When is a pirate not a pirate?
I can hardly go to see a movie now, or pop a newly purchased DVD into my player, without somebody screaming at me that piracy is wrong wrong WRONG! Don’t I know, the disc I just purchased with my own money for twenty bucks tells me, that I’m stealing food from the mouths of hungry studio executives and billionaire stars? Can’t I look into my heart, the giant multiplex screen asks me, and not pirate the movie I bought a ticket for (and sat through twenty minutes of commercials to get to) with that camcorder I don’t have stashed in my pocket?
Oh, fuck off.
I’m a subscriber to Netflix, The Movie Network, HBO and a host of cable outlets. I own thousands of DVDs, all bought and paid for. I’ve suffered inflated entry fees at the box office to see thousands of other films over the years. In the past, when such things were viable, I paid to rent movies on VHS, laserdisc and DVD at a wide variety of video stores and mail-order services like Zip.ca. Over the course of a lifetime of movie fandom, I’ve shovelled six-figures of cash at studios, distributors and venues in order to watch the endless number of films I considered worth my time and attention.
But have I ever illegally downloaded a film to watch on my computer? Ever? Even once?
You bet your goddamn ass I have. Many hundreds of times.
Why is that? Is it because I’m a criminal who can’t wait to fleece those poor struggling Hollywood conglomerates? You know, those wonderful people who keep poisoning the well with nine-figure budgets to produce B-movie crap, colossal celebrity salaries that would be enough for any reasonable person to retire on after just one picture, surcharges on already overpriced tickets for gimmicky 3D bullshit I don’t even want with my movie, endless upgrades to the same popular flicks on DVD, Special-Edition DVD, Extra-Special-Edition DVD, Blu-ray, Super-Duper-Extra-Special-Virtual-Blowjob Blu-ray and fucking 3D Blu-ray? Is it just because I’m such an awful person?
No, actually. It’s because they won’t give me the movies I want to see in a timely fashion. So I look elsewhere.
Let’s look at five recent examples of films I’ve seen fit to pirate (plus one more for further discussion), just so I could finally see them.
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013, South Korea)
A dystopian sci-fi train movie from the director of The Host? I had to see this immediately. Thanks to shitty distribution, it bounced around in overseas markets for an entire year before it came to these shores. And only then with no real ad campaign and a limited release in Canada (“limited release” in Canada usually means “one screen in Toronto, fuck everybody else”). So I downloaded a copy because it was already out on Blu-ray in foreign regions. And you know what? I’ll buy a DVD when one’s finally made available anyway.
Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013, U.K.)
There’s a new Richard Shepard movie out with him doing for Jude Law what he did for Pierce Brosnan in The Matador? Where can I buy a ticket? Nowhere? But it’s been out in the U.K. for nearly a year. Tough shit, because there were low expectations for its box office potential in North America. Oh, they got around to a limited release eventually. In the meantime I downloaded a copy because it was already on Blu-ray in the U.K. And you know what? I’ll buy a DVD when one’s finally made available here too. Because I want my Richard Shepard collection to be complete – even though there are titles that have never been released on DVD, and the interlacing on the disc for The Hunting Party was all fucked up (Thanks, Weinstein Company! If you need some help on the technical side next time you digitally transfer a film, let me hook you up with a twelve-year-old nerd who knows what he’s doing).
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013, U.S.A.)
A Jim Jarmusch film starring Tilda Swinton as a vampire and set in the ruins of Detroit? I’m so in! I’ve known about this project since Jim was still trying to finance it. And then it finally got shot in 2012. And finished in 2013. And released in 2014. On four screens. In the States. I got so sick of waiting to see it, I finally downloaded a copy with burnt-in Asian subtitles. Not an optimal way to see it, but at least I got to see it before I dropped dead of extreme old age. And you know what? I’ll buy a DVD when one’s finally made available. I even keep my pirated copy in a folder with other films called “Buy and Delete.”
Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, 1943, U.S.A.)
How did I get this far in life without seeing this classic bit of Billy Wilder wartime espionage propaganda? Easy, I couldn’t find it. But you know who had it? One of the pirate sites that respects film history (unlike the people who own the rights to all that film history). And you know what? It turns out a DVD was released only last year. Seventy years after the fact, but who’s counting? I would have bought it had it been made available in a timely fashion, right around the same time I bought EVERY SINGLE OTHER Billy Wilder movie that was out on DVD. I mean, hey, he’s one of the most beloved writer/directors in history, right? And yet! All of his films STILL aren’t out on DVD, 17 years into the format.
Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972, U.S.A.)
I got tired of having not seen this early Jeff Bridges acid western, so I went shopping for the DVD. Only then did I discover it was out of print. And I really didn’t want to pay 30 bucks for a crappy old transfer on the secondary market. Except I probably will now because having downloaded and watched it and really liked it, I want a better copy than the even-lower-rez download I found. Too bad no one’s looking to release an upgraded special edition of this DVD. Nah, they’re probably hard at work on the tenth edition of Army of Darkness. Fine film, sure, but who needs ten DVD copies of it?
I usually watch movies on the basis of who wrote and/or directed them. I have a long list of people whose careers I follow closely. One of those people is Terry Gilliam. Obviously. If you haven’t been following his career for decades, then I guess you don’t particularly care for cinema in general. I own all of his films on DVD, including multiple editions of some. And I’ll be buying The Zero Theorem one day too. But I’ve also pirated it. Why? Because it was recently announced it’s not even getting any sort of theatrical release in Canada. A Terry Gilliam film. No release. For real.
Mongrel Media has since backed down, embarrassed into offering some sort of Canadian distribution after an email campaign by fans shamed them into it. But why was that even necessary? Simple really. The bottom dollar.
The Zero Theorem is one of those odd, contemplative, existential science fiction movies filled with mystery and symbolism and metaphors that need to be deciphered, capped off with a big fat ambiguous ending. Marketers have no idea what to do with one of those. It’s a lost cause. Better to wait for the next bang-bang shoot-em-up-with-lasers science fiction movie to dump their ad campaign dollars into.
As for me, two words, “Terry” and “Gilliam” sold me instantly. But I’m not most people. Hell, they couldn’t even convince people to go see Tom Cruise blow up aliens in Edge of Tomorrow. They’re never going to convince Joe Boxoffice to buy a ticket to see a bald Christoph Waltz feel alienated while he works on an insolvable problem from his home computer. It was a business decision, pure and simple. To save face, Mongrel will probably end up giving it a token limited release. You know the drill. One screen in Toronto. Two weeks tops.
So where does that leave someone like me? Downloading a torrent, of course. And no, I’m not a bad person for doing it. I’m not stealing the last morsel of bread from Gilliam’s children’s mouths. I’m just a film fan who wants to see the fucking movie now because I might get hit by a bus tomorrow. If it’s finished and ready for public consumption, make it available. There’s a world of technology that makes this possible, guys. Figure out the business model and make it work. And stop trying to sell me on the idea of commuting to see it on the big screen at an inconvenient time, after a bunch of ads for products I’ll never buy and a bunch of trailers that spoil the plot for every movie they’re promoting, next to a mob of chattering troglodytes eating stinky nachos and lighting up the dark theatre with their smart phones while they check to see if they got any interesting texts in the last five minutes.
That ship has sailed. I officially hate the theatre experience now. I have better picture, better sound, better company, and better odours at home. Now let me watch what I really want to watch when I want to watch it instead of spoon feeding me another fucking Transformers movie.
“But it’s the big screen! Some movies are meant to be experienced on the big screen!”
Fuck your big screen. And fuck that wad of gum that’s been stuck to it since some idiot threw it up there in 2003. Don’t you guys ever scrape that shit off?
The Zero Theorem is a dystopian-future science fiction piece, and like all science fiction, it’s really about the here and now. Dystopian-future speculation has been around for a long time, often as cautionary tales about current trends and where we’re heading. Whether it’s Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brazil or Blade Runner, they’re always slightly ahead of the curve – warning of present dangers, but anticipating how bad things might get down the road. Increasingly, however, such works of satirical speculative fiction have felt closer and closer to the mark. Or, more to the point, the world we’re living in has at last come to meet the lowest expectations of Huxley and Orwell.
Now that we’ve finally arrived at the dystopian future we’re all been waiting for, I find I don’t much care for it. Between the surveillance state wanting to know what we’re all up to every moment of every day, and corporate marketers wanting to track every transaction we make so they can better predict how to pick our pockets, I long for the good old days when the only thing looking over our shoulder was the grim reaper – because the black death was sweeping across Europe. Again. And kings and queens were plotting the next major war/population cull. Again. Things were simpler then. Deadlier, but simpler.
The Zero Theorem presents an all-too-recognizable future filled with isolation – isolation through technology, isolation through shallow human interaction, isolation by choice. Christoph Waltz is Qohen Leth, a man utterly alone, who nevertheless always refers to himself in the plural. He’s the latest in a series of computer technicians tasked with solving the zero theorem – an equation that will prove that one day the reverse of the big bang will occur, unmaking everything. He’s good at his work, but largely disinterested in what it’s all for. Unwelcome visitors thwart his ability to concentrate on what he’s doing and demand he form human bonds he doesn’t understand and has long avoided.
It is not an easy film. You will be left with questions like, “What did I just watch?” “What did it mean?” and “Did I like that or hate it?”
You should see it sometime. A time of your choosing, in a format of your choice. Just as soon as the distributors finally pull their thumbs out of their asses and offer it to you.
Or go ahead and find another way. We may be living in our very own dystopian future, but at least it gives us technological options when it comes to how we legally or illegally consume media.