Hello Video Librarians. How are you? I wonder if you feel a little bit like I do: disconnected, adrift... a little like I live in a world where the only place I can shop is either Amazon for my books and Netflix for my movies. It is a lonely place, where I am isolated in front of my computer screen. I have plenty of choice but something is missing... it is a dystopian world of abundance based on algorithms that somehow doesn't satisfy what I crave. Is this ringing a bell with any of you? I find it hard to believe I am the only one suffering from this intellectual loneliness that gnaws at me. For Juno's sake, you're librarians! You, of all people, must understand about intellectual curiosity?
Assuming you do, the next question is, is there an antidote to a world in which our intellectual curiosity is to be quenched by "products" recommended by algorithms? I signed up for Netflix for my mom the other evening and before completing my order I had to select five series that reflected my taste. This means that going forward my ability to discover something outside of my profile is severely limited. They've got my number and that will be my world. I am a prisoner of my profile. It makes me think about how we supposedly live in a world in which we generally don't interact with people outside of our socio/economic/political bubble and that this leads to the illusion that everyone is just like you. But how boring a world is that when all of my friends, neighbors, colleagues think just like me? When we all watch the same films, read the same books, the same newspapers, same tv commentators? I might come to believe the world is homogenous and without dissent. Somehow, this seems pernicious to me.
Do any of you remember the days when you could go into the local book store, or better yet library, and discover new authors? New genres? New ideas? My memory of my formative intellectual years is one of discovery. First I discovered the world of literature, from autobiography to science fiction, at the local library. Then I discovered music by learning to play the flute, and finally I discovered cinema. The discovery of film occurred when I was old enough to ride my bike to the local art house theater in Berkeley on Shattuck Avenue where every night they played a different film. My first films were Eraser Head and Night of the Living Dead, a double bill in black and white. Let us say the evening made an impression. I also discovered Bertolucci, Agnes Varda (after seeing The Hitch Hiker I never hitchhiked again fearing I would end up dead in a ditch), The Ballad of Narayama, Godard, the list goes on. These were neither happy nor easy films to watch but they satiated my desire to learn about the world for the couple of hours that I could escape from the duress of adolescence and I came to the realization that life is not about having fun; it is often bleak and full of suffering. Who today has watched The Ballad of Narayama? It most certainly isn't on Netflix!
These films, like the library books, were curated by people who were well versed and knowledgeable in the world of literature and film. I could trust these curators to provide not entertainment, but experiences that provoked me to think outside my limited experience. I could experience life in all of its brutality in a pre war Japanese village or determine that sex must be a terrible thing in David Lynch's world after watching Eraser Head.
But today my choices are guided by algorithms or worse yet, at the risk of sounding like an elitist snob, the vox populi. Netflix brags about its "binge" model. This is what one does with Twinkies or Oreos or cheap whiskey: you binge until you are sick. You remember little the next day except that while it might have been fun when you were in the process of binging, there is now a terrible headache on top of a terrible hunger but you are too sick to eat. Nothing has been satisfied. It is the endless cycle of addiction. It is spiritually exhausting and a form of intellectual starvation.
Dear librarians, can you please make sure that my children and grandchildren don't grow-up in a dystopian world where the films that they can watch are chosen by an algorithm or their peers looking for cheap thrills, rather than curators? Because the art house theaters are struggling. I live in a university town and I can testify that the offerings are meager in the neighborhood. Can you please help my filmmakers to connect with their audiences directly by licensing indie films with PPR or DSL from the distributors rather than via a cheap smorgas of an all-you-can-eat buffet that leaves everyone hungry for connection and conversation and reaps profit for the platform but not for the artists?
Dear librarians, can't we (re) connect to make sure that our intellectual world, of which you are the front and last line of defense, is defended? Please consider the price that is really paid when librarians stop purchasing films from indie distributors and the filmmakers they represent; it is not just financial although the economic impact is staggering. When you purchase direct from the distributor a significant portion of each sale goes back to the filmmaker. When you opt for a subscription model, the price goes down as does the revenue share as the platform also takes a cut of each license fee. We indie distributors are like the neighborhood book stores and, as we know from experience, all of the local book stores will go out of business because they cannot compete with Amazon. We all love "cheap," but let's consider the price we really pay when there are no more local book stores, or by extension, no more indie distributors.
Elizabeth Sheldon, CEO
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