The Omniviewer's Dilemna

Until earlier this week, I hadn’t sent back my Netflix dvds since January. Since January, I’d had Wild Style,

Krush Groove,

and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

I fell prey to the elemental snare of Netflix, the one that insures their profit margin and allays investor terror – the mailbox is fucking far away. I had three of the most unwatchable movies in history for five months, and it only cost like 90 dollars. Netflix’s ploy is this: when you think about it in terms of a queue, it seems perfectly reasonable to line up every Godard movie ever made in chronological order, and then to follow that up with every Truffaut movie. Or, that there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to watch 3 discs of classic *M*A*S*H*, all in a row. It’s basic psychology – you’re struck dumb by the locusts looming on the horizon, but when they’re eating your crops you can’t stand them. Watching half a French new-wave movie is enough to crack my spirit like a fresh glow stick. I’ve never actually seen an episode of *M*A*S*H*. But I feel like I should watch them; indeed, I feel like I’m supposed to have seen them already, being a burgeoning hateable intellectual and inveterate consumer of culture or whatever.

And this doesn’t just apply to people like me who want to bone up on shitty arthouse pretense-o-ramas, either. It applies to buyers and users across the spectrum. There’s those fine people who feel like they really should see all the movies on the AFI’s top 100 list, maybe even in order. But when those first three come… oh man.

• Citizen Kane (1941)
• Casablanca (1942)
• The Godfather (1972)

Well, honey, shall we go for a walk? Or, let’s say Norma-Jean and Claude-Henry Smoott, a nice couple from Bethesda, they do watch those three, over a long weekend. Wasn't that edifying, dear? They wrap them up in a handy pre-paid envelope, stick that satisfying adhesive, and they send them back. Then, a few days later, like magic, the mailman delivers. What’s in store for Mr. and Mrs. Smoott?

• Gone with the Wind (1939)
• Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
• The Wizard of Oz (1939)


• The Graduate (1967)
• On the Waterfront (1954)
• Schindler's List (1993)

Hmmmmmmmmm… sounds brutal.

Or what about Oscar nominees? One day, Joe and Jane Schmoe are waylaid to discover that The Queen, Babel, and Letters from Iwo Jima have been slipped soundlessly through their mailslot. Oh god, they think, what have we got ourselves into?

The great and terrible thing about video stores is that you invariably end up with what your id demands. Every time you walk into Blockbuster, you pick up some well-reviewed racial allegory, or a hard-hitting biopic about a notorious museum curator. You examine it warily. You put it back. You walk out with Mean Girls 4: Still Meanin’, or some movie called Cage Fighting Cannibal Sluts, and the female lead is a softcore porn maven from long-remembered Cinemax classics. And you have but one response to these movies, without fail: “meh.”

So the genius of Netflix is that they no longer even need the “meh.” In fact, the worse your response to the movies, the better off they are, because you'll be less motivated to get more. Especially when you compound this with the fact that the queue system is invites - nay, compels people to get movies they should watch, instead of movies they wouldn't mind seeing. It’s not like you can simply change up your strategy and get the kinds of movies you would get at a video store, because it wouldn’t work. You can’t impulse-buy several days in advance. When it comes to crap movies, you never know which, or even what kind you’re going to want to watch until moments before you watch it. Slasher? Stoner comedy? Chuck Norris? The kind of romance you’d never have if you lived to be 100 and were still fucking hot?

BUT PEOPLE JUST DON'T WANT TO WATCH GOOD MOVIES. It's not in our genetic makeup. Sure, some people lie and say, "oh, I loved that silent sepia-toned Japanese movie - excuse me, film - that came out last year that was shot entirely from the point of view of a duck and it was about relationships and how they go bad, and it conveyed so much meaning with lusty glances and subtle gestures, I just adored it." Some people somehow trick themselves into thinking they do, in fact, like this kind of movie. But they don't. It's like circuit training. There are assholes who say they couldn't live another day if they didn't get to blast their quads, gluts, biceps, triceps, calves, and lats in under three minutes at 5:30 every morning. But believe you me: these people are liars, and liars lie. To themselves. To their friends. And especially, to their Netflix queues.

You can try to be middle-brow, but there are too many middle-brow movies. There are way, way, way too many adequate movies in the world for “good enough” to be a coherent organizing principle in the face of a selection of millions. When you go down that road, your queue balloons to 300, then 400, then 500, 1,000, and before you know it, YOUR QUEUE HAS BECOME A CHORE. You’re like, “Oh, man, I’m never going to get through all these movies, how am I ever going to get through all these movies?”

So you just stop caring. Or you actively start resenting the freedom that Netflix provides, because it’s not freedom. It’s constraint. It’s a baffling new kind of constraint that, historically, only the very richest people in all the world have had to deal with. Look. You can do whatever you want. Whenever you want. But you can only do so much. And you only have so much time to do it. And everything's pretty much the same. So you might as well just not do anything. It’s getting to the point where even somebody living below the poverty line can feel the sting of opulent depression. Which in no way soothes the anxiety that comes with living below the poverty line. Our entire society has become a bunch of lonely kings wandering around without so much as a vestige of regality. Millions of men and women wander the streets waving three red and white envelopes like dessicated skulls, in crazed bouts of passive violence, howling out for guidance from the living and the dead.

At least now I know what the next movies I should queue are.

• Hamlet (1948 film) directed by and starring Laurence Olivier
• Hamlet (1964 film) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky
• Hamlet (1969 film) directed by Tony Richardson and starring Nicol Williamson
• Hamlet (1990 film) directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson
• Hamlet (1996 film) directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh
• Hamlet (2000 film) directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Ethan Hawke

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