A couple of summers ago, I met a guy who was putting together a guidebook to fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft’s secret Rhode Island haunts. My first thought, as both a Providence-native and a Lovecraft fan, was that this was something I’d very much like to read. But then I started to wonder how such a book might impact the enchanted quality of those previously unpublicized spaces. Would Lovecraft’s hiding places become like the Bridges of Madison County, or DeLillo’s “most photographed barn in America”?
Call it the paradox of accessibility: as more and more shadowy items are brought to light, the allure of their obscurity and uniqueness is compromised. The phenomenon is particularly clear in the case of film. Everything that was once samizdat, from the shameless Tommy and Pam sex tape to the shameful Star Wars Holiday Special, has become effortlessly obtainable by any and all.
There was a time when I was relatively adventurous in my pursuit of hard-to-find titles. Now, unable to find an NTSC transfer of David Holtzman’s Diary after a single web search, I find myself throwing up my arms in defeat. More and more often, I seem to be making the assumption that if something doesn’t exist online, it must not exist in reality.
This may not seem like such a great tragedy in and of itself—until you consider what is actually lost in a culture of immediate availability and abundance. The rare films I have been lucky enough to view have felt, in each case, more my own, something I had a personal stake in, as a result of having had to work to attain them. The thrill of finally seeing a print of Victor Sjöström’s 1921 silent classic The Phantom Carriage at the Harvard Archives—a movie Ingmar Bergman hailed as his single greatest influence—was a little sweeter having spent nearly six months trying in vain to learn Swedish so that I could obtain a copy myself through Svensk Filmindustri. (That sounds made-up, I know, but I swear it’s true.)
More exciting still was the experience of seeing Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 Titicut Follies, a harrowing, vérité-style documentary about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Having heard so much about this landmark film—it is sometimes described as the mental-health equivalent of The Jungle—I’d tried for months to track down a cassette through video catalogues, universities, and libraries, all with little success, until I bit the bullet and approached Wiseman himself, who was kind enough to invite me to watch it at his studio in Cambridge. (Unfortunately, I had less luck with Oliver Sacks in my attempt to find a print of Awakenings—not the syrupy Robin Williams vehicle of 1990, but the original forty-minute documentary of 1973, which features the actual post-encephalitic patients Dr. Sacks had treated as a young neurologist at the Beth Abraham Hospital. There have been occasional screenings over the years, nearly all of them private, invite-only events. (Needless to say, I have never been invited.)
For some reason, it’s that much more punishing to be denied access in the digital age, a time when everything is supposedly fair game. Even so, there’s a trove of lost films, banished scenes, and expunged visions that retain, for a certain type of person, the same exotic wonder that a lexicographer might find in an undeciphered manuscript, or a classicist, the vanished fragments of Sappho. These obsessions need not be motivated by a lofty agenda. When, at long last, I’d given up tracking down a science-fiction short produced (and performed!) by the members of Styx—a film they’d screen at the beginning of their concerts for the Kilroy Was Here tour in 1983—it was not before having scoured the web, written the band’s publicists, emailed the record company, and phoned the cinematographer to ask if maybe he could possibly dub me a copy. (Sorry, no.)
Regardless of the object, the pursuit itself is to some degree an elitist’s errand. The cinephilic bloodhound, like the pasty comic-book collector or the insufferable aficionado of vinyl, is half worldly aesthete and half fetishistic pack rat, driven in equal parts by an earnest curiosity and a kind of grandiloquent machismo.
But one does not have to be a hunter of cinematic arcana to be affected by the changing landscape of movie culture. The millions who are perfectly content to order the latest star-studded blockbuster from Netflix and view it at home on a flat-screen television are still the central demographic to whom distributors and exhibitors ultimately cater, and the ones whose experience of movies has been the most significantly altered.
Walter Murch, the brilliant editor and sound designer for the Coppola films in the ’70s, once wrote that the true difference between a theatrical screening and a home screening is less one of quality or even scale than of psychological presence. The projected image determines the rules; by virtue of a firm start-time, a space away from home and the company of anonymous attendees, the spectacle commands—and to some degree inconveniences—the viewer in a way no home entertainment center can claim to do.
Who could argue? When it comes down to it, a movie is its being seen. Shed away all the minor distractions of the Cineplex—the sticky floor, the fact that you can’t pause the scene while you dash off to the bathroom, the infuriating clicks from your neighbor’s iPhone as he obsessively texts his absent girlfriend—and you have compromised the ambience of movie watching; in fact, you have compromised the movie.
This may be the one upside to the otherwise regrettable fad of the director’s cut: by replacing original films with “deluxe editions,” the lost theatrical versions become coveted objects. Recall the furor over George Lucas’s digital embellishments to the once-beloved Star Wars trilogy in the mid-’90s. Heartbroken to see Mos Eisley besieged by insipid animations—including a googly-eyed Jabba the Hut—and the Ewoks’ victory song, “Yub-Nub,” replaced with a saccharine, pan-flute atrocity, the devotees struck back. Word quickly got around that the original films had been released on laser disc years earlier, and that if fans were resourceful enough, they could obtain the unsullied digital files and master them to DVD. Archives were plundered, letters were written, discs were burned, and a generation managed to reclaim a piece of its childhood.
Every once in a while, there are moments like these, and they are beautiful. The dorks mobilize, they nail their grievances to the temple and demand unfettered access to the things they love.
My concern is that in the age of Netflix and YouTube and Hulu and whatever the next incarnation of readily available media might be, such feats of determination will continue to diminish. With torrent engines, all content becomes more or less equally procurable through the web; failing that, we are all the more willing to simply scroll through the “on demand” catalogue and select something we have a lot less interest in seeing. (Last night I settled for The Neverending Story II.)
Yet it must be said that with every dramatic shift in technology and culture, there are rewards as well as setbacks. In addition to the long-awaited arrival of non-degradable media, decent sound, and proper aspect ratios, the digital video disc revolution has borne fruit on a number of fronts, chief among which being the bonus disc.
Too Much Information
At what point did audiences become interested in supplementary material? The trend may not be so surprising, given cinema’s history. For the first fifty-odd years of commercial film exhibition, theaters offered quite a bit more bang for your buck. There’d be adventure serials, short films—also known as “one-reelers”—as well as newsreels and other items in addition to the feature presentation. Longer films had musical overtures and intermissions. It was a genuinely theatrical pastime, a whole night out.
The bonus disc returns much of this cinematic addenda to the package. On a single disc, we might find hours worth of outtakes, screen tests, promotional trailers, behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, art-direction sketches—material we almost certainly would never have come across otherwise (and some of which wouldn’t exist at all, were it not for the bonus disc forum).
Consider the short films. Where else, in 1999, might the average viewer have found Spike Jonze’s priceless video, An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process with Ice Cube, if not in the Three Kings special-features menu? How would I have stumbled upon the marvelous trailer for Citizen Kane—probably the best promotional film ever made—had it not been offered on the Turner bonus disc?
The same could be said for Vivian Kubrick’s Making ‘The Shining,’ which features her father barking at Shelley Duvall, and the adorable Scatman Crothers literally weeping with joy during his interview; or Painting with Light, an illuminating documentary on Jack Cardiff, who photographed Powell and Pressburger’s sublimely chilling Black Narcissus. And then there are the deleted scenes, some of which are so good you can’t believe they never made the cut (see Bruno Kirby as a stoned limo driver singing Sinatra in his underwear on the Spinal Tap bonus disc), while others are so jaw-droppingly unbearable it defies belief (see the alternate ending to The Abyss—or better yet, don’t).
Similarly hit-or-miss are the audio commentaries, which can range from indispensable to pointless. Compare, for instance, the unexpectedly astute insights of Roger Ebert to the unexpectedly dry ramblings of Peter Bogdanovich on two separate tracks for the same edition of Kane. Or Peter Brunette’s incisive analysis of Blow-up to Richard Dyer’s achingly pretentious interpretation of Se7en. Directors may choose to approach this task from a variety of angles. A few—notably David O. Russell, Sidney Lumet, and Alexander Payne—offer invaluable lessons in filmmaking, just as others—Greg Mottola, Rob Reiner, Harold Ramis—use their commentary as an additional source of entertainment. Some have different agendas entirely. Screenwriter Ed Neumeier takes the opportunity to apologize for the lunacy of Starship Troopers II, while Kurt Russell seems so baffled by the fact that Escape from New York was made at all that he can scarcely keep it together. Alas, nothing can compare to the audio track for The Limey, in which writer Lem Dobbs pummels Steven Soderbergh for his directorial choices throughout the duration of the film.
It’s also not uncommon for the supplementary material to outshine the feature it’s supplementing. On the Collection’s Edition of Tron, the bonus materials come to no less than four hours and ten minutes—more than double the length of the movie. In fact, the story of how the film was made—how the filmmakers struggled to pull that project together against all odds—ends up being far more gripping than the adventures of Jeff Bridges through cyberspace. And I love Tron.
As some have pointed out, though, there’s a certain danger in overexposure. The material on the bonus disc not only contributes to or expands upon the experience of watching a film, but in many cases actually alters the film itself. In the same way that advanced telescopes have forced us to redefine our conception of Pluto as a planet because we now see the icy cluster of comparably sized bodies in its immediate vicinity, special features reveal to us the many planetesimals and satellites orbiting the original picture—and as such re-configure the parameters of its cinematic space.
To wit: Tron may not be all that different simply knowing that director Steven Lisberger had worked out its signature multiple-transparency look while animating commercials for local radio stations in the late ’70s, but the film is modified by his detailed explanations of the optical process, just as a magic trick becomes a different deal once you know how it works.
If the bonus disc clues us in to the kind of choices the filmmakers have had to make, it also invites us to question these decisions. During a recent viewing of The Conversation, I was struck with a very strong feeling that the dream sequence—where Harry Caul is calling out to a mysterious woman through the same stagy mist we’ve seen in every bad dream sequence—was no more necessary to the film than the stranded Playboy bunnies were to Apocalypse Now. Then again, one can never be too sure. Would Butch Cassidy have been stronger with the boring parts removed, or were those ambling Burt Bacharach sequences somehow central to its roughly hewn late-sixtiesness?
“What If” Worlds
In college I once watched a VHS of The Breakfast Club, which my roommate had taped from television some years earlier, and was both excited and mortified to discover whole scenes I’d never before encountered. Apparently, in order to get the movie to fill the required time-slot, the local TV station, who’d removed the pot-smoking scene for their squeamish Texan audience, asked Universal to re-insert some of the footage that had been omitted from the theatrical version. The result was horrendous—sloppy and confusing and totally out of sync with the rest of the film. And having seen it, I found it impossible to view or even think about the original the same way: the other Breakfast Club was still out there, even if it wasn’t “really.”
What’s interesting about discarded fragments and distorted made-for-TV clones is that they give us “what if” worlds into film history. Unlike real life, which offers no outtakes and alternates, cinematic omissions present fully actualized visions of almosts, maybes and could-have-beens. The trouble is that our engagement in a cinematic fiction is challenged and disrupted by our awareness that there exists more than one “reality” for a given scenario. By giving away too much, a film risks tipping its hand; what we forfeit is that crucial commitment, absent which there is no fiction to speak of in the first place: that of suspending disbelief.
One might object here to the idea that viewer options necessarily obstruct our engagement with a narrative. After all, doesn’t active participation bring us closer to the thing rather than further away? If we are permitted to “choose our own adventure,” so to speak, aren’t we empowered to experience it our own way, to customize a story such that it responds to our unique, individual desires, rather than abiding the same adventure as everyone else?
It’s not an absurd claim. Consider Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a tricksterish novel composed of multiple embedded narratives which the reader may choose to follow in any number of ways. Depending on the sequence of chapters she selects—options of which are listed in the table of contents—the book may yield a variety of outcomes. By my own reasoning, this experiment should produce an emotionally bankrupt experience, and yet many—myself included—find the novel deeply rewarding. How to account for this discrepancy?
Perhaps we might benefit from a closer look at what is meant by the term “participation.” It seems to me that there are two similar yet distinguishable phenomona being referred to: on the one side, there’s the explicit participation we find in games, wherein a scenario unfolds according to the player’s real-time choices by physically interacting with the cards or dice or joystick; on the other, there’s the implicit participation we find in fiction that characterizes a kind of psychological submission to the make-believe world.
This latter effort is contingent on a fundamental trust that what is happening in a fantasy space is internally consistent and continuous, that its characters and locales are fully, incontrovertibly enmeshed in that artificial other world, that its events—however surprising or unlikely—have to have occurred in the manner they did, lest we invest very little of ourselves and consequently receive very little in return. Part of what makes Hopscotch so interesting is that it manages to operate on both fronts simultaneously: the reader is offered a series of choices, yet each forking path enriches rather than diminishes the aggregate narrative.
It’s a rare feat. By contrast, recall Milosˇ Forman’s disastrous director’s cut of Amadeus. The elongated “special edition” not only fails on its own, but also manages to retroactively upset the original. How can I believe in Salieri’s pledge of chastity knowing there’s another Salieri out there willing to give it up just to stick it to Mozart? Or think of the many versions of Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, three of which were compiled on a DVD box set from Criterion in 2006. Which Arkadin am I to “believe”?
The Third Pill
I read somewhere about a guy who tried a peculiar experiment in visual perception. He built a pair of glasses that flipped everything he saw upside down, and for three days he wandered around, bumping into chairs, groping for doorknobs—never once taking the glasses off. Then on the fourth morning he awoke to discover that his glasses were nowhere to be found. He felt around for them on the nightstand, checked under the bed, wandered into the bathroom to look next to the sink when suddenly he saw in the mirror that they were on his head all along. In those three days, his visual brain had “learned” how to switch the image right side up again; when he took the glasses off, everything flipped back.
If you’ll forgive the irresistible analogy, it seems that we, too, have woken up in a world whose former topsy-turviness now looks entirely normal. What might have begun as a shocking experiment in postmodern disassembly—with Barthelme quizzing the reader on his book within the book itself, with Welles peeking out from behind his cinematic curtain like Oz, with John Cage dismantling the presumption that a composition requires a composer—has become so de rigueur that we scarcely take notice. Indeed, the work of art as a hermetic, autonomous entity capable of transcending the yap of pedestrian affairs has ceded to a hyperactive consideration of the conditions that produced it. For better or worse, postmodernity institutionalized that panoptic awareness, but at the expense of what had been modernism’s central conceit: the promise of “art for art’s sake.”
We find in the bonus disc a convenient metaphor for this transvaluation and the way it has trickled down to ordinary entertainment. In recent years, the allure of the peripheral has extended beyond the physical disc itself. YouTube offers a virtually endless wealth of media, most of it stripped of its original context as free-floating ephemera. One does not need to see Punch-Drunk Love to get a kick out of the fake outtakes of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “mattress man” commercials; the short ends of Lily Tomlin freaking out on the set of I [Heart] Huckabees are no less horrifying on their own.
Other disciplines have followed suit. Nowadays, best-selling novels yield not only movie adaptations but also ancillary titles, TV specials like Unlocking Da Vinci’s Code, audiobooks, video games, comic books, and other merchandise. Museums, too, which have for years furnished their exhibitions with wall captions, artists’ studies, and the occasional accompanying documentary, now almost universally provide audio tours with headsets so as to ensure viewers the proper mediation with which to evaluate the work.
Like the Talmud, the book of Rabbinical Judaism whose numerous tractates vastly exceed the breadth and scope of the Torah itself, more attention is now paid to blogs and tweets than to the news stories they’re ostensibly discussing; college students spend more time reading what Bakhtin wrote about Dostoyevsky than Dostoyevsky himself. There seems to be a kind of Nabokovian irony at play, wherein the annotations threaten to overwhelm the thing they’re annotating. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, critic Slavoj Žižec expounds on the precarious nature of cinematic artifice. “I want a third pill!” he bellows, concluding his take on The Matrix. Not one that shows us the truth, he explains, and not one that shows us the illusion, but one that shows us “the reality in the illusion.”
Of course, that reality comes from us: we make it real by animating it with the force of our imagination. In film, there are two projections at work—one from the picture and one from the mind. And if we are too spoiled by convenience to commit our share, we have made that spectacle, paradoxically, more inaccessible than ever.