A couple of weeks ago, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the Times wrote a couple of pieces on the relationship between movies and the Internet. Manohla's was the featherweight of the two, humorously recounting her struggles to find a movie download site to her liking. Scott's was more substantial, positing a time in the near future when movie fanatics will have access to a "virtual cinematheque" where "before too long the entire surviving history of movies will be open for browsing and sampling at the click of a mouse for a few PayPal dollars." I think it's an entirely logical premise. If in 1978, when I was born, you would have said to someone that the movies released that year could one day be played by inserting a little round disc into a home computer, the person you were talking to would have looked at you like you were crazy. Then they would have asked "What's this 'home computer' thing you refer to, by the way?" So if we can travel that far in 28 years, you're telling me that in the next 28 years, Paramount and Fox can't figure out a way to get their library of films from the 30s and 40s onto the Web, which will likely be by then a more important avenue of distribution than the video store? That's flatly absurd.
I've been reading some counterpoints to the argument on the Web, and I've yet to find a credible argument against the "virtual cinemateque." One of them, by film historian Kristin Thompson, is downright illogical. Thompson misuses Scott's phrase 'surviving history of movies' to set up a strawman argument, claiming that when Scott speaks of movies, he's including teaching films, porn, ads and, I guess, home movies as well. What planet is she on? He's clearly talking about movie-movies -- the kind of movies that he or I or any other reasonable film fan might be interested in downloading. As for the more substantial argument -- that the studios have no financial incentive in digitizing even an obscure movie-movie from the 1930s -- to that I say, what was the financial incentive in putting the 1947 film Black Narcissus on DVD, which I bought last week? Was Universal Pictures being besieged on a weekly basis by fans of director Michael Powell, demanding an end to the injustice of not having Black Narcissus on DVD? I think not. It seems like we've been over this ground many times. If I wanted, I'm sure I could go to the New York Public Library and microfiche an article from the early 80s explaining why all the movies we grew up with won't ever be transferred to home video.
In spite of all of these arguments, Thompson somehow arrives at the conclusion I support: "film availability for download will follow pretty much the same economic principles that have governed film sales in other media." If I were a rich man, and I were so inclined, I could probably put together a home video and DVD library that would come very close to being a definitive library of the history of film. It wouldn't be any more 'complete' than the book libraries of Oxford or Harvard are 'complete,' but let's get rid of that word -- the word Thompson is looking for is 'comprehensive.' I would imagine that 20 years from now, a comprehensive online library of films will be readily available to those who can pay. Hopefully, we'll also have done away with the traditional small computer screen by then, and we'll be able to blow up those films we download to wall-size after we pay our 99 spacebucks.