And another point goes to Goliath. In case anyone was holding out hope that the art film was alive and kicking, and that the increasing difficulty of getting solid and timely distribution for great international cinema was just a blip on the radar, and that Anthony Kaufman’s recent article in the New York Times was mere movie-geek alarmism, the announcement this week that Wellspring was drying up was just another sock to the sour gut. As most in the know now know, Genius, the parent company of Wellspring’s theatrical distribution, majority owned by Weinstein Company, has cut off all theatrical release in favor of focusing on the DVD market. Ten fine people will lose their jobs, and more importantly, in order to cater to the straight-to-DVD ethos that is allegedly expanding the accessibility of foreign and art cinema, there will be even less chance for many of the world’s masterpieces to see the light of a projector. If this doesn’t seem alarming to everyone—especially for the cinephiles stuck out in the middle of Indiana where the closest movie theater is about 90 minutes up the road—then imagine the announcement being made in the Sixties/Seventies. Imagine being told that Last Year at Marienbad, Zabriskie Point, and Knife in the Water would be skipping the “theatrical leg” of their tour and going straight to late-night TV; imagine, say, Janus Films in the Seventies snatching up The Mother and the Whore, Chloe in the Afternoon, or Walkabout for their “greater good” and throwing them on some Z-channel somewhere. Severely cropping their scope, yet making them widely available for any Netflix subscriber, the reliance on DVD has recently seen the odd occurrence of Alain Resnais’s Not on the Lips, a luxurious big-screen musical treat if you happened to have gone to Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater one night back in 04, becoming a straight-to-video title. Movies are getting harder and harder to see; but now with the rampant rationalization that accessibility will breed art-appreciation 101 in the living room, there seems to be no turning back.
Wellspring, for the most part, has been truly what its title suggests for the past half-decade or so: an oasis in the desert of moribund film distribution, doing its damndest to help the latest Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, Godard, Claire Denis, or Techiné to see the inside of one of those antiquated structures called movie houses. “Genius remains committed to the independent film industry and we are moving forward with indie releases. We’re just going to handle them in a different manner than we did before,” Genius Products CEO Trevor Drinkwater said in a statement. Honestly, we know that no one cares about “art cinema” unless it reaffirms our own values (Brokeback, Good Night and Good Luck) or treats history with a chuckle and a safe distance (Motorcycle Diaries, Benigni crap), but Jesus, I can’t imagine a world in which Wellspring hadn’t helped bring Russian Ark, Twentynine Palms , Les Destinées, The Brown Bunny, Notre musique, Friday Night, or Kings and Queen to a theater near you. Furthermore, the new move by Genius will be thoroughly eradicating all possibilities of risk, which is exactly what was taken by Wellspring when showing their devotion to Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Crimson Gold, Father and Son, and this year’s underseen masterpiece The Intruder, none of which ever really had a chance to turn a profit, but were so visually entrancing and thematically challenging that they felt like confrontations with the unknown. I cannot imagine ever being moved by the sheer immensity of the imagery in these films from the ratty couch in my apartment. If popped in the DVD machine, could Denis’s The Intruder ever have washed over me with the confounding beauty of a dream? Could Goodbye, Dragon Inn ever have forced me to question my relationship with the moving image had I not been sitting in the theater? Would the single-take spontaneity of Russian Ark have transported me to another time, place, and world, literally, had I been able to readily pause the image?
But I don’t just want to make another glorious paean to the movies; I wish to tribute Wellspring, and all other distribution companies daring enough to take on projects they know will be a tough sell but which deserve not just a fighting chance but to be seen the way they were intended. And seeing as how film criticism focuses primarily on the theatrical, these films will become increasingly hard to promote and drum up interest in from mainstream critical establishment. Though we may have had our slight difference in the past (Palindromes, Tarnation, anyone?) we would like to thank Wellspring for fighting the good fight for so long.