If You Can’t Hold It, You Don’t Own It

Plus: 'On the Rocks,' reviewed, and a spooky Halloween assignment

Longtime readers will know that I have a handful of hobbyhorses. Movie theaters are relatively safe to visit in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. Arguing with people on Twitter with the intent of convincing them of their wrongness is pointless. Sucker Punch is an underrated gem from one of our few great modern action directors.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to mount up on one of my hobbyhorses today: Physical media is preferable to digital media because if you can’t hold a thing, you never really own it.

I mention this because, as the Hollywood Reporter noted this week, Amazon is once again reminding us that just because you “purchased” a movie on their site that doesn’t mean you really own it. No. You own a license to stream that movie. And if Amazon loses the license?

Welp. You’re kinda screwed there, aren’t you?

“When an Amazon Prime Video user buys content on the platform, what they’re really paying for is a limited license for ‘on-demand viewing over an indefinite period of time’ and they’re warned of that in the company’s terms of use,” Ashley Cullins writes. “That’s the company’s argument for why a lawsuit over hypothetical future deletions of content should be dismissed.”

It’s not particularly hypothetical: Digital purchases disappear from virtual libraries all the time. Sometimes it’s because you move from one region to another, triggering rights issues on the digital license you’ve purchased. Sometimes the thing you’ve purchased has been modified by the distributor, as happened to folks who had “bought” Jackie Brown and some other flicks via iTunes and were unable to access it. [upload/link to image] Sometimes the book you’ve purchased—say, Nineteen Eighty-Four—was uploaded without rights clearance, leading Amazon to reach into your Kindle and snatch it out.

Orwellian indeed.

And this doesn’t even begin to deal with the ease with which streaming services can make stuff disappear. The memory-holing of the Michael Jackson episode of The Simpsons is what radicalized me, and things have only gotten more absurd since, with distributors and actors alike asking for the removal of satirical instances of blackface from TV shows throughout the years.

The digital world is inherently ephemeral. Bytes are easily deleted. Websites come and go. At my last job I published an essay by Joe Bob Briggs highlighting the fact that physical media is one great bulwark against authoritarianism; anything that can be switched off with a button is unsafe. But that essay is gone, the website on which it resided dust in so much wind. Another casualty of the digital age.

If you love something—a movie, a book, an album, your family pictures, whatever—make sure you have a physical copy. Amass Blu-rays and LPs and codices. Build shelves for them, monuments to the glory that is their permanence. (Remember: it’s not hoarding if you organize it well.) Display them proudly, a reminder that we are, in part, what we enjoy to watch and read and listen to.

And as you gaze upon them, remember the reason you’re doing all this. That if you can’t hold a thing, you don’t really own it.


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Review: On the Rocks (AppleTV+)

I have a soft spot in my heart for Sofia Coppola’s specific brand of rich-girl ennui. It’s probably a leftover of my affection for the Antonioni I was required to watch in college film classes, a portrait of people who have it all by any reasonable measure of the term and still can’t quite figure out how to be happy.

From Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) traipsing around Tokyo with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation to the upper-middle class girls of The Bling Ring going on a robbery spree because they can’t handle being unable to live like the folks they see on The Hills, there’s something so carefree and honest about spending time getting to see how the better half fails to live.

The elevator pitch for On the Rocks was probably something like “Lost in Translation, but in New York.” Harried mom Laura (Rashida Jones) can’t get to work on her book because she’s busy schlepping kids around while her enormously successful entrepreneur husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) globetrots with his young, attractive staff. Concerned there’s some funny business going on after she finds a coworker’s makeup bag in his luggage, Laura spends the rest of the film traipsing around New York City with her art-dealing father, Felix (Bill Murray), who hopes to catch the rogue in the act in an effort to prove that all men are as callous as he.

That’s about it, as far as plot goes; in some respects, On the Rocks is best understood as a hangout movie, an excuse to spend time with Jones and Murray. There are worse pairings to be stuck with, for sure: both are entertaining and attractive and funny. And both exude a sort of tired charm. Murray’s is a weariness born of having seen it all; his Felix is prone to disputations on the nature of monogamy and the evolutionary roots of sexual attraction. Jones’s affect will be familiar to anyone raising a couple of young kids, as her Laura just looks kind of tired all the time.

And yet, there’s something almost, well, hopeful about the movie. I don’t mean the plot so much, though I love how Coppola resolved the tension between Laura and Dean. I just mean its vision of a pre-pandemic New York, the sort of place where parents mingled while dropping their kids off at school and restaurants were open and bars were full and the streets were crowded and no one was wearing a mask. In a weird way, this modern vision of New York City is almost as exotic as the vision of Tokyo Coppola presented in 2003 to Western audiences, a look at a world that’s different and fresh and exciting, a sort of place that you could to go to watch your problems melt away even as you’re being crushed by the absurdity of day-to-day living.


Assigned Viewing: The Exorcist III (Amazon Video)

I’d never seen William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III before this week, and I’d been missing out. It’s a fascinating mishmash of two very obviously different films: Originally an adaptation of Blatty’s novel Legion, the studio had him shoehorn in a bunch of Exorcist references (Blatty also wrote that book, of course) in order to create a pseudo-sequel to the classic horror film.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the somewhat slipshod nature of all this, the picture is deeply fascinating. George C. Scott plays Lt. Kinderman, a cop trying to solve a series of murders by a serial killer supposedly executed 15 years before. Has the Gemini killer returned in new form? Or is something else going on. Something . . . demonic?

The best thing about this picture, by far, is the performance of Brad Dourif as a mental patient who may or may not be host to the soul of Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priest from the original Exorcist. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and Karras, left for dead, has been inhabited by a demon looking for someplace to chill as he bides his time and returns to his murdering.

Anyway, it’s on Prime now and I’m probably going to pick up the Shout Factor Blu-ray release with the director’s cut. I’m very curious to see what this looked like before it became an Exorcist property.