A little over 18 years ago, when video on demand meant you were driving to Blockbuster and no red envelopes carried DVDs to millions of mailboxes around the country, the first movie arrived on the internet.
The honor belonged to a peculiar avant-garde creation called "Wax, or the Discovery of Television by Bees." A dazzlingly erratic, non-linear science fiction narrative by video artist David Blair, the 86-minute work premiered in a minuscule computer laboratory in CBS's midtown Manhattan headquarters. It was transmitted from a VCR to a primordial online network, M-BONE, which transmitted the work to roughly 20 technical centers around the world.
Watching the movie from a Sun Microsystems lab in Mountain View, California, a New York Times reporter noted that the images were drained of color, the audio frequently cut out and the frame rate was downright awful. No computer at the time had the ability to compress video at its original speed.
Nevertheless, the Times writer recognized the experiment's larger significance: "Coming as companies in the cable TV, television and computer industries are hot on the trail of 500-channel, all-digital TV, let history record that [this] night marked the first baby steps in that direction."
As it turned out, "Wax" proved to be less of a sea change and more of a model unto itself: The internet has proven itself amenable to the needs of marginalized cinema and little else. Ironically, a vast, intangible digital landscape of endless innovation provides the ideal setting for the smallest stories.
Subsequent attempts to stream a movie online ahead of its theatrical release included the Parker Posey vehicle "Party Girl" (broadcast as an experiment during the 1995 Seattle International Film Festival ). A dozen years later, Edward Burns made headlines by choosing to premiere his romantic comedy "Purple Violets" on iTunes; the following year, Wayne Wang's "The Princess of Nebraska" debuted on YouTube. These releases were treated as curiosities of evolving technology that sampled a future that felt uncomfortable.
Last week, directors Mark and Michael Polish released their no-budget black-and-white romance "For Lovers Only" on iTunes. The movie arrived entirely under the radar, with only co-star Stana Katic spreading the word through her Twitter feed. That word-of-mouth meshed with relatively low competition on iTunes and the promise of being a good date movie for a fraction the cost of a single theater ticket. "For Lovers Only" rapidly climbed the list of iTunes' top downloads andaccording to Steve Pond at The Wrap, has grossed at least $200,000 as a result.
Since traditional production and distribution costs were absent from the equation, it's unlikely that "For Lovers Only" will give rise to many imitators. A lavish two-hander more loaded with unabashed Francophilia than Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," the 83-minute feature is so quiet and understated that it barely exists. The screenplay follows a soul-searching photographer (Mark Polish) and an equally distant ghostwriter (Katic) whose ill-fated relationship gets a second chance when they bump into each other during mutual trips abroad. Both married and disillusioned, the characters quickly rekindle their romance and travel the countryside in an expressive voyage with the silky texture of a first-rate car commercial.
Michael Polish's high-contrast cinematography mixes nicely with erratic New Wave editing schemes that heighten the characters' fragile romantic yearning. It looks like the filmmakers enjoyed making the movie, but that comes at the expense of giving it any lasting value.
Despite media curiosity suggesting the contrary, "For Lovers Only" doesn't arrive in a particularly new fashion. Instead, it reinforces the idea of digital distribution as a no-man's-land for anything but the most obscure and usually disposable works. However, that's hardly a put-down; "disposable" cinema in this context actually has aesthetic criteria of its own.
Which is why a filmmaker like Joe Swanberg, a supremely prolific director just shy of his 30th birthday, has managed to thrive in the age of online video. His latest release (but not his latest product, as Swanberg always seems to have another feature in the can by the time one of them opens) blatantly reflects the terse nature of 21st century narratives. Exploring the awkward sexual tensions that now define the Swanberg brand, the movie takes the form of an anthology containing four interlocking stories, some more compelling than others. Titled "Autoerotic" and co-directed with Adam Wingard, the movie snuck onto VOD via IFC Midnight this week and opens at New York's IFC Center today.
Devoid of stars (unless the names Frank V. Ross or Amy Seimetz mean something to you; they should, but that's another story) and replete with predominantly non-titillating developments that include autoerotic asphyxiation and vagina molding, "Autoerotic" could never find a welcome audience in wide release. Yet from the looks of it, Swanberg and his IFC cohorts have another hit ready-made for an unconventional release. It's not breaking news that innumerable cable browsers have a predilection for on-demand options laced with sex. It also doesn't hurt that the movie begins with the letter "A," putting it at the top of most users' lists.
DIY aficionados delight in calling up the fantasy that the successes of films like "Autoerotic" and "For Lovers Only" cause studio executives to emit a collective sigh of envy. The reality is box-office dollars generally substantiate the old-fashioned approach of traditional distribution for mainstream fare. If the final "Harry Potter" crept into digital release, it wouldn't justify the massive costs involved in making the thing in the first place. But that also applies to mid-sized productions, not all of which can be as lucky as the Polish brothers and rely on a cast member's Twitter feed to replace advertising costs. Technology may sustain the illusion of instant change, but cinema at large continues to trickle along, one movie at a time.