In 1971 the audacious Jacques Rivette completed work on Out 1: Noli me tangere, the 773-minute apotheosis of the French New Wave. Few people saw it — and few have since. After its restoration in the early 1990s screenings were occasionally mounted at international festivals and generous cinematheques. There are those who still speak with hushed reverence of the time it played in its twelve-hour entirety at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, nearly a decade ago. The film remains a point of pride among cinephiles who have endured its epic sprawl: simply having seen Out 1 is a testament to the movie lover’s integrity and erudition.
Out 1 has never been available on home video in this country. Last year a German distributor released it as a five-disc DVD box set with imperfect English subtitles, but, windfall though that may be for admirers in Europe, the PAL format isn’t compatible with our North American players. So unless you were among the privileged few present for its rare theatrical presentations there has for many years been only one way to see Out 1: as a bootleg video adorned with blocky, burned-in Spanish subtitles, taped from an old TV broadcast that looks like it was strained through cheesecloth. This unsightly special edition, so to speak, has been enjoyed by hundreds, perhaps thousands. It arrived before the eyes of the world’s eager cinephiles through the same channel: Karagarga.
Karagarga is a members-only torrent tracker. That is to say it is a file-sharing archive closed to the public and accessible by exclusive invitation alone. (These coveted invitations are parcelled out to existing users sparingly.) Unlike the better-known services of its kind, like isoHunt and the Pirate Bay, Karagarga is rigorously discriminate: uploads to its inventory must meet certain specifications of quality and kind, include representative screenshots and sensible descriptions, and, most importantly, reflect the presiding sensibility of the site — the tendency toward the difficult and obscure that has made Karagarga so reliable a haven for cinephiles of discerning tastes. The spirit remains staunchly countercultural. Moderators don’t allow the uploading of modern Hollywood pictures or mainstream blockbusters: that sort of thing doesn’t fall under its purview.
The upshot of all this rigour is that Karagarga houses the most exhaustive library of classic, foreign and arthouse films in the world. Out 1 is hardly the only treasure one might trawl for: the archive has accumulated hundreds of thousands of films (as well as books, magazines, albums and television shows), a great many of them — including Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love, Robert Bresson’s A Gentle Woman, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, and Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, to name a prized few — unavailable by any other means. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of such a resource. Movies of unflagging historical merit are otherwise lost to changes in technology and time every year: film prints are damaged or lost, musty VHS tapes aren’t upgraded, DVDs fall out of print without reissue, back catalogues never make the transition to digital. But should even a single copy of the film exist, however tenuously, it can survive on Karagarga: one person uploads a rarity and dozens more continue to share.
Early last month Karagarga crashed, and remained down for several weeks. For a while nobody knew quite what happened: routine maintenance, some heard, while others speculated about a transition to new servers. An international anti-piracy body was rumoured to have seized the operation, altered by an anonymous tip, but nobody could confirm it. A bit of manufactured intrigue for the bored and curious was even drummed up by a mysterious Twitter user who called himself Judex: he was, he wrote in a widely circulated statement, a filmmaker and distributor owed huge amounts of lost revenue by the “millions” of Karagarga users who had downloaded his work illegally; he claimed responsibility for the crash and promised swift retribution to the culpable parties. “Your rapacious pillage of film culture is annihilating that culture,” the odd fellow argued. “Only the rich and powerful will survive the assault online piracy is inflicting on cultural production today.”
Those opposed on principle to downloading movies will doubtless bristle too at Karagarga. It does host its share of titles otherwise available on DVD and Blu-ray in North America, like the ones put out by the Criterion Collection, and it may safely be assumed that in such cases downloading the film is not so much a gesture of cinephilic preservation as an attempt to save the $30 retail price. But in general Karagarga raises different questions about piracy than those provoked by a torrent tracker like the Pirate Bay. Its raison d’être is more noble than our poor Judex allows: Karagarga strives to maintain for the world’s moviegoers a home for films too obscure to survive in the popular imagination any other way.Every year film prints are damaged or lost, musty VHS tapes aren’t upgraded
A scholar interested in early Iranian films, for instance, has access on Karagarga to a trove of pictures long thought burned or banished from existence, few of which could ever hope to justify a proper release. A cinephile in smalltown Ontario nowhere near a major metropolitan rep house or cinetheque can gain with Karagarga a rich and varied film education, empowered to introduce herself to curiosities from any country or any year.
Without a service like Karagarga movie-lovers are in thrall to the whims of an implacable market — one whose recent and unerring shift to digital streaming has left vast swaths of cinema history to molder unseen. The myth that Netflix and iTunes offer a frontier where “everything” is available to watch instantly is a bad joke to anyone with a serious interest in movies. That crowd is forced, by the market itself, to fend for itself. Many of us would indeed buy an Out 1 Blu-ray or cue up Out 1 on Netflix if such a thing were possible. But in the meantime Karagarga will be cherished for the rare and valued access it affords.