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Ranting On...Film Availability

Recently, my brother Luke was on the hunt for a movie named Hedda.  Though relatively unknown today, the 1975 picture is the only major theatrical version of Ibsen’s classic play Hedda Gabler, features the film debut of Patrick Stewart, and won Glenda Jackson nominations for Best Actress at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes.   The film, however, has never been released on DVD and exists only in limited quantities on old VHS’s (a largely obsolete way to see the movies to begin with).

This got me to thinking A) if anyone knows a way my brother could get a copy of this movie, share it in the comments and B) why, in an era where we have so much access to television and movies at any given time, is the number of films that are available to the general public not expanding?

This isn’t just true of Hedda-I have dozens of movies that I try to record each month off of Turner Classic Movies because Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming options don’t seem to have them.  Even something as cinematically friendly as Greencine frequently comes up short when delivering specific older films.

Turner Classic Movies has obviously been a major player in expanding the conversation about cinema and access to classic movies (and if they ever opened up their vault to a streaming service I’d be shelling out pretty much any dollar amount they asked to subscribe), but they are only a limited venue and can only put out so many movies a month.  What baffles me is that we are striving more and more to find original content on Hulu and Amazon Prime, but these channels aren’t really competitive behind the scenes.  Yes, all of them have access to Iron Man 3 on streaming, but what differentiates them other than Orange is the New Black?  And is a video subscription service really worth the monthly allowance if all you’re doing is comparing 3-4 original series?

This brings up a larger perspective, of course, on whether or not people want to actually see a film like Hedda anymore.  Awards fanatics like myself (and my brother) want to see it because completing the 1975 Oscars are at the top of our list, but the list of people who want to go out and find a random Ibsen adaptation from the 1970’s featuring an actress who gave up the cinema at the peak of her career some 35 years ago probably is not long.

Still, though, isn’t this the point of art preservation and creating these options?  If museums only cared about the hits, we’d have just a few paintings by Monet and Picasso, and we’d skip every below-the-line artist.  We’d have long ago given up on works by anyone other than the Beatles from the 1960’s and most novels would have gone the way of the dodo.  And sadly, there are centuries of music, art, and literature that have been lost due to just that: there was not a public interest in keeping around what was current and new at the time, and making it available to an audience that wanted to celebrate the works, and therefore they slipped into the backgrounds of history, to be lost or forgotten.

We’re coming to that point with the cinema, and with films as recently as the 1970’s.  In addition to Hedda, Hester Street, another Best Actress nominated film from that year, is basically without a modern venue to see it (aside from television, and it’s on Turner Classic Movies tonight, so set the DVR!).  1974’s Shanks starring Marcel Marceau in his first major cinematic role is considered controversial and bizarre if you look at IMDB reviews for guidance, but it’s never been released on any form of home entertainment despite an Oscar nomination and a famous main actor.  It’s a shame that these films, celebrated and Oscar-nominated in their time aren’t available for anyone to investigate and revisit.

I will say that if public demand is high enough, a DVD/Blu-Ray will become available.  26 years after the film was released (and seven years after it was released everywhere else on the planet), Ishtar became available in North America despite years and years of begging from cinephiles wanting to investigate the infamous Warren Beatty bomb.  Ally McBeal (TV, but still) took years of online fan petitions before FOX relented with a DVD release of all of the episodes.

However, these are fairly recent productions, and I think it’s high time the studios and AMPAS make a point of releasing all of these films to the public, whether through streaming services or hard formats.  AMPAS in particular should protects its legacy by making as many nominated and winning films available to the public as possible-it won’t matter that you’re celebrating films each year if they are considered disposable fifteen years down the road and not available for people to go and investigate.  It can hardly be supremely expensive (considering the billions of dollars of its membership) to use some of their dues and donations to bring nominated films back to those that celebrate the cinema of yesterday and today.  I know I’ve gotten on this high horse before, but I won’t rest until it’s not just TCM and Criterion doing this great work, but truly all of Hollywood. 

And for my brother’s sake, start with Hedda.

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