Video: Streaming Video’s Emerging Bounty (NYT)

/// Video: Streaming Video’s Emerging Bounty (NYT)

August 22, 2011  |  Blog

AT this point in its evolution streaming video can still feel like your neighborhood VHS rental shop, circa 1985.

The shelves of the two leading services, Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus, seem to be full of films you’ve never heard of, arranged in no particular order. The latest hits haven’t arrived yet, and there’s no one around to help you out except for the digital equivalent of the surly, underpaid clerk: those “recommended for you” algorithms that pretend to know your taste but come up with the oddest suggestions imaginable. Why does Netflix keep insisting that I need to see “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew”? Is it trying to tell me something?

But where there is chaos, there is also opportunity. Both Netflix and Hulu are full of hidden gems, but often it’s not easy to dig them out. Somewhere on Netflix, between Ashley Tisdale in “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure” and Christopher Walken and Jennifer Beals in “The Prophecy II,” there’s a very good copy of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1948 film noir “Ruthless” in its full 105-minute version, rather than the 88-minute public domain cut that’s been the only edition available for years. To find it, though, you have to know it’s there.

One useful service is instantwatcher.com, an independent Web site that monitors the Netflix streaming library (and has a beta site up for Hulu, at instantwatcher.com/hulu, that for the moment only covers Hulu’s free, commercially supported programming). Instantwatcher keeps track of the new releases on Netflix, as well as those about to expire, and offers several searchable sub-indexes: pages devoted to various genres, languages and years of release; lists of films recommended by Rotten Tomatoes and the critics of The New York Times (including links back to The Times’s reviews).

Streaming video will probably never live up to the utopian dream of many cinephiles: the notion that every movie ever made will suddenly be available with the click of a mouse. Neither Netflix nor Hulu is particularly friendly toward older films. Instantwatcher reports only 26 Netflix streaming titles for the banner year 1939, more than half of them B westerns (but also “One Third of a Nation,” a fascinating and quite rare offshoot of the Federal Theater Project’s Living Newspaper Unit). The number of offerings doesn’t achieve triple digits until 1984 (with 108 titles, many of them television episodes) and builds to a peak with 1,007 titles available for 2009 (a bonanza for fans of reality shows).

But Netflix shows some surprising strengths, particularly with those studios — Paramount, Universal, MGM/UA and Fox — that have most drastically cut back on their library releases to DVD. In most cases these are not impeccably restored, newly mastered editions. Too many of the wide-screen films of the ’50s and ’60s are presented in unwatchable, pan-and-scan prints, though there are some surprising exceptions, like Richard Sale’s 1955 “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes,” which even turns up in high-definition.

But perfection is not always a virtue, and streaming, with its forgivingly low resolution, provides a perfectly acceptable showcase for movies that do not exist in the flawless prints now considered essential for DVD, and particularly Blu-ray, release. There are many movies of interest without reputations or stars big enough to justify the expense of a full-scale digital restoration, but I cling to the conviction that it’s better for films to be seen with dust spots or dubious color than not seen at all. Streaming does, or should, open a niche for films that otherwise wouldn’t be economically viable.

Netflix, for example, makes it possible to follow the late career of Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount’s most gifted contract directors, with five otherwise unseeable films including the noirish melodrama “No Man of Her Own,” starring Barbara Stanwyck. Here too are nine films from the erratic but interesting Lewis R. Foster, three starring Ronald Reagan in his slipping-down days as a movie star: “Cavalry Charge” (a k a “The Last Outpost”),“Hong Kong” and “Tropic Zone”.

It’s particularly gratifying to see a handful of titles emerging from Republic Pictures, a very rich library that Viacom, its current owner, has allowed to fall into disuse. Famous for its Gene Autry and Roy Rogers westerns of the ’30s and ’40s, Republic also produced a wide range of crime films, musicals and melodramas that have been virtually invisible for decades. Just by returning a fraction of this material to the public eye Netflix would be doing a valuable service to critics and historians, as well as fans.

Hulu’s main focus remains episodic television, a rich field in itself. Only on Hulu Plus can you see the full three-season run of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” including the one episode personally directed by Hitchcock (“I Saw the Whole Thing”) and subliminal classics like “An Unlocked Window,” directed by Joseph M. Newman from a script by James Bridges.

On the movie side Hulu Plus offers a few hundred titles, mostly recent releases from independent distributors. But the great strength of the service is its large and rapidly increasing selection of films from the Criterion Collection, including many titles the company has not yet released in any format.

There’s a huge infusion of films from Japan, including masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi (“The Life of Oharu,” “Utamaro and His Five Women,” “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, “ “Princess Yang Kwei-fei” and “The 47 Ronin”) and Mikio Naruse (“Wife,” “Mother,” “Ginza Cosmetics,” “Flowing”), as well as genre films from Hideo Gosha (“Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron”), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Cure”), Kenji Misumi (the “Hanzo the Razor” trilogy) and Seijun Suzuki (“Everything Goes Wrong”).

The otherwise unavailable French titles include classics like Marcel Carné’s “Hotel du Nord” and Jacques Feyder’s “Carnival in Flanders” and Robert Bresson’s “Man Escaped,” and rediscoveries like Jean Grémillon’s “Remorques” and Raymond Bernard’s “Anne-Marie.” From Italy, Criterion has supplemented the recent Eclipse release of four films by Raffaello Matarazzo with two more titles, “He Who Is Without Sin” and “Torna!,” by that master of Italian melodrama; Mario Monicelli’s “Organizer” (1963), with Marcello Mastroianni as a trade unionist in 19th-century Turin, is a historical drama on a scale with Visconti’s “Leopard” but seasoned with Monicelli’s wit.

Some of these new titles seem to be passing through streaming on their way to a full-scale DVD release (and, in the case of the Mizoguchi films, Blu-ray seems almost a moral obligation). Others are too obscure (Mikhail Romm’s 1962 Soviet drama “Nine Days One Year”) or in too rough condition (Hanns Schawz’s 1937 “Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel”) to make a disc release seem practical.

But all the promise of streaming video as a new platform lies right there: in revalorizing films that don’t fit the dominant business model. There’s no shortage of movies in this world; what we need are new ways to see them.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

THE BEAVER Jodie Foster’s philosophical drama concerns a depressed toy company executive (Mel Gibson) who allows a hand puppet — the beaver — to take charge of his life. With Cherry Jones, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. “Nasty, brutish and as cuddly as a crusty old sock fished out of a sewer, the beaver or the beav, as I like to think of him, owns the film,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times in May. (Summit Entertainment, Blu-ray $30.49, DVD $26.99, PG-13)

WIN WIN Paul Giamatti is an unhappy lawyer and part-time wrestling coach who discovers a contender of promise (Alex Shaffer), only to find that the boy is a grandson of an old man (Burt Young) whose trust he once betrayed. Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) directed and helped write the screenplay; with Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor. “It is in no way challenging or provocative, but it is never dull or obvious.,” A. O. Scott wrote in The Times in March. “It’s a good movie about trying to be good.” (Fox Searchlight, Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.98, R)

POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLDMorgan Spurlock presents his latest stunt documentary: a film about product placements in movies, financed entirely by product placements. The interviewees include Ralph Nader, J. J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino. “Mr. Spurlock has the gift of gab along with an undeniable star quality,” Stephen Holden wrote in The Times in April. (Sony Classics, Blu-ray $35.99, DVD $30.99, PG-13)

THE CONSPIRATOR Robert Redford’s film tells the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of the boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) planned the Lincoln assassination and the only woman charged in the conspiracy to kill the president. With James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood and Justin Long. “The few glimpses we catch of the Ford’s Theater production of ‘Our American Cousin’ are unfortunately the liveliest and most convincing moments in this well-meaning, misbegotten movie,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in April. (Lionsgate, Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.95, PG-13)

ROAD TO NOWHERE A director (Tygh Runyan) shooting a true-crime film finds that his leading actress (Shannyn Sossamon) may have a personal connection to the events he is portraying. The first feature film in 21 years for the master of the American road movie, Monte Hellman (“Two Lane Blacktop”). “What’s being explored isn’t the crime itself but the relationship of a filmmaker to a project in which he gets lost,” Mr. Holden wrote in The Times in June. (Monterey Video, Blu-ray $34.95, DVD $26.95, R)

By Dave Kehr



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