Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Canadian film geek on Netflix

I started on Netflix last week. My wife's parents signed up for it - we got them a smart TV as a thank you for their work in getting our wedding together - and it turns out they could get a "second screen" for Netflix for the same price as a single hi-def one. So we signed on. It's definitely a cost-effective model of disseminating culture, and it HAS been interesting - I don't think I've watched a movie on disc since we started - but, somewhat to my surprise, the selection of films available reminds me, more than anything else, of the New Arrivals wall at a video rental store. I had thought it might be different, thought it might be better...

Understand: I used to work at a Rogers Video out in Maple Ridge, back in the days of VHS, circa 1990. The store was old enough that it had rental copies on tape of movies dating back to nearly the start of the commercial release of home video, including a substantial library of exploitation and cult cinema - everything from Being Different, a somewhat notorious documentary "freaksploitation" film, to Alex Cox's playful spaghetti western homage Straight to Hell. The foreign film section was pretty scrawny, maybe fifty titles all told, including a few lesser Bergmans (The Magician, Summer with Monika), a lone Antonioni (L'Avventura), and, as I recall, one Ozu film, Floating Weeds. People looking to seriously educate themselves about classic cinema there were kind of out of luck, but if you were hungry for Golan Globus fare, we probably had it (except Love Streams, until I requested it be transferred in from another store).

It was all right, for awhile. Capitalism might be a deeply fucked up way of distributing culture, a way of guaranteeing that mediocrity will flourish and excellence go unnoticed, save for by the very few - but film geeks could, if they knew how the system worked, find ways to accomodate themselves to it and keep their cravings fed. You'd get customers who ignored the New Arrivals wall altogether, to spend an hour in the dustier sections, and come to the counter with Beastmaster, Deathstalker, and Yor: The Hunter from the Future (you could rent three older movies for $5 and keep them for a week, as opposed to the New Arrivals, which were, by the time I left, renting for five or six bucks a night). It helped that there was an idea implicit in the early days of maintaining a sizeable back catalogue, a library. It was easier when the industry was new and a video store could pretty much order in everything that was available; we had Bertrand Tavernier's "thinking person's SF film" Death Watch on the shelf, say - or that sleazy grindhouse classic Vice Squad, starring Wings Hauser - not because anyone had CHOSEN them for our catalogue, but because when they were released on home video in the mid-1980's, there simply wasn't that much competition for space, and not that much else coming out that month. Back then - at the very start - no one was trying to ram hit movies down the public's throats, either, since the forces of greed hadn't really figured out how much money could be made on home video; plus there were few enough videos being made that you COULD order one or two of everything in the distributors' catalogues and see how they fared.

All that changed at some point. Stores became overwhelmed with product, just as the greed of the industry proliferated and marketers became savvier. When I signed on to be a video store geek, Rogers would get fifty or more copies of forgettable crap like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which came complete with a promo tape that we, the mere staff, were instructed to play over the store TVs, to make sure we made money on the investment (I heard that fucking Bryan Adams song soooo many times...). Meantime, we would have maybe one copy, if that, of some "prestige" arthouse film, usually on the bottom shelf, unsung and unhyped and generally ignored by the people who came in to graze the New Arrivals wall. Some of that is stuff regarded as classic now - I don't imagine we had more than one Barton Fink, when it first came out, say. A fifty-to-one ratio of shit to food is hard to live on. And the more crap that was produced, the stricter competition was for shelf space, so that eventually we started selling off those items in the long tail, once they weren't generating enough income.  All other considerations (preserving or disseminating culture, educating people, raising the level of cultural discourse, or simply maintaining a stock of quality films) were secondary; the only question became, will we make money on it?

It wasn't that great a paradigm, but it did make a kind of sense.

I had thought Netflix might be a bit better. There's no opportunity for them to hype films to death in the way Rogers did for Robin Hood - no in-store promo tape to get your saliva flowing while you browse; there is smarter technology for hooking up consumers with films they will enjoy, and more more likelihood that quality will be recognized, as people see good movies and spread word of mouth, regardless of what marketers WANT to hype or what Netflix wants to push. Plus the whole idea of "shelf-space" is certainly different - presumably you could have a lot MORE films available on a service like this than in your average big-box video store. If distributors and copyright holders were paid given how many times their films were watched, rather than paid for the option of having the films on the system, it would serve to reinforce and reward quality. People would still have the same shitty tastes as ever, but I *think* at least some cream would rise to the surface...

It doesn't appear to work that way; at least here in Canada, there's a very limited supply of films on Netflix, which emphasize titles, stars, and subjects that are heavily in demand. Prestige/ long tail titles are about as scarce as they were on the Rogers New Arrival wall; and it terms of older films, Rogers actually did a fair bit better. I've spent almost as much time now searching the system to see what it has as I have watching shows on it, and I've been shocked at a bunch of things they simply do not have, and, weirder yet, don't even acknowledge the existence of.

I mean, I'm not an unreasonable guy. I had hoped that maybe, considering it is, after all, Canadian Netflix, that I might be able to see a few Canadian films I'd missed, so I picked a name from a hat and looked up Vancouver actor/ filmmaker Tom Scholte, for starters. Nope: he's not in their system at all, not even for big budget Hollywood stuff that he's done, like The Core or Walking Tall. But okay, whatever; those are older films, less in demand, and, I mean, how many people out there are signing on to Netflix to see his work with Bruce Sweeney? I had thought there might be a slim chance that maybe they'd have The Dick Knost Show, probably retitled as Hoser. I would have been happy to see that they had his excellent, under-appreciated Dogme film Crime. But I wasn't holding my breath, I'm not scandalized, and I'm sure not going to complain that he's unknown to them. C'est la vie - it's pretty much what I expected.

But let's search for Michael Caine, to see what comes up. He's done a ton of films - some excellent, and some less so, but he's certainly well-known. Obviously his name DOES show up when you use the onscreen menu to enter it, meaning, I presume, that a substantial number of other people HAVE searched for Michael Caine movies. He's still seventh in the cue of suggestions once you type in "Michael C," coming after "Michael Cera" and "Michael Collins" and even below Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, but whatever. I have no problem with the fact that Batman Begins, Now You See Me, and Children of Men are among the titles that are available; they should be. It's also no great surprise or disappointment that they don't have the one film of Caine's I was hoping to see - The Island, a modern-day pirate movie co-starring David Warner, made back in 1980. But what to make of the fact that, of Caine's 162 film credits, dating back to 1956, they only have thirteen films that he's been in, and that the only titles dating back before the 21st century are Quills (techinically 20th century, since it came out in 2000), and (fucking) 1987's Jaws: The Revenge?  Where's Get Carter? Where is the original Italian Job? Where is Dressed to Kill, or Zulu, or - Jeezus, they don't even have Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Even *I* have Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for chrissake. And in terms of 21st century films, they're missing the most interesting things he's done, like Harry Brown or The Quiet American. It's kind of shocking!

Let's pick another example, this time a director: Werner Herzog. Clearly they acknowledge Herzog's importance, since at least one of the films - Into the Inferno, about volcanoes - is a Netflix original. But of his 68 films as director, they have precisely seven (plus a dinosaur documentary that he narrated, Dinotasia). All seven are documentaries: NONE of his fictional features are available to stream in Canada - from stone classics like Stroszek and Aguirre to more recent films like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Nor do they have his two most successful documentaries of late, Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. While I actually want to see some of the films that do show up - like Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, about digital tech, or his prison documentary, Into the Abyss, I would be even more excited to see some of the hard-to-see fictional features he's made in recent years, since the collapse of physical media as a means of distribution. I have yet to find either Salt and Fire (2016) or Queen of the Desert (2015) anywhere, on DVD or Blu, and they sure aren't on Netflix; maybe they're on Mubi? ...And what about some of Herzog's acting roles? I don't ever want to see Incident at Loch Ness again, thank you, but I would probably like to look at Julien Donkey Boy (or Freaks of Nature). They don't even have the first Jack Reacher film (Herzog plays the villain, the Zec).

So much for maintaining a library. More scandalous still are the names that don't even get acknowledged in the search menu. Type in "Jarmusch," for instance; it doesn't even recognize the name. From Pam Grier to Peter Cushing, Larry Cohen to Fukasaku Kinji, the message you get on screen is the same each time: "There are no matches for your search." (They do acknowledge in their search function that Larry Cohen's Masters of Horror episode exists, but they don't actually have it; they MIGHT have, and might simply not have indexed, some the films based on his more recent screenplays, like Phone Booth and Cellular, but their "search" function might not be subtle enough to turn them up - I haven't quite figured out its limits yet, though when I do double check, as above, with Herzog and Jack Reacher, I have yet to catch a mistake or omission). Search for Robert Mitchum (133 films) and they have one film - the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear. I thought I might at least luck out with a Charles Bronson film I haven't seen - especially Walter Hill's Hard Times - but for Netflix Canada, Bronson is a movie starring Tom Hardy, and nothing more, while Walter Hill is acknowledged only once, with a film I'm not remotely curious about, 2012's Bullet to the Head. (I was also hoping they might have Trespass or Extreme Prejudice, which I've been told have merit that I missed the first time around, but... nope).

There's plenty to watch, mind you. A Rebekah McKendry article on the Blumhouse website about international horror on the service turned up a rather appealing Danish "pubescent female werewolf" movie, When Animals Dream. Moody and focused on what it is to be an alienated outsider in a tightly-knit, working class small town, it's more Let the Right One In for werewolves than it is Ginger Snaps, but it was engaging and effective enough. (Sadly, the other films on that list that I looked for, like Ragnarok and Blood Glacier, were unavailable; must be US Netflix only). Erika and I both enjoyed Stranger Things, too, though I disliked the last episode, which strayed a little too far from the series' dark roots to offer a feelgood, family-friendly resolution. Presumably we'll have to wait for the home video release of The Walking Dead Season 7 to come out before it shows up on Netflix - and probably we'll end up grabbing the video before we ever get a chance to stream it - but there is lots we can look at, It is certainly worth its very reasonable price of $9.99 a month (for two screens!) - in terms of pricing, the only things I've seen that are cheaper, for accessing films, are libraries or flat-out digital theft. I can see why Netflix (and other streaming services) are replacing physical media. There's a lot of potential here, and, I mean, I'm glad to have gotten to see Human Centipede III without having to pay anything for it; I do imagine I'll make a fair bit of use of the service.

What Netflix isn't, though, at this point, is a huge improvement over video stores. I mean, sure, you don't have to rewind or return anything, or pay late fees, and compared to VHS tapes in particular, you're getting, obviously, a much, much better picture quality. And in many ways, things haven't changed at all, despite the platform shift - there's a real emphasis on what is new and current, a lot of obvious, Christopher-Nolan type commercial fare, and a plethora of films that would have been "straight to video" filler on the New Arrivals wall back in the day (I just turned off one, American Heist, with some embarrassingly bad work from Adrien Brody, trying to play a tattooed gangsta). In many ways, the new boss - or paradigm, or platform, or what-have-you-is pretty much exactly the same as the old boss (paradigm, platform).

But in terms of maintaining a library of interesting older films and buried pleasant surprises, you know what? Rogers Video, back in 1990, did a way better job. Getting dusty in the aisles, digging around for some weirdo exploitation film, was more exciting and more rewarding than sitting on the couch entering in names and finding that, time and again, Netflix doesn't have what you're looking for. (I wonder if I search for "Billy Wilder," what will turn up, if anything? Or maybe they have Jodorowsky's new film? That's actually within the realms of the possible... hmmm).

There's lots of quality to enjoy - I am excited to be accessing it, and I'm going to use it - but Netflix Canada could be so much better than it is.


Pointed Sticks said...

Netflix is best for British TV series.... Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax, Line of Duty, Broadchurch etc etc... but yes, the deletions without notice is certainly annoying.

Allan MacInnis said...

My friend Dan just pointed me at Fandor, and THAT looks like a good site for the sorta movies I care about! (Mubi, too, but they're a bit higher in the brow and a bit "small" - only 30 movies/ month, always changing).

Another friend, Rowan, was sayin' on Facebook, that the docs on Netflix are pretty good. I caught an excellent one on the Oklahoma bombing the other day, so I believe it...