The other day, a friend lamented that there was so little he wanted to see at a movie theater. I nodded and heard myself say, “All the more time to stay home with the seething TV.” Then I wondered in horror: How can a movie buff be thinking such things? Are we who love movies living in the best of times, or the worst?
Streaming…what does the word even mean? Does it evoke pretty, rural waterways, a place to dip your toes and to keep the Sancerre cold? Or is the stream a rushing torrent, like snowmelt tumbling off the Sierra? Or a sinister cascade, the blood that gushes out of the elevator in The Shining?
Is the stream our plaything, or are we carried along like corks, at risk of drowning? Once upon a time, film buffs longed to see pictures out of sight, but now over-the-top programming—more commonly called streaming video—is a Library of Alexandria catalog for virtually every film ever made. But wait, it’s too much. We can’t keep breathing.
The true experience of a live video stream is best exemplified by sports. Think about Game 5 of this year’s NBA Western Conference Semifinals. The Golden State Warriors let the Houston Rockets close a 20-point gap to 1. The Rockets were taking over. Then Kevin Durant sank a basket from the right, just a 2, loped up the court in two vast strides, hopped, and clutched at his right calf. He was out of the game, and Warriors fans reeled. At home, watching, a group of us groaned. Then Steph, Klay, Andre, and Draymond rallied, as if to say it might as well be them. We half guessed the NBA was changing.
For us, the audience, the game action and the emotion were virtually the same as being in the stadium.
In fact, the games are more intense on TV; the image feels brighter, more concentrated. The different angles create another story. You’re closer; the slo-mo replays are so instructive. It’s more like a movie than an untidy event. Life can seem better on screens. There’s an excitement with the TV that I haven’t felt since the 1970s at a movie theater.
Streaming also implies a vast expansion of choice. A few clicks away and a few hours earlier, in the Champions League soccer semifinals, Spurs had been down 0–2 to Ajax—in the Ajax stadium. Then they came back with three goals, and they were through to the final. They’ll meet Liverpool there, the Reds having taken on Barcelona and an 0–3 deficit and beaten them 4–3 on aggregate with a fourth goal from a sneaked corner kick that was the cheekiest, the wittiest, the most impulsive Charlie Parker–ish goal I’ve seen in years. As in, I don’t believe I saw that!
That’s how seeing matters. Like being alive.
The same week, on the Criterion Channel, I managed to see Pushover and Sawdust and Tinsel, both from 1953–54 but as fresh as peaches.
I used to think movies had to be in theaters. But I hardly think about going there now. The theater screen feels turned off somehow, while the home screen is alive, urgent, and more beautiful. It’s truly peaches, salmon, asparagus, caramel, and that Sancerre we were cooling. That’s my menu, yet it could cut away to a North Korean bomb test or the first shot of Britain’s royal baby Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. These glimpses, games, and movies hurry by like corks on a racing river, and for two or three hours at a time I can pretend I’m forgetting the ongoing nightmare of Himself against us, the endless commentary, the fate of the Constitution.
“Is American democracy on the brink?” asks CNN. No, we’re on the couch. We’re all watching television to drown out what’s happening to us. There’s madness in that, and even fear of drowning. But if you’re mad, you’re still alive in the era of Roku.
By the time you read this, the basketball playoffs will be over; Liverpool and Spurs will have settled the Cup. America will be a little more tattered or frenzied, flicking across our screen, streaming and in convulsions.
But Kim Novak in Pushover will be as cool and calming as key lime pie out of the refrigerator, even if the pie is laced with vodka and adrenaline.
I don’t mean to sell you on Pushover as a lost masterpiece, or even that good. It starts to collapse halfway through as its plot loses touch with plausibility. But for 40 minutes, it’s ravishing, in black and white, about a sour cop (Fred MacMurray) who is a pushover for Novak the moment he sees her. It was her first film, and you can feel the director, Richard Quine, and the cameraman, Lester White, saying to themselves, Can you believe this?
Streaming is more than just immediacy or escapism. It holds the promise of an endless archive, like in Borges’s “Library of Babel.”
You can watch noir classics every night on Criterion for $99 a year. Under Spotlight: Columbia Noir—movies from that studio with a fatalistic edge—there’s The Big Heat, My Name Is Julia Ross, Human Desire, and Drive a Crooked Road. But I don’t see Strangers When We Meet. That’s not noir, you say? Any film where Quine gazes at Novak and wants her and knows it won’t work does darken to noirish—even Bell, Book and Candle, the best she ever looked.
For 50 years, until about 1950, an empire and a church called movies prevailed. It wasn’t a fixed system: it went from silence to sound and from black and white to color. But, as cinephiles like to say now (few of them were alive then), it was an age of 2,000-seat theaters with screens as high as a house, where the lovely faces in stress or bliss were the best embodiment of dreaming that humans have ever encountered. A tear coming down Garbo’s face could be a climber free-soloing El Capitan. And that scale worked: the business was gangbusters, and the audience was profoundly shaped—it learned to smoke and kiss and to trust easy ways of picking right from wrong.
Movie theaters are still here, and sometimes the product is as good as we can hope for: to see Roma on a big screen in a packed theater, with that rapturous black-and-white spectacle of the seashore scene offering the old thrill. Through skillful theatrical screenings, Roma’s distributor aimed for Oscar contention. And it worked—for Netflix, a company whose main stream is our small screen.
Why do we not go to movie theaters as much as we used to? Well, the movies aren’t compelling enough. The big hits are fanciful follies, fascistic hero-worship, or pictures for kids and the hysterical preservation of childishness.
I still go to the theater sometimes, but it’s a depressing outing. There are so few people there, and they seem sad, as if they understand that the place is a desolate refuge. And the show, technically, is not very good. In many theaters, the standard of picture and sound is in decline. In my living room, with my LED screen, I get fuller sound and a brighter, more radiant picture where I can see whether Lionel Messi has shaved today, or just how brimmingly shy Kim Novak was in 1954.
At home, the show is often richer, lovelier. It makes me feel happy, that brightness, just like sugar, laughter, orgasm, or Sancerre. It has a kick, and even in a grand theater with a good picture, I don’t get the kick.
I loved 2017’s The Rider, but I felt as alone as its injured cowboy in South Dakota. Give me the Warriors and a crowd; give me Liverpool at Anfield; or give me Babylon Berlin going on for 16 episodes and 12 hours. Let me binge. Even Roma at the Castro in San Francisco made me feel I was in a museum, being asked to admire a masterpiece. I wanted to inhabit a hectic, desperate excitement that matched these times. A movie theater feels genteel now. My reason for loving Babylon Berlin, set in Weimar Germany in 1929, was that its headlong frenzy reminded me of now. It’s not just media that are streaming—the rush is the nature of everyday experience.
In fact, Babylon Berlin is on Netflix, and I thank the service for it. It’s a gateway into the headwaters of streaming, where there is a flood of shows that might be worth watching and that you’ve never heard of. Fleabag was a couple of years old before my daughter mentioned it casually as something I might like. Might like? Fleabag is amazing and bitterly funny, trying not to admit how tragic it is. And it meant discovering writer-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who may be so desperate and creative she won’t last long.
In my dreams, I imagine that after I’m gone, my great-grandchildren will turn to Fleabag on Criterion—and find liner notes by some old-timer saying that it’s like Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner made by a junkie romantic in rehab.
Yes, I have sometimes written liner notes for Criterion. It is part of that noble venture to present classics of world cinema with the background material you might value in a master class—as if humane, improving cinema could be ordered up like granola or social security.
Not so long ago, Criterion reckoned to sell DVDs. It took care to have the best restored print in HD picture quality. Its DVD of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up includes a 4K digital transfer of the movie; filmed essays on Antonioni; a documentary about the making of the film; a conversation with Vanessa Redgrave (its femme fatale); interviews with Antonioni, David Hemmings (who plays the photographer in the story), and Jane Birkin, who was allowed to flash her pubic hair; a scholarly essay; and the short story by Julio Cortázar that inspired the picture.
A few years ago, there was brave talk of FilmStruck, a digital platform where you could stream the Criterion catalog to your living room, along with the Turner Classic Movies library. This seemed like paradise: a way to dial up any movie ever made. It was too good to be true.
FilmStruck failed. Time Warner, then newly acquired by AT&T, had been the money behind it, and it shut the service down. Perhaps Criterion had to concede that not enough people wanted to earn a Kim Novak PhD. There was consternation among the faithful. The church of classic film had to recognize that it was small and vulnerable.
Yet Criterion rose again, free of the telephone company, as the Criterion Channel—rich in product, tastefully arranged, loaded with Pushover, Sawdust and Tinsel, and so many others. It’s a value far beyond that offered by your local theater at $15 a seat.
But the edge enjoyed by Netflix and Amazon was not the classics—nor were they worried about the gang of old movie studios and TV networks that sought to withhold their libraries and corner the content of binge-mania. The insurgents realized they could make originals.
And many of the people we esteem as auteurs, or just good moviemakers, are looking to streaming for their next career. How else are they to match The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or…? The essential American movies of the past 20 years? Great filmmakers have come to terms with beauty and excitement (and employment) living on an LED TV.
Not everyone likes that. The theatrical movie business feels terror that more theaters will close as streaming becomes our new world. When Netflix decided to distribute Roma (made by a consortium of small Mexican companies for about $15 million), it opted to premiere it with theatrical events before streaming to the home screen. That small exhibition qualified it for the Oscars. Roma won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. Green Book took Best Picture, but soon that oddity will be forgotten, while Roma will remain a landmark.
Festivals like Cannes draw the line at showing movies that won’t have a protected theatrical status before streaming. Steven Spielberg has argued that pictures should not be eligible for awards without that setup—the first time in his endlessly youthful career that he has looked elderly, defiant, and wrong.
Spielberg’s career is exemplary. Twelve years into it, he made the brilliant monster/chase epic Duel for television, and the powers in Hollywood felt it was so good it should be on the big screen. They were right in 1971. For five decades, people had flocked to the communal dark, strangers packed in rows, ready for the big picture, a second feature, a cartoon, and a newsreel—during the Second World War, it was the way to keep up, before television had its start.
That age has gone. Sometimes a movie theater is full, but more often it has a drab, forlorn air. The communal importance has faded away. The new cockpit is our living room. I’m sad to see Spielberg (who once juggled Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same brash year) not getting the point of the couch and the screen and the wild interaction of Liverpool, the Warriors, and Pushover.
You may believe that Netflix and Amazon are predators that will do whatever their business plan dictates. Perhaps the range of movies we can summon might wither. It could be all Marvel all the time—which won’t be marvelous.
Streaming is not a secure golden age. It’s an exhausting headlong exhilaration, on the edge of panic and despair. To hope that our couch is in control of the frenzy is to play with peril. We are riding a tidal wave—a wave that may carry us past Himself, past borders and color, past climate and terror. Are we having the last good time, desperate to avoid a wipeout?
Are we crazy or having fun? I look at Kevin Durant and Kim Novak. They stare back at me like gods who cannot hear.
David Thomson is the author of more than 20 books, most recently Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. He wrote about driving on the highways of the West in Alta, Issue 7.