Now, here's an interesting specimen. Ostensibly a sampler for the BFI's Flipside line of DVD and BluRay releases, Kim Newman's Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema shows a little ambition and intelligence, making it more of a gateway drug than a cheap, hasty collection of trailers.
On the disc is a new, 37 minute documentary featuring Newman chatting about the Flipside collection, a new line of titles from the BFI that collects many oddities from their vaults, such as under-appreciated, bizarre features like Privilege and The Bed Sitting Room. As Kim Newman has made a career out of championing niche and cult film properties, he is perfect for this set-up, doling out facts, trivia and insight with humour and enthusiasm.
Accompanying the documentary are three short films, and the obligatory trailer gallery. Shortest of the three, and exclusive to the set, is the 1969 travel board film Tomorrow Night In London, which is five minutes of swinging nightlife, and quite an artifact for those interested in the representation of the city in days gone by. The two longer subjects - the sober, strippers-live-normal-lives-y'know documentary Carousella and cheeky espionage parody The Spy's Wife - are taken from other Flipside DVDs, but benefit in this new context.
Context is the important thing. This is a sampler DVD, sure. It's a promotional item currently available exclusively through HMV - online, or in store - for the measly/affordable price of £1.99. But the reshaping, re-appropriation, and sheer elbow grease of the project makes it both eye-catching and a little groundbreaking. Newman's documentary is not a lavish or consummate production - it's him sitting on a sofa, talking just off to the right of the camera for under 40 minutes, interspersed with trailers, clips and images. It's obviously tied in with the Flipside brand, but takes in wider concerns. It's essentially a timely magazine feature, but with the text stripped out. It's a visual mini-essay, backed by illustrations and extra goodies in a way that even the most interactive, over-hyperlinked, embedded-to-oblivion web-article hasn't yet comfortably cracked.
Inadvertently, it even addresses current debates about film criticism. In Sight & Sound's recent survey of the last decade in film, critic Mark Cousins mused that, thanks to Youtube, readily-available DVDs and massively-stocked rental services like LoveFilm, being a cinephile isn't hard any more. He went on to comment that:
'The new question in the 21st century is not how to see, but how to choose. At their best, demand economies are knowledge economies. If you haven't heard of Jodorowsky, you don't know to watch his films. Who'll tell you? Your cool friend, or Sight & Sound, or Martin Scorsese, that's who. (...) The recommendation is all important in 21st-century movie culture, so everything depends on the credibility of the recommender. This is the good news. But there's bad news, too. If we've moved from how to see to how to choose, underlying this is the question of how to choose freely.'
Kim Newman's Guide To the Flipside of British Cinema fits perfectly into this new paradigm. It may be a store-exclusive DVD, but here is a critic who can speak lucidly and with great authority about these films, which have been lovingly exhumed and restored in a gesture of great ambition by the BFI. And here is a documentary that finds its home not as an unwatched DVD extra, but as a hybrid recommendation-sampler, twinned with equally odd subjects (marketing short films in the home entertainment world is still tough) to sweeten the deal.
It is good to see the BFI experimenting like this; maybe in the future they can try something similar - perhaps without reliance on old, brick-and-mortar models - but for the time being this set is worth seeking out.
Kim Newman's Guide To the Flipside of British Cinema is released on January 25th, and is available from HMV, Fopp and HMV.co.uk for £1.99.