During the brief period following my move to the LSU area, when I had cable, I discovered that there was a man named Jim Cramer nearing a cardiac infarction on the new-to-me network of CNBC. He hosts a show called Mad Money, where he runs around one of the back stages from Beakman’s World, complete with Saturday morning fare worthy props, telling people what stocks to buy and which to sell (as of this moment, according to an affiliated website, we should sell all of our Wal-Mart stock and buy more Halliburton, the ironies of which I will not get into in this space). On the afternoon that I happened to catch his program he was apologizing to his dwindling masochistic audience for presenting them with the wrong information: that the online movie rental website Netflix(.com) was not, in fact, a poor choice for investment, but was a rather smart buy.
The idea behind Netflix is so simple as to be genius: you pay a small fee every month, you can keep a few DVDs at home for as long as you like, and you can choose from any of the site’s bajillion titles. The main ploy of the site’s advertisements is to show you how convenient it is to simply click the mouse a few times and have the movies you want delivered to your door, or waiting for you when you get home. While this is true, the greatest feature of Netflix is the wide selection. Step into nearly any franchise of movie rentals and ask for a movie made before 1980 and you’re likely to be as well received as Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (mention the title to a Blockbuster employee and be prepared to go home with Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac, who aren’t Poitier and Tracy by a long shot).
If you want to see Norman Bates played with style, suspense, and aplomb, then Anthony Perkins is your man. If you don’t want to end up with Joaquin Phoenix and Anne Heche, however, your best bet is Netflix. The site’s popularity has led to increased desperation on the part of Blockbuster Video, forcing them to offer better rewards for customers. In an age when traveling on an airplane is like trying to make it to the New World in steerage surrounded by peasant babies with colic, it is nice to be thought of as customer instead of cattle, but the important lesson here is that just as Blockbuster has pushed the locally independently owned rental market nearly to the brink of extinction (note the closing of the Showbiz Video on Burbank 2 months ago), Netflix is slowly edging Blockbuster out of the market.
New incentives from Blockbuster, like being able to use their Netflix-like online service, then return the rented disk to a physical location in exchange for a free rental, are a definite plus, but online services from both companies have been hit or miss. When my mother tried to help me out a couple of semesters ago with my Reading Film as Literature class by ordering the Grant-Hepburn classic Bringing up Baby through Blockbuster’s online service, the disk took not one, not two, not even three or four business days to reach its destination, but eight, finally arriving cracked. The experience was fairly typical of Mom’s tenure with Blockbuster; never, in 3 months, did she receive the disks less than two business days after they were promised to arrive.
Netflix, on the other hand, has eased me through the hard times of not having cable since my kind hearted neighbor across the hall disappeared in the night like cigarette smoke in the wind, leaving space for the less endearing newcomers to arrive and cut the coaxial that connected me to the world of reality television and night time soaps. My experience been generally pleasant: except for a few understandably rare films that had to be shipped from Maryland and California, all the movies that I’ve wanted have arrived promptly and without hubbub, sparing me the trouble of putting on shoes and going 50 feet to the Blockbuster, which never has what I want anyway. But, before I you go running off to grab a subscription like it was the last beer at your sister’s wedding, let me warn you about Netflix recommendations. In general, they tend to be spot on, butlike IMDb, which has found some sort of demonic relationship between Willow and National Lampoon’s Vacation, there are some films you should ignore.
Case in point: due to my interest in a documentary about London, my high rating of a Smiths concert which Netflix had no trouble in providing (take that, large chain!), and my continual Simpsons love, the site generated a list of films I might be interested in, including the regrettable experience 9 Songs. The movie’s artwork is intriguing, the bare bones sentence long plot description on the site is enticing, and the musicians listed on the soundtrack are amazing. But don’t be fooled. The film consists of 3 separate scenes: a man and woman have sexual intercourse, they attend a concert, and he flies over a glacier. This sequence is repeated 9 times with little variation. Sometimes he flies over a glacier twice before going to a concert, then making love in a bakery. Minus an onstage appearance by The Dandy Warhols that looks like it was shot by a 13 year old with a hand held camcorder, the movie fails to realize the rich film that was promised by the artwork. The sex scenes were strangely explicit and intimate, and watching it with my co-workers was, to say the least, uncomfortable. What were the good folks at Netflix thinking? It was as if they had recommended The Insane Clown Posse to me because I liked Carole King, or told me that The Sopranos was a great choice for fans of Power Rangers.
I can’t help but wonder what goes on at Netflix headquarters. They may be winning the rental war by providing the widest selection and most reliable shipping, but their automatically generated recommendations are to be viewed with a wary eye.