Notes of a Grumpy Old Man in Training

CA princess-bride“When I was your age, the internet was called the library.”




CA library

Considering that I’ve used this column to enthuse my love of physical media, 35mm film prints, and how much I hate Amazon, perhaps I should change the column’s name from Celluloid Atrocities to Notes of a Grumpy Old Man in Training (“in training” because I’m not technically old) (yet) (I think).

In that spirit, here’s an observation for you: When I go to libraries these days, as compared to, say, 15 or 20 years ago, there are (a) fewer people there, (b) the people who are there are more poorly behaved, and (c) it seems like about the only thing most people use libraries for these days is their computers. Although, like many Americans I’ve been a fairly heavy library user for most of my life, I’ve really come to value them over the course of the past 5 or 10 years, and it isn’t for their fucking computers. In fact, it’s just the opposite: The library is the internet, taken physical form. Have you ever wished you could literally walk around in the internet? Go to the library. You can. (There’s that Grumpy Old Man thing again—I sound like Peter Falk in The Princess Bride: “When I was your age, the internet was called the library.”)

Let’s look at a specific, and increasingly common, example. I teach film history and theory as an adjunct at three St. Louis–area colleges. When a student is absent for one of my classes, they’re required to watch whatever film we watched that day on their own time. Here’s a common exchange the day the absent student returns:

Student: What did I miss last week?

Me: You have to watch X movie; it’s available in the library.

Student: Eh, I’ll just torrent it.

Me: Uh… The library is between here and your car. And it’s legal.

Student: That’s okay; torrenting it is easier.

Now, I get that torrenting movies is what a lot of people, especially younger people, are used to; if you have to watch a movie, that’s the default setting. Further, in the rare event that I torrent a movie (which I do if there is literally no other option), it often takes me some work to find a good source for it, in large part because I’m not so accustomed to torrenting things, and for me there’s an element of trying to find your way around in the dark. For non-me people, though, torrenting any given movie is pretty quick and easy.

CA tokyo-olympiad_RBeyond that, though, and putting aside the legality issue, the vast majority of torrents I’ve seen have been sub-DVD quality, and the sites have been laden with pop-up ads for pornography. Again: Go to the library. It’s true that most libraries in St. Louis don’t lean toward acquiring Blu-rays terribly often, but DVDs that can be checked out that are free, legal, in reliably good quality, and often have context-adding special features and stuff all in the same package will trump illegal, (usually) poor quality, often Chinese-subtitled torrents any day.

Moving away from that debate, though, libraries now are not unlike what video stores used to be. (Am I the only one who suffers from nostalgia for the video rental store era? Pre-Blockbuster, I mean—more circa the mid-1980s or so.) Any given library you go to has a different collection of movies, and it’s fun to go to new libraries just to see what they have. Many DVDs that are out of print, and in some cases are quite valuable, are readily available at libraries. I was thrilled recently to be able to check out the Criterion Collection DVD of Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad from the University City library; aside from being a great film, it’s long out of print, and routinely sells for $100-plus on eBay. With titles like this, you can play the trick that Netflix streaming has played on the home video sales market: Why do you need to plunk down a bill to own a movie that’s available whenever you need it for free at the library? Having a movie like that at your local library is as good as owning it, and that’s my chosen alternative to buying many expensive movies that I like but can’t justify spending big bucks on.

ca ride-the-pink-horseEven if your local library doesn’t have whatever weird-ass movie you might be trying to track down at any given time, they tend to be able to get them via inter-library loan. The same goes for books (about film and otherwise). Or, if you’re like me and find yourself driving all over the city and its suburbs throughout the course of a week, you’ll start to get a feel for which libraries are the best at having which type(s) of materials. The aforementioned U. City library is probably the best public library in St. Louis in terms of interesting movies in stock (Satantango! A disc of Alice Guy-Blaché shorts! Ride the Pink Horse!), but the Kirkwood library is the best for new releases, often getting multiple copies of each. Ellisville’s Daniel Boone branch of the St. Louis County Library system has a large room in its basement devoted to Asian media—books, music, and, yes, movies—so if you’re looking to fill in gaps in your knowledge of, say, Thai cinema, that should be your first destination. And of course the St. Louis Public Library system’s Central Library, the big, beautiful one on Olive downtown, is the best for film books, especially if what you’re looking for is old and/or obscure. (For example, that’s where I first encountered Veronica Lake’s long out-of-print autobiography, mentioned in a previous column.)

In the end, it’s heartening to find a movie you love at the library. It’s such a richer experience to browse library shelves than it is to, say, browse Best Buy’s shelves. For example, I recently killed some time in a library by my parents’ house in a more rural area of Missouri and was surprised to find that, despite having only about a dozen titles on Blu-ray in the first place, one of the few they did have was the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I picked as the #1 film of 2014, and which only played on the big screen in St. Louis for one week, and on one screen. That is to say, it’s the kind of movie you may not know you’re looking for, and therefore wouldn’t know to search for a torrent of it, but you’ll be pleased when you decide to give it a spin after coming across it while browsing at a library. | Pete Timmermann

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