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Back to the Future

As the DVD begins its descent into technological obsolesce, here’s my attempt in the New York Times to assess the effects of the format’s slow fade-out on cinephilia. For the moment, the bad news is that the hot new streaming technologies don’t offer a visual experience all that superior to VHS; the good news is that lowered tech specs might allow some long neglected (and uneconomical to remaster) titles to return to distribution. Netflix, for example, is offering some a grab bag of 1950s obscurities that includes some United Artists titles like Andre De Toth’s “Hidden Fear” (a film that surely ranks with “Reptilicus” as one of the finest drive-in pictures ever made in Denmark) and Pine-Thomas Paramount productions like Nicholas Ray’s “Run for Cover” (albeit whittled down to 1.33 from its original VistaVision).

In the end, the gains and losses will probably balance out. The immediate danger here is the widespread sense that, thanks to streaming video, “everything” is now available for viewing with the click of a mouse. That’s far from the case, unfortunately, but once that kind of complacency takes hold, it’s hard to shake off.

122 comments to Back to the Future

  • Complaints about Netflix navigation – not far off from the reason why Criterion pulled chocks. That’s the dilemma movie retailers face, with physical media or digital content: they can’t make a business case for some movies/editions simply being _better_ than others. Result = boutique labels and aficionados feel left out, act accordingly.

  • Michael Worrall


    I hope you and your loved ones are safe and sound in Japan. Please let the gang here know if you are ok.

  • Junko, are things OK where you are?

  • Junko Yasutani

    Thank you to ask about me Dave and Michael. It is 12 hours since earthquake (almost 3:00 AM here) Tokyo is OK but many people afraid and worried. I cannot sleep because of after shock. No power in Miyagi Prefecture where there is big damage. I cannot write more because I am helping friend to travel to Tohoku where there is family member today. I will write more tomorrow.

  • Junko Yasutani

    If you see damage in Tokyo it is not everywhere. Do not believe that Tokyo is destroyed. Someone told me that foreign report is saying that. It is not true. There is fire in waterfront, one building collapsed, but Tokyo is mostly OK. Only aftershocks is scaring people.

  • Junko, I think I speak for everyone here when I say we send our best wishes to you and anyone you may know who has been affected.

  • Steve Elworth

    Best wishes to our terrific friend Junko and all of friends in Japan and that amazing country and its culture.

  • Vivian

    Junko, I can only add that I’m thinking of you and all in Japan (as I know we all are), thanks for any updates when you have time time to provide them. Meanwhile good luck and bless you.

  • O-ki wo tsukete kudasai, Yasutani-san.

  • Junko, glad to hear you’re all right…

  • Tony Williams

    Junko, May I pass on my deepest sympathies and condolences to yourself, your family, all those affected by this disaster.

  • Alex


    Sounds like Japanese buildings –as opposed to some infrastructure and older buildings– have stood up well to this ferocious quake, if not the direct path of the Tsunami.

    Concern, sympathies and best of luck.

  • Oliver_C

    I was working in Japan when the 1995 Kobe earthquake happened (though nowhere near it) — the city’s reconstruction was subsequently shown in the 48th and final ‘Tora-san’ movie — and I thought that devastation was bad enough! The news has been terrible, and what with nuclear overheating and supplies running low, blackouts even, it isn’t over yet.

    I urge everybody to do or donate what they can.

  • Everyone in the United States has been paying close attention to the awful disaster in Japan. It is truly terrible.

    Before this happened, we had been looking forward to rare examples of Japanese culture being released. Eclipse is promising a “Silent Naruse” set. And mystery publishers are putting out the first new translation of a Seicho Matsumoto novel in many years, a legal thriller to be called PRO BONO.
    These offer hope that the world will have increased knowledge of the awesome creative accomplishments of the Japanese people.

    Junko, it is great to know that you are all right.

  • Junko Yasutani

    Dear Friends at Dave Kehr’s site,

    I am very appreciating your kind words to me even though we have not met. You are encouraging my spirit to carry on.

    I will not be able to post so often because there is power shortage in Kanto area that will last many weeks.

    Thank you a million times to remember me.


  • Steve Elworth

    Junko, we happily await your return to Dave Kehr land. We hope that you and yours will be strong and we are with the wonderful people and culture of Japan!!!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    To show how blurred the lines are becoming, Netflix has just outbid the cable giants to produce David Fincher’s next project called House of Cards, committing to 26 episodes for this drama series, the first of which and apparently others later to be directed by him, and the entire project overseen by him and co=producer Kevin Spacey.

    They are doing this without any pilot (HBO needed to see one from Martin Scorsese before greenlighting Boardwalk Empire by comparison). Deadline Hollywood puts the risk involved at over $100 million (more than twice the cost of The Social Network for example).

    So they are planning to enter at least in part the original content business.

    The Amazon streaming item hurt their stock last week; this announcement apparently has turned them into a “buy.”

  • Barry Putterman

    I have just gotten back home from London and am sincerely gladdened to hear that our friend Junko is safe.

    But now as to this extremely frightening situation regarding the nuclear reactor….Well, all we can do is hope for the best.

  • Peter Henne

    Junko, Likewise, I just returned from Fort Worth, Texas. One of the first things I wanted to see tonight online was whether you had given this web site an update on how you are, knowing that you might not have been able to for any number of reasons. I’m so glad to read that you remain safe. I’m sure that the Japanese people are facing a frightful situation. Many people in the U.S. are watching the destruction from the natural catastrophes and the radioactive threat closely. We have a saying in the United States: We will hold a place at the table for you. It means we look forward to you coming back and we will keep you in our thoughts in the meantime. In case you can’t contribute at this web site for a while, Junko, there is a place set at the table for you and we’re eager to have conversation with you again.

  • Stephen Bowie

    Criterion just deposited the first title on Hulu for streaming that had no prior disc release: Hiroshi Inagaki’s SAMURAI SAGA (1959).

  • Michael Dempsey

    The experiences of numerous Japanese students who have been in ESL classes at my school so far this year — many of whom have had to or will soon have to travel back home to face close contact with the devastation — have made the ongoing horrors of their nation’s recent experiences all the more dreadful to contemplate.

    So I’d like to add my gratitude to that of others on this site for Junko’s safety and her invaluable contributions, which have greatly enriched so many discussions here.

  • Netflix’s deal for the Miramax catalog goes a long way toward addressing the Criterion loss. Here’s hoping the StudioCanal titles are in the mix.

    I’ve found all kinds of odd foreign movies on Watch Instantly, such as Nordic noir, some Cantonese gangster flicks not otherwise seen here and Russian crime thrillers.

    I routinely get email from Netflix asking how the video quality was on titles on “high-def.” Usually I reply that it was good, especially making allowances for the streaming element. While some films certainly look VHS quality, Dave, quite a few look great.

    This may turn out to be one a rerun of the MP3-CD situation, with portability emerging as the people’s choice. In at least one case, I watched a movie streaming instead of going through the DVD stack to find my copy.

    Midterm, I expect streaming to take over home video with Blu-ray as a videophile medium (such as SACD). Long term, no artifacts such as DVDs and CDs.