The Whole Shebang of World Cinema…

…will soon be available at the click of a mouse. At least according to NYT movie reviewer Tony Scott. Scott speculates that you, the film viewer or internet user (or whatever you are), “will be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want in the setting of your choice. The handful of Web sites that now offer streaming or downloadable feature films, along with wider video on demand through the cable box or satellite dish, offer a glimpse of what is to come.” Consider me more than a little skeptical. Because Kristin Thompson has already ripped apart most of Scott’s claims, I won’t bother (Karina also has a nice summary of Thompson’s post). But I am fascinated by Scott’s desire for access to “the entire surviving history of movies,” even if he ignores the very technological, social, and institutional barriers that make such access virtually impossible.

Scott’s article is part of a series of NYT articles focusing on the brave new media world, with Manohla Dargis offering both praise and blame for the new video service, Jaman, which claims to be “pioneering social cinema.” Jaman offers a number of ultra-indie films for download and allows viewers to comment on films as they watch, creating their own virtual commentary tracks. I haven’t had time to explore Jaman’s offerings that closely, but my guess is that the longer features will continue to struggle to find an audience. Noah Robischon is somewhat more enthusiastic, pointing out that the films on Jaman “are the antithesis of mainstream,” and adding that the social networking features on Jaman and Joost will help viewers find new content. Robischon does acknowledge that most filmmakers are still going to see digital distribution as “a last resort,” but again, the article conjures up the image of an unlimited digital library available at the click of a mouse.

I may return to these articles in further detail in the next few days, if only because they are caught up in some of the same questions about the status and definition of cinema that appeared in the far gloomier articles by David Denby and Neal Gabler and because I’ll be addressing similar issues in my talk at the Media in Transition conference at the end of April.

Update: In other news, VHS is dead, at least according to Variety. Michael, correctly, begs to differ.


  1. Tim Anderson Said,

    March 31, 2007 @ 10:20 am

    “Entirety” is such a huge claim. The longstanding parallel to this in music has been the “Celestial Jukebox”, the Holy Grail of pop music where every song ever made is available to anyone at anytime. Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want everything. To quote Steven Wright, “Where would you put it?”

    My own feelings about these projects is that they forget the progress is sometimes contingent on forgetting and there is more than one way to forget. Don’t get me wrong. I am a historian by training and I have gone about trying to rescue many a lost object from the conversation of popular music. But I am also postmodern enough to understand than any discussion of “totalities” should get the red flag. Totalitizing efforts have, by nature, fascist tendencies. They demand the kind of compulsory coordination between parties that is frightening and somehow inhumane. Film, records, books… they are part of the humanities and to subject them to totalizing efforts like this somehow scares me. It runs the risk of some sort of Orwellian oversight where we are promised “freedom” but only if our access to information is “total”.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 31, 2007 @ 11:45 am

    Kristin Thompson, IIRC, riffs off of the concept of the Celestial Jukebox, calling Scott’s fantasy a kind of Celestial Cineplex. I was actually going to compare Scott’s image of a complete cinema library to D.W. Griffith’s similar fantasy of a complete, objective cinematic history, that instead of reading up on past events, people could “press the button and see what happened.” It’s not a perfect fit, but that desire for total access comes across in both cases. Karina’s title (“Poking Holes in Tony Scott’s Futurism”) also highlights the problems with this kind of technophilia.

    But Thompson’s best point, and it’s related to what you’re describing is that Scott’s comment forgets just how enormous the cinematic library actually is. Even if we ignored documentaries, industrial films, home movies, and other marginal films, having all entertainment films subtitled in multiple languages with multiple versions to avoid local censorship laws, would seem to be a logistical nightmare.

  3. Tim Anderson Said,

    March 31, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

    Of course, the logistics would be a nightmare. But in its own way the general conceit of any Celestial Mediaplex is even more nightmarish to me. I guess when I read Thompson’s piece that was my main problem: somehow I get the feeling that people want all of this stuff available at all times and, well, I find that problematic for all kinds of social and educational reasons. I know that this is not a popular notion, but somehow the disregard for the necessity of limits is where I find myself at odds. As utopian and post-structural as I may be in my philosophy, that doesn’t necessarily translate into what I view is an un-analytical embrace of “accessibility”. I could go on about this but this basically is a Benjaminian tension: the issue of “aura” and how it diminishes through reproduction. As much as I love my DVDs and CDs, I am always a more engaged viewer and listener when I know that I am presented with an object for a limited period of time. So, yeah, in short, I think limits are important and somehow this needs to be thought through as well.

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 31, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

    This is an interesting argument, Tim. I tend to think that more access is better, but I’m also aware that a desire for a Celestial Mediaplex may be problematic. I think you’re right to point out, for instance, that it’s probably too easy to celebrate the shattering of the aura, a position I find somewhat seductive for a variety of reasons.

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