Choose Your Impermanence

I’ve always been attracted to the (highly romanticized) idea of monks hunkering down in out-of-the-way monasteries to save cultural artifacts from destruction by the vagaries of time, weather, war, and indifference. If it weren’t for all the religious stuff, I’d be happy to be one of those monks. I mourn the loss of the Library of Alexandria, and the recent loss of Brazil’s Museo Nacional brought me to tears. I tend to hoard collect books, movies, and music.

My father collected various things quite seriously (often to the detriment of family finances), and though in many ways this led me to be wary of collecting, I nonetheless have accumulated through my life a lot of books, music, and films. Though I have 1,000 ebooks, a subscription to Spotify, and subscriptions to various film & tv streaming services, I still buy more physical books than ebooks, I still buy CDs of albums I particularly value, and I still buy DVDs and Blu-rays. I also have my parents’ collection of vinyl LP albums and 45s. (Recently, I threw out a pile of old audio tapes I’d had in my teenage years. All the ones I valued I had eventually replaced with CDs.)

Friends have noted being annoyed at losing access to music and movies they thought they’d “bought” rather than “rented” via various online and streaming services. I’ve never trusted that files I don’t have control of are in any sense files I “own”. I feel a sense of ownership for the mp3s I have that have no DRM on them, and which I’ve backed up in various ways. But if I’m looking at movies to stream on Amazon, for instance, though they say “Rent” and “Buy”, I think of them as “Rent short-term” and “Rent longer-term”.

All of this is on my mind right now because of the demise of Filmstruck, a streaming service I’ve subscribed to from its beginning, and which I watch more than I watch any other service. I adore international, classic, and arthouse movies. I am the perfect Filmstruck audience.

The effect on access to many of the types of cinema I most appreciate is significant. For instance, take the work of my favorite filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Filmstruck, because of its relationship with the Criterion Collection, offers the best access to Fassbinder films in the US, including many otherwise unavailable, since a number of Fassbinder’s best works are out of print on home video here. (Half of my Fassbinder collection is from the UK. Some is from Australia, Spain, etc.) When Filmstruck ends operations next month, most Americans will suddenly have much more limited options for seeing the works of this astounding filmmaker, unless they want to put forth the significant effort and expense of building a collection of DVDs from around the world. (My Fassbinder collection represents about 15 years of seriously seeking out his work.) A filmmaker like Fassbinder is especially vulnerable to this sort of scarcity, because he was fantastically prolific and in some ways his work is less about individual films than an overall oeuvre, so if you only watch one or two Fassbinder films, you haven’t really gotten any sense of Fassbinder as a filmmaker.

The demise of Filmstruck points out a real limitation of relying on streaming, as Matt Singer at Screencrush notes: “Instant access is fantastic, and a wide and varied selection of titles is wonderful. But if all that access and selection exists at the mercy of corporate managers who only care about their bottom line (and not even just profit, but massive profits the likes of which a niche concept like FilmStruck will never achieve) they are worth less in the long run than a pile of Betamax tapes. At least with the Betamax tapes, if you can find a player, you could watch them.”

This situation has me thinking about things beyond the joys and woes of cinephilia. As Joanna Scutts at Slate and the podcasters at Criterion Now point out, this is what happens when niche media hits corporate business practices. Filmstruck didn’t die because it was a failure; Filmstruck was killed because it wasn’t a giant behemoth of profit. No product aimed at a niche audience is or could be — by definition.

I’m thinking now about academia. We can dismiss the print journal that only has 100 subscribers as pathetic in its reach, but even if that journal is hardly part of any library collections, and only one scholar notices it every twenty-five years, each of its issues is somewhere, and able to be archived, catalogued, stored … even if the electricity goes out for a while. I’ve done scholarly work that relied on pretty ephemeral, low-print-run materials, and I’ve found most of them over the years because somebody happened to stash one copy away somewhere.

I’m thinking now about the book I published a few years ago. I don’t think it’s giving any trade secrets away to say it didn’t sell by the tens of thousands. But that book is housed in some libraries, it’s owned by various people, and I’ve got a pile of copies I can look at whenever I want. This is quite distinct from things I published on the internet 10-15+ years ago that don’t even exist in the Wayback Machine, and which are, in some cases, lost forever.

Of course, in the long term, everything perishes. The sun will eat the Earth (or is it that the sun will go out and the Earth will turn to a ball of ice? I always forget), every human will disappear, every trace of human culture will vanish, etc. etc. In the shorter term, books will be tossed away, paper will rot, human civilization will collapse, etc. There is no permanence.

So we have to choose what sort of impermanence we want for our work. For instance, I couldn’t care less about my posterity as a writer. Once I’m dead, if nobody reads anything I wrote ever again, I will not care, because I will be dead. I know plenty of other people who hope their work outlasts them. This seems odd and rather vainglorious to me, but if thoughts of literary immortality are what get you through the day, well, have at it.

While physical media are far from permanent — CDs and DVDs get scratched or otherwise unplayable, books fall apart and rot — now that Filmstruck is about to be killed off, I’m really glad I’ve had the means to buy at least a couple Criterion Collection DVDs during the occasional 50% off sales they have at the Criterion store, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. I’m glad I’ve got music on CDs (none of which so far seem to have suffered the whips and scorns of time, even the ones that are more than 20 years old), glad I’ve got lots of printed books and magazines. Because the cornucopia of the internet is wonderful, but it is even farther from permanent than everything else, especially when the cornucopia is controlled by corporate interests where profit margins are the be-all and end-all. But even non-corporate online services are subject to the whims and vagaries of whatever funds and runs those services. Some may prove more durable than certain types of physical media, but many will not. Whether that matters depends on what we use such services for, and what expectations we have about their impermanence.

Image: “Betamax cassettes on display at the 80s Museum at SM City BF Parañaque” by SuperArticleGuy on Wikimedia.

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