Every cinephile’s dream is to have an instantly accessible digital library where one could log in and download anything from Abbott and Costello to Bela Tarr. In fact, such a digital library already exists and it’s available to anyone who doesn’t mind exposing oneself to federal prosecution. All you have to do is download an eMule client, originally developed by a guy who goes by the name Merkur, which, I believe, is German for “massive malware infection,” and chances are you’ll find a copy of the latest Thomas Ciulei, no questions asked. The world of BitTorrent is even wider and richer, though the risks are the same and the copies aren’t legal, either. The situation is much like the ’60s and ’70s, when 16mm film collectors were effectively forced underground by the studios and the FBI. Then as now, it’s dangerous to like movies too much.
The inherent frustrations and dangers of the cinephile’s primary challenge–gaining access to primary texts–were why Milos Stehlik and Nicole Dreiske founded Facets Multi-Media in 1975 on a then-derelict stretch of Fullerton Avenue in Chicago. My own film education started just down the street at DePaul University, where Facets films were regularly screened. I would also trek down to Facets for screenings and, somewhat later, to rent films. In the late 1980s video rental stores were rare, and they had a crummy selection and they generally treated you like you were going to steal the movie.
Facets had its annoyances as well, but their selection was unparalleled. The clerks weren’t terribly attentive or helpful; they always seemed like they were expecting Gene Siskel or Steven Soderbergh to walk in the door any minute, and they couldn’t be bothered with a DePaul student trying to find a Yugoslavian film that wasn’t already rented out.
Fortunately, Facets now has a much more user-friendly rental system. Forty-two thousand of their 65,000 films are available to rent by mail in an arrangement that’s much better than Netflix. Their rarest films, some of them one-of-a-kind copies, are accessible only in their Cinémathèque. You have to do some work to find the screenings, though. Facets has always been low key about promotion; their off-the-beaten-track location means they’re used to people coming, largely unbidden, to them.
Over the year enough people have risked parking tickets to sample perhaps the best commercially-available film collection in the United States to keep Facets afloat, if not thriving. The digitization of cinema, along with the proliferation of distribution channels (legal and illegal), has cut into Facets’ audience and threatened its business. Plenty of people get up in arms when book archives are threatened, but only the devotees worry about the disappearance of film archives. If Facets goes out of business–Milos Stehlik, still its director, insists they can survive, but he admits they’re in financial trouble–there’s no guarantee its priceless film collection will remain accessible.
Yes, you can stream 8 1/2 to your iMac with your Netflix account, and you don’t have to worry about a clerk snickering as he mails you a copy of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the Facets Patron Circle Membership is cheaper and they have DVDs you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else, like Benjamin Christensen’s creepy Haxan (1922; still above), a silent film that influenced the makers of The Blair Witch Project. Facets one of the last places where it’s still possible to get a sense of the infinite possibilities of the medium. It is, as Roger Ebert has said, “a temple to great cinema.”