Thursday, August 03, 2017

Gone, But Not Quite Forgotten

OK, I'm back, after a couple of days feeling tired and lousy, I'm now just feeling shitty, stressed and angry.  The angry bit is the result of the latest ludicrous work developments which seem to be putting my leave plans in jeopardy - walking out is an increasingly likely possibility.  But we're not here to talk about such things.  Getting back to pop culture and picking up both on Monday's post about forgotten TV series and an ongoing Twitter conversation among some fellow schlock enthusiasts about missing and endangered films, I want to try address the question of why some bits of pop culture fall by the wayside whilst others become cult favourites.  It certainly doesn't have anything to do with quality: sure, while there are some justly forgotten stinkers of TV series and films out there, many which become cult favourites do so precisely because they are shoddily made farragoes.  But many TV series and films seem unjustly forgotten, fading from the public memory despite being decently made and entertaining.  In this age of on demand streaming TV, minority interest digital TV channels and DVD and Blu Ray, you'd think that there was sufficient demand for content, that just about anything would be available to see.  Whilst it is true that many more obscure titles are now available through various outlets, many are still so rarely shown that you have to chase them around the schedules and others remain frustratingly unavailable.

Not all of these elusive titles are obscure low budget sex and horror films or weird Italian mondo movies (although a lot of such films fall into this category) many are studio-backed productions which received wide releases.  An example of this is The Strange Affair, a 1968 'swinging London' movie about police corruption.  Despite starring the likes of Michael York, Jeremy kemp and Susan George and having a 'name' director in David Greene, (for a while he seemed to have a promising career ahead of him, with some interesting early films, but by the mid seventies it had fizzled out and he ended up directing for TV), the film seems to have vanished completely from the public conciousness.  There have been no VHS or DVD releases that I can find, nor have there been any TV screenings that I can remember.  It certainly isn't a poorly made film: it received reasonable reviews on its cinema release and an excerpt of the first few minutes I've seen online just made me want to see it more, with some fabulous tracking shots of 'old' London being demolished to make way for new roads and flyovers.

Yet, for some reason, it has, to all intents and purposes, has disappeared.  Perhaps part of the problem is that it is felt that it has 'dated' badly and contemporary audiences would find it difficult to watch. It is true that many 'swinging sixties' movies now look their age, but that, surely, is part of their charm. Nevertheless, I have found amongst younger people (damn them for their youth) a reluctance to watch fims made even in the eighties on the basis that they are 'old'.  In their eyes - and those of TV schedulers and DVD executives, it seems - these 'old' films simply can't match modern movies with their slick production values and sophisticated CGI effects, even though those modern movies are often all style and no substance.  Maybe that's part of the problem: 'old' movies are just too complex for modern audiences, demanding more attention from the viewer.  But that still doesn't explain why some have become 'classics' (there are a number of these which constantly turn up on TV), others 'cult' (readily available on DVD) whereas others remain obscure.  In part, it is probably down to star power - TV friendly old 'classics' usually feature the likes of Redford, Newman or McQueen.  Even 'cult' films often feature the same familiar faces, from Vincent Price to Barbara Steele and many others in between.  Also, the presence of an actor who subsequently became hugely famous, even in a minor role, can help hugely in turning a schlocky film or old TV series into a 'cult' favourite.  

Being in colour also helps a film's longevity - fewer and fewer black and white films now get shown on mainstream TV, and never in prime time slots.  I suspect that a major factor deciding the fate of films is their subject matter: in the early seventies there were a whole slew of low budget British films exploring all manner of social phenomena from sexual problems to transgender issues.  Their  treatment of the subject matter, although usually well intentioned, now looks, at best, quaint.  But again, isn't that why they are fascinating, the way in which they preserve, like a fly in amber, yesterdays social attitudes?  Sometimes, though, the fate of films, especially low budget independent films, is down to the vagaries of distribution.  Back in the day there were still many small distributors around, who handled such movies, whilst some were bought out by bigger distributors, others went out of business, leaving the films whose rights they held in limbo, making it difficult for anyone wanting to screen them or release them on other media to obtain decent prints, let alone rights.  Even when these distributors were bought out, most of their film libraries probably ended up in the vaults of whoever took them over, forgotten, gathering dust and decaying.

All of which is a bit depressing.  Nonetheless, TV channels like Talking Pictures TV and DVD distributors like Shameless and Network are to be commended for rescuing many obscure titles, both films and TV series, and ensuring their continued public availability.  Indeed, Talking Pictures TV have also been active in effectively unlocking the libraries of the likes of Rank and Southern TV to bring a lot of stuff back into circulation.  The efforts of the BFI to put out many rare and obscure titles on DVD shouldn't be forgotten, either.  I'm not sure I've actually made that much progress in identifying why some pop culture past thrives while other bits fall into obscurity, but I think I've at least established a few ideas which might help in future explorations of the subject.

(As an addendum, I think that I've now located an uploaded complete print of The Strange Affair.  I don't to say much more in case it gets taken down.  I'll make watching it a priority and, hopefully, write about it here in the near future).



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