The Piracy Conversation

Doinel Taking Milk

Not every piece Matt Singer publishes over at Criticwire makes me want to respond in kind here, but most of them give me an itchy trigger finger.1 This afternoon, he posted a piece flatly titled “Is it Okay For Critics to Pirate Movies?” which brings the critical community (back) into the never-ending shitstorm that is The Piracy Conversation.

Mind you, his is a response to Mike D’Angelo’s braggadocious “Critic’s Notebook: Is It Wrong to Download Pirated Movies? Not Quite, Says One Critic” from last week.2 The gist of D’Angelo’s piece was that he doesn’t “feel terribly guilty about downloading high-def copies of films that nobody in America has any interest in renting to me.”

Back to Singer for now. He dips his toes in with a bit more gravitas than D’Angelo’s I’m-right-because-I-want-to-be-right boorishness:

Should a critic have access to any film he wants? A critic’s talents are directly proportional to his or her film knowledge. But financially speaking, film criticism is in even worse shape than video retail. Film critics can’t afford to drop $40 a pop for Criterion Blu-rays. Does playing by the rules doom a film critic to a certain degree of ignorance?

I think we should decouple criticism from piracy. Sure, we write about this stuff and maybe turn a few pageviews into precious pennies (or get paid in burgers or, less often, crisp twenty dollar bills), but does that really pose any more of a conflict? There are rare instances when I think the two are part of the same conversation, like when a critic reviewed a leaked workprint of X-Men: Origins: Wolverine in 2009 (hey, 3 years ago yesterday!). Otherwise, what we’re talking about is a practice whose critics say shouldn’t be done by anyone, anywhere, ever.

That being said, most of us whining to the wind about this are absolutely students of cinema. We love the medium and we aim to see as many films as possible, often bragging to one another about how many and how often because we really want people to know. We can’t afford to own every film ever (though some try to) so we go out of our way to be able to see films on the cheap. We spend a day at the multiplex theater-hopping, we get credentialed at festivals, we write for free in exchange for screenings, we get publicists to send us their storeroom. How else do you expect us to see this stuff?

The Piracy Conversation got out of control on Saturday when Kim Voynar published a response to D’Angelo, “Piracy, Again? Arrrrrggggh.” She argues that the world is crumbling around us and thereby movies aren’t important, or something.3 There’s really no sense in arguing with people at the polar ends of this debate. Blog posts about piracy rarely resolve anything or, for that matter, make a point, but they’re good for pageviews and comments. So around we go. (Keep reading, though!)

All of this talk got me thinking: what would Antoine Doinel, François Truffaut’s hero and career-long on-screen doppelgänger, do?4 I’m not quite sure why my mind immediately goes to such a morally dubious character. I never played hooky as Doinel did, or stole milk or concocted a plan to hock a pilfered typewriter. But, if his crime were sneaking into the movies, or stealing them, would I condemn him for it? Truffaut was perhaps the quintessential student of cinema, who lived for a time, as his fictional counterpart, on his wits alone. The number of films he was able to pack in through his youth would astound even the most voracious pirate today. Are we supposed to believe that all of his receipts squared with the number of films he saw?

It was a different time, though! Truffaut and his pals had the Cahiers du Cinéma and Bazin and Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française.

Right. And we don’t.

We are living in the golden age of free-flowing information. Like it or not, almost every film available digitally, and many that aren’t, is available for download from some source, somewhere. These films are there for the plucking and, for now, if we call downloading it a crime, it’s one with almost no consequence to the perpetrator. It’s a student’s paradise: an endless library of movies, a digital cinémathèque.

What would Doinel do? He would probably see as many movies as he could until he inevitably got caught (as he is wont to do). Why shouldn’t we?

Now, there are reasons not to pirate. The irony, of course, is that while we soak up all of that knowledge off of pirated films, we are supposedly eroding the very industry we would like to be a part of. I, for one, don’t believe that that’s true, though I get that there is fear from Hollywood and “content creators.” Too many movies are making too much money while being traded wildly across the ether. Still, I firmly believe even the poorest cinéphiles should support their local repertory theater/video stores/artists. That’s not always the opposite of piracy, but when it is I think you should always choose to support the arts, directly, with cash.

Both sides of The Piracy Conversation consistently make the mistake of trying to own some piece of moral grounding. D’Angelo gets it wrong because he blames companies for not adapting to his needs; Voynar is off her rocker playing the equivalency card, holding cinéma up as not that big a deal when compared with poverty, disease and womens’ rights, which she does confidently presuming she unquestionably has the moral high ground.

This is an issue that is far from black and white. Anyone who suggests otherwise hasn’t really considered the question. What about films that aren’t public domain but have never been released on home video, thus have no financial impact if traded among cinephiles? What about a film you already own but need in a different format; or the disc is scratched? What about a film you made and you don’t mind? Maybe pirating films is morally questionable and we’re all just going to have to learn to live with that. Would that be such a bad solution?

Which brings me back to The 400 Blows. Why did Antoine Doinel steal milk his first night on the street? Probably because he needed a drink.

  1. Which is why I love reading the site, mind you. ↩︎

  2. Which was actually a followup to one of D’Angelo’s earlier posts. Piracy posts all the down, basically. ↩︎

  3. “We are at a period in our history where we are at the cusp of either uniting for a major revolution that will profoundly shift the way in which our societal structure is organized, or plummeting headfirst into a future where the Christian right controls our lives and sets the rules under which we live, or possibly just destroying our planet over religious differences, war and good old-fashioned avarice. And your biggest problem is whether you’re able to rent Anatomy of a Murder on freaking Blu-ray? For real?” ↩︎

  4. Specifically Doinel in The 400 Blows↩︎