The Film World's Library of Alexandria
Sadly, we are in the waning hours of FilmStruck. The novel streaming service, launched by Turner Classic Movies in 2016 and catering to cinephiles with an affinity for classic, world and independent cinema, is shutting down today.
With it goes a true treasure - though admittedly one not properly appreciated in a world where new #content pumped out through a paralyzing firehose of choices seems to carry more weight than what has stood the test of time. (Sorry, folks, for all the good Netflix does for film, it doesn’t actually care about film at its core. If it could keep your attention best with a flaming log, that’s what we would get. Oh … wait …)
If you can’t already tell from my appreciation for the erstwhile FilmStruck, I am a student and lover of history, and the historical touchpoint I keep gravitating toward is the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.
As with many events from antiquity, the historical record is questionable. Nevertheless, the story goes that the Library was the pre-eminent clearinghouse for knowledge in the ancient world (or at least the ancient Mediterranean world) until a fire set by Julius Caesar during the Roman Civil War in 48 BCE did unintentional and untold damage to the collection at the Library. It never fully recovered, and as a consequence we’ll never really know what was lost in the conflagration.
No matter how accurate that tale is, it’s all I keep thinking about as FilmStruck shutters its digital doors.
Sure, there are no actual film canisters going up in flames. We are in a much better position to preserve rare and old films than the ancient Egyptians were scrolls of papyrus. If you’re willing to be resourceful and / or patient, you’ll be able to find much of what was accessible on FilmStruck. There is Kanopy. And the Criterion Collection, which is a treasure in its own right and was integral to making FilmStruck so wonderful, is launching its own streaming service. There are even rumors that WarnerMedia, which made the decision to kill the service as part of corporate restructuring, will bring its collection of films back in some fashion as part of a new streaming service.
But, especially when it comes to passing down film from generation to generation, it strikes me that a great deal is lost when a hub like FilmStruck goes away. It’s not that any single piece of content accessible via FilmStruck can’t be found, it’s that they are all now scattered like playing cards after a game of 52-card pickup.
Once I found out FilmStruck was being shut down, I stopped worrying about keeping up with my recently launched FilmStruck Chronicles series for this website (which will continue, by the way), and focused on enjoying the service it while it lasted.
And so, I finally watched Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal French New Wave film Breathless. Then I took in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece The Hidden Fortress - a story that George Lucas cribbed heavily from in crafting the original Star Wars. Then I got to see the real Boris Karloff and get creeped out by him in a new way in The Body Snatcher. And finally, I rewatched The Shop Around the Corner, a charming Christmas-set romance starring Jimmy Stewart that was regrettably repackaged as You’ve Got Mail. All of this was accessible via a lovingly curated, albeit occasionally clunky, interface.
It was all right there. And in a scant few hours, it won’t be any longer. That is a massive loss. As with the Great Library, some of what is being lost is truly irretrievable.