Filmgoing in the Internet Age: A Seven-Day MUBI Film Festival

//Philip Conklin

The way we watch movies is changing. As a devoted film fan, I subscribe to several online streaming services, check out movies from my library, rent (and sometimes buy) movies from iTunes, see a few movies a month in theaters (at either a multiplex, a local art house theater, or a film theater at the Detroit Institute of Arts), and occasionally buy DVDs from various sources.

I’m sure others could add more methods to this list, including illegal internet downloads, and watching movies on television. Undoubtedly, this variety in viewing methods provides a greater access to films than ever before, access that is ever-increasing, even if the way we watch those films (and, in fact, the term “film” no longer holds in most cases) is different. Among all these, I would hypothesize that the most popular way to watch movies now is online streaming services, notably Netflix and Hulu.

 @ 2014   Justin Kingsley Bean  ,  "Dark Interstices"

@ 2014 Justin Kingsley Bean, "Dark Interstices"

MUBI, a lesser known streaming website, stands out as by far the most interesting and important among these. MUBI is different from other streaming sites; they describe themselves as a “curated online cinema,” and, unlike Netflix and Hulu, which provide unlimited access to a catalog of films, MUBI presents one film per day, which is then available to watch for 30 days. In this way, it’s almost like a continuous online film festival. And though your choice of films is limited to what they’re presenting at the time, MUBI is also a database of information about films, so that you can read about, rate, review and discuss films that they’re not currently showing. MUBI also publishes a digital magazine called Notebook that contains criticism, interviews, and film news.

As an online cinema in the fullest sense of the term, MUBI occupies a unique and essential place in current film culture. In light of all this, I thought it would be valuable to participate in my own personal one-week MUBI film festival, wherein I would watch MUBI’s film of the day every day for seven days, and see what came to light about the state of filmgoing. The following are my results.

Monday, May 5

The Sheik and I
USA, 2012 | Directed by Caveh Zahedi

MUBI synopsis: “Commissioned by a Middle Eastern Biennial to make a film on the theme of ‘art as a subversive act,’ independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (I am a Sex Addict) goes overboard…”

What’s most interesting about this movie, a fusion of documentary and fiction, is the meta-filmic process of the process of the making of this film. Zahedi imagines what will happen next in the film he’s making — “What if…” — and then it happens. Can we use this group of kids in the movie?, he wonders, and in the next shot they’re performing a choreographed dance. The whole thing is imbued with freshness, with an immediacy to the act of creation.

As they bump up against censorship, Zahedi and his crew seem to imagine themselves as arbiters of free speech, as noble crusaders pushing the boundaries of a stifled society. But they do little to explore what it’s like to live in a society of utter state domination, in which the citizens’ participation in their own domination constitutes its strongest element. In short, I think Zahedi misses the bigger issue here.

Tuesday, May 6

Strike
Russia, 1925 | Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

MUBI synopsis: “In his first film, Sergei Eisenstein employs dynamic editing and experimental camerawork to dramatize the saga of a bitterly-fought factory strike in 1903.”

Everything that can be said about this silent classic has surely already been said 10 times over. I’ll say that 90 years later, Eisenstein’s film still holds up as both an artistic and social statement, even if some aspects (such as the cartoonish depiction of capitalists) feel out of date. I was surprised by how funny this film was, part of the reason I enjoyed this more than Eisenstein’s more famous Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s also an unrelentingly brutal chronicle of labor struggle in prerevolutionary Russia. This is essential viewing for film lovers.

Wednesday, May 7

Tatsumi
Japan, 2011 | Directed by Eric Khoo

MUBI synopsis:Tatsumi celebrates the life of Japanese comic artist, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. As he becomes successful, he redefines the manga landscape with an alternative genre for adults—and his work plunges into the darker aspects of life.”

Another film mixing fiction and documentary, this time animated. A biography of the artist is interspersed with animated versions of some of his famous manga. Reading comments on MUBI, it seems that, inevitably, fans of Tatsumi’s work were disappointed by the translation of the artist’s work to film. Without any context, I found the animation to be vivid and imaginative; it’s spare and relatively inelaborate, but extremely evocative. However, this film probably functions better as an introduction to the man’s work for uninitiated audience members than an appreciation for those who are already fans.

Thursday, May 8

Where The Boys Are
France, 2010 | Directed by Bertrand Bonello

MUBI synopsis: “In an apartment, four young girls daydream about a hypothetical boy while, in front of their building, the construction of a mosque comes to an end…”

I didn’t think much of this short. Mostly it just felt like a middle-aged man’s depiction of adolescent female desire. In what other context would it make sense for teenage girls to draw mustaches on themselves and make out with each other? The whole thing is pretty pretentious and silly, the combination of the two only serving to accentuate them both.

And then there’s the mosque; love and religion, the two most powerful romantic ideals in society, juxtaposed. “The translation kind of ruins the magic for me,” a girl comments, after her friend translates an English love song to French. This correlates to the construction of the mosque — religious iconography loses much of its impact, after all, when you see it being constructed, tile by tile, by a man in overalls. There’s a connection to be made there, about the creation, the artifice, of a mythic ideal (perhaps even the eye-liner mustaches fit in here), but the film didn’t affect me enough to think it all the way through.

Friday, May 9

Korczak
Poland, 1990 | Directed by Andrzej Wajda

MUBI synopsis: “The story of Polish pedagogue Janusz Korczak and his dedication to protecting Jewish orphans during the war.”

This is a stark and moving war film that provides a nice alternative to the Hollywood WWII film. Violence and death are not glamorized here, but treated with the fear and gloom with which the victims of the war themselves surely faced the horrific events. And though sentimental at times (how could you not be, in a film about a man protecting 200 orphans during a war), the film is bereft of any grand moral pronouncements about war.

Saturday, May 10

The Mill and the Cross
Poland, 2011 | Directed by Lech Majewski

MUBI synopsis: “An epic 1564 painting literally springs to life in a series of vignettes that span ages. An international co-production starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, and Michael York.”

This is an amazing movie. Though I’m unaware of an existing precedent, this seems to me to be the epitome of a filmed painting, in this case Brueghel’s The Procession to Calvary. We start with a live-action re-enactment of the painting, consisting of a long tracking shot that methodically traces a not-quite-real landscape, and then embark on a series of scenes that contextualize and lead up to that event.

The film’s images are so striking and composed that each frame could exist as a painting itself. And its conception of narrative is profound and wholly unique. It’s not linear, but spatial, like the breadth and depth of the painting itself. Characters who would never meet and events that took place years apart coexist because they’re part of the physical and emotional tableau of the piece. This is surely the best film of the festival.

Sunday, May 11

Railroaded!
USA, 1947 | Directed by Anthony Mann

MUBI synopsis: “A young deliveryman is framed for a robbery he didn’t commit—and for the subsequent murder of a cop.”

This caustic noir from one of the genre’s greatest practitioners is a great conclusion to the festival. This is certainly not Mann’s best film, but it’s as taut and explosive as a .38 pistol, which is just what you want from a movie like this.

Mann’s lighting and mise en scéne are brilliant and eerie. He’s a master of this type of film, an exploration of the murky, shadowy underbelly of civilized society. This is a tense, brisk little picture that I can’t imagine being any longer or shorter. It’s a perfectly contained capsule of film noir.

****************

What have we ended up with? Does a one-week MUBI film festival reveal anything about movies, or is it just a group of seven unrelated films?

I would say that the week provided a pretty precise microcosm of international cinephilia’s filmgoing culture. First of all, international: the week featured films from five different countries, and none of the foreign films are ones that have been co-opted by Hollywood and the American movie marketplace (no “Best Foreign Film” Oscar nominations or Sony Pictures Classics distribution deals here), meaning that they will remain largely inaccessible to domestic audiences, except in places like MUBI.

Second, I use the word cinephilia because there’s an unmistakable mark of elitism over all this, as evidenced by the previous sentence. “Art film” — “indie” — “weird” — call them what you will, though I don’t think you can categorize them under the same label, these are films that, barring special circumstances (my girlfriend might be forced to watch one of them, for instance), will only be seen by people who are passionate film fans. We have an independent and unconventional documentary feature; a 90-year-old classic of silent cinema; an animated documentary from Japan by way of Singapore; an esoteric French short; a 25-year-old Polish art film; a current Polish art film, this one a filmed painting; and a classic Hollywood film noir. This is the fare of the cinephile.

And it’s clear that this is MUBI’s intended audience. For each film currently showing, below the synopsis, MUBI offers “Our Take,” a few sentences that explains a little more about the film and why they’re showing it. These descriptions are full of qualifications that take for granted the broad movie knowledge of the assumed reader. For example in their “Take” on Where the Boys Are, they write, “With the festival event of the year approaching, we’re getting into a Cannes state of mind.” This presupposes a knowledge of the Cannes Film Festival, and an acceptance that it is the “festival event of the year,” a pretty safe assertion among this crowd, but a fact that could surely be hotly contested by other groups (in fact, a discussion rages in a forum on MUBI on this topic); not to mention that even being able to distinguish between the importance of various international film festivals is a privilege available to a fairly small group of people.

Thirdly, filmgoing culture. I use this term as opposed to film culture because MUBI offers a selection of films that committed filmgoers want to see, not necessarily a representation of the films that are currently being made, even if many of the films they show were produced in the past several years. Also, where MUBI, I think, has significant implications for the way we watch films, it doesn’t as yet affect what films are made or how they’re made (though it’s tempting to imagine MUBI eventually becoming a distributor, not just presenter, of great films).

And finally, culture. I use culture in the full sense of the word, connoting cultural products, the appreciation of those products, and also the features that characterize a specific group of people. MUBI is, above all, and perhaps more than any other online platform, dedicated to cultivating this group and their appreciation of these films.

To begin to understand how they do this, and whether they’re successful, we must first consider how an online cinema changes the nature of film as a traditionally communal experience. This being online, presumably most users watch the films on their computer or television, at home, and by themselves or with one or two other people. This is much different from watching a film in a movie theater full of strangers, and has consequences for the experience of viewing films both in terms of one’s perception of the film and the social element of watching films.

 © 2014  Katrina Santos ,  "Avocado Study"

© 2014 Katrina Santos, "Avocado Study"

The primary implication of streaming a film at home on your computer is to make watching a movie a less immersive experience. A computer screen is, clearly, much smaller than a cinema screen. And most living rooms are not equipped with a state-of-the-art surround sound system. Moreover, most homes could never match the isolation, aural and visual, of a movie theater; depending on your location, it’s almost impossible to shut out all light and noise from the outside. I, for example, live in a city on a fairly busy street, so even in the middle of the night streetlights and car sounds pollute my movie watching experience. The physical surface of the computer screen also differs from the cinema screen. Even the highest resolution, most HD movie on your computer will never be as textured or tactile as a real celluloid film reel projected on a giant screen in a movie theater. (Of course, most movie theaters no longer project film, but digital reproductions of film — digital reproductions being much easier and cheaper to move around — so watching a movie on your computer is much closer to watching a movie in a theater than it used to be.) One of the biggest issues presented by a computer is that its screen reflects light back to you, so that, unless you’re in total darkness — a possibility already ruled out by the conditions under which films are watched on a computer — your image and the image of whatever is behind you are reflected over whatever you’re watching. There are ways to mitigate this effect; most obviously, it’s best to watch films at night, or at least to reduce light sources as much as possible. If your schedule forces you to do most of your movie watching during the day, more makeshift methods, such as wearing dark clothes, may have to be adopted. I’m speaking from experience here.

Another implication of streaming a film on your computer at home is to put the viewer in control of the film he or she is watching. In other words, you can pause the film at any time and for any reason, and you can rewind the film or skip ahead. This also makes the experience less immersive, since, because the movie is under your control, you can at any time choose to disrupt your experience however you wish. Of course, this degree of control has been available since the invention of home movie viewing formats. However, watching a film on the Internet has further decreased the degree of immersion; not only are you able to stop the film whenever you wish, but since you are connected to the internet, all information about the film you’re watching is available to you at any moment. This, first of all, provides more reasons to interrupt the film. But it also increases the symbolic distance between you and the film you’re watching. Your experience is no longer purely filmic — you have one foot in the reality of the film, and one in actual reality. If, for example, you see an actor whom you vaguely recognize, you can pause the film, look it up on imdb, find the actor and go to his or her imdb page, and look at their filmography to see why you recognize them. This happened for me while watching Korczak; I recognized an actor with a small role in the film, so I paused it and looked him up to figure out that I’d also seen him in Krystoff Kieslowski’s White (1994). This in no way enhanced my experience of the film. Indeed, diversions like these, which have only become possible with the Internet, separate you from the film you’re watching, both by distracting you from it and by superimposing an added layer of reality — the reality of actors’ names, filming locations, production budgets, etc. — over the film itself, thereby undoing the work of the filmmaker and, in essence, disentangling yourself from the world of the film.

So we see that watching films on an online streaming service like MUBI is largely solitary, individualistic, and un-immersive. However, I think what makes MUBI important for film fans is the extent to which they resist this trend and strive towards a collective experience of film in the Internet age.

On each film’s page on MUBI, after a picture and description of the film, there is a selection of the most recent user ratings and reviews of the film. Other users can then like or comment on these reviews. This is about as accurate a replica of the movie theater experience as is possible online. In the absence of a group of strangers with which to watch a film, there is a group of strangers whose reaction to the film you can immediately see and interact with. In some ways this is even preferable to the traditional movie theater crowd because this group of strangers is more extensive and international than any normal film audience, meaning that the kind and number of people with whom you can discuss the films is greatly increased. Not to mention that you would be unlikely to discuss the film you just watched with the stranger sitting next to you in the movie theater. And since MUBI programs a specific group of films at the same time, a sense of community develops simply around the fact that all of MUBI’s users are watching the same films at the same time, which is not the case with any other streaming service.

The prominence of the user reviews on the film pages on MUBI serves as a proclamation of their conception of the social aspect of filmgoing. Because cinema developed as a public, populist, and collective art form (both in the production and consumption of films) it is impossible to envision cinema apart from its communal aspect. MUBI deftly preserves this spirit throughout the site; you cannot look at a film without experiencing some of what others experienced watching this film. Taking this into account, MUBI is squarely anti-solitary and socially immersive.

MUBI also features an extensive forum where users discuss everything from the latest Criterion Collection releases to Star Wars sequels to the films of Hou Hsaio-Hsien. Certainly, this forum does a lot to strengthen the sense of community on MUBI, and to foster interesting and critical discussions about film. However, I’ve also noticed a more cynical strain in the comments on the film pages and in forum discussions. In the Internet age, with all information available to you immediately and at all times, and more movies available to watch than ever, people are armed with more knowledge than they’ve ever been. But rather than move them to a greater appreciation of the film, it has allowed them to more easily dismiss things as derivative, not as good as something else, or just plain over-valued.  It’s a battle for who knows the most, as if everyone is looking for a reason to dislike the film, or, more accurately, looking for the detail that everyone else has missed in order that they may reveal why the film isn’t as great as it's made out to be. While this, in some variation, is true of every website on the Internet, it’s impossible to ignore the degree to which it flavors the conversations on MUBI.

Finally, there’s Notebook, the online film magazine published by MUBI. Their mission is “to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film.” What’s interesting to me about this description is how it implicitly places itself firmly in the Internet landscape, while also offering an escape from that landscape. The “sea of content” represents, of course, the inexhaustible well of films and information now available on the Internet. Their goal is to cut through all of that, to provide “passways and illuminations” among the information traffic jams of the Internet.

This dialectic between acceptance of the potential of the Internet and the desire for escape from the turmoil therein is the essence of MUBI. MUBI could both not exist without the Internet and could not exist as it does without being in opposition to the character of the Internet. In short, it is an embodiment of what it rejects.

More than anything, the week filled me with a powerful sense of optimism about the state of filmgoing. And despite the elitism inherent in showing these types of films, there’s a tremendous egalitarian spirit at work here. A MUBI subscription is $35 per year, or just under $3 per month, making it less than half the cost of Netflix and Hulu Plus. And for those of us who can’t fly to Cannes or Toronto to take in a film festival, take comfort in knowing that you can have your very own film festival in your living room whenever you want, and share your experience with millions of other film fans around the world.

For better or for worse, the Internet is where most filmgoing happens today. Though there’s a compelling argument to be made that it’s for the worse, a weeklong MUBI film festival, I think, tips the scale towards the better.


//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


 

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