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June 03, 2004

Netflix Again

I was an early joiner of Netflix -- who could resist the pitch? But I was an early quitter too. Good service, but I found their collection, despite the sheer number of titles, a drag. A film buff for more than 30 years, I've seen nearly all the squaresville movies I'm interested in seeing. I needed quirkier offerings to pick through than Netflix was providing.

(Nice thing about movie history: since it only goes back a little over 100 years, you can become a competent and knowledgeable film buff in only a couple of years of watching and reading. Sad thing about movie history: since it only goes back a little over 100 years, it runs out on you pretty fast.)

An example: I worship a half-dozen of the films of William Wyler as sumptuous examples of the Hollywood-studio thing at its finest. (Try this one here, or this one here.) I'm willing to bet that artsfans a few hundred years hence will look back at 20th century Hollywood as a Golden Age every bit the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance; if I'm right, I'm also willing to bet that Wyler will rank in their minds with Raphael. But will I ever get around to watching Wyler's earnest, three-hour-long, returning-from-WWII drama "The Best Years of Our Lives"? Unlikely. Although some filmbuff friends maintain that it's a great movie, my will-to-watch gives out on me when I start to reach for "Best Years."

No, at this point in my filmbuff life, I'm looking for weirder, spicier, more exotic pleasures; my interest in conventional film history is about 98% exhausted. So, after tiring myself out trying and failing to unearth tantalizing treats at Netflix, I gave up my membership and returned to traipsing over to Kim's Underground in the East Village.

Still, the convenience of renting movies via the Web ... the chance to keep DVDs around for weeks without late fees ... I signed back up a few weeks ago.

The good news: Netflix's collection is much deeper today than it was back in the early years. It's still pretty square, but pockets of the peculiar and the weird have accumulated. The collection is now well-stocked with Japanese horror films, for example, as well as with Italian giallo thrillers (Argento, Fulci, etc). Bollywood musicals are easy to find; Claude Chabrol's movies aren't in short supply; and History Channel-type documentaries are plentiful.

I've bagged two films so far that I'm especially looking forward to. One is Searching for Debra Winger (here), a documentary directed by the actress Rosanna Arquette that's apparently about how unfair the movie business is to actresses d'un certain age. Haven't watched it yet, but I'm looking forward to lots of self-indulgent, narcissistic actress-babble about youth, sex, showbiz, aging, etc. What a thrill to find this disc; the Wife and I, who have been dying to see this film ever since we first heard about it, had pretty much given up hope. As far as I'm aware, the movie was never commercially released, and until I plugged the title into Netflix, I'd been assuming that DVDs of it didn't exist.

Does the idea of a film by Rosanna Arquette about how unfair Hollywood is to aging actresses sound as deliciously ridiculous to anyone as it does to the Wife and me? After all, if there was ever an actress whose fortune was made by youth and looks -- and by, let's face, it, an amazing rack -- it's Rosanna, who has managed to display real acting talent in only two or three of her dozens of movies. Yet here she is, eager to complain onscreen about being mistreated by showbiz. Or so I hope, anyway.

My other trouvaille (French for, roughly, "a find I'm really pleased with myself for having made") is Brief Crossing (here), a rarity by the brilliant Catherine Breillat. (As far as I know, it was never released in the States. I saw it without the Wife at a French film festival, and blogged about it at some length here.) Sex, anguish, viciousness, desperation; a pared-down and chic style; a bitter and rhapsodic tone --whew, my kind of thing! And featuring a mind-bogglingly powerful and daring central performance by Sarah Pratt. Fair warning: Breillat, who's best-known for her NC17-rated "Romance," is a very special taste. I know about two other people who react as eagerly to her movies as I do, and The Wife isn't one of them. Nonetheless, I can't wait to show "Brief Crossing" to the The Wife, and have moved the DVD to the very top of my queue.

Hmm, I get the feeling that I may let myself pass along the occasional oddball Netflix recommendation. I hope no one minds. For starters: are there visitors who are Netflix subscribers who haven't yet rented the Spanish film Sex and Lucia (here)? Good lord, come to your senses and order it up now. It's beautifully filmed, arty/tragic eroticism -- half "Emanuelle" and half "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." It's also the rare super-sexy movie that women love more than men do. It's a little vaporous, maybe. But what the heck: women seem to like sexy movies to be a little vaporous, god only knows why.

The bad Netflix news: a complete absence of porn; and cult movies still aren't a priority. So when I'm in the mood for the really strong stuff, it'll be back to Kim's Underground for me.

The most bewildering thing about Netflix is their recommendations system, which I've found completely useless. Although I've rated over a thousand movies, Netflix's software keeps making wildly misguided suggestions for further renting. I don't think I've signed up for a single disc that Netflix has recommended. Amazon's suggestions, which god knows are about as literal-minded and predictable as can be, by comparison seem like masterpieces of empathic and intuitive insight.

How do these recommendations algorithms work anyway? It seems to me that they must completely miss many of the distinctions that are important to arts fans. For example, I hated the movie "Blade," and found it to be nothing but overloud, videogame-ish awfulness. But "Blade 2"? Directed by the gifted Guillermo del Toro, it struck me as pretty good; whatever its problems, it had a pulpy, comic-book-fan's spirit that I enjoyed. So I gave "Blade" a one-star rating and "Blade 2" four stars. Yet how can Netflix's software understand my, ahem, super-sophisticated reasons for giving these two otherwise-similar movies different ratings? And why do I suspect that all I accomplished by exercising my criticial discrimination in this case was canceling my own tastes out?

But, even given the basic problem with recommendations software, the Netflix system seems particularly screwy. I've given strong ratings to lots of edgy and arty movies, and low ratings to many dumb comedies. So what continues to be prominent among the suggestions the Netflix software makes to me? Three Stooges discs.

posted by Michael at June 3, 2004


Dude, two words for you: Collaborative Filtering.

Please let me recommend for all your movie ratings needs. After you rate a critical mass of movies, it groups you with others of similar tastes. And by that I mean your taste with all its quirks and inconsistencies. Then it makes recommendations to you based on what your group rated highly. The algorithm doesn't know (and doesn't want to know) about any movie's genre, or your demographics. All it knows is ratings. That's the collaborative filtering method.

Forgive me if I'm lecturing about something everyone knows, but you sounded like you wanted some advice. Spend the time it takes to give the site a broad sample of your ratings, and I think it will work for you.

Posted by: Bleauhard de Chardin on June 4, 2004 01:49 PM

I appreciate the info, guidance and explanation!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2004 03:08 PM

I haven't found Movielens perfect but it works a whole lot better than Netflix's preference engine.

Soon after I started out, it tossed out a film called East is East as a top pick for me--a little Brit indie about Paki family problems. I really liked it. That anyone else may find it silly or stupid is kind of beside the point, as it seemed to nail my own preferences relative well.

Posted by: fenster moop on June 4, 2004 03:53 PM

The weird thing is that Movielens predates Netflix, and was very well known long before Netflix built its own, um, "preference engine". So I naively assumed that Netflix's engine, with its (presumably) larger number of users, would be even better -- but in fact it's worse. Anybody care to explain that?

Posted by: Felix on June 4, 2004 04:00 PM

I've also heard that is a good alternative to Netflix if you're looking for weirder stuff. The downside, if you live on the east coast, is that their only depot is in California, which significantly increases turnaround times.

Posted by: Felix on June 4, 2004 04:02 PM

Wow, after I've fed only 120 ratings into Movielens, it's already got a better feeling for my tastes and interests than Netflix does, although I've rated over 1000 movies there. Maybe Movielens will actually prove of some use.

Has anyone actually tried Greencine? Is it a good service? I checked out their collection before rejoining Netflix and wasn't as wowed as I'd hoped to be. I felt like I was among the kind of moviebrats I once was, and I wasn't in the mood for that kind of company any longer...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2004 04:22 PM

I've been a Netflix member for 3 years and agree completely with the above comments. However, the selection and delivery time have increased greatly. Also, being in a minor city (Indianapolis) with few if any independent video stores bought out by the chains, Netflix is a cheap alternative to getting good films cheaply.

The recommendations are a joke. I can't believe Netflix would recommend Tango and Cash to me. But it does nonetheless. I'll check out the movielens to see how that does.

The key to Netflix is to see on the return envelope where you are sending it back to. Originally when I joined all the discs were being sent back to their DC in San Jose. Now, they have a DC in Michigan so that helps out on the turnaround time.

Posted by: KHH on June 4, 2004 05:28 PM

Ex-Netflix guy here. Early adopter, ran thru the catalog, not likely to go back. A year ago, distribution sucked to Dallas, the absolute center of the (American) universe for distribution. Two-week turnaround. Lost movies, extra charges, long waits, nothing that wasn't mainstream crap that I could get on HBO1-99 or PPV. I haven't missed it one little bit, except for the occasional bad burp of a movie that I buy and regret.

I'm no "film" guy, certainly. YMMV. I've gotta admit, though -- that Arquette thingy sounds like an absolute howler. Vaporous French nudies -- not so much.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 4, 2004 09:51 PM

(Nice thing about movie history: since it only goes back a little over 100 years, you can become a competently knowledgeable film buff in only a couple of years of watching and reading.

Video/PC game history is even nicer in this regard.

Posted by: gc_emeritus on June 5, 2004 05:38 AM

I used netflix for a while, but I go through spurts of watching a lot of movies... or not watching movies at all. During the times I didn't feel like watching movies.... keeping the dvds for a few months before getting around to watching them, paying a monthly fee for having the same 3 dvds sitting on top of my tv stopped making sense. LOL

I agree with you on their recommendation system. I never requested a dvd that they suggested.

Posted by: Jason on June 5, 2004 06:17 AM

It always gets to me how Shocked! Shocked! sweet young things like Arquette, Winger (although in fairness Winger has talent), and a slew of starlets too numerous to mention (can't think of a name at this moment) are when gravity takes hold and attention moves on.
Did they seriously not know what the attention was about?
Oh well, not to worry, they all find spirituality....or cats.
Me? Bitter? A little.

Posted by: ricpic on June 5, 2004 09:34 AM

It's funny -- you got me to go check my recommendations at Netflix, and I ended up adding one of them to my list. And they recommended one I've seen and didn't like -- but you might (?): Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down.

Debra Winger is at BlockBusters, and it's bad, I think. What a whiner Rosanna Arquette is! It's yet another example of how much actors benefit from having good writers put words in their mouths -- and how they suffer in our eyes when they use their own words.

My own movie tastes are more plebian, I think. For stuff beyond the usual from Netflix I go for things like Dodsworth (Walter Huston, Mary Astor, a young David Niven as a bounder -- better than the book by far), and the Ken Burns / PBS New York series, which I never saw on tv. We don't have cable, and in NY that means we don't have tv (except during the baseball playoffs, when we hook up again).

My wish list for Netflix: That Hamilton Woman (Winston Churchill's favorite movie) and Two For the Road.

Posted by: John Massengale on June 5, 2004 01:41 PM

The British Film Institute ( ) has clips from That Hamilton Woman, as well as credits, synopsis, etc. BUT you have to be in a British school or library for the clips to load. Bummer!

Otherwise a great site.

Posted by: John Massengale on June 5, 2004 02:07 PM

One other thing I just remembered: You know Ripley's Game, the John Malkovich vehicle which was buried before Anthony Lane raved about it and it finally got a video release? I saw it on Netflix DVD long before that "official" release. No idea how.

Posted by: Felix on June 5, 2004 11:20 PM

If you're looking for quirkier fare, you may be interested in:

Posted by: MG on June 7, 2004 08:13 PM

Living in a pseudo-city 30 miles out of Philly, there are pretentions of high quality video stores scattered about. Netflix has been fabulous, because of the absence of choices. Shipments are 1-2 days and the selection still is interesting, even after 2 1/2 years. Late fees are non-existent and late night viewing is almost alwys interesting. Adding to the pile of DVD recommendations.."Rain", "Rare Birds", "Big Deal on Madonna St.", 'Fear of a Black Hat", & "George Washington".

Posted by: DarkoV on June 8, 2004 08:28 AM

I'm a member of both Netflix and Greencine. I'm on the East Coast, so Greencine has a ten day turnaround, but turnaround with Netflix is two days. I've found about 10 films at Greencine which were unavailable through Netflix. The flaws in their recommendations are inherent in all collaborative filtering methods, which is what their CineMatch(tm) technology is. I'd say your only problem is you are unique.

Posted by: Becky on June 15, 2004 11:43 PM

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