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Now playing, thanks to Netflix: Fritz Lang's "M", starring Orson Welles
Now playing, thanks to Netflix: Fritz Lang's "M", starring Orson Welles

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

The web is the new art-house cinema Add to ...

"You used to be big," says William Holden's Joe Gillis to Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

"I am big," she replies. "It's the pictures that got small."

That was back in 1950, even before most people started watching movies on television, never mind via video-streaming on their iPhones. While it has reduced movies in size and value, the Internet has marked a shift in the appreciation of certain kinds of films. In a real sense, online has become the new art house.

Previous columns by Liam Lacey

Last week, Mongrel Media, a Canadian company specializing in foreign and alternative films, made a deal with the new-to-Canada video-streaming service, Netflix, to release nine films in the next few months that will appear simultaneously in theatres and online, and a week later on DVD and Superchannel.

Mongrel's president, Hussain Amarshi, says he decided to try a multi-platform approach to selling such films as Palme d'Or-winner Cristian Mungiu's Tales from the Golden Age, Carlos Saura's I, Don Giovanni and Margarethe von Trotta's Vision.

The reason is that art films rely on reviews, not advertising. With individual print costs of up to $4,000 for a European subtitled film, and publicity costs running much higher, it's just not profitable to screen these niche films in many theatres.

Instead, Amarshi decided to try to use the initial press for the theatrical release to promote the film in other formats. The arrival of Netflix in September triggered this strategy. Says Amarshi: "It seems to be a model of the future where you see what you want to see when you want to see it."

Netflix charges a flat fee of $7.99 a month no matter how many films you watch, and though the great appeal is to the cinematic glutton, there are some gourmet choices. Last week, for example, as part of the company's free month-long trial, I watched Fritz Lang's M, François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, the Marx Brothers film A Night in Casablanca, and Korean-American director So Yong Kim's 2008 film, Treeless Mountain.

Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for the company, says the list of films is expanding daily and although art house and independent films are just one component of the service, "in many cases, Netflix has been the only way many of these films have found an audience outside of festivals."

There's a valid argument that watching a film online is only an approximation of the "authentic" film experience, and that essential elements of films are lost or distorted on DVD, television or home computer. But even hard-core film lovers seem increasingly willing to compromise viewing standards to get to the films they want to see.

Sites such as The Auteurs (now www.mubi.com) cater to serious film fans with discussion forums, essays and new and old art films. The prices are cheap - from free to $3 (U.S.) for a feature, or a set monthly price.

There are even better, completely legal deals out there. The National Film Board, Canada's historical leader in documentary and experimental innovation, put a large chunk of its library online last year, more than 700 titles for free viewing. Another site, UbuWeb ( www.ubu.com/film) offers hundreds of titles by such artists as Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, though the site does offer this charming disclaimer:

"UbuWeb is pleased to present hundreds of avant-garde films & videos for your viewing pleasure. However, it is important to us that you realize that what you will see is in no way comparable to the experience of seeing these gems as they were intended to be seen: in a dark room, on a large screen, with a good sound system and, most importantly, with a roomful of warm, like-minded bodies."

OPENING NEXT WEEK

Inside Job Charles Ferguson, whose prosecutorial approach to the Bush administration's Iraq War strategy in No End in Sight made that documentary one of the best films about Iraq, focuses on the Wall Street executives whose policies led to the economic failure of 2008.

Tamara Drewe Stephen Frears adapts the graphic novel based on Posy Simmonds's weekly comic strip serial in The Guardian, which is loosely based on Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. The important thing is Gemma Arterton. She plays a newspaper columnist in a red sleeveless top and shorts who arrives in a village writer's colony after her nose job and drives all the men wild.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest The Swedish movie based on the third and final chapter of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series begins with bisexual punk-hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander recovering in hospital while awaiting trial for three murders. Devotees of the book need not despair. The first of the Hollywood adaptations, directed by David Fincher, comes out next year.

Saw 3D In the seventh and purportedly last instalment of the Saw horror movies, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his nasty legacy continue. With a couple of buzzsaws and a woman they love dangling between them, two men must make some tough choices, beyond whose insurance policy is going to cover this.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

 

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