Living On Video: Festival Cinema, Archiving and the Exploding World of Video-On-Demand (VOD)

In 1983, Canadian musician Trans-X sang about what “living on video” might be like. A “computer fairyland” he murmured, all the while his bandmates slipping VHS tapes into VCRs and playing with other kinds of “new” equipment in the background. While the music video format dates back much further than the early 1980’s, the biggest music video aggregator in the world, MTV, had just begun in 1981 and Trans-X was clearly playing to that market. Not only was this song a synth-y piece of self-reflexivity and music media-awareness, but it expressed the massive influx of “new media” that was happening around that time as the moving image market expanded with the onset of home entertainment at large. While the world had been gradually dipping its feet into the waters of Video Cassette Recorders since 1974, it boomed in the early 80’s. By 1984, VHS had won the format war over Betamax, controlled 85% of the market (Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs), and home entertainment itself had blossomed to the point of threatening theatrical film exhibition.

As Jeff Ulin notes, “[b]y 1986…combined video rental and sales revenues ($4.38B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($3.78B) for the first time. By 1988, rental revenues alone ($5.15B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($4.46B)…It was the VHS format that took hold and by the mid-1980’s dominated.” (Ulin) While the ease and simplicity of the VCR may not have seemed like a big deal to the general populous, it rocked every layer of the moving image industry, all the way from production to archival institutions. Clearly, if the box office was being affected, things were going to have to change in the studios, and they knew it. What were they to do?  Like the advent of television, this new technology had torn the audience away from the theater seats and the studios were going to have to do something to fix that. Unfortunately, Cinerama had already been invented. So much for that idea! So production was in a quandary.

On the other end of things, the moving image archive world’s take on video was a little different. It wasn’t necessarily about the money being lost as a result of the change in exhibition formats as much as the information caliber on the formats themselves. As usual it was about preservation of materials. Moving image archivists were already well-aware of the problematic nature of videotape as they had been working with those elements for quite a few years. While VHS may have been the “new kid on the block” so to speak, television studios had been using video tape itself since the late 1950’s. In other words, this was a format that the archival field was familiar with. With the introduction of the VHS (Video Home System), archives now were given an alternative manner in which to provide certain materials. From this point forward until the onset of the DVD market, the VHS proved to be the primary visual tool used for education in many classrooms and was an inexpensive and simple means of distribution for moving image access copies. Equally as important, VHS and its equipment became another tool used by many experimental/independent filmmakers because of its cost, ease of use and “instant” nature.

"High Tech Baby" (1987) by Korean artist, Nam Jun Paik, considered to be the "Father of Video Art." 13 5-inch color TV monitors, aluminum, painted wood cabinet and Heart Channel VHS video tape.

So what does all of this have to do with Video-On-Demand? After all, it’s no longer on video anymore. It’s a digitized format. There’s no real video that is being demanded, if we are going to get literal. Right now, in the moving image archiving field and the film industry we are going through a massive set of growing pains. While others might label it something nicer, there are too many unanswered questions and difficult situations for it to be anything less than painful at this particular juncture. But, like any growth spurt, the outcome should be much more fun than puberty and look nicer too. It’s just a little uncomfortable right now. Similar to the onset of the VHS revolution, everyone’s technology is changing. There’s 35mm going to digital. Films are being offered at home on the very same day that they are being released theatrically (VOD). Technology and business models are changing drastically just like they did 30 years ago. This time, however, it’s at a far more rapid pace than it was in 1984. Also, it seems to have taken on a very Bizarro-world feel to it. Whereas the 1980’s technology switch seemed to favor the everyman/public by furnishing them with access to moving images in a more affordable manner and allowing archives to provide access in a more inexpensive and reasonable way, this time it seems to be (at least partially) behind the folks with the bigger wallets who have the funding to support higher technology on all fronts, cable and its glories, and the higher echelon of goods. Halting to look and see some of the repercussions or wayside issues has not been of the highest priority. While the progress in the digital domain has been impressive, equally as essential are the issues that might get left behind.

This technological change has been functioning a bit like adolescence. It doesn’t seem to be the most organized process, as the communication between certain factions is non-existent (but who really communicated well when they were a teen?) and some moving image areas seem to be in a bit of a predicament due to that, but other areas seem to be doing exceptionally well as a result. Like being 15 years old, this entire situation of new technology seems to be a bit rocky. The moving image community, whether it’s production, distribution, or archiving is getting a new body and we’re all getting used to the way it works. Anatomy is a funny thing. Let’s look at what our new physiognomy is developing into, shall we?

Putting the Festive in Festival:  Festivals and Archives

So what happens to all those films after you watch them at the Los Angeles Film Festival? And after you leave Park City or the last presentation at AFI, where do those films go? Have you ever stopped to wonder where all the used and unused festival submissions might end up? Many people will respond in an abrasive manner to this inquiry. “Probably in the trash,” (to which I may not disagree) they might say, “and if they didn’t bother to back it up or save it, well…that’s the filmmaker’s own fault!” At this point I might bristle.  Can we ethically be thrilled upon hearing that John Carpenter’s student film was discovered and yet consciously disregard a person’s submission to a film festival because of their personal data management policies? I call shenanigans, pure and simple. We have no idea who that person might end up being, what the material may contain, and, according to archival principles, it just doesn’t matter. The submissions of a film festival, regardless of where they came from, are unintentional creative sampling. This is also the reason why they should maintain their provenance and be archived properly.

It seems that with some film festivals, the term “archive” is a very loose term, even when they are dealing with actual film elements. While some festivals do indeed recognize the word, they do not seem to apply it to the materials that they collect. The Raindance Film Festival in London has an “archives” area on their website, but unfortunately it is only to showcase past festivals. When you look into the Frequently Asked Questions, and see about what happens to leftover festival submissions, there are two options: the filmmaker will pay for the return of the submission (with no clear-cut guarantee on how the element will be shipped) or simply leave the materials to be “recycled.” (Raindance Film Festival)   While other places like the Regent Park Film Festival actually seem to have an archive for their works (their site specifically states that “select preview tapes will be added to the RPFF’s archives for consideration to our year-round community screenings”) (Regent Park Film Festival) and the Dance Media Film Festival’s specifications hold for the custody of the preview DVDs (the “screening media” will be returned to the filmmaker after the festival) (Dance Camera West), it is frighteningly obvious that the vast majority of film festivals simply return or “recycle” most of their submissions post-festival.

Clearly, there is a severe disconnect between the festival circuit and the moving image archiving world, and the responsibility is as much ours as it is theirs. However, regardless of fault, we are both missing out on a golden opportunity to a) save valuable media objects (our responsibility) and b) have past events be maintained in a retrievable and accessible manner (their responsibility). While it is very likely that many of the larger film festivals (Sundance, L.A. Film Festival, Toronto, etc) do have vaults or libraries for a certain amount of items, it is far more likely that they do not have enough space. Thus their participants are forced to keep their materials elsewhere which could be home, the back of their car, lost, or simply at another vaulting facility. There is no way of knowing. What is known is that once materials are lost, if there is no secondary copy or if the piece is not somehow backed up… they are lost for good. These materials could be analogue, digital, or both. However, as we have previously noted, the world is continuing to move forward with technology, and festival submissions are more and more likely to be born-digital which makes them even more fragile than filmic submissions in certain ways.

Indeed, when it comes to preservation, the difference between analogue and digital is quite notable. Preserving digital materials is much like babysitting small children: they need to be properly cared for and checked in on frequently, lest they end up “dysfunctional.” The preservation of analogue materials, while no less meticulous, is more like the maintenance of a good relationship with a friend: make sure it is in good shape, the information is always correct, and it remains protected (should the situation arise).

One of the most important studies to have come out recently, the Digital Dilemma 2, took a serious look at film festivals and surveyed independent filmmakers. They noted that film preservation was “not a topic requested by film festival attendees.” Indeed, the concerns of the filmmakers were reflected in the statistics. Their films were simply not getting picked up or distributed. The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival alone received 4,521 submissions and screened 153 (3 percent) while the 2011 Chicago Film Festival got 3,640 and screened 194 (5 percent). The 2011 New York Film Festival topped the list, including avant-garde shorts, screening 138 films out of 1700 submissions (8 percent). (Science & Technology Council) With figures like that, preservation of materials may not be the first thing on a filmmaker’s mind. Very likely, the most immediate thought in a submitting filmmaker’s head would be: my work didn’t get into Telluride- where can I submit it next? How can I still make this piece live?

Independent Demands: VOD and Independent Cinema

In many ways, Video-on-Demand has been the answer to many independent filmmakers’ desperate prayers. Initially, the changing film landscape looked grim for the “little people.” An independent filmmaker’s row has never been an easy one to manage. What were they to do now about the fact that, similar to the mid-1980’s, home entertainment was now making a serious comeback, and rocking the exhibition business model down to its chewy center? In this day and age, it seems to be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Theatrical exhibition may have seemed preferable at one time, but what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you were offered a deal where you could have your work displayed on all media platforms at the same time (televisual and theatrical) and still have the right to submit work to festivals?

VOD has been extremely successful with independent cinema. Strikingly so, in fact. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January of 2011,

Independent studios , including the small budget “specialty” divisions of the major studios, saw their share of box-office decline to 19% in 2010 from 33% in 2001…but video on demand has exploded and is beginning to edge out trips to the video store…consumer spending on VOD totaled $1.8 billion in 2010, up 21% from 2009. Sales of movies via digital download services like Apple, Inc.’s iTunes Store and Amazon.com Inc grew 16% in 2010, to $683 million. (Smith and Schuker)

Independent cinema has been a huge part of this growth. If it wasn’t for this market trend, films like 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011), Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011) and Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) would have remained silenced. Their participation in the Video-on-Demand market, however, created more steam for everyone else, not to mention their own coffers. Margin Call was one of Sundance’s biggest VOD success stories. Handled by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, this “financial thriller” had a budget that was a bit under $3.4 million, was bought for $1 million,  made $5.3 million domestically…and made another $5 million on Video-on-Demand. (Miller)  And it seems that they weren’t alone in their triumph. The early VOD release of Melancholia blossomed into the most economically successful film director Lars Von Trier had seen since Dancer in the Dark (2000): $2 million gross to a $3 million theatrical take, in total. And Takashi Miike? He strutted away with $4 million from the VOD release, while theatrical only produced $1 million. Another director, Sean Bean, made $22,000 in theaters for his film Black Death and did a “Miike.” He too walked away with $4 million. (Lyttelton) Clearly there is a market for this brand of entertainment.

There have been various concerns raised about the Video-on-Demand process and there seems to be a kind of “format war” again; theaters and other industry voices are echoing sentiments not heard since the disappearance of Betamax. “It’s cannibalism,” they’re saying, “these films! The introduction of this new technology has horrific repercussions! Theatrical will suffer! What are we going to do?”  And they are not fretting for nothing. Exhibitors have valid apprehensions.  According to current statistics, “theater owners usually divide profits 50-50 or 60-40, but cable companies typically allow distributors and their partners to pocket about 70 percent of a film’s VOD profits.” (Lang) While this makes Video-on-Demand an incredibly tasty morsel for independent filmmakers who have a small budget to begin with, it makes it quite difficult for theaters who are already suffering great losses due to the fact that audiences are lessening all the time.  According to the New York Times, there has now been “four consecutive summers of eroding attendance, a cause for alarm for both studios and the publicly traded theater chains. One or two soft years can be dismissed as an aberration; four signal real trouble.” (Barnes) While it is highly unlikely that it is solely the VOD market that is responsible for this change in the viewing landscape, it is not difficult to see why exhibitors might have a slight problem with films that are released to a waiting public, in their homes, either before the theatrical release date or on the same date-and-day.

In many ways, they are absolutely right. Aside from the economic implications, a film like Melancholia really has no business being displayed on a television. It was designed for a huge visual canvas, made to be watched in a large roomy area surrounded by other silent people contemplating the moving images on the screen. As someone who was blissfully shaken by that film, I can attest to this fact. That piece dearly wants to be on a big screen. However, as Susan Jackson of Freestyle Digital Media notes, “There are a lot of films that are not critical darlings and won’t break through to the masses so [Video-on-Demand] becomes a great way for people to see them.” (Lang)

The 2011 New York Film Festival advertisement featuring Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

It’s rough to try to navigate the Video-on-Demand world. On one hand, everyone should have access to these films and watch them. In that sense, VOD has opened up worlds that no one ever dreamed possible. On the other hand, some of these films, as Jackson stated, are not exactly “standard fare” thus will benefit from the Video-on-Demand format. Independent cinema has never been a mass audience affair, thus a smaller and more personal technology like VOD suits the genre of “indie.” In addition, the outreach implications are tremendous. People in the middle of small towns can watch whatever they wish. Certain films that they might not be able to take their families to or tell their friends that they have an interest in, such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), which opened up Outfest in 2010 can now be viewed in the safe space of one’s own home. The “flyover states” are privy to the same works that those of us in big metropolitan areas have. The same night that I go out with a girlfriend to watch Kill List by Ben Wheatley here in Los Angeles in the theaters, someone in the middle of Idaho could be accessing the same film via Video-on-Demand.

There is something to be said for this, and yet it may have changed our entire outlook on the film-viewing process. One must stop and think: is the ability to have films catered directly to us affecting the manner in which we affect the filmic process?

In discussions on the Video-on-Demand process, John Schloss of Cinetic Media stated, “There’s much less overall preciousness about the theatrical experience…there’s a long history of filmmakers who want their movies to appear on a big screen, but that’s less and less the case. The quality of the home entertainment experience has gotten so much better, there are new screens and equipment.” (Lang) I feel that this quote begs the question: has the theatrical experience gotten less precious? Does the influx of new toys mean that a night out has lessened in meaning and/or quality? Is this the reason that people treat the movie theaters as though it were their living room, making phone calls, texting friends, carrying on extended conversations throughout the film? Has bringing the theater into our homes meant that we, in turn, bring our homes into the theater?

I believe this to be the case, and I believe this to be the most dangerous outgrowth of a technological advancement such as Video-on-Demand. While it certainly platforms the work of independent filmmakers and assists them in ways that they would never have dreamed possible, the new home entertainment technologies rip us away from what moving image entertainment is designed to be, and forces studios to come up with higher ticket prices, and IMAX 3D to the nth power just to get audiences to “return home.”  The content is not the issue in this circumstance. It is the method through which the content is communicated and the lack of balance and structure that these organizations have created between home and live viewing. We are at a film industry crossroads at the moment, much of it due to over-excitement about new toys and poor planning/education about options.  As an archivist in training, I see a time when the present technology will change too. And when this occurs, what then?

You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here: VOD and the Archive

So what happens to all these films after they get shown “on-demand”?  Do they suffer the same fate as the festival films and get “recycled”? Chances are, the original materials are returned to the filmmakers after digitization. However, once again, there is the chance that those may disappear and never get seen again. Realistically, many VOD titles are actually born from festivals. If you talk to someone like Michael Murphy, SVP of Gravitas Ventures, entertainment “aggregator,” he’ll tell you that Video-on-Demand is the best thing that has ever happened to independent and festival cinema. He would likely have a small army of small-budget filmmakers behind him to back him up, agreeing wholeheartedly. They have made money and livelihoods that they never would have made otherwise, simply by getting his company’s assistance. Murphy’s stance is simple: judging by the way that the market is at the current time, you want to get while the getting’s good. The minute you have “buzz” on your film, get it to Gravitas. They will then do a cross-platform release (television and theater) all at once, and you will at least be able to say that your work was in 50,000,000 homes across the US. In the meantime, you can still submit it to festivals, and wait for it to have a theatrical date. While the films mentioned earlier (Assassins, Melancholia, etc) could be considered independent on a technical level, they are nothing like the kinds of films that Murphy works with on a regular basis. Those are the real indie films. But, as he will tell you himself, Gravitas Ventures is simply a programmer and distributer. They “don’t handle physical goods.” (Murphy)

In an interview with Adam Benic of the Sundance Institute, he states, “Often times, films have left our festival without any distribution. Artist Services was born out of the need to get those films out there and VOD is the most direct and cost-effective way to do so.” (Benic) The Sundance Artist Services department was started in order to assist in funding, distribution, marketing and theatrical support for filmmakers related to Sundance. One of their more modern, media-savvy projects has been their Video-on-Demand push. It may not be associated with the cable arena, but it’s hooked up to work perfectly with all the online distribution methods: iTunes, Netflix streaming, Hulu, Amazon VOD, SundanceNOW, Xbox, Playstation and Vudu. Benic emphasized that VOD itself has actually assisted in promoting Sundance’s mission, and if you study the structure of the organization, the Sundance Artist Services Initiative offers an automatic digital distribution deal through all the aforementioned avenues in order to assist their artists. Benic underscores the importance of this new technology to the work that is received at Sundance, and how crucial it is for access purposes.  He states that VOD is the conduit for the “niche films that often have trouble acquiring traditional distribution…This has strengthened the independent market because it encourages more innovative (and cost-effective) distribution strategies, and distribution is the ultimate end goal for any filmmaker- they want their stuff seen!”

From Gravitas to IFC, the Video-on-Demand world has made the moving image archive landscape extremely complicated. Not only is there concern over the preservation of the various different types of festival submissions (and festivals!), but there is ample disquiet about the materials that have moved through the ranks and made it to the honored position of Video-on-Demand. While this is clearly a step in the right direction for the creative talent, what does this mean for the archives? Why is it that there is not an open communication between professional moving image archives and professional organizations that are, in fact, aggregating the materials? It seems to this moving image archivist that there is something rotten in the state of VOD. The reality of the situation is that not only are the original materials used for the VOD broadcasts in need of an archival home, but in the process of migrating each element to a form that is “demand-able” new materials are being made, thus creating more materials for each title. My question here is…who is caring for them and where are they going afterwards?

Judging by the study that came out this year (Digital Dilemma 2), there does not seem to be a great deal of preservation concern amongst the VOD-independent cinema community. This is cause for alarm. While the success of independent cinema due to the VOD-strategy should be celebrated, it will mean nothing if there are no films to be watched down the line.  This is a unique opportunity for moving image archivists, film industry professionals, and Video-on-Demand experts to come together in a consortium in order to create unique collections for the filmmakers, the festivals, the VOD companies, and the archives themselves. The preservation of these materials at an archive means long-term care and access, and not simply for the filmmakers themselves. Depending on the donor/deposit agreement, the placement of these materials could grant scholarly admission and perhaps the eventuality of future requests to license said materials for financial compensation. Additionally, if there were ever to be a festival retrospective of any sort, all the elements would be in one location and not dispersed or, heaven forbid, non-existent.

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: Examples of Film Festival Archives

Opening the lines of communication with filmmakers and other professionals is not always easy. But in this circumstance, it is necessary.  As Lynne Kirste wrote in her discussion of the Outfest Legacy Collection, “amateur and independent productions are rarely widely distributed, [and] typically only a few elements exist of each title. If these elements remain in filmmakers’ closets and basements, they will eventually deteriorate, suffer damage, or be discarded and lost. In the meantime, only the filmmaker has access to the materials. To make these images viewable now and in the future, archival outreach is essential.” (Kirste) What Kirste wrote in regards to Outfest is sadly accurate about all independent and festival cinema and is particularly applicable in this situation. These independent filmmakers are the only ones who have access to the preservation copies of their work. As for any newly-produced VOD-digital copies, it is hard to say who might be in the possession of those. Whatever the case may be, for the same reasons that Kirste writes about, these elements need to be located, collected, and organized into collections. While it may sound difficult now, it will be much harder further down the road when someone is doing a retrospective on a famous director, finds out that his/her first work was a festival film that was direct-to-video/Video-on-Demand, and the digital copy produced for IFC was not preserved. To avoid situations as the one just described, it is crucial to impress upon both the creative talent as well as the business side that it is in their best interests to coordinate with a professional moving image archive for storage, preservation and access purposes.

There is precedence for this activity. The Outfest Film Festival archives its materials at the UCLA Film and Television Archive as does the Sundance Institute. Both of these film festivals made this choice for a reason. They decided that forming a strong relationship with a moving image archive when dealing with that much cultural heritage on a daily basis could only benefit their organizations. Both institutions archive films that get shown at their festivals, but each project has a different goal that they are trying to achieve by housing their collection with UCLA.  Sundance’s goal is quite clear. As stated in the Digital Dilemma 2,

While long-term preservation is a consideration for the Sundance Collection, its primary emphasis is to support the Sundance Institute’s broader mission that includes enabling artists to reach a wider audience. Since most distribution deals for independent films are for a finite period of time, providing archival resources increases the chances that these films and their source elements will survive long enough to secure follow-on distribution. (Science & Technology Council)

By working with UCLA, the Sundance Institute has managed to secure a location where they know, without a doubt, their materials will be kept safely. This way they can continue working on their main goals and build their archive. Indeed, through their partnership with UCLA, Sundance’s goals are being met in two ways: 1) the simple act of preservation/archiving of materials and 2) by UCLA’s ability to provide access for a more extensive audience of students, scholars and possible business opportunities.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive is, after the Library of Congress, the largest collection of media materials in the United States, with more than 220,000 film and television titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.

Outfest is going in the same direction with slightly different objectives. While their festival films are also housed within UCLA’s vaults, they are done so under the designation of the Legacy Project. The Outfest Legacy Project is a “collaboration between Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television Archive [and] is the only program in the world devoted  to saving and preserving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender moving images.” (Outfest) While the festival materials are clearly intrinsic to the Outfest collection, so is everything else. This is a festival that saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Not only have they housed the festival items with a welcoming archive and provided access to the public but they have gone one step further: they have transformed the collection into what it was named for- a legacy.

As stated on their 5th Anniversary History page,

There is no system in place to restore or save independent, orphan or films made for and by people on the margins of the Hollywood canon.  Very, very few major LGBT titles of the last 30 years have ever been preserved…The Legacy Project was created to protect films that do not have a studio’s support or other financial means in place to support it…. Our goal is to collect and conserve a diverse range of LGBT film and media in order to make access copies available for research viewing on the UCLA campus.  As of January 2010, Outfest and UCLA have established the largest publicly accessible and comprehensive collection of LGBT moving images for research and study (over 13,000 items and growing). (Outfest)

Outfest embarked upon the Legacy Project to try and solve a moving image crisis that had been discouraging at best. However, through open communications with UCLA and a partnership that set out goals, desires and plans, what was once simply a deteriorating print of Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) has led to full restorations of 35mm, 16mm and beyond.

Although Sundance’s relationship with the archive is meant to support its primary mission of “wider audience” and Outfest is more preservation-bound, both organizations are perfect examples of what can be achieved through the right kinds of communication and outreach. Kirste writes “[m]ost archival repositories share the same mission: to gather materials that fall within their collecting mandate; protect their holdings from harm and damage; identify, organize and catalogue materials; preserve deteriorated items; and make their collections publicly accessible.” (Kirste) The UCLA Film and Television Archive holds true to those standards. These are its primary goals and these are also reasons why Sundance and Outfest selected this location to house their collections. Out of all the archives where they could have placed their materials, UCLA has one of the best research facilities for moving images in the country, let alone the world. In addition to the obvious benefits of preservation, respect and care, having students, scholars and other noted individuals be able to access their moving image materials will only benefit these organizations in the long run.

The Sundance Institute's Web Banner in support of their archive and independent film preservation!

Who’s On First?: Getting Festivals and VOD off the Bench

In layman’s terms, this situation is like a baseball game where all the disenfranchised players are kept sitting in the dugout- not for one inning or for two, but for the entire game. Heavy hitters like Spielberg or Lucas no longer have these troubles, but they’re not in the minor leagues anymore nor do they traffic in difficult subject matter (or if they do, it has only been after they made a grip of cash!). While every filmmaker should ideally be responsible for the preservation and survival of his/her own creative work, once you become a contributing artist, you have made a commitment to your work’s transition in identity. Whether it is to a film festival or a series of On-Demand titles, the materials have migrated from a singularly-created piece to being part of a larger collective body.  Regardless of where the termination point is, these materials have a need to be preserved and archived.

As organizations like Sundance and Outfest have shown, it is entirely possible to have the best of all possible worlds. It simply requires communication on both ends- archival and institutional/business. Both Sundance and Outfest have On-Demand titles, and both organizations have partnerships with a major moving image archive in order to assure that all the blood, sweat and tears that their filmmakers have put into the festival submissions get preserved in the best way possible. If we use these as models, who is to say that we cannot create further archives and/or collections for all the materials currently being created?

It is not unseemly for regional film festivals to work with regional film archives, nor would it be unseemly for funds from the VOD market to be filtered back into the preservation of their own newly-created digital materials. Partnerships between Video-on-Demand aggregators and larger moving image archives would only seem to make sense, as the housing and care of digital materials is a delicate process. As Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), “What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate,” and that is the state that we are in currently. It is not the state that we will always be in, nor will it be the state that we should always be in. The fact that organizations such as Gravitas Ventures are currently collecting Video-On-Demand titles and serving in a programming capacity means that they want to support independent filmmakers and would like to make sure that they succeed. However, it is the lack of preservation concern that is of concern, not unlike the survey that was the subject of this year’s Digital Dilemma. For an industry that is quickly transitioning to one of the most delicate forms of information storage in history, it is certainly fascinating that no one was anxious about the state of preservation.

To this end, I believe it important to remember that balance is essential in this equation. Balance is what drives good communication (a good conversation is 50/50), balance is what will allow our moving image culture to remain healthy (let’s not let our living room become our theater and our theater become our living room), and balance will give our moving image heritage a chance to have a decent future (let’s not let the onset of new technologies affect our desire for preservation, shall we?). In the end, I have faith that it will be the strength of our relationships and the determination of a film community that refuses to let technological hiccups stand in the way of silver screen enjoyment. After more than 100 years of the moving image, one would be hard pressed to imagine a world without it.

Works Cited

Barnes, Brooks. “Neither Smurf Nor Wizard Could Save Summer Movie Attendance.” New York Times 4 September 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/business/media/summer-movie-attendance-continues-to-erode.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all.

Benic, Adam. Email Interview with Adam Benic Ariel Schudson. 16 March 2012.

Dance Camera West. Dance Camera West: Submission. 2012. 20 March 2012 <http://www.dancecamerawest.org/submit.htm >.

Fritz, Ben. “”Margin Call” Approaching Nearly 250,000 Video-on-Demand Rentals.” L.A. Times 10 November 2011: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2011/11/margin-call-video-on-demand.html.

Gracy, Karen and Michele Cloonan. “Preservation of Moving Images.” Advances in Librarianship (2004).

Kirste, Lynne. “Collective Effort: Archiving LGBT Moving Images.” Cinema Journal (2007): 134-140.

Lang, Brent. “VOD Rides to the Rescue of Indie Film (Updated) .” The Wrap February 2012: http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/vod-rescue-how-one-format-saving-indie-film-33085?page=0,0.

Lyttelton, Oliver. “As Mel Gibson’s Latest Film Goes Straight to VOD, Is This a Glimpse of the Future of Distribution?” Indiewire: The Playlist 3 February 2012: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/as-mel-gibsons-latest-film-goes-straight-to-vod-is-this-a-glimpse-of-the-future-of-distribution.

Miller, Daniel. “Sundance 2012: The Day-And-Date Success Story of ‘Margin Call’.” The Hollywood Reporter 18 January 2012: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sundance-2012-margin-call-video-on-demand-zach-quinto-283033.

Murphy, Michael. Making VOD Distribution Work for You: An Expert Series Seminar with Michael Murphy from Gravitas Ventures Stacey Parks. http://www.filmspecific.com/public/1157.cfm.

Outfest. Outfest: Legacy Project. 2011. 21 March 2012 <http://www.outfest.org/legacy/&gt;.

—. Outfest: Legacy: Anniversary. 21 March 2012 <http://www.outfest.org/legacy/anniversary/&gt;.

Raindance Film Festival. Raindaince: Submission FAQs. 21 March 2012 <http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/index.php?id=533,6984,0,0,1,0#q30&gt;.

Regent Park Film Festival. Regent Park Film Festival: Submissions. 21 March 2012 <http://www.regentparkfilmfestival.com/submissions.html&gt;.

Science & Technology Council. The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives From Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians, and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives. Technology. Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2012.

Smith, Ethan and Lauren A. E. Schuker. “For Indie Films, Video-on-Demand Fills in Revenue Gap.” Wall Street Journal 10 January 2011.

Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs. Total Rewind: Format War. 21 March 2012 <http://www.totalrewind.org/sidebars/F_data_frame.htm&gt;.

Ulin, Jeff. The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV and Video Content. Oxford: Focal Press, 2009.

There Never Were Any Snakes: St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland

So I’m not Irish. Not even a teeny bit.

I’ve never even dated an Irishman, as much as I may have wanted to. I dated a guy from Boston once. Turns out his origins were Eastern European, like mine.

But I have been to Ireland. Multiple times. I’ve even been to Belfast and other areas in Northern Ireland, which, by far, was once of the most intense experiences of my life.

I have also been to Ireland during St. Patrick’s Day. It was, simultaneously, one of the most enjoyable and most chaotic experiences of my early twenties. It was also one of the first things I ever wrote about in this blog (albeit not very well). To this day, it is still the most time I have spent in a police station.

However, after reading this excellent piece on Cracked.com, I thought that if we have ONE day that we’re going to think about a country that I love so much, then I’d like you to consider 3 aspects about Ireland that have absolutely nothing to do with green beer, puking in the streets, or saying that you’re Irish if you’re really not. If you love Ireland like I do, that’s super cool. Why not love it 365-days-a-year? There’s no reason in the world you should select only one day to listen to The Pogues. And trust me- Christy Moore sounds good ANYTIME, not just when you’re feeling like you need to have a connection to some kind of history.

History is important and essential. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be going into the field I’m going into. But always consider the kinds of activities that you engage in, as they sometimes effect other people and their cultural sensibilities. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go have a beer or even corned beef and cabbage. But…maybe hold off on the green food coloring. For me, eh?

1) Literature OK, for those of you in the cheap seats, Oscar Wilde was as Irish as it gets. Which I find awesome. I spent multiple days sitting by his statue in Merrion Square park writing in my journal, while 6 and 7-year old Irish kids skateboarded over and around me. Witty, smart and incisive, Wilde represents some of my favorite aspects of Irish culture: a sensibility that varies from dark to light at the drop of a hat, yet never drops the ball on staying smart.

My experience with Irish cultural fare (plays, music, books, film) is that it has always maintained a strong intellectual sensibility. Even comedy, which many people interpret as being a “lower” form is intelligently done within Irish literature. Wilde’s comedy was (of course) beyond compare, but writer Roddy Doyle has also shown himself to be highly capable of providing off-beat and wonderfully rewarding comic writing in pieces like The Van, and the rest of The Barrytown Trilogy. If you haven’t read Doyle, I highly suggest his work. Another rarely read Irish writer that I enjoy on a regular basis is Patrick McCabe. Dark and definitely not for people who can’t handle a bit of harshness, his work, much like Doyle’s reflects a quirky unusual lyricism (even in the violent sections) that I enjoy far more than most American literature. Obviously you have James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. But you also have Brendan Behan and a man who changed the way I saw comic books forever, Garth Ennis. Not that I should have to say this, but yes, comic books are literature. By the way- did you know that Bram Stoker was Irish? No joke. So, when you move forward to that next round of Guinness with the pals, think on drunkenly hopping on to Amazon and grabbing a book to nurse your hangover with. It’ll be worth it.

2) FILM  Yeah, now we’re cooking with fire. Go look at my shelves. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) gets played quite regularly in this apartment. C’mon! Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Sure it’s a McCabe adaptation (it’s the film that got me interested in his literature, incidentally), but Neil Jordan’s film making is exquisite. Having won an Academy Award for The Crying Game (1992) he’s also responsible for a good chunk of other films. I even liked his film In Dreams (1999), but I also have a massive, Godzilla-sized crush on Irish actor and Jordan-stand-by Stephen Rea.

Stephen Rea was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Crying Game

In addition to Neil Jordan, there’s John Ford, who, while American-born, counts in the Irish-filmmaker set. And if you’re a film fan and you didn’t know Jack had the big Irish-pride going, well…shame on you. No, just kidding. But he did. He was first generation, so it meant a great deal to him and it can certainly be seen in his cinema. So, go out, rent The Quiet Man (1952), fall madly in love with Maureen O’Hara like every other opposable-thumb-having person with reasonable vision, and be done with it.

More recently, we have had some absolutely exquisite Irish cinema. While amazing Irish actors have been a constant through the ages, the film work has been especially great as of late. It is very likely that this  recent growth has been due to the fact that funding for Irish cinema has gotten better thanks to the Irish film board, and, as an archivist-in-training, I know that funding is essential for any kind of success and growth. One of the best films of 2008 was a phenomenal piece that I own and sob and laugh over regularly called In Bruges  by Martin McDonagh. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this film. The acting, the writing, just amazing. I have also heard that 2011’s The Guard blew its audience’s out of the water. I’m pretty devastated that I missed that one. Due to my adoration for, and faith in, Brendan Gleeson’s skill as an actor, I may just buy this one sight unseen!

Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson inIn Bruges. This may be one of the most watched films in my whole collection. I have upwards of 700+ films. I last counted a few years ago.

Irish Cinema, much like literature has a flavor that is singular, original and entirely its own. There is no mistaking an Irish film from any other cultural product. Even films that deal in and around “The Troubles” like Long Good Friday (1980)  were British cinematic product, regardless of the fact that John Mackenzie was actually Scottish and had a reasonable history working in politically-aware material. Irish cinema is one of my favorite genres due to the fact that even when it’s light, it’s dark. Waking Ned Devine (Kirk Jones, 1998) is a comedy but…about a death. On the other hand, what can you really expect from a country that has had to endure some truly hellish experiences over its history? I love Irish cinema because while you have the darkness and the historical “never forget” films like In the Name of the Father  (Jim Sheridan, 1993), you can have a pint and sing along with the celebratory ethos of The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991). In summation, Irish cinema is a genre that takes itself seriously yet celebrates every bit of that to the nth degree. I love that.

3) Community  I loved Ireland because I got to sit on the docks in Galway and listen to the Pet Shop Boys, write in my journal, and see a father and son in a boat in the distance, returning to the mainland, waving at me, a perfect stranger. You know what I got in other countries? Some really weird looks and guys thinking that I would automatically go home with them because I have a few tattoos. All I received in Ireland was pure, unadulterated warmth, from every single person I met, young and old.

Oh, and the honesty! If only we were more like that here! I loved the older man in Kilkenny who looked at me, squinted a little, put down his beer and said “What ya got all that shit in yer face for?” We proceeded to have an extensive conversation about my various piercings, his granddaughter, he bought me a drink, and we laughed. A LOT. He hated the way I looked, but he was so genuine, inviting and nice.

This was what I received from everyone I met. I may have smiled more and enjoyed myself more with Irish people than I did with anyone else in any other country. I traveled alone for three weeks and people talked to me, asked me about myself, my life, bought me drinks, took me places. People took me to their houses! I remember one night in Galway, after hanging out at Sally Long’s (which might be my favorite pub in the world, by the way) the folks I was chatting with simply invited me to their place to hang out for a bit.

But with all of these amazing warm fuzzy moments, I was especially struck by the way that Belfast was constructed. As someone who has been dealing in the visual for the better part of her lifetime, Belfast became burned into my brainscape due to its visual dynamism. If you are unaware of the conflict that has been going on between England and Ireland for an unprecedented amount of time, you are either a) too young to remember the “big” stuff or b) don’t do a lot of time with international matters. In either case, Belfast is best told by pictures and not by words.

Not unlike the infamous one that separated the two portions of Germany for years, there is a wall in Belfast. It's called the Shankill Peace Wall. This is a picture of a youthful me, writing a message for peace.

This is also part of that same place, Shankill Peace Wall. "Before the video game..."

Bobby Sands died after 66 days of hunger striking, at age 27. He is commemorated here. He was a political activist, poet, and was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, where 9 other Irish republican prisoners besides himself died, attempting to fight for Special Category Status (essentially POW-type privileges).

This mural commemorates the Great Hunger which took place between 1845-1852, and most people know as the Irish Potato Famine or something similar. A terrible tragedy, it affected the whole country forever.

I never went to the Louvre, but I saw this.

Then there's the UFF murals. Scary, intimidating, also intense. It was a real distinct change to go from one type of mural to the other.

I suppose it was inevitable that I ended up going into the field I'm going into. Instances like Bombay Street and the visual outgrowths (murals) that were resurrected to commemorate it fascinated my. In August of 1969, Northern Ireland EXPLODED. Bombay Street, part of a residential area in Belfast was burnt to a crisp, and approximately 1800 families were left homeless. This mural commemorates those riots...

What doesn't change, no matter what country you are in, is the children. These little boys followed us around a bit, playing football, curious about what we were even doing there. I think I loved that more than anything. These boys are now young men, maybe married, who knows? That child-like playful innocence so far gone. It's hard to believe that this was 12 years ago.

My time in Ireland and especially Belfast was well-spent, and I would highly advise anyone and everyone to visit or at least investigate the cultural riches that the country offers, whether it is through its history, theater, cinema or literature. As an archivist, I am dying to return to Dublin so that I can go to Trinity College again and ask for a tour of their archives!! I think Trinity College library is where they send all good little librarian type girls when they die and go to heaven. No, really!

Trinity, will you marry me???

In any case, I hope that you all have a lovely St. Patrick’s Day. If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend going to see the band Ollin. You honestly cannot get much better than that. If I didn’t have finals, that would be precisely what I would be doing. If you are not within Los Angeles-area, just take Ireland into consideration as a real country, with a real history and a real culture and not something to be reappropriated as Super Party Day. I like to have a drink or two just as much as anyone else, but hey- isn’t that what New Year’s is for?

*this message brought to you by someone who thinks Guinness tastes better in Ireland than in England*

So hoof and mouth was HUGE when I was living in the UK. So much so that they cancelled the St. Patrick's Day parade (the animals), they refused to bring any tourists to Stonehenge, and when you flew you had to do a MASSIVE foot wiping when you got on/off the plane. Thus...this graffiti. And, if you were curious, the advert above it? It's an advertisement reminding you to making sure to check yourself for testicular cancer. Out of all the photos I have ever taken, this is one of my absolute personal favorites.

Sinamatic Salve-ation Visits the Wayback Machine: British New Wave Mondays on TCM!

So ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. At first, I thought I was going to write fiction. Then I couldn’t finish a damn thing, and I scrapped that idea. Those were the Smith-Corona days. Then, soon after, due to my love of Stephen King, I read The Talisman, and convinced my cousin that we should write a book together. THAT would solve the problem!

Not really. I still couldn’t get anything completed. I gave up on all my writerly notions. Until I discovered film theory, history and criticism. My world changed forever, and I have been scribbling about it in one form or another ever since. One of the things I enjoy most about film writing is getting to introduce people to subjects or films that they, perhaps, have never considered before. It was much easier pre-internet takeover, when things were primarily in print form, circa-my undergraduate career. However, I am still of the opinion that there are some things that people have yet to discover and/or appreciate.

Like the British New Wave.

Tonight Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is starting their British New Wave Mondays in March series and it’s a doozy. This evening alone you can grab Room at the Top  (Jack Clayton, 1959), The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960). You can also see Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, 1966) and Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), but the last two don’t quite fall into the British New Wave category. They are truly excellent films, however, and I would highly recommend setting your DVR!! Morgan is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

I fell in love with the British New Wave in my late teens, and, like any good relationship, it has continually been a source of interest for me over the years and never let me down. Is it the fact that it was borne from documentary and surrealism and I enjoy both? Perhaps. Is it the use of Rita Tushingham and Julie Christie? Yes. Is it my mad love affair with young Tom Courtenay? Probably. However, I tend to see it as a the full package that it is: highly influenced by the theater of the time and an extremely economically desparate climate, these films reflect a young culture that was looking for romance, fantasy and a way out in any way that they could. It rarely worked, but watching it is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Each film is so different and so fantastic in its own way. I could never say that Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961–playing on March 12th, by the way! Do NOT miss this!) was quite the same as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963–playing on March 19th, and starring the inimitable Richard Harris!), but they carry with them threads of Britishness, youth, and energy that cannot be denied.

These are some of the first punk rock films ever made. Screw the Sex Pistols, gimme Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963)

Tom Courtney, Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963)

So I come to my main point. I wrote an article about the British New Wave for my school film magazine in the Winter of 2000. See, around that time everyone was starting to be very excited about British cinema again, with the release of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) a few years earlier and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) quite soon after that. I was young and a completely unpolished writer. I was a semi-academic undergrad studying critical film theory at UC Santa Cruz, and I knew that these most recent films were great, but I was bummed out that more people weren’t aware that England actually had a film history. So, I wrote the following piece. Since TCM is doing this great series, I figured it was time to go back in time and dig it out, warts and all.

Please forgive it. It is now going on 12 years old, and clearly not what (or how) I would write the same piece today. However, I feel that with the series going on, it is only right to share a little piece of my old-school British New Wave writing here. In addition, if any of you readers do happen to watch any of the films in the TCM Series, I would love to know what you think. They truly are wonderful films and get wrongfully neglected too often.

BRIT FLICKS: Yes, There Were Films Before Trainspotting

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) was cool. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was cool. And more recently, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) was cool and won awards. So it seems that there is an awakening taking place all over the United Kingdom. Now while it is true that these films are unusual, exciting and exemplary pieces of filmmaking, it is not true that they are the first of their kind.

From 1959 to approximately 1964-65 Britain experienced a cinematic revolution. It was the transition from “dull studio artifice” of traditional classical narrative and story patterns to something more up-to-date and relevant to the audiences watching. This revolution of sorts was called the British New Wave and called upon audiences to identify with their entertainment instead of feeling disconnected by their lack of correct representation on-screen.

Several directors played a key part in the creation of the British New Wave. Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and the best known Tony Richardson all figured into the creation of this new group of humanistic and reality-based films.There were no princes or fairytales in these films, nor were there any real “winners” at the end. These were films that faced the harsh realities of being young and working class in England. According to writer and critic Arthur Marmick, this period had three major tendencies: social criticism and satire, authentic representation of working-class lifestyles, and genuine innovation in breaking away from purely naturalistic film. These same reasons were why the watching public was very interested in these films and was notably more fond of them than of the films that had come out in previous years of post-war Britain.

This cinema was very much based around life’s harsh realities, the fragility of the family, and any and all emotional discourse erupting from that, as well as unusual visual portrayals of working class existence. Instead of following traditional narrative structure, these films chose to break it up, segment it, and tear it down. They speed up scenes such as the stealing of the car in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), making it look like an old silent film.

In addition, the continual flashbacks within Loneliness add to the main character’s “angry young man” persona, but also solidify him as the quintessential working class anti-hero. This camera play seems to leave us with the obvious influence on more recent cinema figures like Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy). These recent films have not only utilized this same kind of camera work but also explored some of the different realms that the British New Wave presented.

Many films in the British New Wave explored the establishment of youth communities as a result of feeling let down by family-figures, betrayed, or just kicked out. These ideas are also quite pronounced in Lock, Stock…and even more exemplified in the lifestyles and relationships within Trainspotting. Boyle and Ritchie play with a world in which the only protagonists are young kids, quite reflective of the universe of young unfortunates that figured into the British New Wave.

One parallel that also seems to run between the groupings of films, then and now, is their reliance on current and controversial literature in order to make these films a much more real and present-day experience. Tony Richardson fought with the British Board of Film Censors a great deal just as a result of his use of “working class language” which they found inappropriate. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner became a big deal between the censors and the filmmaker because of the story. The BBFC discussed Alan Sillatoe’s novel as being “full of wrong-headed social sentiments” and the main character, Colin, to be anarchic and a “good hero of the British Soviet.” After Sillatoe and Richardson made certain concessions with the language in the film, removed a few elements and reworded a few other items, the film was allowed to be released.

Clearly, by the time Trainspotting was made (from the Irvine Welsh novel), British New Wave, the elder sibling had already paved the way. Not only was working class vernacular not a problem,  but frank discussion of heroin, crime and familial violence was explicitly represented (although the British New Wave seemed to represent familial violence fairly regularly). As well, the cinematic styles that had been borne out of the British New Wave- the quick cuts, the visual choppiness that set it apart from all else on the UK screens of the time- lent themselves beautifully to the anti-narrative literature of someone like Welsh.

The one area that modern British films don’t seem to be exploring as much (with noted exceptions) is the roles and positions of women. Although there has been a certain amount (not much) written about the British New Wave and the “angry young man” films, there were also films that contributed greatly to changing and recognizing the role of young women at the time. Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) is a perfect example.

Paul Danquah (Jimmy) and Rita Tushingham (Jo) in Taste of Honey (1961)

In A Taste of Honey, a young teenage girl named Jo has to deal with an exceptionally irresponsible single mother. Jo decides that she has had enough when her mother throws her aside in favor of a new boyfriend. Jo leaves and encounters a black sailor named Jimmy. She has a one-night-stand with him almost as a way of recognizing her own independence (sidenote for all you Smiths fans out there- remember that line from “Reel Around the Fountain”? The one that goes “I dreamt about you last night and fell out of bed twice”? That’s in this film!). Jo becomes pregnant from this encounter and must move forward, trying to find a home for herself and her new baby that is on its way. Luckily, a new relationship with a gay young man surfaces and, while Jo is alienated, she has renegotiated life on her terms.

Julie Christie as Diana Scott in Darling (1965)

This film was of significant importance as it showed the emergence of a discourse that surrounded young women and their sexuality, something that previous British cinema had not thought it wise to approach. Others films followed which advanced discussion of a previously taboo subject and began to break down stereotypes previously created for women in British film. As Julie Christie said of her role in John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), “She was extraordinary…Here was a woman who didn’t want to get married, didn’t want to have children like those kitchen-sink heroines; no, Darling wanted everything…”

All in all, it was the non-conventional nature of the British New Wave that has helped to spawn the non-conventional nature of the recent UK films now. It was the desire to open up doors and, as Marmick said, “authentically portray while genuinely innovate” that created a whole genre of films that still lead us to the theaters today.

So This is Permanence: Joy Division and Me, Pt. 2

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go

All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.

Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,

Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong,

Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long

—-“Twenty Four Hours”, Closer, Joy Division (1980)

I know that it is largely frowned upon in academic and professional communities to get “too personal” within the realm of online writing, but sometimes I feel it is important to drop our guard, let people in, and give readers access. Sometimes, the more personal the better.

I was asked by someone today, “Have you come out as an epileptic?”

It was a strange question. I have never considered myself  particularly “closeted” nor have I ever felt that it was something that I have had to necessarily hide. On that same token, hearing that question, I have also never placed it on the same level as the struggles that people have had with their sexuality and coming “Out of The Closet” in that context. However, after giving it some thought, I came to a striking conclusion: the process of dealing with life as an epileptic can bear remarkable similarities to the process of dealing with living life as a person of alternative sexuality in a heteronormative culture such as ours.

Please do not mistake what I am trying to say- I am in no way trying to say that what epileptics go through is on par with Matthew Shepard, per se. But I live this life every day. It’s no party. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, the last thing I consider when I go to bed. It affects everything I do and everything I am. It makes me entirely different from the average person walking down the street. I cannot imagine that this experience is that far from the queer experience. You may be surprised to hear it, but my entire world and life has had to be reorganized due to epilepsy and not everyone is open to it. I never really sat down and thought about it at all. Until today. Then it really blew me away.

Would you be surprised to find out that the reaction that I get from many people when I tell them that I’m epileptic mirrors homophobic reactions? Let’s face it- aside from politics, religious nonsense, and plain old-fashioned stubbornness, homophobia is really just a bad case of not being educated about the LGBT community. Well, when people squirm around me, and refuse to meet my eyes, begin to treat me with kid gloves, or, in some cases, take me off the “date-able” list immediately after finding out about my seizures (it has happened), it’s simply due to not being educated about the disease. In 2012, that makes me really depressed. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

OK, I don’t get to live everyone else’s life. And at the end of the day- am I unhappy about this? Not really. I enjoy my life every single day. I have an full and astonishingly brilliant life! I’m training to become a film archivist (my dream!), my film calendar is always full, and my social world is rarely lacking. I’m an exceptionally lucky individual. But being epileptic is difficult and exhausting, both mentally and exhausting. And as my life continues to get more exciting and wonderful, my mind returns again and again to Ian Curtis and my heart aches for him. I wrote about my relationship with Joy Division once before, and said I would return to the subject, so due to the earlier prompt, it looks like I now am.

People like you find it easy,

Naked to see,

Walking on air,

Hunting by the rivers,

Through the streets,

Every corner abandoned too soon

Every time I hear “Atmosphere”, I hear Ian’s pain, so loud, so biting. And to be perfectly honest? I recognize it. I feel it. It reflects my experience. To an extent, it irritates me that I use this song to synthesize my own poorly functioning neurology, but the kinship I feel with Ian Curtis goes a long way. In general, I try not to personalize things but with Curtis…it’s remarkably difficult. Additionally, not knowing about any other public figures with seizure disorders until I began doing research (as it turns out, Prince had epilepsy as a child), he was the one person that I could identify with. Joy Division’s songs, while clearly appealing to a mass audience, really had very specific meaning to me. I believe that Ian Curtis put a good amount of his experience with epilepsy into his music. It’s too present and I can read it too plainly. Indeed, the fact that Curtis was Joy Division’s only lyricist supports that thesis.

At times, even song titles read like the feelings that I have felt since my first diagnosis at 13 and since my condition has worsened after age 30. Tunes like “Atrocity Exhibition,” “I Remember Nothing,” “She’s Lost Control,” and, especially, “Isolation” have all played large parts in the make-up of my epilepsy-marriage to Ian and his own possible lyrical catharsis.

Isolation” is a really tough song for me. Released a few months after Ian’s death on the album Closer, this song really cuts into what some of the bigger chunks of epilepsy can be, psychologically. When he sings

Mother I tried please believe me

I’m doing the best that I can

I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

I’m ashamed of the person I am 

it always hits me in my gut; knocks the wind right out of me. Whether it makes sense to anyone else or not, the most embarrassing thing I have ever dealt with in my life has been my seizure disorder. It has taken me years to overcome the shame and embarrassment that I used to feel in regards to my disease. Not only did that shame create even more problems for me, but it also blanketed me in the very thing that Curtis sang about: isolation.

Ian Curtis was only 23 years old when he hung himself. People have been arguing for years about what the “real” catalyst for his suicide was. If you listen to his lyrics, it’s all right there, plain as day. But that’s just from my perspective.

I realize that Ian many other problems: depression, familial discord, the lot. However, it would be dense and ignorant not to recognize that brain function is linked to both depression and seizure disorders. Ian’s former band members have come forward in the last few years talking about his epilepsy and painful struggles. Stephen Morris told NME magazine, “Looking back, I wish I’d helped him more. I think that all the time… But we were having such a good time, and you’re very selfish when you’re young. Epilepsy wasn’t understood then. People would just say, ‘He’s a bit of a loony – he has fits.””  According to an article in The Guardian, Bernard Sumner says that, amidst the plethora of problems raging in Ian’s world, it really was the epilepsy that did him in.

“Ian’s problems were insurmountable.Not only did he have this hideous relationship problem, he also had this illness that he contracted at 22. And it wasn’t a mild form. It was really, really bad and it occurred frequently…The epilepsy must have cast a shadow over his future, particularly his future with the band, and his relationships cast another giant shadow. Plus, he felt extremely guilty about his daughter Natalie… I remember him telling me he couldn’t pick Natalie up in case he had a fit and dropped her..Sometimes a drumbeat would set him off. He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit. We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing-room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had just happened to him. The heavy barbiturates he was on seemed to compound the situation; they made him very, very sad. I just don’t think there was a solution to Ian’s problems.”

Every bit of that makes perfect sense to me. I can’t begin to tell you how many tears I have shed due to being epileptic. Out of frustration, embarrassment, anger and resentment at my “lot.”

I have had seizures at the movie theater in front of my friends and perfect strangers. I have had seizures at the gym and fallen off exercise equipment. I have had them alone on the street and then tried to get a taxi but found that I was literally unable to speak because my brain was not in working order yet. I attempted to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go and all I could get out were the words for the mall that was near my house. I cried a good amount that evening. Can you imagine not being able to speak? The words were in my head, I could imagine a picture of my house, my street, but I could not tell him where I lived nor could I get words, simple WORDS, out of my MOUTH. I have seized getting ready to go somewhere and had to call someone to ask them if they knew what I was supposed to be doing that night because I couldn’t remember.

Mind you, I have a graduate degree. I am working on a second one. I can have an incredibly detailed conversation about the glories of pre-Code cinema or Sam Fuller with you. I can do a great many things. My epilepsy in no way affects my intelligence level on the whole. But the minute my brain short-circuits, I don’t remember my own name and I become a semi-functional vegetable.

I remember watching Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) for the first time, and I was overwhelmed.

I had read Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From a Distance a long time previous and had been so hungry for some sort of media engagement that featured an epileptic that I don’t think I ever looked at the book critically. I still haven’t. To tell you the truth, I am uncertain if I could separate myself from Ian Curtis long enough to look at the book critically due to my connections with him. And Corbijn’s movie only tightened the grip.

Ian was on Tegretol. I’ve been on Tegretol (or the generic form, Carbemazepine) for a little under 20 years. They put Ian on Phenobarbitol. They put me on Phenobarbitol as a teenager. It was probably one of the worst levels of hell-drugs I have ever experienced. Phenobarbitol turned me into LINDA BLAIR in The Exorcist. If I wasn’t crying, I was yelling at my baby brother. If I wasn’t crying or yelling, I was sleeping. If I wasn’t crying, yelling or sleeping I was completely and totally irrational and unpredictable. So, being a teenager and irrational and unpredictable anywayphenobarbitol took me up to 11+. Ian Curtis was in his early 20’s. That’s not far from where I was. When his bandmates talk about his mood swings and his depressions and his unreliability, I cannot help but wonder: was this actual depression or was this the hardcore barbiturate that they had this young kid pumping through his slender frame, multiple times a day? Phenobarbitol ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Thirty years ago, they really didn’t know much about epilepsy, let alone the medications for it. They learn all the time. I remember that they had me on a medication at one point when I was 15 years old that I thought was great! It was a hunger suppressant, so I lost an incredible amount of weight really quickly, which I thought was fantastic! Unfortunately, the side effect of this medication for other people was a red blood cell count so low that they died. Nice, right? Needless to say, they’re still working out the kinks in MANY of the medications that deal with these issues. But I think it’s essential when thinking about Ian Curtis to recall the surrounding medical conditions of epilepsy and seizure disorders, because no one knows about them and no one talks about them.

For example- did you know that many of the very same medications that they prescribe  as antidepressants are also used as anticonvulsants or can be used for people with seizure disorders? Most people I talk to don’t know that. But it makes sense, right? It’s all brain chemistry; mixed up in that crazy web of electricity and wackiness between the ears.

I guess the question still remains for me today: how much of Ian’s depression came from a depression disorder and how much of it stemmed from the anti-seizure drugs and simply being epileptic? It’s a reasonable inquiry since I have on the receiving end of both. Who’s to say that if Ian hadn’t suffered from epilepsy he wouldn’t have been completely normal? From what we know, he had been having seizures for far longer than he had been letting on, and from personal experience, that is usually the case. I had little petit mal seizures for an entire year in junior high and never said ONE word to anyone about them. Nothing at all.

Peter Hook says of Ian’s suicide, “The police described it as a textbook case: suicide brought on by depression, well-documented by his cries for help…Unfortunately, we were all too young to understand.” While most of this is true, I would have to disagree about his death being a textbook case. Ian Curtis suffered from a variety of outside stressors, but he was a very young man who had absolutely no one to turn to about being stigmatized by an illness that he never asked for and yet was put upon him. He was involved in a music scene that catalyzed and worsened the condition and yet it was his life. How do you manage this? The pills are supposed to make you better, but they are, quite literally, making you see double, causing mental confusion, possible nausea, and mood swings like you never even knew were possible.

My memory of the drugs they gave Ian were that they made me feel like the girl that I once was had shrunk up inside me and was in the fetal position, looking out, and the world was really really fuzzy. Yet, in that condition, I was still physically functioning. It was a living nightmare. I was lucky: my parents saw my misery and got me off that medication straight away. Our boy was not in that position. Maybe that’s also why I feel for him.

Joy Division speaks to me because I know it, I live it, I am those songs. The themes that he would write about- ideas of atmosphere, memory, time, control– these are all things that an epileptic has in limited doses. I never know whether or not I’m going to be on my way to school and will have to pull my bike over to avoid having a seizure while I’m riding. My memory? Well, seizures control that. And one of the medications I’m on makes my memory not as sharp as it used to be. And time- I have no idea how long my seizures last. No idea at all. I have to ask people. As Ian’s epilepsy worsened, his songs got progressively darker and more tied into all of these themes. They became his only outlet.

Additionally, I don’t believe that Deborah or Annik Honore (the woman with whom he was carrying on an affair just before his death) were able to understand his feelings about having a seizure disorder anymore than he was able to express them. I have only been able to come to grips with and express my own feelings about my seizures in the last few years and I am 10 years older than Ian was when he died. To this day, this is the first time I have written out anything having to do with my seizures or what I go through. Why is epilepsy private, personal, intimate? I don’t know. It’s a stigma. Ian didn’t feel that it was socially acceptable to have it 30+ years ago. I don’t feel like it’s socially acceptable to have it now. It’s certainly not the topic to discuss at parties. Wanna clear a room or stop a conversation? Talk about the seizures.

Some people call epilepsy a disability. I haven’t let it rule or ruin my life. As I said above, I love my life and I’m living my dream. And I consider Ian Curtis to be a strong, talented and gifted icon that was dealt a really rough hand. I believe in my heart that if he had not had seizures, things would have gone differently. I cannot guarantee that he would not have OD’d or something of that ilk, but I am fairly confident that the kind of pain that he suffered in his life would have been much less.

Ian Curtis’ suicide was tragic, unnecessary, and entirely preventable. I wish I could travel back to England circa 1980 and say, “Ian, it does get better.” As cheesy as that current anti-bullying campaign and its ads are, I believe that they’re the truth. Especially in this case. Since 1980, the medications for depression, seizures and all kinds of neurologic therapies have improved by leaps and bounds.

I can only hope that within the next 30 years it gets even better. Not unlike the gay community, people with seizures hurt, feel pain, feel isolated, embarrassed by the fact that out of nowhere our neurology will suddenly control us instead of the other way around. Our lifestyles are different and we have different ways of doing things, but, at the end of the day we’re not different people. Ian Curtis was more talented than a large percentage of the non-seizure-having folks I know, and has been inspirational on the music that has been made since his passing. He was creative, unusual, and gifted. The brain misfirings never changed that.

My biggest fear is that one day I will not be able to write anymore. There. You have it. I have admitted to the larger reading public and strangers everywhere my biggest fear. I am deathly afraid that one day I will have a seizure that is so big that it affects my brain to the point that I am no longer able to function on a writerly or intellectual/academic level. These are the things I think about every day when I take my pills in the morning, afternoon and night. “Please let me be ok today, and let the pills continue to work.”

I used to think that the seizures were gone, then I got older and they came back, and my relationship with Joy Division took on a new meaning. So this is permanence means something totally different to me now. I will be an epileptic for the rest of my life, but it is not a death sentence and it does not in any way shape or form mean that I am a lesser person. If Ian Curtis could be so incredible and fire up that stage, I can do whatever I want to do. He did not have the resources that I have. That shatters me. But I am not Ian. So for now, what it means is that I should move forward with my dreams, keep doing all the amazing film work I’m doing and just dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio…