As everyone knows, the Coronavirus pandemic is forcing to the surface contradictions and injustices that have been around for some time but were much easier to ignore or rationalize when the state of things was simply “business as usual.” Yet by the same token, it’s now offering creative options to moviegoers who want to move beyond their usual diet of weekly high-profile releases that are made to seem important via expensive ad campaigns and heaps of media attention. Many of these alternative options already existed well before the pandemic. But now that theatrical releases have become scarce, other cinematic offerings are appearing—many of them free, others charging admission on diverse streaming platforms—and we should take advantage by surveying what’s becoming available. A sizable portion of what remains of our film history is what’s being offered, and what we might select from this ample harvest and how we might make use of it are questions well worth contemplating.
What if we spend our idle hours cruising for free movies available on the internet? The possibilities are far more bountiful than one might suppose. Just for starters, Open Culture promises and delivers “1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.,” and even this only scratches the surface.
The problem isn’t not enough free movies but too many. The full range of contenders available via search functions within YouTube.com, ok.ru (a Russian social media site that’s also a YouTube-like resource for music and movies, less user-friendly but no less copious), Uloz.to (a Czech/Slovakian site), archive.org, and countless other resources is so dizzying that one needs the guidance of lists to narrow things down. Even if we stick just to Open Culture, we have a dozen English Hitchcock films to choose between, four features by Andrei Tarkovsky, 60 noirs, 26 John Wayne Westerns, and most of Charlie Chaplin’s 80 comedies. Where to start?
One reason why most viewers stick only to new releases from big companies is that a limited pre-selection is far easier to navigate than an avalanche. Related canon-forming enterprises and institutions like the Oscars and ten-best lists perform the same function. In short, it helps to have a viewing agenda—and finding and then pursuing your own formulated viewing agendas might be more of a challenge and more taxing than following pre-existent ones. One recent hobby of mine has been hunting down features by Kira Muratova (1934-2018)—an eccentric, gifted, transgressive, and hilarious Soviet-Ukrainian filmmaker—and sometimes finding English subtitles for them on sites such as opensubtitles.org. (As with any of these, navigate at your own risk.)
What if your tastes are less esoteric than mine but you still, like me, enjoy watching films with English subtitles—even films with English dialogue—because this activity combines the pleasures of moviegoing with the pleasures of reading, or maybe just because you’re hard of hearing? Theoretically, you can take on the agenda of hunting down Marilyn Monroe’s features and watching them with English subtitles, if such is your fancy.
Whatever agendas you decide to adopt and pursue, you shouldn’t expect them to have the same currency or popularity as the latest Tarantino or Spielberg. As a film critic, I no longer believe that it’s desirable or even feasible to call any movie “good” unless I can add whom and/or what it’s good for. Some people go to movies to forget their lives, and some go to enrich their lives. How can the same movies be equally good for both factions? Some people like subtitles, some hate them, and still others can take them or leave them.
What kind of sense does it make for critics to proclaim that one size or shape fits all? The sense of belonging to a crowd, I guess. But the cinematic possibilities available to us now suggests a new kind of crowd—a crowd of unique individuals pursuing and sharing their own special interests.