Notes on the death and rebirth of Filmstruck

It’s never been as painful to receive a $9 refund as it was to see the balance of my yearly Filmstruck subscription show up on my PayPal account earlier this week. I’ve been holding back from commenting in hopes that it would somehow be prevented by the collective efforts of champions of cinema like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who have been pressuring the relevant corporate overlords to reconsider.  They have indeed succeeded in eliciting a promise that a Filmstruck reincarnation will be included in a set of channels that Warner/AT&T will seek to launch next year.  Meanwhile, Criterion has announced a stand alone channel as soon as this coming Spring.

I’m still binging: Rossellini histories, some odds and ends from Oshima, Tourneur, and Straub/Huillet, hopefully Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin and The Crucified Lovers (AKA A Story from Chikamatsu).  I’ll be fine in the interim: there’s still MUBI, Fandor, the Cohen Media Group channel on Amazon, Shudder, and the vast and bottomless internet.  I rarely have trouble getting my hands on something I want to see. But I still feel an abiding sense of sadness about the state of film culture.

What most saddens me about this affair is what it reveals about the role film has come to play in mainstream American life. When Warner/AT&T announced that it was going to murder Filmstruck, they said they learned the lesson that it’s too “niche.” But what is the content of Filmstruck? What all the movies on Filmstruck have in common is that they are justly considered canon. They are movies that are somehow important or significant for the global tradition of filmmaking. Not all of them are aesthetically worthwhile, but most of them are, and the ones that aren’t are still important for understanding the development of the medium. They range from the universally acknowledged (like dozens of movies by Ingmar Bergman) to titles that are less well known by mainstream film fans, like a series of works by Indian filmmaker Bimal Roy or a selection of obscure low-budget Phil Karlson flicks or a huge cache of Shirley Clarke shorts.

If you love movies, you should be able to just throw a dart at Filmstruck and hit something that you’d like to see. My queue always grows faster than I can tick titles off, and I watch a lot of Filmstruck. The target audience is people who care about film as an art form. This is a niche, apparently. It’s so small of a niche that it can’t justify a piddling ongoing effort by the many-headed hydra of AT&T/Warner.

I have a diagnosis. Film culture has struggled in the US ever since the success of Jaws reoriented the strategies of major studios, but the rise of streaming has taken us to a new low. I’m not going to search for it now, but I remember reading an article in the early days of Netflix streaming about the divergence between what people say their favorite film categories are and what they actually watch. Back then, instead of your foregrounded streaming options being selected by an algorithm, you had the opportunity to tick off boxes indicating your favorite categories: Comedy, Drama, Action, Romance, Independent, Foreign Language, Classic, etc. The article I read said that Netflix had found that while many people checked the boxes for Foreign Language and Classic, few people actually watched this content. Serial television, blockbusters, new release Oscar contenders, sensationalist documentaries, star vehicles: this is the stuff people actually watch.  This revealed an unsurprising divergence between peoples’ aspirations and day to day inclinations. People filled their queues with titles they saw as edifying or in some way worthwhile, but then eternally procrastinated watching them as they rubbernecked from New Thing to New Thing. As more streaming services popped up and licensing became more expensive, Netflix opted for the content people actually watch rather than the content that people merely aspire to watch. Now they have basically no classic films and their foreign language selection is random and filled with bargain basement junk (though, to be fair it usually has a few gems).

Now, instead of every subscriber living with the background hum of their aspirational queue, the service aims to give us more and more of what we already like. The algorithm is antithetical to the evolution of taste. It’s an all you can eat buffet filled with all your favorite junk food. There’s no push to challenge yourself or broaden your horizons. To have the aspirational queue, you have to make a separate purchase of a separate streaming channel—presently, Filmstruck—that offers nothing but the good stuff. I did a little googling to learn more when I found out Filmstruck was being cancelled, and the discussion I saw was extraordinarily dispiriting.  People sagely diagnosed: it’s too expensive, and there’s not enough content. First of all, the notion of caring about the ratio of content to dollar is so ridiculous….  Netflix has vast oceans of garbage. Filmstruck has more movies than I have time to watch and they are all worth watching.  Second of all, I’m filled with contempt at the consumer’s notion that they know best what they should be watching—just give us as many choices as possible and we will live our best lives through our own self-direction. The age of a hyper-excess of options has deadened us to the value of curation. Filmstruck employs experts to create curated features meant to introduce us to content that we may not have had an antecedent desire to engage with. This is a valuable service. I don’t care who you are, you can benefit from letting someone else take the reins for a minute. In concrete terms, I’m saying: if you care about film, consider subscribing to the next incarnations of the Criterion channel and/or Filmstruck and just watching what they throw at you, even if it’s not something you already think of yourself as being interested in. I’ve been doing this, and my aesthetic life has been so much richer than it was during the brief stretch where I was trying to keep up with Netflix’s foregrounded content.

This is the core of my sadness: film is being sucked into a culture of gratification, where endless ways to feed our already entrenched preferences occlude the limitations of our self-knowledge.  We know what we want, and we don’t question whether there are other things that maybe we should want even more. But there’s still an opportunity to resist. The corporate invasion of our taste is not absolute yet. Support the good shit.




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