In early December, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote a response to a number of recent “obituaries” written about the state of the movies. In the piece, entitled “Film Culture Isn’t Dead After All,” the critic argues that those who pine for some lost Golden Era of cinema are guilty of some sentimentality and nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way it exists in the fanciful memories of some film writers. Last year, he points out, the New York Times reviewed some 800 new movies, which included everything that was released on a screen in New York, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. That quantity and diversity of movies alone suggests that the theatrical distribution model is by no means sputtering to a quiet death. Then Scott points to the debates that have sparked around films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, Argo, The Master, and others, to argue that it isn’t correct to say that movies no longer inform civic discourse.
I might raise a couple of caveats to Scott’s piece. One is a counterpoint. It must be pointed out that a frustrating and increasingly prevalent characteristic of the studio film today is that most new movies that in anyway can be characterized as vaguely “intelligent” or “good” have generally been isolated to release dates that fall in the last three months of the year. That means for three-quarters of the year, local movie houses are largely barren wastelands of teen sex comedies, found footage horror films, and unwatchable action schlock (that is, if Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a new superhero flick). Sure, there are a lot of them, but is that necessarily a good thing?
But markets are dynamic, and distribution models are evolving. And so another point to raise in light of Scott’s piece is that the local movie house is no longer the sole way of consuming movies in a communal setting. Yes, there are the art houses (and in Dallas, only the Texas Theater can truly claim that title), but in some cities, there have been new micro cinemas sprouting-up, which specialize in limited releases of new films that normally don’t live on past the film festival circuit. In addition, there are a number of new distribution models that distribute under-the-radar films on a one-off screening basis.
The latest example of this is “Something to Talk About,” a documentary film series produced by Brainstorm Media and DIRECTV’s AUDIENCE Network, and presented locally by the Video Association of Dallas. The idea is simple: screen quality documentaries in movie theaters throughout the year, the kinds of films that you would be able to catch at the Dallas Video Festival or discover on Netflix, but would perhaps never see a theatrical release.
Tonight, the program will screen the latest in the series, Stolen Seas, a fascinating look at Somali piracy. The film is structured around the travails of one hijacked Danish vessel, which was held for months while shipping company executives and Somali pirates negotiated a settlement. As this tale unfolds, the film digs into some of the underlying conditions that have led to proliferation of modern day piracy, including the history of the host country, Somalia, as well as the shipping regulations that create a political and economic limbo that helps incubate the criminal activity.
If you’ve followed the story of modern day piracy, much of what is told in Stolen Seas is familiar. But where the documentary excels is both in its access to the pirates themselves and its thorough picking-apart of the motivations behind all the players involved — from the pirates and the companies, to various governments and international organizations, and even the individuals, like a Somali translator, whose lives and livelihoods are caught in the middle of these forces. In light of all of these interlacing interests, piracy emerges not as a criminal melodrama isolated to a far-flung corner of the world, but a kind of symptom of a unhealthy geopolitical system, in which the failed state of Somali, the deregulated shipping business, and the interests of powerful nations conspire to sustain and even promote what, on the surface, is a blatant and growing organized criminal racket.
Tonight’s screening takes place at the Studio Movie Grill Dallas at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go here.