Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

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What Gets Lost: TV archiving, preservation and accessibility [Current Affairs]

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.

I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!

DVDs Don’t Buffer

Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.

There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.

But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.

DVDs don’t buffer.

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