Tag Archives: silver nitrate film

My Response to the Changes at Netflix

I was puzzled when a late evening email from Reed Hastings arrived in my inbox on September 18th, with the subject line “An Explanation and Some Reflections.”  I almost deleted it as junk mail.  It turned out to be an oddly-worded message from the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, the largest internet/by-mail movie rental company in the US.  Netflix recently angered subscribers by raising their rental fees and restructuring their services.  This email from Hastings was both an apology and a press release about even bigger changes coming to Netflix.  Instead of smoothing things over, this latest announcement has increased subscriber dissatisfaction.  Over 27,000 comments have been posted on the Netflix blog responding to the news.

I’m not happy with the decision to split the company into Netflix (streaming services) and Qwikster (DVDs by mail) with two independent websites and separate credit card billing.  I guess I will be switched over to Qwikster, because I’m currently only getting DVDs by mail.   That’s because what I want to watch either isn’t available streaming yet or streams so poorly, stuttering along with bad resolution, that it’s not worth paying for that kind of frustration.  The biggest hassle for folks subscribing to both services will be having to check two sites to see if a movie is available in either format.  In the past, one site showed all this information in one place.

Still, my reaction to the changes coming to Netflix has been overshadowed by my feelings about this statement by Reed Hastings: “Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. ”  This is completely ridiculous.  Perhaps Mr Hastings is more of a businessman than a film buff, but I’m still shocked at his ignorance.  

According to the National Film Preservation Foundation, approximately 50% of all US feature films made before 1951 no longer exist.  Around 80% of all US feature films made in the 1910s and 1920s have been lost.  These figures even don’t take into account all the films made in other countries.  Some estimate that 99% of all silent films are gone.  Many went up in flames or simply deteriorated due to the instability of nitrate film stock.  Many more were deliberately destroyed because few believed that the films would have any lasting significance.  Even the films stored in archives today are at risk while they sit waiting for the funding needed for restoration.

If you’re a lover of foreign films, you know that “nearly every film ever made is published on DVD” does not apply to overseas titles available to US viewers.  Many independent films have never received a DVD distribution deal, regardless of their country of origin.  Picture all these numbers, then narrow them down to the actual number of film titles that you can rent from Netflix.  My “saved” queue of films on Netflix is almost as long as my rental queue.  These are the films with no known release date.   This list also includes titles that are currently available to buy on DVD, but Netflix doesn’t know when or if they will ever be available for rental.

What Netflix isn’t saying directly is that the US Postal Service is bankrupt and in crisis.  With threats to end Saturday delivery or shut down altogether, nobody knows how long our Post Office will be able to deliver DVDs quickly and reliably.   The closest Reed Hastings came to stating the problem in his announcement was this: “DVD by mail may not last forever, but we want it to last as long as possible.”  The folks at Netflix are obviously scrambling to switch over to streaming content in order to stay in business, leaving those of us with older equipment and bad DSL service behind.  I may have to give up my Netflix/Qwikster habit if things continue in this direction.  I’ll just have to wait and see.

Since this news announcement on September 18th, I’ve stopped receiving Netflix email notifications telling me when a DVD has been received and informing me what my next title will be.  I hope this is not the kind of customer service Qwikster will provide in the future.

I’m interested in hearing your opinion.  Please post your comments.

Update 10/10/11:  Netflix announced today that the company will not be split up.  The price increase—and the separation of DVDs and streaming into two plans—will stay in effect.  Supposedly there will be no further price increases, but we’ll see about that.  I’m just wondering what will happen to the new CEO who was going to run Qwikster.  So much for the promotion.



Filed under Complaints, Movies, The Internet

A Silent Scream

Today kicks off the 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.  It will be my third summer attending, and it’s one of the highlights of my year. 

Like most people, I was ignorant of the power and beauty of silent film, until I had a very strange dream in 2006.  It was a chaotic tumble of images, and when I woke up, I had a name pounding in my head like a pulse.  It was insistent.  (I don’t usually hear voices in my head, I swear!)

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

The name was Louise Brooks.  I wasn’t certain I knew who she was, so I looked her up and discovered she was a silent film star who wrote a well-respected book called Lulu in Hollywood.  I went to my neighborhood used bookstore (remember those?) to find it, but they didn’t have a copy, so I bought Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns instead.  The Silent Clowns is a wonderful book about the great silent comedians, focusing on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  I read it cover to cover.  Then I rented my first Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman, and that was it.  I was in love.  Not just with the comedian himself but the whole era of film.   It probably helped that I had a bout of flu soon after that allowed me to watch every single Buster Keaton silent film and short in the course of a week.  There’s nothing like total immersion.

Many people today have never seen a silent film.  Certainly there aren’t many who have seen one in a movie palace with live music.  Even those of us fortunate enough to attend the SF Silent Film Festival, which is the closest we get to the original experience, are missing an important element.  The original films were made on silver nitrate film stock.  Silver nitrate  film shimmers beautifully when projected, which is where the term “the silver screen” comes from.  Unfortunately, it is also highly inflammable, and it emits toxic fumes when it’s deteriorating.  It is so dangerous that it’s now actually illegal to project silver nitrate film without a special projector and viewing room.  Only those with access to film archives get to watch them anymore.  Oh, how I’d love to be one of those privileged few!  The films that have been restored and shown to the public have been transferred to safety film, which is just that–safe–but it’s not the same.   

There are so many misconceptions about silent films.  Nowadays people dismiss them as primitive, artless, badly acted, jerky and unwatchable.  While it’s easy to find films poorly produced on cheap DVDs that validate this dismissal, a little effort will reveal an artistry, freshness and level of creativity that makes one envious of early film audiences.  Some of the most beautiful films were created in 1928, just as sound was being introduced. 

 Theatres and studios were making the big transition to sound by 1929.  Ironically, the very first film audiences had no interest in sound, since it was the miracle of moving images that fascinated them.  Sound would have been developed for film much sooner, but early experiments were dropped until the novelty of moving images wore off.  Silent film audiences became extremely sophisticated and had no trouble lip reading.  They complained loudly, or laughed knowingly, when the actors mouthed lines that didn’t match the intertitles. 

Projection speed (the number of frames per second) is the reason so many silent films look wrong today when they’re not shown correctly.  When filmmaking was in it’s infancy, nothing was standard.  Different companies produced film stock that was different widths, with different numbers and shapes of sprockets.  The movie cameras were hand cranked, with different kinds of scenes cranked at different speeds for different effects.  The movie projectors didn’t have standard projection speeds.  Unscrupulous movie theatre owners would show films extra fast to allow more showings for greater profit.  ( They’d probably still be doing it today if they could get away with it!)  For years it was believed that all silent films should be projected at 28 frames per second, but that rule of thumb is too fast for some and too slow for others.  Cue sheets were sent out with films to the cinemas, and the musicians playing along  also provided sound effects.  Special scores were written for prestige films, as well as songs, and the movie palaces in big cities were accompanied by full orchestras.  Just imagine it!

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

The comedies of Buster Keaton are a brilliant introduction to silent film.  Keaton’s work remains fresh and even postmodern, and he’s called the most silent of the comedians, because his comedy needs the fewest intertitles.  It’s probably a mistake to begin with the dramas, since they are the ones that come across as melodramatic to modern audiences.  After some exposure to them, you get used to the heightened emotion and gestures, and they are genuinely moving.  Here’s a list of some of my favorite silent films:

  • The General and The Navigator (okay, just about any Buster Keaton silent)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc
  • Tol’able David
  • The Kid Brother (Harold Lloyd’s comic tribute to Tol’able David)
  • Metropolis (look for the newly restored version due out soon)
  • Diary of a Lost Girl
  • Sunrise
  • The Thief of Bagdad
  • Sparrows and Daddy Long Legs (for two sides of Mary Pickford)
  • The Crowd
  • Modern Times (Chaplin, made in the 30s, because he was stubborn)

Oh, and read Lulu in Hollywood.  Louise Brooks insists.

For more information, visit www.silentera.com (silent film history and criticism) and www.pandorasbox.com (Louise Brooks Society).

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Filed under Actors, Movies