Four months off duty, whether called a sabbatical or hooky, could hardly help but be a learning experience. Learning to use time unwisely. Learning to forget what day it is. Learning to look at the world with the Current Movies so far into peripheral vision as to sometimes lose track of them altogether. (Surf's Up, Shrek the Third, Hostel II, Evan Almighty, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were among those that slipped past me, at a crawl.) And as long as I was learning to survey the movie landscape from the vantage point of the average viewer, who does not organize his entire week around Friday's openings, and is apt to be no less attuned to Tuesday's DVD releases, I made capital of my leisure by joining the hoi polloi in joining Netflix. As a self-confessed tenderfoot, I have no illusion that I can tell anyone anything about Netflix, having instead the impression that Netflix memberships are as rampant as cellphones. (No, I did not break down and buy one of those.) Naive though it must be, I can only tell of my own experience.
To begin with, I had to overcome my guilt at the thought that I would be taking rental fees out of the coffers of Kensington Video. To do so -- to forsake my first loyalty with a clear conscience -- I vowed to proceed on the principle of renting online only those DVDs that our local store did not carry. (Just as my conscience-clearing principle of video rental in general has always been to choose things that could not be seen in theaters.) The first order of business, then, was to visit the Netflix website -- the steady bombardment of "Free Trial" offers in my home mailbox made it no trouble to find -- and to "Browse Selection," as they say, so as to come up with what I would call a wish list, or what they fawningly call a "Queue." At Netflix, you don't queue up for movies; movies queue up for you. (In harmony with the prevalent center-of-the-universe personal philosophy.) The cornerstone of my list, a title I already knew was available on DVD although not at Kensington, would be Michelangelo Antonioni's unseen first film, Cronaca di un Amore, or Story of a Love Affair. The search engine on the site soon established the availability of this title -- as soon, anyway, as I stopped looking for Chronicle of a Love Affair and looked instead for Antonioni -- and I had my start. Little did I know that two months later, on the very day I was to cancel my membership, Antonioni would die. But I get ahead of myself. I had a start, as I said, but I didn't have a list.
Browsing on a website of course bears little resemblance to browsing in a store. On the Netflix site, as far as I was able to figure it out, you cannot browse for something you are not thinking of, something you have temporarily forgotten, something whose title you can't bring to mind, let alone something you never knew existed. You are limited by your knowledge. Or more accurately, you are limited by the fraction of your knowledge you can access on the spur of the moment. Yes, you can search for a particular film, or you can search for all the films of a particular performer or director, but you cannot very well stumble on something unforeseen. You are, in effect, wearing blinders.
If you have a hankering, let us say, for something sanguinary, you can perhaps grope in the desired direction by searching for the key word Deadly (ninety-seven title matches) or Lethal (thirty matches) or Fatal (thirty-six), although that last one includes the likes of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids ("Fat Al...," see?) and Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America. Or you could, while in that same mood, click on "Thrillers" under the heading of "Genres," but all you will get from that is a sample display of fifteen DVD box covers of the most unobscure titles, The Da Vinci Code, Syriana, The Bourne Supremacy, A History of Violence, et al. A cul-de-sac.
Your eye, in the very nature of things, is not free to roam, and to be caught, diverted, rerouted, as it is on the shelves of Kensington Video or, once upon a time, in the racks at Tower Records, whose demise late last year I lament as I would a lost limb. (Similar to the amputee, I still sometimes forget it's gone, catching myself thinking that on the way home from a morning screening at Landmark's Hillcrest I might just swing by Tower and browse -- in the old way -- the DVDs, or catching myself at another time looking forward to an evening screening at the AMC La Jolla with a view to stopping in at Tower beforehand. Fortunately, I do catch myself.) It's true that if a new thought strikes you while on the Netflix website, if a tangent suddenly presents itself, you can pursue it lickety-split. But that's not at all the same thing. If it's fast, it's not browsing; it's rummaging, rifling, ransacking. And it's not a pleasure.
Then, too, my search was limited by the limitations of what's available on DVD. Netflix may, as they claim, have "virtually every DVD published" (80,000-plus, they claim). Then again, they may not: I would often find that I was unable to "add" a listed title to my queue, but could only "save" it, which in Netflix parlance meant I could have it if and when Netflix got around to acquiring it, or if and when somebody got around to "publishing" it. It's a certainty, in any case, that if a film isn't on DVD, then Netflix is not going to have it. My long-standing wish list, the titles for which I make a point to hunt periodically on Google, produced no matches from Netflix whatsoever, though it did produce some mirth. I could go fishing, at the tippy-top of my list, for Henry Hathaway's From Hell to Texas, but the closest Netflix could come to matching it was Masters of Poker: Phil Hellmuth's Million Dollar Texas Hold'em Tournament Strategies ("Hell... Texas," see?). Or I could again cross my fingers and put in for Hugo Fregonese's Black Tuesday, whereupon Netflix would try to entice me with the films of Karen Black and Tuesday Weld.