Last week, after Tina Fey requested that several episodes of “30 Rock” be pulled from streaming services because they put characters in blackface to mock the use of blackface, but before an episode of “Community” mocking the use of blackface was pulled by streaming services, I decided to pick up a “Tropic Thunder” Blu-ray.
Just in case.
I thought I was being kind of silly. A bit paranoid. The intent of having Robert Downey Jr.’s blond-haired, blue-eyed Australian, Kirk Lazarus, made up to look like an African American soldier in Vietnam is so patently, obviously satirical and such a pointed commentary on Hollywood’s history of mistreating African American actors, it couldn’t possibly be at risk of being memory-holed like so many other “inappropriate” entertainments before it. On the other, I clearly wasn’t alone: When I checked the Amazon listing again on Monday, the disc had sold out. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Don’t worry: “Tropic Thunder” will be back in stock on July 9. And it’s still streaming. (For now!) But this little bit of panic-purchasing was a reminder that if you’re a committed streamer rather than a hoarder of physical media, the art you love — episodes of shows as varied as “Scrubs,” “The Office,” “Golden Girls” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” — can be stripped from you at any moment.
Whether these erasures constitute corporate shenanigans — an effort to generate some positive PR without really doing anything to make change happen — or preventive steps designed to head off complaints by protesters, it’s hard to say.
I’d be sympathetic to complaints from advocates who argue that demanding pop culture disappear is a marginal tactic and that paying too much attention to it is a way to make their movement look ridiculous if circumstances were different. But yet another young adult author is pulling a book from publication because of complaints about representation and identity while activists are simultaneously trying to take down a statue of Abraham Lincoln commissioned by freed slaves. We live in ridiculous times and as such should prepare for the most ridiculous thing possible to happen.
Whatever the ultimate reason for this wave of trips to the streaming memory hole, the simple fact remains that if you don’t have it — I mean have it physically, in your hands — you don’t own it. As I noted last year in this very space, physical media is your best bet against corporate censorship: Tina Fey’s not going to walk into your house and steal your copy of “30 Rock.” It’s much easier to change a line of code and remove a title from Netflix — or your own iTunes library or your own Kindle — than it is to go full “Fahrenheit 451” and torch your collection of discs or books.
It’s not just the threat of disappearance that rankles; it’s the threat of mutilation. Excited to learn this weekend that as a subscriber to HBO I already have access to HBO Max, I fired up Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse.” After turning it on, I noticed something was wrong. The image was distorted, strange. And then I realized what the streaming service had done: It was being shown in a “remastered” 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the original 4:3.
This complaint about aspect ratio may seem parochial, but, as people noted when something similar happened to “The Simpsons,” it can have a real impact on the quality of the storytelling and the joke-making. And it just looks bad. Messy, and filled with digital artifacts. Fortunately, I held onto my DVD of the first season, so I won’t have to endure this nonsense — but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the show to those who haven’t seen it before. Not in this deformed iteration, anyway.
I’ll happily lend someone my Blu-ray of “Year of the Dragon,” however. I was amused to discover a couple of weekends ago that the disc, which I picked up via a Warner Archive sale, comes with a disclaimer that appears before the movie plays that it is not intended to portray any group negatively. On the one hand, it makes you laugh: If a movie about the Triad haunting Chinatown needs a content warning, what sort of label do the powers that be need to slap on “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”? On the other, it aroused my excitement: Michael Cimino (who co-wrote and directed the film) and Oliver Stone (the other writer) must have brought the goods if the studio is this concerned.
All of which is to say that while trigger warnings of this sort — or featurettes such as the one attached to HBO Max’s presentation of “Gone with the Wind” — are silly, they seem like a decent compromise if the only other option is “retiring questionable art to the ash heap of history.” But who knows how long that compromise will hold. If you want to enjoy the adventures of Scarlett O’Hara in perpetuity, I’d strongly recommend picking up one of the (many, many) iterations of the film released for home viewing. Or you can just pray HBO Max doesn’t alter your deal with them further.
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