This article was originally written for the Chicago Tribune as one of a periodic series of guest columns by experts from local arts organizations.
Film for me is the most important art form of the last 116-plus years. Movies have the power to change lives. In my 36 years at Facets, I’ve seen films help kids who have trouble in school connect to learning. I’ve watched as films help adults cross seemingly unbridgeable divides of understanding and compassion.
That’s why the recent public upheaval about Netflix splitting its membership tiers between online streaming and DVD delivery seemed so misplaced. For me, to see a truly great film always took effort. Sometimes I traveled far or sat on the floor of basements watching rickety 16 mm or beat-up VHS copies. But it was the film that mattered, not today’s convenience of having it delivered faster than a pizza, with the click of a button.
Many of the complaints touch on the relatively small streaming selection, which excludes most recent Hollywood films. But Hollywood is a business: When films have today’s astronomical budgets, the studios are not going to give away these rights cheaply.
The dirty secret about streaming is that streaming is much more like television: Films are licensed for a finite period of time. A DVD or VHS or 16 mm copy, once purchased, is around for as long as the copy holds out. This makes a DVD the best collectible medium and the movie platform for micro-targeting specialized or niche audiences.
For me, the really great films often come out of the margins — seemingly from nowhere. Godard’s Breathless, today or 40 years ago, is still an exciting miracle made on a shoestring.
When Facets first showed and then released the The Decalogue — 10 films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski — the film had been blocked from anyone seeing it for almost a decade. Today, virtually all of the really memorable films I’ve seen in the last decade have come from small places: small distributors; small countries; most often, small budgets. Romanian and Iranian cinema — to name just two — are the most exciting to watch, with filmmakers making features for less than the cost of a 30-second commercial made in the U.S. A film such as the micro-budget 12:08 East of Bucharest says more about politics, history, memory and life under Nicolae Ceausescu than 2,000 hours of political TV analysis.
It’s these films and filmmakers that we, as audiences, have to fight for. They need a public space. When Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and other video rental chains wiped out the mom and pop video store, this was hardly an advance for film culture. Similarly, I doubt any large commercial enterprise with a goal of serving the millions has the nurturing of these little films at its heart. The few remaining independent video stores, like independent bookstores or music stores, or cafes or bakeries or local farmers markets, are the last line of defense for individuals who care about spending their lives with meaning.
The mass market is not for everyone. Perhaps the limited selection in a supermarket DVD vending machine is enough for you. But there may come a time when you need to see an obscure Australian documentary, or when stumbling on a film by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos makes you see the world in a new way. Where will you find these films in a hit-driven universe? At Facets we always acquired films because they were important to see — even if that film was rented only once every two years.
Why should it matter? It’s the voices of dissent that keep us alive. It’s the artist or filmmaker who sees the world in a slightly skewed way that gives us new perspective. It’s the filmmaker who fights censorship or lack of money to tell a story that hasn’t been told who needs to be cherished. Most of all, we, the audience, owe seeing these films to ourselves.
–Milos Stehlik, Executive Director of Facets