Evan K’s Blog
Articles and Essays on Film Criticism, Pop Culture, and the Art of Storytelling.
On the 26th of October, the classic / indie / arthouse film screening service (and online home to the Criterion Collection) FilmStruck, to which I have been a subscriber since its creation, stopped taking new subscribers. An article in Variety posted that same day explained: “The FilmStruck business will cease U.S. and International operations on November 29th, 2018.” Gone will be the most convenient library of culturally significant films at our fingertips. I’m not just sad. Like many lovers of classic films, I’m pissed.
FilmStruck pulled together the Warner Archive of classic films, enjoyed curation from the Turner Classics archive, and was the online home of the beloved-by-cinephiles Criterion Collection. As a student of film, FilmStruck was my graduate school – pulling together collections of classic Hollywood cinema, but also taking great care to highlight unknown foreign films, films by women and people of color, and arthouse fare that broadened the horizons of cinema beyond the blockbusters of the typical theater. A tweet from “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins highlighted the love and care brought to the film service by the people who worked on it as a labor of love: “These were flesh and blood people who really, truly cared about the work they were doing and the people who made and appreciated film.”
It’s hard not to see this move from AT&T and WarnerMedia as part of the grinding wheel of corporate greed that has been slowly swallowing us from the inside out. Although it has been gnawing away for a long time, 2018 is getting the lion’s share of the beating. The bean-counting nature of these corporations seems accurately identified in these dry statements: Warner Brothers Digital Networks said the lessons from FilmStruck would “help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into (their) collective portfolios.” AT&T took an even more sardonic approach, saying they would be “consolidating resources from sub-scale D2C [direct-to-consumer] efforts.” FilmStruck was only around for two years before they pulled the plug.
This absolutely seems like small potatoes when compared to other problems around the world. Refugees are still seeking asylum from war-torn countries, children are still missing from their families, women’s rights are in contention everywhere. But this shut-down of FilmStruck is also a symptom of the system that puts corporate interests above the needs of citizens. Arthouse and Indie Cinema are some of the truly unique mediums we have for giving voice to the voiceless. It feels like the only voice that matters at the moment is AT&T’s.
When you talk about films, you inevitably end up talking about everything else. Some of my favorite conversations started by discussing the merits of a film just seen in the theater. These conversations would often lead to dissections of politics, psychology, and philosophy. Strangers can become close friends after a discussion like that. Discussing film, not just in formalist terms but in the wider context of what a film means, can help us examine the very nature of society. If, as Carl Sagan so aptly put it, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself,” then in many ways, cinema is the eye that humans have provided to reflect and procure that self-knowledge.
Films have uniquely political aims at their heart as well. Because film is incredibly powerful. It is propaganda. It can stir the soul or put it to sleep. The monopolizing rulers of our modern world know this all too well. Why else do multi-national corporations invest so voraciously in media companies? They know, from examples like “The Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of the Will,” that the power of the moving image can form opinions, and set the masses on fire for positions that are not in their best interests… but do keep pouring money into the pockets of the wealthy. And in grabbing all forms of multimedia, the plutocrats of the world, their reign over the people assured, can mold their message to the masses: stay asleep, stay dumb, enjoy your banal entertainment, and don’t look up to see the world we have created in our image. Thus the plutocrats absolve themselves of their sins against humanity by using the age old trick of magician and cinema: distraction. Don’t forget that much of what cinema became was pioneered by Méliés, a magician whose trade was the art of distraction. It seems like we will soon be living inside an episode of “Black Mirror,” if we aren’t already.
And yet, while the moving image has the power to embolden tyranny and distract the unawakened, it also contains that same power to empathize with others and to plant the seeds of understanding. Films like “The Battle of Algiers” can tune an audience into seeing what the “other side” is struggling for. Films have played a unique role throughout their short history in exposing the harsh rule of colonialism, the brutality of racism (particularly American racism), the tyranny of fascism. At its best, film uncovers the hidden truths of the world to be examined and understood by those who may never have thought to look outside their own box. It puts our human experiences throughout the ages into a cultural context that we can glean directly from the source material. Just in the last week, because of FilmStruck, I was able to watch Cheryl Dunye’s landmark queer-cinema masterpiece “The Watermelon Woman,” Jacques Tourneur’s low-budget horror cult favorite “Cat People,” and the Classical Hollywood auteur Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-fascist comedy “To Be Or Not To Be.” Where else could I have such a varied viewing experience, and from my own home? These stories have the power to lift us up, and comprehend the truth of all humanity: We are all one, even as we are all different. That ought to be worth celebrating and preserving.
To think that a whole library of important films that celebrate that truth will not be readily accessible to the young minds who wish to become the next generation’s film-makers is an incredibly depressing thought. The money-grubbing institutions of our current society seem hellbent on securing their bottom line and maximizing profits, to the exclusion of the weird, the niche, the marginal and the fascinating. The democratization of knowledge, and it’s ease of access, is one of the incredible achievements of the 21st century. And yet it is supported on pillars of business, who at a moment’s notice can re-make the library of knowledge in their image, to suit their needs, and to take away from us the weird and wonderful from our collective experience. In that same statement mentioned earlier, WB Digital Networks refers to FilmStruck as “a largely niche service.” But just because something is niche doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected. To me, it seems that a multi-national corporation whose business was built on the power of cinema ought to take it on as their duty to preserve and make accessible the great troves of cinematic treasure that inform the media landscape we inhabit today.
Once FilmStruck is gone, there will still be ways to watch old movies. If you live in the Los Angeles area, I recommend you put that Los Angeles Library Card to good use. Download Kanopy, and you have access to all of the indie and classic films in the LA Library’s possession.
In the meantime, I’m going to take the shutdown of FilmStruck as an opportunity to catch up on as many movies I’ve been piling up on my watchlist as I possibly can. Wish me luck, it’s a long one.
To start off this blog, here is a list of my Top 10 Favorite Films. In no way definitive, they are simply films I keep coming back to. This list changes over time, depending on my mood… think of it as a slice of what movies are on my mind right now.
#1. Star Wars
I’ll try to get through this one quickly, since I know everybody has it on their list. It has long been trite, contrived and predictable to put Star Wars on your favorite movies list. But when I was seven years old, Star Wars: A New Hope blew my mind wide open. The animated Disney movies that I watched up to that point had entertained me, but they had never elicited that question that Star Wars put into my mind: “How did they DO that?” In the course of voraciously devouring all things Star Wars, it came to my attention for the first time that films were things that were MADE by teams of people, and didn’t just appear out of thin air. It was the first time I was introduced to terms like “cinematography,” “concept artist,” and “director.” It made me learn about the Hero’s Journey, made me read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and introduced me to the incredible pantheon of the world’s historical mythologies. It made my imagination run wild. In short, it made me realize that making movies was a thing you could do with your life, and that I desperately wanted to do that with mine. I haven’t looked back since, and for that, I will always love Star Wars.
#2. Lawrence of Arabia
If Star Wars was the film that made me realize I loved and wanted to make movies, Lawrence of Arabia taught me that movies could be about parts of life I did not yet understand. More than that, Lawrence taught me that movies could actually teach you about life. That the world was full of moral quandaries, not just filled with good and evil but with degrees of both. It opened my eyes to the fact that we are often presented with questions that don’t have easy answers. That sometimes good people do very bad things. It was an incredibly formative film for me, and remains one of my favorites to this day.
So if Star Wars made me realize you COULD make movies, and Lawrence of Arabia taught me you could make GREAT movies, Mallrats was the first movie to make me think “Hey… even I could do that!”
I don’t mean that as a dig at the film, either. It’s probably the least respected of Smith’s work (Well…. there’s always “Tusk”) But for all it’s juvenile humor, Mallrats (and all of Kevin Smith’s work) is incredibly pure-hearted. Though the jokes are often puerile, the dialogue is fast and fun, the visuals are crisp and colorful, and dern it… I just can’t help but love these characters. They are full of life, and doubts, and desires, creatures addicted to the comforts of their small town, while also yearning to break free and become something better. Everything about this movie makes me think about who I was at 16. Smith is a remarkable success story. I wanted his story to be mine.
#4. Princess Mononoke
It’s strange the way the things that end up really affecting you in life seem to come out of nowhere. I went to go see Princess Mononoke in the theater for a friend’s birthday (this was the 1997 Miramax distributed English dub). I had seen My Neighbor Totoro and loved it, and assumed I would get something similar. How wrong I was. This movie was epic, human, mystical, environmental, loving, and beautiful. I try not to watch this movie too often, because I want to keep the experience of seeing it special. Ever time I watch it, I notice something new, and discover a new layer of the story. And yet, every time I watch it, the ending of the movie… the experience of the film as a whole… that same FEELING comes back to me, as strong as it was the first time I saw it. That’s something special. I can’t say enough about Princess Mononoke. It has informed so much of who I am and what I’ve done with my life. It just might be my favorite film of all time.
#5. Do the Right Thing
Most movies about racism before Spike Lee dealt with it as a concept, as an obstacle to be overcome. But Lee made movies where racism was an everyday reality, something that needed to be lived with. Do the Right Thing is one of his crowning achievements. At times an exposé on life in Brooklyn, at others veering into lyrical poetry, it paints every character with compassion and humanity, even when… or especially when… they are in conflict with one another. This film is a great example of films as empathy-generators. As a young kid, I was filled with the feel-good liberal lessons that all people are equal. But I still wasn’t surrounded by many black people growing up. Do The Right Thing was the first film that opened my eyes to the fact that some people had a completely different experience from my own. And the basic dichotomy, or debate, at the center of the film, is one that Americans need to be having: how do we change the way we are, with the fist or with the heart?
#6. The Muppet Movie
When it comes to parables about following your dreams, I can think of no better example than The Muppet Movie. Jim Henson’s, and by extension Kermit’s, insistence on making “millions of people happy” is so clear-hearted and lacking in ego that it’s almost hard to believe it’s real. But The Muppets deliver. The ethos of this film has served as the singular example of how I want to go after following my own dreams. In times where it feels like I’m losing my way and getting lost in the mire of life, I turn to the wise words that Kermit said to himself: “Well then, I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone (anything)… I promised me.”
#7. Strictly Ballroom
Baz Luhrmann’s first film is arguably still his best. While the rest of his work has continued to get grander and louder, there’s something so charming about the big dance numbers and wild costumes being placed in the setting of a quaint regional Australian dance competition. Strictly Ballroom does what I love best in movies: it creates a world all its own, with its own strange poetic logic: where dance competitions are a live-or-die occupation, where you can start your story with documentary-style interviews and abandon the convention for hyper-theatrical flashbacks, where love can rule and fear can be overcome by dancing the Paso Doble. Strictly Ballroom taught me about the choreography of movies; not just the choreography of dance and music, but how using music, editing, and timing can create a wild syncopation unique to film.
#8. Dead Man
I love movies about death, and for my money, Dead Man does it best (I mean, the title alone…) I first saw Dead Man in college. It immediately floored me with Neil Young’s western-inspired, psychedelic electric-guitar soundtrack. The journey of our main character through a strange series of vignettes was like a fever dream of all the things I had been mulling over in my mind at the time. The Native guide Nobody who freely quotes William Blake, as if he were reciting adages of native wisdom, was more fuel to the hallucinatory brilliance of this film. At times slow and melodic, at times quirky and hilarious, at other transcendental, Dead Man remains a stunning parable of humankind’s journey into the greatest unknown, the land of the great beyond.
#9. The Fifth Element
I don’t care what any film snobs have to say, I love The Fifth Element. First of all, it’s a Science Fiction / Action / Comedy, otherwise known as “The Three Best Genres Put All Together.” Plus it relied heavily on make-up, puppetry and practicals, to cheesily glorious effect. But it also happened to be one of the early pioneers in Hollywood’s large-scale adoption of digital effects, which I think it incorporates masterfully.
People will knock this movie for being a rip-off of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s graphic novel series “The Incal,” which it undoubtedly borrows many story and visual cues from. But I find it more akin to the way George Lucas created Star Wars when he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, and had to create an “homage” film in it’s stead. I’ve heard others complain about the “on-the-nosedness” of the central metaphor. “Oh, the Fifth Element was LOVE all along.” But you know, people who lob this complaint are already so cynical about anything approaching sincerity that they’ll write it off merely on those grounds. I personally like obvious metaphors, especially if the characters are compelling, the jokes funny, and the scale of the metaphor so grand to border on ridiculous. Just go for it, you know? After all, if there was ever a metaphor that deserved to be blown out of proportion, who could argue with the never-ending battle between hate and love?
Oh and let’s never forget, Ruby Rhod is everything. Super green.
#10. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
This movie is just… so cool. It’s a film noir detective story, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a screwball comedy. The amount of genres Roger Rabbit mixes and bends to make itself work is amazing. It also helps to prove a point that is salient in the animation industry: that animation is a medium, not a genre. Although the toons of Toon Town all play to type, there is evidence here that cartoons don’t have to be just funny… they can be sexy, thrilling, bad ass, and even outright terrifying.
The technological obstacles overcome to make this movie are mind-boggling (to say nothing of the masterful Hollywood politics that had to be played to get Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to appear on screen at the same time).
And with all these technical feats to overcome, it still manages to be incredibly entertaining and inventive the whole way through. A massive amount of credit has to go to our main characters. Eddie Valient, a humorless private dick who hides his sorrow behind his drinking, paired with Roger Rabbit, a goofball with a heart of gold who desperately wants to make people laugh. Just writing that out makes me smile. What more could you ask from a movie?