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The thrill of anticipation
Inspired by Camus's recent article on life-changing cinema, Slarek recalls a time when the process of a tracking down a film turned its viewing into a major event | 19 December 2013

Recently Camus posted an article titled Touched by Light, where he explored the concept of film as a revelatory experience from a personal perspective and asked: "Has life-changing cinema been irrevocably diluted by the ubiquity and immediacy of media?" It's a pertinent question, one that prompted this suddenly nostalgic old fool to likewise wonder whether the thrillingly easy access we now have to a mind-boggling array of movies of all descriptions doesn't have one or two minor downsides, at least for those old enough to remember what it was like before we were able to quickly lay our hands on almost any film we desired.

A brief pause to establish some context. A few years ago a friend of mine complained to me that that a wealthy associate of his had bought an expensive electronic device (to go into which one would require contextualising it to the time and eat further into this story) – one that both my friend and I would have loved to get our hands on but could never afford – and had tossed into a drawer after a couple of days' play and effectively forgotten about it. The problem, my friend reasoned, was not that the device itself was in any way faulty, but that its value to the owner was considerably less than it would be to us because to buy it made only a microscopic blip on his finances. To him the purchase was like buying a biro. For us it would have involved a year of solid saving and building anticipation and the purchase itself would be a very big deal, one our lives would revolve around for months and possibly even a few years. The object's rarity and inaccessibility in our small world made the prospect of owning it or even getting to use it a major event.

Once upon a time, movies were like that. You read about them in magazines and books, but tracking them down required a sometimes herculean task, particularly if you did not live in or close to a major city. You couldn't hire a film that you wanted to see, no sir. You had to regularly check the listings of London independent cinemas (well, it was London for me), and if by some miracle one of the films you'd been waiting to see for years was scheduled to be screened, you had to start laying out plans to dodge work or college, save up for the fare and make travel arrangements, and sometimes find your way back from the city at an idiotic hour of the night, which in my case included a three-mile walk in the pitch black at the tail end of the journey. But when you finally sat down for the film in question, you felt you'd really worked to get to that moment, and if you enjoyed it (oh the misery if you didn't) then the long wait and the building anticipation added to the experience.

Such was the excitement of such events that we'd tolerate all manner of problems with the print, projection or even the venue if it just meant we got to see the film in question. In a strange sort of way it could even add to the fun. I'll give you an example. Back when Ridley Scott's genre-redefining Alien was released, there was a rumour going around that some of its key elements were lifted from Edward L. Cahn's 1958 It! The Terror From Beyond Space. It's a rumour no-one I knew could substantiate or refute because you couldn't get to see it, wherever you lived. It was also rumoured that to prevent these comparisons being widely reported, 20th Century-Fox had done their damnedest to ensure that any surviving prints of Cahn's film were withdrawn from circulation. The BFI, however, were determined to get their hands on a copy, whatever its condition, and screen it at what was then called the National Film Theatre as part of a science fiction season. I have no doubt they put in some serious hours on this, and when they confirmed that they were definitely going to show the film I cancelled all other arrangements, bought my ticket and counted down the days to the scheduled screening.

I can't tell you how excited I was as I took my seat, a sense of anticipation that was clearly shared by everyone in my immediate vicinity. After months of speculation, we were finally going to get the chance to see whether Alien really did owe a debt to this low-budget example of 50s genre cinema. Then a member of the NFT staff took the stage to introduce the film. There was one small problem, he apprehensively announced. With all prints of the film effectively withdrawn, the only one they were able to lay their hands on had suffered some serious damage. As a result the end of each reel was missing, including the last. This meant that not only were their holes in the action every ten minutes or so, but the film had no ending. And you know what? We really didn't care. We good-naturedly laughed at this extraordinary announcement and were still fired up when the film abruptly ended and the lights went up mid-way through the climax. Bits had been missing, we didn't know how it ended (though we could probably guess), but we'd finally seen the film that had until that moment been nothing but a title in an American genre magazine. Do you seriously think I'd still be fondly recalling that event all these years later if I could have just turned on my computer and found the film on YouTube?

I'm not for a second suggesting that I'd like to go back to only reading about movies that I might never see, but it's hard to generate that level of anticipation for a film that you just know you'll easily be able to find on disc or on one of the increasing number of on-line video libraries. Of course, this also means film writers have fewer excuses for not knowing a director's work when faced with the task of reviewing their latest film. I know I'll be covering Computer Chess sometime in the new year and have somehow not seen any of director Andrew Bujalski's previous work. Only a few ago I'd have to live with that fact and admit this up front, but a quick check suggests that at least part of his back catalogue is freely available, and it then just comes down to time and money.

This freedom of access also allows us to tailor our viewing to the films that we want to see. This is obviously a good thing, but in the process we may end up missing films that we might otherwise catch by chance if our viewing options were partially mapped out for us. This may sound absurd, but stay with me here. These days at Outsider we rarely get unsolicited review discs and usually have to specifically request them, so tend to cherry-pick titles we have fond memories of or expect to positively respond to. Back in the days when distributors and PR companies used to send out review discs willy-nilly to anyone who might consider covering their release, we'd try to cover anything that came through our door. As a small operation run by people with full-time jobs, we rarely covered more than a handful each month, and in attempting to give each distributor a fair shake we tried not to focus on the output of just a couple of them. I thus got to see films my normally busy schedule would probably not have otherwise allowed, and in the process discovered a few gems that I would in other circumstances have simply not seen (the Japanese live action manga adaptation Ikigami is a great example).

This level of access also strips film fans of a prime excuse for not seeing any film of note, and with so many great films being diluted, fucked up and regurgitated by the Hollywood remake machine, I genuinely can't understand how anyone who gives a crap about cinema would go see a heavily promoted remake before watching the original when that original has very likely been within easy reach for quite some time. There are no excuses here! At least not any more. Even deleted titles are still floating around out there in the ether and can be tracked by anyone with a computer, a fast internet connection and a bit of determination. And though it may not be the event it once was for us older film fans, you can at least take comfort from the knowledge that in order to see the film you won't have to tell lies to your boss, fork out for train fares, then walk home afterwards through dark deserted lanes, wondering all the while just what horrible creatures might be laying in wait just outside your field of vision. Can you tell which sort of films I used to most frequently hunt out?

Oh yes, and for those who've not seen it, It! The Terror From Beyond Space really does prefigure Alien in a number of ways. The most obvious is the plot, which also involves an alien creature that sneaks aboard a manned spaceship after it lands on interplanetary soil (Mars in this case – it always was back then) and then starts picking off the crew one by one. There's even a confrontation between the creature and one of the crew members in the ships air ducts and a smokily backit shot of this film's monster. While nowhere near as polished and scary as Scott's film, It! Is still a neat little film and well worth a look for genre aficionados.