Articles, On Culture
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New Zealand’s Vanishing Medium

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.

Eleanor Woodhouse

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2 Comments

  1. Although this is a very interesting article that tackles a fascinating topic, I feel it doesn’t really reflect any form of reality. Yes, video stores are dying and to be honest, thank god. Who cares if a company that actually “fines” their customers for not rewinding a tape, or failing to return a disc on time, dies the death of a choking dodo.

    As for the film 2001, it took me a total of 8 seconds to find out I could rent (or buy) it from iTunes or Google Play, and no, just like with Netflix, you don’t need to watch on a laptop. We have TV screens half the size of our living-rooms these days, and Netflix, iTunes or Google Play works perfectly on them. It would take me a further 20 seconds to rent 2001, and I wouldn’t need to visit the video shop at all.

    Yes, Winter Sleep is a little more difficult to find in tiny New Zealand, which is the last time I looked at a map, only barely registering on the planet. But it is available in Netflix US, which as we all know now, can be switched to just as easily by simply using a Smart DNS service. I very much doubt that if this Turkish drama was released during the heyday of cinema or video parlours, it would be available in NZ, but it is right now via Netflix and Smart DNS – and under the single subscription, in HD, on the big-screen TV & in surround sound.

    There are so many legal options now for watching movies at home. It is almost mind boggling, and we can watch in high definition (and even 4K) on screens so large some people even built home-cinemas to show them off (aka “man caves” with cinema seats and popcorn machines).

    But yes, the real cinema may be struggling in New Zealand, although it is experiencing a boom in many other countries. Much of this is NZ comes down to the lack of decent cinemas. Remember when the Civic actually was a movie palace in Auckland, or the St. James for that matter? Remember when there was a choice of multiple venues instead of just the single multiplex? I think Auckland could be the only city over a million outside of Detroit with only one major cinema left in downtown.

    But watching films at home? I’ve just added Winter Sleep to my watchlist and we’ll check it out in the next few days… a definite thanks for the tip there…

  2. Josip says

    In relation to not being able to find foreign films on the internet such as is primarily due to searches being done in English. English speakers will be used to the English segment of the internet (yes the English segment of the internet is a large majority, and most internet users will have a grasp of English) but for anyone who knows another language, they will experience other cultural pockets of the internet. Its much easier to find foreign Chinese films if you can search in Chinese with Chinese search terms, French films if you can search for those films in French and Turkish media if you can search for it in Turkish. The medium has been targeted at a particular audience, and in the case of Turkish film its probably owned, watched and uploaded by Turks will upload it to websites popular amongst Turks most likely in Turkish. Though the majority of the internet is in English, there is plenty that is not but its easy to forget that! and a lot of foreign media content such as movies and music is easier to access with the knowledge of the langue!
    Personally as an migrant to NZ I am amazed at how much new and old media I can access from back home! More so than i ever thought possible than when I first arrived here (before the internet was a thing)

    The foreign film access in NZ is a real struggle, but i would argue that the internet has opened up a lot of media to us than ever before. It’s just a different approach and skill set to be able to access it! e.g Though book stores are dying out, you can actually access a larger range of books for a cheaper price in NZ now than ever before! One of the first things that was shocking about moving here was the price of books! Its sad that the book stores are shutting down, just like the theatre movie going experience is dying down, but with books there is more access to more diversity at a cheaper price (with an internet connection, and sometimes free if you can read on a screen) than ever before, and with movies, if you can access anything and play anything at home then the theatre cant function on a profit based system as it does now. This does not necessarily mean it will die out though. If potentially everyone has access to vast varieties of media such as music and movies, regular citizens could could curate theatre screenings (basically get rid of the big boy chain style cinema like event/hoyts). I think the main obstacle for this is New Zealand’s lack of cultural public places,such as squares,theatres and galleries (this seems to be changing) and if we can see a cultural shift in this, then theatre culture could possibly grow larger in time! only time will tell

    ps, lovely site here! keep it up!

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