Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Precision On Queue: How Netflix Changes the Movie Experience

Over the last two months, my Netflix queue hasn't moved very much at all. That's not to say I didn't catch a few movies. For example, I've seen Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, and Gabriel Range's Death of a President. When I wasn't catching up on missed 2006 releases, I took in a few 80's flicks I've waited a long time to see, such as John Carpenter's Escape From New York, David Cronenberg's Videodrome (which I want to write at length on in the near future), and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill.

The queue is moving slowly lately due to a number of things, such as summer housework, a summer class, and the day job. But this hasn't stopped me from wanting to see more movies and continually reading and learning about what's new in Hollywood and Indiewood, film reviews, and books on film history and theory (you should see my ever growing Amazon.com wish list...) As you can guess, I suffer from a bad case of inflated ambition though, which is why the list keeps getting longer, rather than shorter. (I think it's somewhere between 400 and 500 right now; and I think I'm going to watch all of these movies!) Today, I will be receiving Eric Steel's The Bridge, a movie I've wanted to see ever since I read Jim Emerson's great review of it last year. Also upcoming are a few movies I've let slip by in recent years, including Terrence Malick's The New World, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Jonathan Glazer's Birth. I've read so much about these movies that I decided to move them all to the top of my list and stop procrastinating. Also, a few unseen classic await my viewing, particularly Jacques Tati's Playtime, Werner Herzog's Stroszek and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. I must admit that I'm trying to catch up on all three of these auteur's (Tati, Herzog, and Altman) work since I have inexcusably only seen a small number of each of their films (in the case of Tati, I've seen none).

It's a lament of mine that I'm sure will continue to grow: my time to watch movies is diminishing. I will never be at a point when I can't watch any movies at all, since I will make it a point to do so no matter what, but coming to terms with the fact that I must cut it down can sometimes be depressing. It got me thinking about how other cinephiles upkeep their movie watching trends. Of course, critics watch and write about movies for a living, which makes it a bit easier. But for those of us whose professions don't involve seeing/writing on movies, it can be quite a commitment to take this "hobby" seriously. I hate to use the term, hobby, because I think it's demeaning of the passion and commitment I have for cinema. It's a great part of who I am, as is true for many movie lovers I've read on various blogs and websites. Andy Horbal said once that even though it may not be a job, it's good to think of it as one. That being watching a variety of films and upkeeping a website about cinema which one would hope really may contribute something to the greater discussion and evolution of film criticism.

So often we discuss how blogging is changing film criticism, making it so accessible for almost anyone with a computer and internet access. Yes, it has its drawbacks and suffers from an image of zero credibility, but this experiment is continually growing and is really pushing into new avenues and modes of thinking and writing about cinema. If I'm a small part of that in any way, I'm more than lucky to be a part of it. So to me, this is a job, one that I take very seriously. But I must take care not to take it too seriously, as Dennis Cozzalio's second sub-head quote to his blog indicates.

Anyway, I want to highlight one key point about these topics before going off the deep end about on particular issue. Us bloggers are often reflexive about what it is we do and how this medium of writing and participating in a dialogue about movies is contributory to the overall approaches of criticism. But equally important as the medium in which we write about movies -- i.e. blogging -- is the medium through which we watch movies. This can take us down the root of home theater systems and how the experience of watching movies has changed or remained the same with ever advancing home theater and digital technology (For more thoughts about this, check out Jim Emerson's thoughtful post on the DVD experience and David Bordwell's article about how new media may alter a film experience by sustain other kinds of viewing/reading experiences.) I plan on commenting on these topics more extensively after I have read this book. But right now I think an equally intriguing topic is online rentals, a business that has gained massive popularity with Netflix and is now the standard for film renting. How Netflix has altered the film experience is of real interest to me, especially since the retail store industry is kicking and splashing to stay afloat because of it and how it stands in relation to the inevitable soon-to-be standard of digital downloads. Netflix really represents the transition from going to a store to rent a realy physical movie to shopping online with the click of a mouse and watching a digital composite of a movie, right then and there.

From an availability standpoint, Netflix and the forthcoming medium of digital downloads clearly have an advantage over video stores. Netflix has some 60,000 titles to choose from, far more than your typical video store. Also, the consumer can choose a plan that works best for her/him and pay accordingly. No late fees. No driving the film back. It would seem that online renting, then, presents a number of advantages over the video store, much like the home theater experience is more cost-efficient and ever-more-comparable to the theater experience, right? For me, this is tough to accept. Call me traditional, but I don't think any amount of advancing technology can recreate the theatrical experience, and there are a number of reasons for this (as Jim points out in the above-mentioned piece). In short, it comes down to the conditions under which you see the actual films that really create that experience. With DVDs you have total control. You can freeze the frame at any point, take a phone call, check your email, exchange words with a spouse/boyfriend/child as they walk through the door. You can also see movies in pieces. I hate to do this when watching a movie for the first time, but I'll admit I have done it for the sake of convenience, say when I'm getting tired and want to watch the rest of a movie in the morning or if I only have an hour but want to start a movie. Such a thought does not enter my mind when I drive to the theater, pay my money, and sit in the dark to watch the movie. In that scenario I am at the movie's mercy, whereas the home market flips that around. While this presents many advantages, the pure movie experience is one that the theater provides, one in which I literally and figuratively shut off the world around me and form a relationship to the screen's images for two hours. These may seem like small things, but they shape our conceptions of movie watching and movies as narrative and visual media.

Just like the home theater will never replace the movie theater, online renting will never replace the video store. Neither of these claims may be true (as some suggest that theater and video chains may be obselete someday), but they reflect my own perspective and desire to keep them. Let's think about the advantages of the video store. Yes, the selection is limited. Yes, it costs more. Yes, there are lines and (oh no, not that!) human interaction. But there is something about perusing the aisles and finding some obscure movie that looks interesting based on its cover. Online, I can see how others have rated it. I can see every detail about it and read reviews of it by one-clicking over to Imdb or Rottentomatoes). But at the video store, barring the intrusive presence of cell phones ("Honey, I did we see this one? It's got Matt Damon and he's..."), you're locked away, forced to make decisions based on little information and your own intuition. And while I love having information at my disposal on the web, there's something genuine about deciding to take that movie home, pop it in your player, and see where it takes you. Instead, I have a shopping list of movies which I have total control over. I have everything at my fingertips, but I can't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the time in which I was driven more by curiousity when choosing movies. That experience is being lost both at the theater and at home. But I'm not coming out against online renting; not at all. I wouldn't be able to see half the movies I watch were it not for the selection and ease of use of Netflix. It's a great resource. But it doesn't represent the best form of renting movies by any stretch, even if it's so convenient.

Netflix is marriage of the real and the digital. You order and pay online but have real, physical DVDs sent to your house. It has given way to its own competition (though it may go all digital, once that takes effect) and represents the old with the new. But it's only a transition. Soon, we may not even have the pleasure of putting a movie in our player. This may be a long way's off, but it's immanent. This is all so important because the technological advances in the home theater market, advertising, and information-acquiring have truly restructured our thought-processes with regard to the context in which we see movies and thus our conceptions about the movies themselves have changed along with it. What's the big deal? Well, this is affecting how movies are made and thought of. While no one big thing may be occuring, many small things about the movie experience are changing and, slowly but surely, it's changing right before our eyes.

This is really only the beginning to the issues, concerns, and questions being raised concerning the "movie experience in the digital age." There still remains much more to be discussed, questioned, thought-about, and proposed, and I will hopefully have more to contribute to this greater discussion sometime in the future. But now that I've layed out my initial thoughts, this topic may be a bit lower on my queue. What's on yours?


Damian said...

Nice piece, Ted. I think you're absolutelyt right in that the video/DVD-home theatre phenomenon has not only affected how we watch movies but how movies are made.

Also, as the associate manager of an independently-owned video store I am only too aware of the effect Netflix has had on the video business. Like you I am hopeful, though not necessarily optimistic, about the future. At the very least, I think we can always rely on people's impatient natures. If someone suddenly decides they want to watch John Carpenter's remake of The Thing RIGHT NOW (and I use this as an example because it actually happened to me), they can jump into a car and drive several blocks or miles to pick it up rather than adding it to their queue and then waiting days (perhaps weeks) for it to arrive, byt which point they might not be in the mood to watch it any longer.

Chuck said...

Interesting post, Ted. I'm planning a chapter/section on Netflix and other online viewing cultures, and I think that Netflix has changed how we watch/rent movies. I'm certainly nostalgic for the indie video stores I used to visit, but it would have been impossible to see most indie/art films (or even most classical Hollywood film) in Fayetteville, NC.

Still, I find my queue backing up (I pared it down to about 150), causing me all the "Netflix guilt" I can handle.

Adam Ross said...

I think what affected my film intake even more than Netflix was having my first DVR and being able to record TCM movies, which really opened my eyes to the leagues of classics I hadn't seen before. This left me with a feeling of embarrassment as a film fanatic and put more urgency in my viewing schedule.

Ted Pigeon said...

Damian: I think you're right. Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for something, be it a certain atmosphere, mood, or feeling. And somehow, I think Netflix strips us of that spontanaety and curiosity about films. Being a former video store worker myself, I am all too familiar with this feeling. Being around so many real movies gives the cinema a mystique that no digital list can touch.

Chuck: Netflix may steal that experience of myster away, but, you're right. I too wouldn't be able to see nearly as many movies were it not for Netflix. So I think there's good and bad to all these changes in how we think of and watch movies.

When I first got Netflix, that magic was there. My first movie from it was Brazil, a movie I had wanted to see for so long but my store never carried. It arrived one or two days later, and there it was: Brazil. Since then, my queue has gotten longer and my ambition wider, but something about those first selections and first 10 or 20 titles I added to the queue remain the most memorable to me. Now I prioritize in 50's. A movie high on my list is between 1 and 50. I get frustrated sometimes that I can't quite figure out what I want to see next, despite my wanting to see so many movies. I'll see an Altman movie, and then I'll want to see them all, and 10 of my first 20 become Altman movies. Then I see a Bunuel movie, and all I want to see is Bunuel. Whether it really works out like that is another story, but Netflix no doubt has altered my renting patterns, my desire to see movies in certain sequences and phases, and how I view the act of renting. And the amazing thing is that this is all just a really small picture of the real changes that's going on in cinematic consumption.