Nowadays you can, if you want (it barely requires trying), surf the flow not just of television, but of cinema. On my flight from New York to Amsterdam, on my way to the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), I had numerous options of contemporary mainstream cinemas at my fingertips—the small screen of a long plane ride is a great place to catch-up on the year’s big movies—and chose to drift to amused sleep with the pleasantries of Paddington 2. On the train from the airport to Rotterdam, I watched part of a file of a screener a programmer lent me of a film from the festival whose details in the catalog tantalized, but whose screening times conflicted with my dates of attendance. It being the opening night of the festivities, there was only one screening that evening, and it was sold out to those wishing to listen to the remarks of an opening ceremony that will no doubt praise cinema in grand generalities, speak to the pluralism of a festival showing over 200 (wild guess, possibly a lowball) movies, and thank the countless funding bodies that both help support such a mammoth event as this festival and whose support paradoxically requires the event be mammoth.
Instead, I finished my iPad screening and floated therefrom to the local multiplex to watch mainstream Hollywood fare I have missed for one reason or another in America, mere hours before the venue—the oldest, stuffiest, and easily most charming of the festival—is temporarily lent to the IFFR for far artier moviegoing. There, in a self-made double feature, I watched Oscar-nominated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (overlong but pleasingly briskly paced; good humor, nice message) and the never-nominated-for-anything Welcome to Marwen, whose sublime oddity, its vividly realized questioning of cinematic spectacle, violence, misogyny, myth, trauma, and fantasy confirmed mild (very mild) rumors it was among the best films released in 2018. Even though both screenings were sparsely attended (one generous with chuckles and sighs, the other met with harrumphs of Dutch confusion), both were easily more charged with fun than the lonesome and distracted viewings during the journey (it must be said, train rides are so cinematic that they ably compete with, and usually best, most films for the pleasure of moving imagery).
Afterwards, in my hotel room, I poked around the festival’s “video library,” which not so long ago was just a space (which still exists) at the festival center in which industry professional-types (critics, programmers, hybrid characters) can spend minutes or hours or days viewing films programmed at the very festival they are attending on demand. These are watched for reasons ranging from scheduling impossibilities preventing actual attendance (or sometimes pure laziness), to professional binge-watching for prospects (common in such places to visiting programmers from other festivals and venues, as well as film distributors) and the fact that the room provides an environment lacking the social embarrassment of walking out of a film, not to mention one that facilitates fast-forwarding.
This library, which contains many but hardly all of the new films shown at the festival, and almost none of the IFFR’s marvelous revivals scattered across its diverse sections, used to be DVD-based, and then it was digital but accessed only through festival-provided computers. Then, in 2010 when I first wrote about it
, you could stream the library through a WiFi network in the building. Now this library seems accessible virtually (no more DVDS, just streaming) at least in this city, and possibly across the Netherlands. Since the IFFR has also recently launched its own streaming service, Unleashed, themed around films shown at the festival in the past, we are getting very close indeed to what I imagined nine years ago, where a huge festival like Rotterdam exists entirely online, and whether in a plane, train, gym, toilet, dorm, locally run screening space, or in a multiplex bored during a Hollywood film, one could (hypothetically) stream an overwhelming amount of what was once obscure and hard to access films of diverse genres and types from across the globe programmed by the festival's team.
This, of course, would in a many ways be a utopia of cultural access. But it would also strip away all the community, energy, conversation, and sideline activities and pleasures that connect single films into a festival, which is an environmental experience. A giant list of films is not an experience, it is a catalog, and accessing such a thing encourages solitary viewing and isolation, reducing the power of moviegoing to its most bare essence. Such a widely available virtual festival would also strip local institutions and organizations of the ability to present the films in their own way, in their own particular context except as nestled within another's curation. And despite this greater, wider access, and this bigger possible virtual audience, would the films get the same attention they receive when premiering in physical spaces, in front of communal audiences, many of which contain those who—as professionals or amateurs, or one masquerading as the other—will write about the pictures, drawing others to the experience who in turn will tell more, spreading the word?
For now, probably not; the jump from the 2010 video library to that of 2019 is only be degrees and no one has yet figured out how to corral the spotlight given at a festival premiere to its equivalent online. Small films which have several hundred member audiences at one festival and then the next, and then another, might never be found in a streaming catalog, and languish there unseen. Of one thing there is no doubt, that the technology is there—the question is whether the culture can sustain the possibility, whether filmmaking can be adequately supported, and, ultimately, just how much magic would disappear from the cinema when the audience is predominantly defined by a dispersion rather than a gathering. Before bed and before the festival's first film even finished, I watched a short from the selection on my laptop in my room. The film was good, but there was nothing memorable or amplifying about the way I watched it—it was consumed, intended to be good for me, taken like a day's vitamin. Maybe if I drew a bath, balancing the computer on the tub's lip, could I create a scenario for electrifying lone viewing. Perhaps an experiment for later. In the meantime, now that the Rotterdam’s festival is starting proper, and it’s time to go exploring in the dark with others as excited to be here as myself.