Friday, April 19, 2024

Everyone’s an Expert – The Farce of Physical Film Releases

The Mad, Sad World of the Boutique Blu-Ray

There’s a recently released study which suggests 50% of US vinyl buyers don’t have a turntable to play them on. This study is wheeled out every year, but it’s a fun one that causes much teeth-grinding from many record-playing purists, and a nervous defence from those practising this bizarre ritual that they do it to support the artist. In truth, it’s nothing new – I have a drawer full of old gig tickets which serve no purpose other than to remind me of an event I was at; I have a few autographs which realistically can only live filed away or occasionally framed on a wall; there’s all sorts of junk stuffed away from old catalogues to stickers, flyers, posters and press kits which serve no purpose but are ‘nice to have’. I acquired them, one way or another out of choice and no-one was harmed, offended or ridiculed as a result of it.  It’s nice to own stuff. The vinyl market is largely the same – if you don’t, can’t or won’t buy it, there’s nearly always a digital equivalent. Music – mental but you have a choice.

And then there’s film. At some point – and it’s difficult to pinpoint the guilty holder of the starting pistol for this – the market for releasing certain kinds of films became the most baffling shitshow of nonsense in modern popular culture. Horror films; ‘cult’ films; arthouse films, trash films – there are others, but these are the genres which attract the worst of it. Exclusive ‘rigid’ packaging; essays; visual essays! commentaries from ‘film historians; insights from professors of media and self-styled ‘experts’; OBI strips (originally attached paper bands for Japanese releases to feature salient info, now seemingly there to proclaim their own greatness); art cards…ART CARDS! All are strictly limited, obviously, a phrase which could scarcely mean less. The perverse idea that the film itself could vanish – the license, yes, the film free to fly to a new home in an even more glorious print, with brand new extras including… ad infinitum.

So, what’s my problem? Well, I’m being charged a premium for these trinkets and baubles. What am I supposed to do with an art card? Take the cellophane off any an OBI strip is counting down the seconds before it gets crumbled or stuffed inside the case so as to preserve a make-believe collector’s value. A ‘limited edition’ with your unique numbered copy stamped by a machine in a state-of-the-art factory packaging them up by the lorryload. There was a stage when music became like this – limited editions in the tens of thousands. Working in record stores from the early 90s, I have boxed up and returned more limited editions than you can possibly imagine. Excited you’ve got number 870? Numbers 871 to 10,000 are in landfill.

The collectors themselves are scarcely innocent parties in this merry-go-round of tripe. Why buy just one expensive copy when you could buy two and keep one sealed up in the packaging? Why not keep both sealed, watch the film online and then put both sets back on sale for an even more ludicrous sum? Some friends and I watched goggle-eyed as we observed a chancer on social media declaring their sealed copy of some z-grade shite was for sale, as they’d watched the film on YouTube! What a recommendation – pay over the odds for a film so bad it isn’t worth unwrapping, and can be watched for free anyway. Not so much suck it and see, as I see a sucker. Perversely, there was scarcely an eyebrow raised from responders to his thread.

Not taking the items out of the protective cellophane is a common trend. Grown men (there’s no use pretending – it’s almost exclusively men) will have fallen to their knees with joy at the announcement of a limited, deluxe set, declaring it a momentous moment in their lives and shelling out – I kid you not – anything up to £300 for ‘collector’s package’. And what do you get for your money? A load of unwatchable grot and enough plastic trinkets to choke half the sea-life off the coast of Bali.

There’s a barely veiled inference in the use of ‘collector’ in film marketing material. Bluntly, it translates as, ‘more money than sense’. And yes, I know no-one is forcing me to buy it, I appreciate the concern. Anchor Bay used to do nice tins, embossed and with the original artwork, possibly a booklet you’d never read and maybe even a commentary by the director or extra footage. I understood that – yes, there’d be tens of thousands of them, but they were collectable and there was a mutual understanding that the company had made an effort for the dedicated consumer and fan of the film. There might be chintzy extras like ‘toe-tags’, notebooks and beer mats, but they were fun. A very recent trend has been to include reprints of novelisations of the relevant film – this is bang on the money, and the kind of extras that celebrate the film, not demean the viewer.

Anchor Bay’s Limited Edition tins

Then, at a time I could have a pretty good guess at but won’t so as not to cause those concerned to have meltdowns, ‘nitwits’ were introduced. [Clue – it was when the film in question, stuff that barely warranted a drive-in release in its day, was packaged like a BFI release and subjected to rigorous faux academic analysis]

I am very happy to listen to film directors discuss their films; scriptwriters; actors; producers, even studio bods. They were there: they’re relevant, and they can cast light on a subject to which they have a tangible connection. Who do I not want to hear from? A film historian. What is a film historian? Someone who has watched a lot of films? Someone who went to university and got a degree? I am a film historian. I am also a music historian. Because, well, I say so. If you’re telling me I aren’t, I’m saying you aren’t either. I’m happy to play that game all day. What in God’s name happened that a selling point of a film is a commentary by someone who has appointed themselves as resident clever clogs?

Let me tell you what happens in these commentaries, or, and I can barely bring myself to type these words, essays or *vomits* visual essays. You are told you’ve been watching the film incorrectly. Think you’ve been sitting down watching a trashy gore film? No, that was a gothic, feminist take on the oppressive patriarchy in neo-fascist Spain, tropes that have since been extrapolated by Netflix on their new hit show, Benji the Dog Goes Fishing. They’re calling you an idiot and you’ve not only paid for the pleasure, you’re expected to agree. Perhaps you’d like a historian or critic to rearrange the film’s Wikipedia entry or IMdB entries for you to nod sagely at? No worries, you bet your bottom dollar that’s included. They’re reading to you, like a child at bedtime, but with vast dollops of sickening smugness.

Second Sight’s Exceptional ‘Dawn of the Dead’ release

A lot of these cretins do it for nothing, or an amount so insulting that nothing would be more acceptable. They’re showing off – like other children appearing on TV shows when you were little, the feeling is of immediate revulsion as you’re bombarded by syrupy narcissism, and you experience an overwhelming urge to kill…and kill again. As distasteful as that is, the knock-on effect is that ‘actual critics’ – those who earn their bread and butter from writing and have dedicated their lives to it – are deprived of an avenue of (admittedly meagre) income. The same names appear time and time again, augmented by new imbeciles who have snuggled up and sung from the same stolen crib sheet as their enablers.

If it sounds like they’re phoning it in, it’s because many of them are – growing their arses in their own bedrooms, recording their commentaries via Zoom, allowing them to read their nicked notes without embarrassment and to put in even less effort than ever before. It’s the emperor’s new clothes gone berserk. People nodding like sheep when told that softcore guff with laughable gory effects is the work of a transgressive auteur. Why can’t films be pure entertainment? Why not delight in the madness? Dissecting books was depressing enough at school, to bring faux academia to films which originally screened in knackered mismatched prints in grindhouse theatres filled with tramps and prostitutes is beyond weird.

The whole charade is a bizarre clique. ‘Boutique’ film distribution companies – ’boutique’ in the sense that they’ll release a run-of-the-mill Hollywood award-snaffler AND low-budget flotsam at the same price, will accrue a small group of go-to collaborators, whether they be essay-writers or commentators (because film fans want nothing more than an essay written by a twat). In turn, they will aid the onboarding of others who have widely applauded their essential work, on the strict understanding that they will have to be eternally grateful and publicly flagellate every time they make an appearance. It gets worse and even more insidious than this, however.

Here’s my real problem with all this. It’s not that any old dope off the street can roll up and ‘have a go’, it’s the fact that there is a premium price attached. Back in the day, fanzines allowed those ‘outside the system’ to write inventively and without limits, often leading to fulfilling careers as writers. Now, they expect to be seated at the head of the table with no questions asked. If amateurs aren’t marring discs, they’re writing for genre magazines or self-publishing ‘tomes’. In their world, all books are ‘tomes,’ and their writing is self-pityingly described as ‘scribbles’. When I say that the majority of what is written is copy-and-pasted from Wikipedia or IMdB, it can never prepare you for how directly huge tracts of texts are lifted with no attempt to disguise the fact, punctuation errors gleefully plagiarised and all. It’s breath-taking that they have the gall, and outrageous that editors allow it. Here are people who can barely string a sentence together somehow lauded as authorities.

Ten years ago, Leanne Spiderbaby was paraded through the streets and pelted with brown fruit for plagiarising others in the pages of Fangoria and several other magazines. Somehow, it’s now acceptable. Self-publishing has allowed gaggles of bad writers to release and charge punters for the pleasure of regurgitating assumed facts, ironically to the contributors themselves, all eager to see their names in print and buying copies for themselves and unlucky family members (they aren’t even given contributor copies). What a racket!

And don’t get me started on film bloggers – that’s a whole other article… or tome. The wretched rent-a-quotes who will bend over backwards to 5-star some absolute piece of excreta in the hope of getting their name on a reversible sleeve with exclusive newly commissioned artwork that looks like a flier for a chill-out room in Ibiza 1993. Don’t give up the day job, any of you!

Of course, there are great writers on film. People who have lived and breathed Hammer films, studied every element of a director’s career, and can wax lyrically and beautifully about films. They are actual experts and, crucially, excellent communicators. They are being elbowed aside by those who shout louder and will do it for nothing. Those who accept a gig and then go away and watch the film upon which they will dribble for the first time and have no shame in doing so.

Now, of course, at this point, the disc marrers and their acolytes will point and say, “You’re bitter. You just want to do a bit of disc marring yourself.” Not particularly. “You’re just jealous,” they’ll say. Of belonging to a circle-jerk and getting paid in a finished copy? No thanks. I just want these cut-and-paste pontificators off my discs. Put it this way. Who’d you rather hear talk about ‘The Thing’. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Or some fuckwit with a gender film studies degree from Dartmouth Poly? Here endeth the extras.

Daz Lawrence 

Daft but Perfect

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