Friday, September 10, 2010

hidden treasures?

For the past several years, September usually meant, among other things, a detailed look at some Holiday DVD titles. The whole system seems to be upside down- releases of classic films are few and far between, and even classic cartoon releases even worse. A lot of what is coming along seems to be "Special Edition" retreads or Blu-Ray releases of extant titles. We've been fortunate with some great surprise releases like the Columbia Noir sets, the 5th WB Film Noir set. Film buffs have also been pleased to see some excellent titles emerging from the vaults (as it were) via the various DVD Manufactured on Demand systems from WB, Universal (got my Ruggles of Red Gap copy early this year, various TCM collections and now Columbia. I've been very pleased to see Shout and Classic Media and other outfits picking up the slack and finishing up some series that were left to languish- particularly Classic Media bringing out the 4th season of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. WB's new Looney Tunes Superstar series, which was intended to replace the Golden Collections, is a great effort and one that collectors and fans will definitely pick up, but not as jaw-dropping as the 6 volume Golden Collection- either in extras or titles.

And yet, the days of going into a Big Box shop or easily found retail shop to pursue the classic film titles or even find new classic film and cartoon titles are long gone. Even sure fire sellers like the Looney Tunes are "not available in stores" and mostly available online or at dedicated retailers like Barnes and Noble where prices are, well, pricey. The internet seems to be the main retail outlet, and while in this day and age, it's not complicated or difficult, it sure is different. While I really don't need a bazillion copies of the latest bombed at the box office teen, romcom or horror film, it sure would be heartening to see some copies of Rocky and Bullwinkle on the shelves to grab and pick up for a fun evening with the kids. And while Netflix is truly a gift from the film gods, where it truly falls down is when it makes deals with studios to delay rentals or not even offer rentals of Manufactured on Demand titles. I don't want to shell out $20 bucks to own a copy of Doc Savage; I mean, it wasn't that great- but it was cheesy fun from my childhood that I wouldn't mind seeing again at least once.

So here we are: knee deep in the hoopla as the kiddies of the 80s used to say, and yet when it comes to availability and access to titles, it feels like we are taking two steps forward, and they take two steps back. And when was the last time you read a sentence with two 80s pop music references that actually made sense? C'mon, admit it, that's why you love us.

The questions remains- are we standing still? At a crossroads, in a way? Playing a media game of chicken to see which company, consumer, or studio is going to blink first and rush headlong into downloading or some other option? Are we that committed to Blu-Ray? I know very few people who own them or are converting DVD titles to Blu-Ray. A jump from VHS to DVD, many can understand, but when a Blu-Ray player can also play DVDs- why bother? The few people I do know who have them have another reason- a computer with a Blu-Ray drive or a Gaming system. Studios are playing a different game with on demand titles- almost as if they were hedging their bets. By virtue of placing these MOD programs in motion, they also are set up for Downloading- WB already sells titles that way. They know there are really only a few kinds of consumers of their products. There is the average, buy DVD every so often consumer, the film fan/collector who buy and horde DVDs and will reluctantly pay more when they have to have a certain title and then there is the casual film fan who will rent or at least wait till a DVD hits the $5 dollar bin.

I have not changed my initial stance per se, I still think the opportunity and availability of titles still outweighs the loss in store shelf real estate and the loss in extras and special features. The price of some titles still gives me pause, which is why any purchases are few and have to have more justification. However, now I think that enough players have entered the fray that I believe we are beginning to see a real poker game emerge. And I think that in this instance, the next big risk taker among the studios or companies will be the one to hold the most chips in the end. I don't necessarily like Download - there are still some things that will have to be worked out. Anyone who has lost an important file due to a computer crash or glitch knows exactly what I mean. But, I do love my DVR, and have enjoyed being able to DVR TCM films and titles that aren't available any other way, and watch them when I can.

The tech sector will have to step up the game, and I think, given Apple's recent press announcements, that they are doing just that. Portable media players have been around for a while, but players that do a little of everything and store data, rather than play discs are where we are at now. Will we a film collection reduced to a small black box (I would prefer a lovely hunter green personally) hard drive that stores and plays our media? Or will we use some sort of portable hard drive to use from player to player? Or will there be advanced development in micro storage space that makes owning a film collection on a device like an iPod Touch or Kindle a more manageable reality. I don't know for sure- perhaps all of the above. Signs are pointing in the direction of some of this already happening.

One thing is for sure, technology developments move at a lightning pace and classic film fans, by nature, usually don't. As far as availability and adaptability, studios and consumers are a couple of steps behind. Consider that it really took a couple of years to really get a large group of titles available on DVD. If you can remember that far back, it was the same for VHS. It's happening with Blu-Ray now. Predictable sellers like perennial classics such as epics Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Casablanca and others hit the stores first to test the waters and establish base camp. Other titles come later, or don't come at all. Other venues try to make them available, but to be honest we don't usually see the same amount of available titles with each progressive wave of technology. There were more titles available on VHS than DVD and on DVD than on Blu-Ray now. The digital download option obviously bucks that trend. The sticky widget is deliverability and price. And as invested consumers we would do well to keep an eye on the trends and see where this thing is headed. I don't see the need to convert my DVD collection anytime soon, but I sure as heck am watching the Tech sector and its developments.

A bigger concern for me is how this will all change the viewing habits of consumers and will Classic films still resonate and have growth among new viewers. You have to admit, as a community, we are somewhat inclusive, yet exclusive. We always welcome new classic film fans and hope to see more, but at the same time we roll our collective eyeballs at those who only watch new films, don't get "classic films" or can't hang in there with the rest of us when we blog our 12 part series about the intricacies of the mechanics of the Flying Monkeys on The Wizard of Oz.

My argument is that, as a community that cares about classic films as a whole, and that cares about preserving the history, the work and the heritage and legacy that classic films represent, we need to be concerned about their exposure to younger and upcoming generations and doing something to grow that appreciation and love for classic Media as a whole for the future. We are making fantastic strides in certain areas- the phenomenal For the Love of Film blogathon that raised money for film preservation is an important part of keeping that heritage alive. And I believe that the two single most influential sources for creating new classic film fans and spreading that appreciation and knowledge has been the fantastic writing from bloggers and critics on the internet and, of course, the powerhouse known as TCM.

That being said, I also notice the signs of a changing society. Classic film appreciation will always have to hurdle the barriers that some people put up to loving them. However the change in technology is not just limitless, but limiting. Quick spurts of media exposure are the order of the day: watch a film in increments on the go or better yet, watch television online or on your smart phone or gadget when you can. Our society favors the fast pace, the anxiety and the short term attention span and memory. What you cannot simply digest in a short amount of time, and understand and appreciate, requires a greater investment- something which, I fear, people are not as willing to do anymore. Social media, music, news, entertainment news, even films -are all about the sound bite explosion. People have no problem posting their "status" of the mundane on Facebook throughout the day like a Tommy gun, but sitting down to watch a film that has visions of antiquated technology such as corded phones requires not only interest, but time to sit and digest. Sure the typical classic film fan can watch a small portion of a film and come back to it later with out much of a problem, but how many of you really want to? You want to soak it all in, you get wrapped up in familiar scenes, and you tell yourself- just a few more minutes. But you know and are familiar with classic films, the stars, and already have great interest. How do we get a FB-ing, earbud wearing, quick draw thumb texting teenage generation to begin to appreciate and invest time and interest in classic media (and I actually include books in that question)? Sure it starts at home. It starts with introducing and not pushing - letting them discover treasures on their own. And nurturing the interest along the way.

Is it really all that important, you ask? Do we seriously need to consider "creating" classic film fans? Don't worry, I don't envision an evangelical approach; however, I do think we need to find ways to encourage support and create new ways of exposing others to classic media. I think we need to continue all important preservation efforts, and to record and write the history of classic films. Sensationalist biographies can be fun, but I think we can use more works that record an overview of the history, the studio system, the stars, and the appreciation for the films, without dangerously becoming too specialized and insular in tone, and thereby alienating the new fan. And by all means- all of you writing out there- don't get discouraged! Keep writing! Combine the nostalgic memories with the movies. As I tell my students, the interest in history (or in classic films) often comes as a result of some kind of personal connection with it. Once the connection is made, the journey begins.

The old caretaker of the museum may reflect, upon retiring, who will love and nourish the things of the past as well as I? Do I leave this place in danger of a coming generation who no longer finds the relevancy or the need for such things? Will this building still stand when I am long gone? The sentiment is familiar to anyone who values and cherishes the lessons and the legacy the past has to offer. After all, so many generations removed from this or that, we cared- will someone else in the future still care? The real pressing question we have to ask ourselves isn't how much do we love classic films, but instead, do we love classic films enough to pass that love on down to someone else?

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.


mel said...

Amen, J.C.

And it's not only films but music too. I get rather disheartened when I talk about George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers et al to the younger generation and very few of them seem to have even heard of them...

Doesn't augur very well for the future.

J.C. Loophole said...

I agree Mel- I teach a Media and American Culture class, and it seems as if anything past 1970 (used to be the 1960s) is ancient history.
The really disheartening thing is when you hear about lists like VH1's "100 greatest artist" of "all-time" and of course the list doesn't even include anyone further back than Elvis. Of course they probably mean Rock and Roll artist- but they don't say that or even infer it. All Time is a pretty long time- no Sinatra, Gerswhin, Bernstein, Bach -etc are even on the list. That's not what bugs me. What bugs me is that kids will watch that, and take away that no one past Madonna really matters. The present without the past is just life without context. Sad.

Colin said...

Lots of very pertinent points in that piece, not the least of which is your acknowledgment that those of us who scribble away on classic movies (or really any media for that matter) tend to form ourselves into exclusivist groups. That kind of herd mentality is understandable enough - it acts as a kind of protective reflex. However, the fact remains that no medium can survive unless there is a constant renewal of interest in it.

The positive view is, as you say, to look to "the independents" - people like ourselves who plug away at blogs and such, spreading the word when and where we can. As a teacher myself, I always try to encourage an awareness of and then hopefully an interest in our past cultural trends and achievements. But you can't push it or force it; that's always counterproductive. In the end we can only keep doing what we do - it can reach more people than we might imagine.

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks for your comments Colin! I agree, encouraging without pushing, and continuing to write and share information and enthusiasm for classic media seems to be the best route we can take. Not only are we sharing that with the rising generation, hopefully we are actively documenting more and more information and history. I know I am not alone in saying that as a kid growing up, "movie books" and info was as scarce to come by as were the films themselves. When VHS, then DVD, came along it was a godsend. I just think we should take advantage of the opportunity we have to spread the wealth, as it were, and try and encourage love and advocacy of classic film.

I'm glad to know there are other teachers out there including the products of our culture in their lessons. In addition to teaching History I now teach a new Humanities component that specifically covers Media and American Culture and goes into both the technological and cultural history of different mediums. My students know I can get too excited sometimes because I want to share so much in the limited time we have. The best I can do is plant a seed of curiosity and interest and encourage them to actually go out, learn on their own and develop that interest further.

PS- Nice review of Yellow Sky, by the by- it's in my "to watch" stack, and now has been bumped up to "on deck" status. Westerns are an interesting genre to try and introduce to students. The are so resistant to watching them, yet when I show clips they don't want to stop watching.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

A thoughtful essay, J.C., and what you've so beautifully expressed reasonates with a lot of us old movie fans. I suppose it's one of those dynamics of nature that challenges and solutions constantly offset each other. As you note, exposure to classic films (and the wealth of popular music, perhaps less of art and literature) of the 20th century is much, much more easily accessible today than it was when we were children. But offsetting that is a multi-media hurricane of other distractions for younger generations.

I just hope enough of that wealth of creativity can be preserved and documented. That's our job. Whether future generations accept that treasure from our hands is up to them. I suppose for most of us, our blogs are merely "preaching to the choir."

J.C. Loophole said...


Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful comments. Yes- the barrage of media hitting us from all sides can make the choice of what to enjoy during down time harder- almost reminds me of a kid at a huge toy store - just overwhelmed by so much, that you almost just want to toss your hands up. I agree with you that it's our job to try and document, preserve and even try to highlight classic media so the richness of it all is highlighted and stands out from the mundane.

shinya said...
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