Friday, March 29, 2019

Miscellaneous Musings

March 29, 2019

On the Folly of Being a Completist

I recently purchased a set of DVD dividers, to which I attached the names of directors and actors whose films I seem to be collecting. There are, of course, the usual names, the established greats, people like Chaplin, Keaton, Kubrick, Zhang, Ozu, and Kurasawa. There are a few obscurities – Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakawa, and Takeshi Kitano – the quality of whose films wax and wane, sometimes to no fault of their own; and then there are more recent arrivals to Hollywood, men and women who may one day join that pantheon of cinematic greats. A few examples of those I’d put in this category are Ben Affleck and Debra Grank.

I have therefore come to the realization that I am a bit of a completist, something I suspect that is true of many other people who still buy physical DVDs and Blu-rays. There’s just something about having the entire Buster Keaton collection or the entire works of Orson Welles that just draws a tear to my eye. And this is not the tear of someone mentally counting how much they have spent on thirteen films that they likely won’t have time to watch again, or the tears of a less than understanding partner who wonders just how the two of you will live having to find space for the other love in your life. No, this is a tear of remembrance - for a life well lived and the gifts left behind. It is the result of sheer admiration and a tribute to the impact that he or she has had on you.

My collection is a work in progress. My Hitchcock collection is not yet complete, not for that matter have I been finished acquiring the complete works of Charlie Chase, F.W. Murnau, or Fritz Lang, and there are several Japanese directors from the 1950s whose films I’m just becoming aware of.

Most of the people I’ve mentioned thus far have passed away, and so it is probably possible to have a complete collection if one wishes to look hard enough. (I once had the notion of owning every film that Toshiro Mifune made, but gave that up after seeing 185 credits under his name.) However, that is a luxury that future generations of collectors may not have. Alongside the inevitable death of physical discs and the risk that less popular films will disappear as a result, there is an additional risk to would-be collectors. I’m speaking of course of the non-release, that film helmed by a big-name director or starring a current A-lister or legendary thespian that never receives a release on home video.

Sadly, it’s already begun. Case in point: Woody Allen. Up until fairly recently, Allen produced a film a year, and more often than not they were released on DVD within a few months. This ended with his six-part series for Amazon, Crisis in Six Scenes. Made in 2016, the series has yet to be released on physical media, and with the controversy surrounding Allen currently, that isn’t likely to change. Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky. Who knows if Amazon will ever allow the public to see A Rainy Day in New York?

This is not an aberration. Apple just announced they were joining the already crowded field of online content providers, and Hollywood royalty is already lined up to be part of it. The appeal is obvious. Established directors give upstart content providers instant credibility in exchange for both creative freedom and generous funding. This explains why Alfonso Cuaron had $15 million to make his passion project, Roma. Netflix wanted content, and he wanted funding. It was a match made in heaven, and yet currently, the film does not have a release date on DVD or Blu-ray. Fans who have followed Cuaron’s career over the years and amassed a collection of his films thus far may find themselves with an increasing number of gaps in their collection.

This is far more likely to be the rule moving forward, not the exception. Many popular TV shows are unlikely to ever appear on DVD or Blu-ray, and movies produced by streaming services will likely remain exclusively available to subscribers. For proof of this, look no further than Netflix’s Beast of No Nation. Four years after its debut, the film is still curiously absent on physical media, meaning that those seeking to collect all of the works of Cary Fukunaga are out of luck.

Perhaps this is a product of the times we live in. Consumers want convenience, and streaming services certainly provide this. Perhaps millennials and the generations that follow them will put less emphasis on collections. After all, digital content promises a world in which every movie is at your fingertips, one in which accessing a filmmaker’s filmography is just a click away. Hypothetically, fans could start with someone’s first film and work their way to his or her most recent. I say hypothetically because this is actually not up to the consumer. It is up to content providers, and thus far, this vision of a streaming Utopia has not emerged. Instead, almost every week there are lists of movies that are being removed and added from streaming services, the reasons for which are rarely explained. For completists, this can be incredibly frustrating.

And yet there are few options. With so many big name directors and actors turning to streaming services to finance what traditional studios might not, it seems inevitable that collections will become increasingly harder to acquire. In fact, one day we may look back and see the exact time a chasm in someone’s filmography developed. Physcial DVDs of their work will be available only up to a particular point, and then streamed content will be the only option. Will completists be content “owning” a director’s later work in the cloud? Somehow I doubt it. It’s just not the same as looking over to a wall and seeing, in chronological order, the complete works of one of the all-time greats. There’s an investment there, a commitment to having and preserving works that are considered important, a legacy that can be handed down to the next generation of film enthusiasts. Completists value the whole, and it is this that streaming services may have rendered a thing of the past.

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