The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise.

The two-year-old service was in thrall to old-fashioned ideas about which films matter.

Film has been dying almost since the day it was born. Sound, television, video and the first glimmers of the digital era all seemed to portend the fatal end of “real” moving images.

When Turner and Warner Bros. Digital Networks announced in October that they were shutting down FilmStruck — the streaming service for cinephiles that hosted the Criterion Collection and hundreds of independent and art-house titles — the responses rehearsed a familiar routine. The event signaled a worrying “erasure” of film history and an “erosion” of film culture. In short, film was dying — again. Yet something was profoundly strange in these acts of mourning. The medium was not under threat by time or some new technology. Its death was instead all but guaranteed by the disappearance of a digital service. FilmStruck’s last day was Thursday.

As news of the closure began to spread, a petition to #savefilmstruck circulated, describing the platform as “dedicated to preserving film history.” FilmStruck was compared to a range of physical spaces: a library, an archive and a neighborhood video store with a connoisseur clerk. Losing FilmStruck, it was suggested, was like losing a great public or local institution.

But, of course, FilmStruck was never a library or a film archive. It was a for-profit streaming platform that provided access to those who could pay for it. AT&T acquired the service (and Time Warner) during the summer of 2018, and its closure is part of the company’s plan to reorganize its media properties and launch a streaming service that will compete with Netflix and (Criterion, meanwhile, has announced plans to launch its own streaming service and keep its collection online.)

One thing overlooked in the lamentations about FilmStruck is the brevity of its life span. FilmStruck launched in 2016 and disappeared just two years later. The failure of such a short-lived service cannot possibly be a threat to film history in any way that matters. Rather, it is a crisis in the digital fantasies of the 21st century: that (privileged) people can have on-demand access to the wealth of human culture.

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Extraordinary (and more long-standing) film archives exist, by the way, and many of them are digitizing and experimenting: The Library of Congress recently launched a “National Screening Room.” The National Film Board of Canada hosts hundreds of films and produces some of the most innovative interactive cinema around. Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum has long supported open-access experimentation. And the Internet Archive makes all kinds of film digital and downloadable. The list goes on and on. We are living in an era of extraordinary online abundance. But the films you find in these venues might not be the ones you think you want (or need). In these virtual spaces, narrative films are outnumbered by the neglected bounty of the 20th century: early film artifacts, small-gauge formats, amateur genres, short cinemas and literal film fragments.

For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, a rare FilmStruck skeptic, the service encouraged cinephiles to dematerialize their collections and tether themselves to a precarious subscription system. He argues, “Whatever’s worth revisiting over the years is worth owning.” Then again, owning a vast collection of titles is its own kind of privilege.

In my view, the collapse of FilmStruck might go some way toward reminding us of the fundamental virtuality of film and film spectatorship. Even if we own all the films we love, what we love is not the object that we can hold in our hands. As the University of Chicago film scholar D.N. Rodowick has argued, film is a fundamentally ephemeral bit of shared space and time. It is not something we can ultimately possess — and for most of the 20th century, we had no expectations of doing so.

One of the supporters of the petition to save the service, director Guillermo del Toro, compared the demise of FilmStruck to an act of environmental annihilation (at the very moment that his home was threatened by wildfires in California): “Much like people care for the carbon footprint and the duplication of natural resources, we are living in a massive deforestation of film culture.” It is a moving (and utopian) kind of image — a forest of film trees — but it overlooks the unnatural materiality of film artifacts and the contingencies of film preservation.

If film can be said to have a “natural” disposition, it is one that inclines toward deterioration and self-destruction. Film is, in fact, a medium that dies — that is dying. But the threat to film comes from film. Film stock decays into an explosive gas (worst case) or a brittle vinegary mess (better case). Film artifacts are fragile, vulnerable and unstable, even (and, some argue, especially) when they are transferred to digital formats. Put another way: If film is a tree, it is also the deforestation. Film preservation does not maintain the natural order but disrupts it. It intervenes and prevents a small number of films from becoming fire or dust. (There is also an environmental argument against film preservation; it takes a lot of fossil fuels to keep film intact and servers running.)

FilmStruck never offered access to anything close to film history. It sold a sliver of “classics” and masterpieces that has always masqueraded as the whole. Many lauded the service for the diversity of its curatorial staff and its efforts to highlight films by women, people of color and queer artists — and the attention it paid to non-Anglophone film traditions. All to the good. However, feature-length narrative cinema made by mostly white male auteurs dominated the collection.

These are not the films that need seeing or saving. They may not circulate widely in popular culture, but they account for almost our entire institutional and disciplinary canon. And despite the collective anxiety about their disappearance, they will endure in archives, film studies programs and, yes, even online. You can still access many of these works right now (on DVD, on other for-profit streaming services and on Kanopy, a digital service for public library users).

More radically, however, we might ask whether these are the works we need to rescreen or urge others to discover.

In her FilmStruck postmortem, Ann Hornaday of The Post wondered how artists would carry on without it: “The artists that studios and especially streaming platforms are courting with profligate amounts of money won’t be able to create a vibrant, new film language without a firm footing in fundamentals that go back way further than ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Star Wars.’ ” Let’s set aside the conflation of FilmStruck with an archival institution as well as Hornaday’s rosy vision of the contemporary artist (pockets lined with cash).

The argument that any future of film practice will depend on a deep and rigorous knowledge of film history is well worn. I hear it often and once held the view myself. But I don’t think it holds up to historical scrutiny or common sense. The film forms of the 20th century — which were neither exclusively narrative nor limited to European and North American practitioners — developed without access to anything close to the kind and quantity of moving images in circulation today. Whatever the “language” of 20th-century cinema was, it did not require the kind of training for which Hornaday and others advocate. The art cinema that stands in here for historical “fundamentals” (let alone the art house itself) did not even exist until the latter half of the 20th century.

The argument that we need immersion in the masters of film to make digital images for streaming platforms is either a category error or an effort to protect against the future — that is, to ensure that whatever is to come resembles the powers of the past. If the concern were really about access, rather than taste, privilege, auteurism and connoisseurship, the people lamenting FilmStruck might be advocating for greater funding to film libraries and archives and more experimental models of open access and public engagement. What we need is not a deep introduction to narrow “fundamentals” but a more expansive and inclusive understanding of what film is, can be and has been.

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I have my own film-forest fantasy. I like to imagine a generation of makers and thinkers who move nimbly around amateur cinemas and home movies, nontheatrical and orphan (i.e., unauthored) works, minor archives and artifacts, analog and digital images, television and video art; who take the profound absences in the archive as opportunities to imagine both past and future; who make films that resist the lure of storytelling and perhaps even push us to think beyond human experience; and who understand their work as an incessant and undisciplined borrowing and remixing, as belonging to multiple communities and histories. What an absolute gift it would be to escape the corrupt inheritance of the auteur — a 20th-century invention; film scholars have the receipts — and the long shadow of a canon that has compelled generations of students to mimic the powers of patriarchy and colonialism, to play at corporate theater, or to wonder about their own exclusion from what they see on screen.

I often tell my students that film history could always be otherwise. After all, film history is not a comprehensive body of works tucked away in an archive or accessible via a streaming service, but a puzzling collection of fragments and holes and remains. What remains has been left there by some contingency (it did not burn in a fire or disappear into ash) or ideology (archives, historians, scholars, critics made choices about what mattered enough to preserve). There are other ways of understanding what has been left behind and rethinking what we know.

Tracing these other routes through the past and preserving a different film future might just require that we kill a few hundred films — or finally let them die.