Late to the party as usual, yesterday I up and bought for less than $100.00 a later-generation Blu-Ray player than I used to have, this one equipped with the ability to access several streaming services. Until then I’d been limited to the offerings of Netflix and Time Warner Cable, something great for the kids (children’s programming appears to be among the most popular offerings of these services; I will kill someone, though, if I have to watch another episode of Uncle Grandpa) but less than satisfying for adults who have some sense of film history. So among the first things I did was sign up for Hulu, the main reason being that they carry over 900 titles from the Criterion Collection library. Rest assured, my evenings for the next few years are spoken for.
Netflix is the elephant in the streaming video industry, and it is, like Time Warner Cable, seriously disappointing when it comes to niche genres like foreign film. Not Hulu. For $7.99 a month I have access to great swathes of films by Kiarostami, Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer, and Bergman and Fellini and Truffaut, Godard, and Antonioni of course. There is a broad selection of movies from Eastern Europe and Asia, and even American avant-gardist Hollis Frampton can be found (though, alas, Hulu does not carry the Criterion edition of Stan Brakhage’s films). Off the Criterion brand, Hulu also carries a good selection of other programming, including the BBC Shakespeare series of the 1970s that I grew up with.
I suppose I could just lay there awash in this, celebrating my belated entry into the 21st century when it comes to streaming video. But there are inevitably drawbacks. Many of these films are licensed to streaming video services for only a limited time; what is there tonight may not be there tomorrow. Although streaming technology has improved a great deal over the past few years — to my aging eyes, the quality is far better than those of the 16mm reduction prints I saw when I first came across these movies in the 1970s and 1980s — there are still burrups here and there. And if you truly want access to films like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Faces — films not available on either Netflix or Hulu — you need to sign up with yet another service. I suppose you can’t have everything, but there are also several important films (like those of Brakhage and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg) which remain unavailable on any of these services.
These, though, are clearly quibbles. Things have improved a great deal since the early days of cable networks like A&E and Bravo, which originally offered high-middle-brow “cultural” programming like many of the Criterion films; I don’t need to tell you want they offer now. And things may get better yet. I wouldn’t mind, say, if Criterion began its own streaming service; their library is certainly large enough, and with current technology it would also be able to offer things like the audio commentaries and documentaries that accompany their DVD and Blu-Ray releases (a few of the Criterion films on Hulu are already accompanied by some of these extras). “The real Criterion experience has always been a carefully designed and packaged edition of a film looking its best,” Criterion wrote when announcing its relationship with Hulu in 2011. “That’s what we’ve been known for more than 25 years. Today, the state of the art is our Blu-ray line, and if you want the full Criterion experience, that’s what you should be watching.”
But maybe not for much longer. People like me continue to fight the Kindle like we fight streaming video; we miss the fetishistic pleasures of the physical book, the physical disk. I wonder, though, if that’s like missing the scrolls that were in use before the emergence of the codex, or the cassette tape before the CD. Last year, Criterion re-upped its agreement with Hulu; it is a “multi-year deal,” which I hope means more than two, but it’ll be interesting to see where we’re at in several years. In the meantime, I’m popping popcorn and digging in.