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A Belated Christmas Present

Yesterday a friend gave me a belated Christmas present, a media device called ‘fireTVstick’, available for purchase on-line through Amazon, but something I had never heard of.  In an added gesture of generosity, he kindly installed the device on my television set.

What it does, according to the blurb on the box that it came in, is offer streaming videos ranging from films and television programmes to sports events and video games – thousands of them, the manufacturer boasts. 

Frankly I was sceptical that I would summon the time or the energy to do so.  In short, I considered The Thing to be just another gizmo, long on marketing gimmicks and short on substance.

My mind was changed within moments of its installation.

Having doubted that it would bring me any more than the usual array of sordid and puerile films and foreign channels that I can already get through my current provider – most of them on obscure channels that I rarely turn to – I issued the most extreme challenge I could think of.

“Let’s see,” I said, confident of proving my point that the box of tricks was a complete waste of time, “if This Thing can give me a film called Intolerance”. We waited for it to respond with a string of mystified messages to the effect that no such film resided on the fireTVstick data base, with a subliminal suggestion that no such film had ever existed. 

I should explain that Intolerance, directed by D.W. Griffith, is one of the pioneering and most influential films in the history of cinema.  It was made in 1916 – that is, two years before the end of the First World War – and runs for an astonishing three hours and seventeen minutes, with four inter-locking plots concerning man’s intolerance and ignorance; in other words a film with a message. 

Now, many films have purported to convey a ‘message’ by exposing American society’s most egregious defects or its more extreme peccadilloes, including such timeless classics as High Noon and The Grapes of Wrath, but none did so as early as 1916, when the cinema, at least in a narrative form, was still in its infancy.  Griffith, who went on to form United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin would have been the first name nominated for a Hollywood Hall of Fame, if such a thing had existed, if only for making an earlier silent epic, Birth of a Nation.

I first saw Intolerance as a member of the British Film Institute at the National Film Theatre under Waterloo Bridge.  I was barely into my twenties at the time, and the experience left me sufficiently impressed to consider carving out a career in the film industry.  The film is widely regarded as a magnificent achievement, especially for its time, but also for all time, an improvement even on Birth of a Nation, which is tainted by its sympathetic view of the Confederacy’s treatment of Negroes.

Well, blow me if This Thing, this little box of tricks no bigger than a mobile telephone, didn’t within seconds retrieve from its obviously vast archives the very film that was certain that it would not have.

“Try something else,” my friend said, up for another challenge.  “How about picking some obscure foreign film?”

I settled for The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cent Coups), director Francois Truffaut’s first film, and one which, among others, announced the New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) in French cinema in the late 1950s.

Up it came, as quick as a flash, and not as some grainy relic impossible to view without resorting to a special lens – like the ones the military use to spot targets in the dark – but as clear as the proverbial bell.

About half a century has passed since I saw either film, and I had not expected to see them ever again.  But that little box of tricks now attached to the back of my television set is, I suspect, about to open up endless new viewing horizons.  

Where do all these archived films reside?  It is a complex question to answer, but the short version is that they are contributed by a variety of organizations, virtually all based in the United States, and many of them operating in apparent contravention of all manner of US piracy and intellectual property laws.  I don’t care, and anyway the viewer is not culpable for viewing them.

I harbour a mild form of contempt for Amazon, not just for the negative impact it has had on so many retail businesses, but for its cruel employment practises.

But fireTVstick has fired up this stick-in-the-mud.  I commend it to all those who have a genuine affinity for serious cinema.

Now for a season of early John  Ford ….

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