“Death of Cinema?” Far from it. This is the best time to love the movies.
The 2010s may not be as nostalgia-fueled as the 1960s, when we all presumably sat around cafes in the Village and talked about Jules and Jim. But that’s okay, because now you can watch Jules and Jim even if you’re some kid living in the suburbs far away from Manhattan and an art house theater.* That’s because you may have Netflix, or a Hulu Plus account, or access to Amazon. And if you have those things you also have an internet connection, where you can talk to other people from around the world about Truffaut, or Godard, or Antonioni, or Wong Kar-wai, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, F.W. Murnau, etc. etc. etc. I still love going to the theater, but practically-speaking most of my movie viewing has, is, and will be done in my home. Would it be different if I lived in New York or LA? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d still have a Netflix account. It’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just what it is. At the very least, there has never been a time when it has been easier to be a cinephile.
Of course, if you load Netflix and start browsing, you’re more likely to end up watching Super 8 or whatever TV sitcom the algorithm spits up for you to consider. That’s because, despite the many films available on Netflix Instant, it’s a lousy interface and a horrible discovery engine. You either have to know what you’re looking for in advance or you need to browse for a long time in order to come across some really great films. There’s no curation to speak of, and it’s just an ugly site to look at most of the time. And forget it if you try browsing on your Roku or Blu-Ray player. (Instantwatcher.com does help with this problem, but it really ought to be something Netflix, not a third-party, deals with.)
That’s not even bringing up issues with the quality of the streaming files. Fortunately, these have been improving, but you’ll still come across cropped, low-res versions of old movies which look like they were lifted from VHS. It is decidedly not a theatrical viewing experience. But it is an important one. If the cinephilia of the 60s was shaped by the art house, and the cinephilia of the 90s by the video store, then the cinephilia of the 2010s will be shaped by streaming video. It won’t be the only place to watch movies, but it may very well be the most influential one.
Here’s what I’m interested in doing with this blog: separating the wheat from the chaff and writing about some of the interesting movies available on these instant streaming services. Not necessarily “great” movies, but merely those films that would be worth spending some time talking about. This is not intended to be a “highlights of Netflix” kind of place (Roger Ebert basically already does that on Facebook), and I don’t intend to focus on recent releases. No one needs more capsule reviews of Thor. The internet is chock full of that already. I’m intending to publish longer essays that will try to figure out what makes certain films tick, hopefully by also giving some cultural or historical context. I’m going to try to do one essay
a week, but if that turns out to be too onerous I may have to cut back a month. (Update 4/5/2013: That is overly ambitious. Oops. So once or twice a month is going to be more like it.)
I’d also like to write these essays with some sense of political awareness, too. One of my favorite film critics is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has always approached the aesthetics and the politics of movies with equal fervor. In fact, these two things are not really separable, and attempting to write criticism that’s simply close readings of the mise-en-scène is going to produce nothing but squishy, flavorless insights. That doesn’t mean every week will contain a screed or manifesto; it simply means that a film’s politics are so bound up with the critical analysis as a whole that it would be silly to ignore it.
For the most part, I’m going to focus on films that appear on Netflix, because that’s the most popular of the video streaming services. I may occasionally dip into Amazon, Hulu, or something else, but Netflix has the most content. Hulu of course has the Criterion Collection, but since that’s easy to find and includes films which all have specially commissioned essays, I’m going to try to spend more time wading through Netflix’s more out-of-the-way offerings.
By “out of the way” I don’t necessarily mean “obscure,” though I do believe that there’s value in pushing beyond what we’re familiar with. Netflix is good at promoting things we already know we’ll like (hence the “suggested for you” lists), but not at pointing us toward new experiences. One of the great things about social media and the internet is listening to overlapping, simultaneous discussions about the same work, be it a film, book, or album. This naturally happens with new releases, but it also occasionally happens when something pops up on Netflix for the first time. When The West Wing became available a few weeks ago, there were a bunch of Tweets and posts of people watching or re-watching that show. That’s great and all, but why didn’t that happen when Red River became available?
I don’t think it’s because “kids these days” don’t watch older movies, but the streaming video companies simply have no incentive to encourage this kind of viewing or discussion. They get your monthly subscription fee, and give you enough content to convince you to pay up next month. If they can do that, and continue to sign up new customers, the actual available content is kind of irrelevant to them. It’s not a terribly different business model from cable, in fact, despite what pundits will tell you. But amidst all the reality shows, even cable has things like Turner Classic Movies.
You can find good films online, and find good discussions about those films, if you want, and hopefully we can have some of those discussions here.
Caveat: Things come and go from Netflix often and without much warning. I can’t promise anything will be live on the site forever, though of course you should still be able to view titles through Netflix’s DVD rentals or a similar service like GreenCine. And it should be obvious that most great (or even good) films are not on streaming services, and you should never settle for not watching something simply because it’s “not on Netflix.” As I said, at the end of the day, this site is not an attempt to catalog every good movie available on the internet, but is merely a chance to dig into some of them with a little critical depth.
*Also, you should go watch Jules and Jim if you haven’t. Just sayin’.