Wednesday, January 11, 2017

FilmStruck


Although FilmStruck has existed since 2006, I only discovered it last fall when I happened upon an online mention and decided to explore the website. A streaming service like Netflix, FilmStruck is owned by Turner Classic Movies and features classic and more obscure art house and independent films from Hollywood and across the globe. A significant portion of its movies are part of the acclaimed Criterion Collection, which struck an exclusive deal with TCM and FilmStruck this past year to take over Criterion's US streaming from Hulu. As a result, FilmStruck'scornucopia includes feature, short and documentary films by major 20th century international filmmakers ranging from Michelangelo Antonioni, Catherine BreillatRainer Werner Fassbinder, and Costa-Gavras to Nagisa Oshima, Yasujiro OzuPeter Weir and Wim Wenders. Unlike Netflix, though, there is no DVD option, and no original series, as far as I can tell. (MUBI is another cinephile service, like FilmStruck, that I've downloaded the Apple TV app for, but haven't experimented with it yet. Green Cine, which I belonged to years ago, was a DVD subscription service, and did not have a streaming component.)

One of the curated mini-festivals,
films based in the City of Love, Paris
I've only been using the service for a few weeks, but I've been impressed by the movie selection and additional features available so far. The site organizes the films by general FilmStruck and Criterion Collection offerings, and by genre (with the total tally of films in each), newest arrivals, and most popular viewer choices, while also offering curated micro-festivals organized theme, concept, filmmaker or cinematographer, aesthetic style, and more. If you didn't know anything about Dusan Makavejev's art, or perhaps have only seen a few Alain Resnais or Chantal Akerman films, FilmStruck provides a quick tutorial. As with Criterion DVDs, additional features, such as trailers, interviews with filmmakers, clips on film production, and so on, also are sometimes available. I do wish, however, that more sub-Saharan African and Latin American films, more films by women and more LGBTQ-themed films were available on the site. The search tool, though it works fine, doesn't allow searching by country or region, so it has often been through the "related titles" list of suggested films that I've been able to find and bookmark films I want to see. (I realized that another option for Criterion Collection films was to go directly to Criterion's site, identify as many of the films I wanted to see there, and then add them to my watchlist if they were on FilmStruck.)

Now playing
What's also not clear is whether and when most of the films expire. The curated mini-festivals do vanish, but do all the films in them remain online in perpetuity or for some fixed period (one month? three? six?) that only the site knows about? Clearly not all the Criterion Collection films are on the site, which I attribute to licensing and copyright issues, but is there a key or guide somewhere to let a viewer know which ones are on the site and how long they'll stay up. (This would be very helpful for planning the order in which to watch them.) I do know that a number of sites list which Netflix films are arriving or disappearing--didn't Netflix used to post this info on their site?--but I haven't found a similar calendar for FilmStruck. I also like the simple, easy-to-navigate interface. The site is more streamlined than Netflix, especially after the latter's "upgrade." Please keep the design intuitive and user-friendly, FilmStruck! Also, based on my recent experience, customer service has been sterling. When I was having trouble with my registration, I used the contact form, and promptly and repeatedly heard from FilmStruck to ensure that everything was operating smoothly.

Genres (and available films
in each category)
In terms of the films I've watched so far, they have been a mix of films I've always wanted to see, some I've seen before, and some I've just stumbled upon. In the first category, Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1973 masterpiece Touki Bouki has been a revelation. A vibrant narrative about a young straight couple's desire to emigrate to France for better opportunities, Touki Bouki succeeds in fusing some of the formal experimentation of the French New Wave with the poetic realism and social commentary of 1970s sub-Saharan African cinema. In its imaginative play with editing, and its frank and comical depiction of queer hustling, alone, it it feels more daring than the vast majority of what is being produced in either Hollywood or Nollywood these days. I would say the same about the aesthetic daring and the political component, though with a rather different content and focus, about Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), which I also had never seen until a week ago.

A few films on my watchlist queue

In the second category, I watched David Cronenberg's still disturbing Scanners (1981), which holds up in terms of its visionary and horror qualities decades later. I know Cronenberg has shifted away from horror and science fiction, which in his case usually had a conspiratorial component, but I hope that he returns, even if just for one more time, to the genre in which he made his name. In terms of sheer awfulness, though, his 1979 film The Brood, which I hadn't seen before, wins the award. There is a scene that truly embodies the term "horrifying," and it was bad enough when the film first appeared that it was edited out in the US. Thankfully FilmStruck is screening the complete version, but again, as graphic as many Hollywood films now are, nothing comes close to Cronenberg's presentation of motherly love as literal monstrousness at the moment of trans-human post-parturition.

One of the films I'd never heard of but decided to watch that also fits the "horror" category, with a twist, is Czech director Jaromil Jires's 1970 film Valerie's Week of Wonders. Hybrid in genre, surreal in form and style, the movie explores a teenage girl's sexual awakening, if lived in a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Let's just say that films of this sort, whether under the horror or fantasy genres, or some other, simply don't get made any more. Another was Nils Gaup's Pathfinder (1987), a historical thriller and Academy Award nominee about a peaceful group of indigenous Samí residents of what is now Finnland, circa 1000 AD, whose tranquil existence undergoes a shock when an all-male troop of Chudes, ancestors to Russians, arrives, with brutal consequences. A teenage hero steps in, and its his canniness, rather than physical prowess, that proves decisive. A third was Avie Luthra's 2012 film Lucky, about a young rural Black South African boy who loses his mother to AIDS, moves to the city to live with an uncle who despises him and has run through his school money, craves and will do anything for an education, and bonds with an older, racist South Asian woman. This film was painful to sit through at times, but in the end moved me to tears.

Other discoveries: films I'd never heard of or had been intending to watch by Youssef Chahine, Victor Erice, John Frankenheimer, Aki Kaurismäki, Martin Ritt, Ken Russell, Carlos Saura, Jacques Tati; and by directors I'd never heard of, including Luis García Berlanga, Juan Carlos Cremata, Ahmed El Maanouni, Metin Erksan, Pierre Etaix, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Mikio Naruse, Edgar Morin, Kundan Shah,, and many others. Next up, I think, Pedro Costa's widely acclaimed docu-fictional trilogy about Fontainhas, in Lisbon, Portugal: Ossos (1987), In Vanda's Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), and as many of the Chantal Akerman movies as I can get through before classes start next week.

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