A few weeks ago I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Civic, part of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Series. During the interval (yes, an interval, apparently the way Kubrick originally intended it to be shown) a friend observed that movie-going is becoming a special event. It’s true, going to the cinema is becoming antiquated, a non-essential mean of consuming film in an age of the Pirate Bay and, if you’ll believe them, Lightbox. Our environment naturally emphasised this view, the Civic’s warm stately glow, the glittering flamingos and crouching tigers. And then the film was introduced in person by the director of the NZIFF, and was concluded by enthusiastic applause. Definitely an event.
Despite all this, as I sat watching HAL‘s murderous campaign I had a nagging feeling that my options for watching films are dwindling and that, paradoxically, going to the Civic may soon become my only option if I want to see certain films. This probably sounds crazy. The Civic may have been one of New Zealand’s first movie theatres, but the responsibility of getting film to the people has clearly been passed on to Netflix et al. And we willingly, happily, optimistically gave up these material film experiences for the auratically inferior laptop screen because of the promises of the internet. Promises of convenience, of value, and most importantly, of infinite range. But for New Zealanders at least, these promises are starting to reveal themselves as empty.
Sure, 2001 isn’t the best starting example, it’s a certified classic, safe for now – or at least until Videon’s copy gets scratched (Video Ezy Grey Lynn’s copy already is; RIP Video Ezy Ponsonby). But what of those films without a spot on BFI’s Top 100 films of all time? Of the approximately 158 films shown at last year’s film festival only a fraction made it to general cinematic release. As for other viewing options, for the majority of the films you’d be lucky to find more than one or two seeders on torrent sites, there are almost no video stores left to buy the dvd release (if there even is one), and if Netflix NZ doesn’t even have The Sopranos the odds aren’t looking good for a three-hour-long Turkish film about a writer’s mid-life crisis which comes complete with the soporific title “Wintersleep”.
Of course this age of information fosters a sense of entitlement. The situation can surely only be improving; I shudder thinking about the challenges one would have faced trying to find an obscure film in 1985. In 2015, if you can’t locate something in ten minutes of googling it’s an indignant shock. Then again, it is an age of information and so if our access to film isn’t getting better, it feels like it’s getting worse. It’s 2015. It’s New Zealand. It’s a Tuesday night and there is no way for me to watch Funny Ha Ha or Hannah and her Sisters or Slacker. Unless I spend $40 per film shipping them from Amazon. Which isn’t going to happen. And so every time a video store closes and Lightbox and Netflix’s catalogues remain shamefully thin I get the uneasy sense that movies are disappearing from New Zealand.
Web services may be destroying video stores, but they sure ain’t filling the void that’s left – the internet only offers the illusion of content and permanence. In a millennial version of the parental coming-of-age lecture we are all warned that nothing uploaded to the internet ever disappears. This could be true enough for racist tweets and teen nude pix but it is no more than a myth for everything else. The content on illegal streaming sites may be here today but it may not be here even next week, and thanks to the recent Pirate Bay crisis we are now aware that these sites are kamikaze operations, each one doomed from inception. The greater deception comes from the streaming services, each with a range inferior to any video store’s, and which should never, ever, be mistaken for playing an archival role. At almost the same rate that new material is added old material is deleted, and should any of these businesses go under, their content won’t float around the net like ghosts in the binary, their death will be complete. I fear a future where certain kinds of film become an ephemeral art. Shown once or twice at the festival and then banished back to whence they came, never having known their form in region 4, never to be streamed or downloaded or preserved in an archive, and never to see the dark of a theatre again. So when the NZIFF programme comes out in a month or two I’ll be choosing which films to watch carefully, because seeing them at the Civic may literally be the only chance I get.