The Fall of FilmStruck and the Failings of all our Good Intentions

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The burning of the Library of Alexandria: A reminder not to put all your eggs in one basket.

In between the sea of looming towers, I find a sense of absolute peace in the sleepy gloom of fluorescent light glancing off the marble floors. It is a greater peace than I could find on the top of any solitary 14er or in the silky ripple of wind floating across a deserted desert highway. No. Because at its essence this peace is the certainty of safety. Not safety in the physical sense –not from disease or predators or mother nature– because clearly there’s little armor that splotchy inc on drying paper could actually provide me, yet there is a sort of indescribable feeling of ease that warms me just with the knowledge of the library’s existence. The knowledge that like stars in the sky, billions upon billions of human thoughts lay tightly mashed, bound, and sewn together just a few hundred feet in every direction of me, standing forever on guard with open arms to fall back into. From the first inklings in the ancient Middle-East to Socrates to Harry Potter and everything in between, literature has carried culture and the pulsing human heart far beyond their natural expiration dates and into a world where practically any breath can be easily printed, copied, and spread to every single inch of the globe. And there comes with this a transformatively comforting sense of certainty for me: the certainty that no matter what human thought will survive until our end.

 

Therefore it should come as no surprise that wandering around the UC campus my first few days here I was immediately pulled to the main library on campus. Underneath the main pantheon structure of Doe Library, 5 stories of books wrap in a Guggenheimian fashion far into the earth below. At least the first time I went there was not a soul to be seen (unfortunately I can’t say this is still the case) so the only sound that hung in the air was the rhythmic hum of the ventilator shaft, quietly. Meanwhile, the distant aroma of well-worn paper brushed at my nose as it wasted over the vast expanse. And the books. Oh, the books. From the classics to the NYT Best-Sellers list, each forgotten drop of ink buried in the beaten and bruised covers would be enough to practically form an ocean if combined. They were countless in number and exponentially bigger than their typical 3-inch diameter betrayed. In fact, the library seemed to spit in the face of Newton and Einstein in its ability to warp space-time into a dimension of inherent immortality. My troubles were shed at the doorway.

 

I was safe.

 

I was at peace.

 

And I left without reading a single word.

 

It’s not at all that I dislike books; on the contrary, I greatly enjoy them and consider the reading of fiction and non-fiction alike to be nearly as essential to human development and survival as food or shelter. But like many others, I too often revel in ideology while neglecting to walk the walk and so I read when inspired and turn a neglectful shoulder when I am not. In my mind’s eye though, the beauty of a library is certain because the beauty of the library for me is that it exists at all. The beauty is that as long as it stands, I can potentially count on it.

 

And it is this exact same thinking that lead to the downfall of the classic/indie streaming service FilmStruck. For those that don’t know FilmStruck, owned and operated by TCM, was the Netflix for cinephiles, proudly boasting 1,200 films from the criterion collection and more than 600 other independent and foreign films. In the face of ever-decreasing diversity in films put out every year, FilmStruck was an immensely valuable and important public service.

 

And it was doomed from its inception. Completely and totally screwed. Despite the incessant pleas splashed across entertainment blogs and screamed from auteurs like Bill Hader, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright, and button-mashed from online petitioners, FilmStruck just isn’t fit to succeed in a world of humans who by their very nature struggle to go past the event horizon of ideology when they are already secure. Because let’s face it: we like the idea of preservation of history and culture, we like it because our principles tell us to like it, but by God its just not as fun as the alternative. Popcorn, Marvel, a damn good time. That’s where the money is, so the strategy of preserving less popular material by putting all the eggs into one purely capitalist basket is ridiculous. I mean think about it, if governments didn’t fund and support libraries (and if you think about it it’s an absolutely breathtaking achievement that they do), would you really pay for a subscription to a library?

Don’t get me wrong though, I am for preserving these films just as I am for reading books and maintaining libraries. There is monumental importance in the joy, pain, and lesson learned from these pictures, and just because they don’t have the same slick look and style of today does not mean they are somehow incompatible. On the contrary, so many of these movies have stories just as relevant and vital today, and to lose them would be a blow of epic proportions to our cultural and societal well-being. And Especially at a time when film studios like Disney monopolize and constrain the industry more and more, the power to produce diverse and equally deserving visions of our world is of paramount importance.

 

However being for something (as evidenced by our–uh– recent elections) is not the same thing as making that thing happen. And if we want to save these films from being nothing more than memories of the dead, we need to find alternatives to FilmStruck. I believe to do this, we first need to ask why we are bothering to preserves these films in the first place. To me, there are two main reasons: 1. The entertainment value of these films, and 2. The historical/cultural value they bring.

 

Now the entertainment aspect is the easiest. While these movies may appear as impenetrable and dull to some on the outside, there are many films that would prove absolutely absorbing even to a modern audience. Remember if Jerry Maguire can make 300 million dollars at the box office, then it’s clear that Americans might just have a more varied taste than the redundant franchises and superheroes of today would let on. Therefore it should make only perfect sense for the bottom lines of Netflix, Amazon, and co. to push a wider variety of films to attract more viewers (keep in mind these movies are often much cheaper to gain the rights to than new releases). There should be a fix here that would help keep these movies alive.

 

The more difficult aspect, unfortunately, is the historical/cultural angle.

 

To start off I believe it’s important to note just why leaning on FilmStruck preservation is such a poor idea. Taking lessons from the Lost Library of Alexandria for instance, it’s probably not particularly smart to keep everything in just one place less it go up in flames in an even more permanent way than FilmStruck. But then where should we put them? I’m honestly not sure I know the answer to that. Most of these movies aren’t just free domain titles, which means someone they’re being sold or streamed for a profit. If FilmStruck wasn’t seen as a viable moneymaker, then I don’t know if streaming many of these movies for a profit is truly possible. Building interest in the movies is possible over time and could prove quite useful; instituting film studies into the classroom like books is definitely a worthy possibility that could change cultural perception to different types of film and art in general. Whether this will be done in an American public school system that is already so poor is doubtful, but not altogether implausible. Therefore the only strategy that truly makes sense to me is the most obvious one: model it after libraries. Getting the government more involved in not only preserving copies of these worthwhile films but allowing the general public to watch them is a worthwhile cultural endeavor indeed. It’s true that some libraries already carry DVD’s of a large number of these types of movies, but it’s important to modernize in our technological age. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the government has the obligation to preserve these films for both historical and cultural reasons in the eyes of the public, and maybe even create a streaming service of their own.

 

I don’t know how plausible that is, but whatever way is ultimately the best at preserving these films, the bottom lines is this: the belief in these films is not enough. It’s nice to support the idea of culture — I mean how many totalitarian hell-holes throughout history have persecuted and choked out any ray of light in their state — but if we choose to ignore our own overabundant supply, it will be the same result in the end. That’s because art and opinions are intrinsically human things and therefore cease to exist away from us. So if we look away from them for too long and when you turn your head back they will have already been wisped away by the breeze. So if you want to save classic and alternative film, don’t just rely on a second-rate Hulu rip-off. FilmStruck is dead. But FilmStruck was never the answer. To save this art people have to act. People have to engage these films.

 

People must reject the tranquility of principled ideology, and embrace the adventure of putting those beliefs into practice. 

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