanced.

    I myself am a product of the curse of hording. I am constantly now sifting through music, movies and books and letting go of what needs to be instead of allowing it to collect dust on a shelf in a coma. We seem to live in a society that thrives on wanting more and wanting it now. More DVDs, more special additions, more extra footage and deleted scenes. It cheapens the art. It has lost its simplicity of romance and ability to inspire memories. With all the movies I have seen, owned and parted with, few really leave a lasting impression on my mind.

    I am a self confessed newb, though. Finally tired of the modern tripe I am looking for something more and I won’t pretend – I am under 30 and I can’t tell you who Charley Chase is. I would like to know. I want something that is more worth while. Something created for the sake of expression and not raping consumers soggy with eye candy and no substance.

    I appreciate your thoughts more than you know because I have felt a bit lost lately on movies, not really being to articulate to many people why. Thanks David!

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