To start things off, here's a conversation I have fairly regularly.
Me, to a friend: "Hey I think you should watch [some movie]."
Friend, to me: "Oh, really? Is it on Netflix?"
Me: "I don't know, I don't have Netflix."
Friend: "You don't have Netflix? Why don't you have Netflix? I thought you liked movies."
Since it seems like it's been a while since I've alienated any of my 7 readers, I thought now would be as good a time as ever. We need to talk about Netflix. If you saw my column on VidAngel, this piece will not focus on Netflix's business practices (of which it divulges nearly nothing but at least seem above-water). No, I will instead focus on the company's impact on the world of film, specifically its needlessly antagonistic view of film as a whole and the potentially catastrophic effect the service could have in the long term.
But first: what even is a movie? One of the things Netflix has forced us to do since its inception is to question in new ways what it means to be a movie. Specifically, does where or how it is watched make a difference?
Some, including Netflix, would say, "No." It's simply a moving picture. It may or may not contain narrative elements, sound, or color, but the forms in which it is created or exhibited make no effectual difference. And I would agree, in part. Whether a film is short or long or produced for TV or the big screen or is never seen by anyone again, it is still a film. But I would certainly claim that the where and how make a tremendous difference in how one experiences the film, even that such considerations are essential when thinking about movies. And Netflix does not give two of your neighbor's dog's old turds about that.
Film is a unique art form. On the one hand, it is the most holistic of them all, combining elements of every other form of art Man has yet invented: visual composition, storytelling, music, and on. It relies on the talents and cooperation of a large group of collaborators even for the simplest of endeavors. For this reason, it has had a much more intimate and fraught relationship with corporate business than any other art form. Yes, they all require some sort of sponsor at some level, but how many sponsors will devote hundreds of millions of dollars to the commission of a single piece? So, yes, film is undoubtedly, unabashedly commercial. But it is also fine art.
Netflix does not see that. And indeed its business model is actively hostile to any notion of "art." It sees what it terms to be merely "content" to be "consumed." I take serious issue with both of those words. Art is not "content." The endless and meaningless material that spews from a company's social media manager is "content." Logan Paul is "content." Baking hacks are "content." Art is meant to make a mark; "content" merely to wash over or through its audience in as constant a stream as possible. Netflix's users are encouraged now to merely consume what is given them, not to be a reflective, discerning audience enjoying and being impacted by the artistic statement of other human beings. Indeed, Netflix is anathema to art.
Surely that is a strong word, but I stand by it. For most of the history of film, it was, like theatre or music, a performative art. It was shown, in public, at given times that were not negotiable. In order to see it, one might have had to wait in line for hours. If the performance was missed, it was missed without recall. And once a film was through with its public performance, very few ever saw it again. It was an event.
But it was an accessible event. People who could not afford to see a stage play or symphony or opera had a nickel or two for a nice Saturday matinee. Film, next only perhaps to popular recorded music, became the great democratically enjoyed form of art in the 20th century.
The advent of home viewing removed some of the "event" status of film while expanding the democratic elements. Now one could own a copy of a favorite film and enjoy it at will. And rather than devalue the theatrical viewing experience, I think it opened up a beautiful new opportunity: the potential for a curated collection of art. Like one might collect treasured and meaningful books and music and paintings, one could now do so with the motion picture. In a form different from its original presentation, yes, but with all crucial elements intact.
It is the express mission of Netflix to set fire to all of that for the powerfully undemocratic purpose of pushing "content."
For with Netflix, one does not get a cultural event on the level of King Kong or Jaw or (dare I say it) even Infinite Wars. Neither does one get a personalized collection cultivated over years, an accumulated statement of enjoyable and perhaps important expressions of art to be admired and discussed and studied. One gets a parade of "content" tailored only to keep you watching enough to warrant your monthly subscription. With Netflix and its ilk, it is as though we collectively decided to tear down our libraries and book stores and entrust our literacy to the algorithmic recommendations of e-readers we have no control over.
But surely that is a little overdramatic. Netflix isn't Fahrenheit 451ing on us. Are they?
It's hard to tell for certain. Netflix is notoriously non-transparent, and this carries over into their searching capabilities. Browsing their categories feels like cycling in an endless loop, with titles appearing through multiple genres with little rhyme or reason. With that and no complete catalogue available from which to glean titles, no one really knows what is on Netflix on a given day. But I wanted to know. The best I could do was to enter in all of the DVD titles available to me, which totaled 415 (not all mine, I protest, but I don't disavow a perhaps-misspent youth). The number of those titles currently on Netflix?
For those keeping score, that's less than 8 percent. "But!" I hear you protest, "That's an incredibly skewed sample!" True. The home-viewing habits of my associates and I are arguably more niche than that of Ma and Pa Kettle. But, for a service that still clings to the public notion that it has everything and that states that it honors and promotes film, there is an incredible amount of embarrassing omissions, and what it does have is haphazard and even lazy. For example:
"Yes, but you're still not reconciling your crappy sample size," you say. True. But let me just point out one more thing. Prior to entering the streaming game, Netflix had amassed a library of some 35,000 DVD titles. To put that in context, the current American commercial film market produces around 300 titles a year. At that rate, it would take more than 115 years to create such a body from scratch. So the Netflix library of yesteryear would have contained contemporary and popular hits as well as a HUGE catalog of classic and international pictures. If Netflix didn't have what you were looking for, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that it couldn't be found.
I'm sure that now their library still ranges into the thousands, but it is a library bereft of any weight or purpose due to its incomplete arbitrariness. For example, it does not contain:
So how could any company that depends on giving customers what they're looking for get away with such a reckless disregard for the goods it provides? Easy: due to the runaway success of some of their original programming, Netflix has learned that it doesn't need to keep a sizable or competitive film library because people are fine with spending 8 bucks a month for Black Mirror and Stronger Thongs (excuse me, "Stranger Things"). In fact, Netflix recently announced a plan to spend $8 billion on original content this year, equating to some 700 (!) movies and TV series in various languages.
This investment is impressive and no doubt exciting for fans of their programming. But it should also give you serious pause. That doesn't look like the kind of company that wants to stand out from its competitors by offering selection. It looks like a company that just wants to be its own network.
"But what makes that any different from any other existing studio or network?" you ask. The difference is that Netflix has destroyed movie renting and is waging war on the public exhibition of films. It almost acts insulted when, as Cannes had the nerve to do recently, film organizations require that films be shown theatrically for consideration for awards. As Netflix continues to demonstrate that it doesn't need public showings to make money or even garner industry respect, other producers will surely take note. And first look no further than Disney, who are preparing their own streaming service armed with their stable of popular titles ranging from their own classics to Star Wars and Marvel and, now, potentially all of Fox. Considering how crappily they tend to treat theaters and how hellbent they are on total industry domination, don't be surprised when they first discontinue circulating DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital copies of their films, then move to "exclusive" material only available on their service, then finally a gradual discontinuance of any public exhibition at all. If every family in America is paying them 8 bucks a month whether they watch anything or not, why would a studio consider any other business model that requires them to give a cut to manufacturers or distributors?
To be bluntly clear: I do not think that Netflix in its current iteration is doing anything good for movies. Indeed, I say that Netflix is possibly the worst thing to happen to film in the history of the form. It is actively and needlessly hostile to the distribution and exhibition of films. It is going out of its way to destroy access to a century's worth of films from around the world, substituting the potential for cultural literacy with a bafflingly crappy algorithm. It has taken the great art form of the modern era and watered it down to "content" used to fill the gap between crappy comedy specials and TV you are supposed to like because everyone at the office does. ("This show is like we're in the 80s again even though I born in 1998!") And, I fear, Netflix will teach other producers and distributors of film that how something is watched doesn't really make a difference; that, as long as your subscriptions continue to grow, it doesn't really matter what you make because you are getting paid regardless.
Users of Netflix, I plead with you: cut your ties with them. They don't need you, and are offering you increasingly poor returns on your subscription at the cost of the reason you started subscribing in the first place: movies.
Hey, remember that time that Jim Halpert and Mary Poppins made a movie together, and it was really, really terrifying?
I'm glad we live in a time where that is now a thing we can say. Yes, real-life Most Adorable Couple In The World Emily Blunt and John Krasinski teamed up to make, of all things, a limits-pushing horror film. And yes, you should see it.
A Quiet Place is a tricky little film operating on a deceptively simple premise: What if there were vicious monsters that hunted only by their sense of hearing? This initial conceit is a perfect, pulpy little kernel that leads to an excellent portrayal and exploration of primal fear.
I love it because it feels like the kind of thing Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson would cook up, an arbitrary menace making something as commonplace as a closing door a potential death-knell. It's also the kind of story that if you squint too hard at seems a little ridiculous: really, monsters that are basically ears with teeth? But it's also the kind of story that, due to its extreme formal limitations, yields really intense, terrifying results from competent, creative hands.
Director Jim's hands are, indeed, very much up to the task. He claims to have not seen many horror films prior to making this one, and in a way I think it shows. He is often loathe to indulge in the features that plague so many mediocre horror outings--for one, he does not rely on a theatre's overloud sound system to deliver the percussive shots indicating when to jump. In this case, any sound--even quiet ones--are scary. For this reason, the film is one of the most tense films start-to-finish I can think of. There aren't the typical "quiet" moments where characters regroup because they are all quiet moments.
I guess I can't say much about the film other than I think you should see it. If you are a die-hard horror person or general film enthusiast, you'll find the film's imposed limitations a delightful, highly-effective novelty in a world of doll-hauntings and other spooks-of-the-week. More importantly, if you are a person that doesn't really get into horror, I think this film still has a great deal of appeal for you. Indeed, in many ways I'd say it was made with you in mind. Who knows, it might even end up being a gateway of sorts. C'mon, everybody's doing it.
A Quiet Place features John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, and is rated PG-13 for general scariness, but zero swearsing because you can't curse if you can't talk.
Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
Directed by John Krasinski
by Chase Harrison