I will, more than likely, always remember where I was when I first learned that Warner Media Group would be shutting down FilmStruck. It was an earlier Friday than usual – I had to make it to one of the hotel convention centers near the Seattle airport for my organization’s annual meeting of representatives from over 100 churches in the area. I was getting dressed and packing up my things when I received a text from my good friend Reece.
“Just read that FilmStruck is ending. I was considering joining, so I’m disappointed I missed out. What are your thoughts on the news?”
My heart skipped a beat. Could this really be true? I quickly scanned the feeds of my online film communities and triple-checked my findings on the FilmStruck app and website. It was true. With the purchase of Warner by AT&T, they were starting to shutter smaller, “niche” streaming services so they could reinvest those resources in an eventual mega-streaming service set to debut sometime in late 2019. And FilmStruck was one of the first casualties.
If you had told me that I would be emotionally devastated by the disappearance of a streaming service, I would have laughed in your face. But here it was. FilmStruck was closing down and I was more upset by this news than I was by the fact that I was still recovering from a traumatic car accident only a few days earlier. When my wife and I were looking to pair down expenses to pay of debt and save for a home, FilmStruck was the one service I wasn’t willing to do without. Over the last two years, I watched something on FilmStruck at least twice a week. It was my go-to source for great art, inspiration, and personal nourishment.
Much of my attachment to FilmStruck came from its partnership with The Criterion Collection. When I first started delving into classic and foreign film, I came across titles released by The Criterion Collection time and time again. The wealth of supplements and contextual information on each disc helped deepen my appreciation for great cinema and provided me with entry-points for more difficult or obscure films. I had been slowly building my collection when I went through a particularly nasty divorce back in 2012. My ex-wife took and sold off my entire film collection in order to twist the knife just a little further. During that difficult year, I found solace in cinema as I slowly began to rebuild my library – and in the online community of other cinephiles that I discovered through Criterion podcasts and Facebook groups. So yes, the Criterion brand and everything associated with it – including FilmStruck – were profoundly important and deeply personal to me.
But beyond my personal attachments to Criterion, FilmStruck was an absolutely amazing service. It felt like a streaming channel that was tailor-made to suit my needs and my sensibilities. You could search by film or filmmaker. They regularly programmed rare films that were impossible to see elsewhere. They would bundle films from specific geographical regions or under a specific theme, or they would try to highlight films by African-American, female, or LGBTQ+ filmmakers. Scholars and critics would provide introductions to certain films and provide context to help you better appreciate a movie. There was even a short, monthly film school that examined different elements in the art of film. It was a cinematic paradise.
Sadly, that paradise didn’t last. After the news broke, the press for Warner Media Group and AT&T was almost exclusively negative. Filmmakers did their best to pressure Warner Media into saving the service, and with each new celebrity that signed on, hope flickered ever-so-faintly that there would be a last minute reprieve. But it wasn’t to be. Yes, Criterion announced that they would be starting their own, independent streaming service in the spring of 2019 that would do much of the work FilmStruck had started – and that did take the sting out a little – but it we were still losing a vital service and custodian of our cultural legacy to corporate greed. And that was still so incredibly depressing.
So, I went on a binge during the final days of FilmStruck. From the day Warner Media Group made their announcement to the moment they turned off the lights, I was able to fit in 80 films. I tried to fit in at least one film a day, I didn’t sleep much, and my very patient wife joined me for a number of the films (thankfully, Melanie likes great art, so I didn’t have to twist her arm too much).
The service was still in operation when I went to sleep at 3:00 a.m. on the morning of November 30, so I played Seven Samurai silently on the phone beside me as I fell asleep. When I woke a few hours later, I saw that the film had frozen on a blank screen at the two hour and forty-five minute mark. I like to think that Kambei, Kikuchiyo, and the rest of the samurai are still there, attempting to defend our little village of film-lovers from greedy bandits of Warner Media Group and AT&T.
It’s too much to try and write about each film individually, but I’ll try to hit a few highlights to try and keep the barrage of great films from bleeding into each other too much. And this isn’t even going to touch on some of the amazing films I saw during this past month from Nagisa Oshima, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime and Mon Oncle d’Amerique
I’m still dipping my toes into the filmography of Alain Resnais, and with these two films at either end of his career, I’m more than excited to continue working my way through his oeuvre. Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime is science-fiction romance in which a character finds himself unstuck in time, reliving his past over and over again. The editing is astonishing and disorienting in all of the best ways. Mon Oncle d’Amerique is one of Resnais’s later films, examining the lives of three middle-aged individuals through lectures on behavioral conditioning and juxtapositions with classic French cinema. Both films play with the form and are absolute delights from beginning to end.
Notoriously difficult to see in the United States, I found Ken Russel’s The Devils to be a perfect and timely film for our current political climate. The ways in which faith and religion are used as tools to whip individuals up into a frenzy – and all political ends – is especially unsettling. Russel captures stunning, startling images throughout – as ugly as the narrative can be, it’s a beautifully shot and composed film – and makes me long for a high-definition release on home media.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Magnificent Seven
There are a number of classic Hollywood adventures that I have kept meaning to watch, but haven’t for one reason or another. The ending of FilmStruck definitely help me prioritize films like John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. With Treasure, I found myself completely blown away by Huston’s taught, pitch-perfect morality play about greed and desperation. I can’t wait to keep working my way through his filmography. With Seven, I was surprised that I liked this remake of Seven Samurai as much as I did. It’s got a compelling narrative and solid performances, though the action sequences are messy and chaotic, lessening the emotional impact I wanted from the final scenes.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
I’ve loved Oscar Wilde’s story for years, and during my Blockbuster days, I had a customer who raved about this adaptation. And he was right, it’s a really haunting, creepy little tale about the ways our actions can shape and stain our soul. The black-and-white photography is moody and atmospheric, while the bursts of color are stunning surprises scattered throughout the film. This is one I hope I get the opportunity to see again.
Chinese Odyssey 2002 and The Eagle Shooting Heroes
The first genuine surprise of my marathon, Jeffrey Tau’s Chinese Odyssey 2002 is like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by way of Kung-Fu Hustle with a little of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night thrown in for good measure. I genuinely smiled from beginning to end – as completely ridiculous as it was. And his earlier feature, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, was the last film I saw on the service (that I hadn’t already watched previously), which was the perfect way for me to close out my FilmStruck viewing. Similarly silly and over-the-top, I spent the last few hours of FilmStruck laughing out loud and enjoying every last minute of my final film. They’re both definitely films of their time and have some very cringe-worthy moments, but they were both absolute delights.
Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy
I’ve been meaning to catch up on the films of Kelly Reichardt for quite some time now, and decided to make most of her filmography part of my FilmStruck binge. While I thoroughly enjoyed all four of her films that were on the service, there were two unequivocal masterpieces in the bunch. Meek’s Cutoff is a spare, harsh Western that is almost entirely told from the point of view of the wives who were dragged along in wagon trains with their husbands. The hardship, the uncertainty, and the desperation are palpable. And her earlier feature, Wendy and Lucy is an honest and heartbreaking portrait of a young woman living on the fringes of society, searching for her dog and trying to find some way to carve out a better life for herself. Both are brilliant films, and both are outstanding.
Benny’s Video and The Seventh Continent
Michael Hanake is one of those filmmakers people either love or hate, but I find myself consistently drawn into his very twisted and very dark cinematic mind games. I’ve seen most of his films, but had a few holes in the earlier work, so I plugged in a few of these holes during my binge. Both Benny’s Video and The Seventh Continent are slow burns, quietly revealing the brokenness and pathology at the core of his seemingly pleasant and benign, upper-class Austrian families. The long takes, the static camera, the unending moments of quiet all work together to create rising tensions and growing uneasiness. They may be difficult films, but I can’t wait to watch them again.
I ended up watching a lot of films from one of my favorite classic Hollywood directors, Ernst Lubitsch, but the one I found to be the most completely delightful, charming, and moving was the final film he completed, Cluny Brown. It has just as much whimsy and witty repartee as any of his better-known films, but it’s all infused with such a profound depth of emotion, a generosity for all of its characters, and a sweetness that I didn’t expect.
I also watched the final film of Akira Kurosawa, Madadayo, during my month of FilmStruck. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it felt like a perfect companion piece to my favorite Kurosawa film, Ikiru. It’s the story of a writer and retired teacher during World War II and the students whose lives he touched. It’s a beautiful, moving, and touching look at the ways our lives and knit together with the lives of those we love. It’s a perfect swan song for one of cinema’s great masters, and one that I will be eager to revisit throughout my life.
The Cremator and The Ear
I continued dipping my toes into the Czech New Wave with two brilliant films – The Cremator and The Ear. In both films, individuals within oppressive regimes find themselves abandoning their moral compass in favor political expediency and self preservation. The Cremator is filled with dazzling editing and breathless transitions that sweep us to its inexorable conclusion. The Ear plays as a Czech version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – but with state-run surveillance devices. I’m really eager to dig into more Czech cinema once The Criterion Channel returns in the spring.
Krzysztof Kieślowski has been one of my favorite filmmakers since the early days of my obsession with arthouse cinema took me to the Three Colors trilogy and The Dekalog. My FilmStruck binge also allowed me fill in a few holes in his early work, and No End has quickly become one of my favorite films from his catalogues. A film about grief and loss, it hits that sweet intersection of realism and metaphysical poetry. It’s such a beautiful film, and so heartbreaking.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
As part of my FilmStruck binge, I caught up on a number of Ozu films I had yet to watch. There were so many incredible films – both silent and early sound. But my favorite film of this last month of Ozu had to be The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, a really tender and sweet look at marriage and relationships, and our own expectations for happiness and fulfillment. It’s up there for me with the filmmaker’s best work.
The Passionate Friends
I was able to see one final masterpiece during this month of great film – David Lean’s The Passionate Friends. The story of former lovers now married to others, the titular couple meet again, rekindling old feelings and sparking new jealousies. While the plot could be mistaken one of a hundred different films about marriage and infidelity, Lean manages to craft a film that is a deeply felt meditation on loss, regret, and the compromises we make in life, all with an overwhelming sense of grace and generosity for every character. Once The Criterion Channel returns, this may end up being the first film I watch again.
Complete List of FilmStruck Films Watched Post-Announcement
Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime | Black Jesus | Petulia | The Devils | The Treasure of the Sierra Madre | Silence | Arsenic and Old Lace | I Walked with a Zombie | The Body Snatcher | The Picture of Dorian Gray | I Was a Teenage Zombie | Carnival of Sinners | Chinese Odyssey 2002 | Il Bidone | Checking Out | Bullshot | Meek’s Cutoff | Cold Dog Soup | Yeelen | Adventures of a Dentist | Swept Away | The Cremator | River of Grass | Socrates | Old Joy | I Don’t Want to Be a Man | Benny’s Video | Wendy and Lucy | Evergreen | The Oyster Princess | The Shop Around the Corner | Café au Lait | The Seventh Continent | Edward II | I Flunked, But… | The Man with the Golden Arm | The Doll | The Uncertain Feeling | The Challenge | 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance | Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song | The Lady and the Beard | The Magnificent Seven | Tropical Malady | Sumurun |Chi è Senza Peccato | Cluny Brown | Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? | Madadayo | Syndromes and a Century | Coma | Anna Boleyn | Two Men in Manhattan | Woman of Tokyo | A Town of Love and Hope | The Merry Widow | Cemetery of Splendour | Fando and Lis | The Wildcat | What Did the Lady Forget? | Magnet of Doom | A Mother Should Be Loved | The Sun’s Burial | A Taxing Woman | El Topo | Un Flic | An Inn in Tokyo | Night and Fog in Japan | The Holy Mountain | Record of a Tenement Gentleman | The Scar | Diary of a Shinjuku Thief | A Hen in the Wind | The Ear | No End | The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice | Mon Oncle d’Amerique | The Passionate Friends | Dov’è la Libertà…? | The Eagle Shooting Heroes | The Ceremony