What's available and what isn't is a constant source of puzzlement. If movie A is available, you reason, why not B? Or more often: if A, why not B, C, D, E, and F? If Luis Buñuel's Viridiana, as an example, why not his Exterminating Angel? If Belle de Jour, why not Tristana? Or if Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman, why not his Caught, The Reckless Moment, and -- another title on my long-standing wish list -- The Exile. If Lola Montes, why not La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de... ? And if Joseph Losey's The Servant, Eva, and Modesty Blaise, why not his Accident, The Concrete Jungle, These Are the Damned, Secret Ceremony, Boom!, and The Go-Between? If Satyajit Ray's Charulata and Mahanagar, why not his Devi, The Music Room, Two Daughters, Days and Nights in the Forest, not to mention the Apu trilogy? There's no end to it, so I might as well veer off here to remind you that Kensington Video, alone in the city limits, still has untold numbers of titles available on VHS that have yet to make their way onto DVD. A veritable treasure trove, and a perishable one.
Eventually, despite the travails, I had a list. Not yet a list to turn over to Netflix as a queue, but a list to take to Kensington and check against the stock on the shelves. After that -- and after coming home with Claude Chabrol's The Color of Lies and Julien Duvivier's La Bandera, both worthwhile -- I still had a list. So, ignoring the home-page fanfare for new releases such as Apocalypto and Dreamgirls, quelling my dislike of self-renewing memberships (always aware that I could go under a bus on any day), and bypassing the "most popular" plan (out of innate leeriness of popularity) of three DVDs at a time for $17.99 per month, I signed up at $14.99 for two at a time, a cost knocked down by a dollar at the end of the first month, either as a matter of course or as a worried response to the shortness of my queue.
If I was thinking about cancelling after one month, it would not have been out of dissatisfaction with the service. The speed of the turnaround -- from the return of one DVD, in its distinctive postage-paid red envelope, to the arrival of the next DVD in the queue -- was so head-spinning that I suspected the U.S. Post Office had been bribed to give priority to Netflix DVDs over Red Cross disaster relief and transplantable organs. In honesty, it had me feeling a bit like Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line in Modern Times. Granted, I could hang on to any DVD for as long as I liked ("No Late Fees"), but such is my personal pathology that I have never really been happy borrowing a DVD from a friend until I've returned it, and my conscience begins to writhe after about a week. (An overreaction, possibly, to the girl in high school who absconded with my Portable Dorothy Parker.) Paying rental fees to faceless strangers does not vastly enlarge my sense of entitlement. There might be someone out there in Duluth or Tulsa, itching to get his hands on Satyajit Ray's Mahapurush or Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen.
I myself was never kept waiting for the next title in my queue. And even though the playing side of every DVD without exception was crisscrossed in chicken scratches, as if the disc had doubled as the puck in a game of air hockey, only two or three times did I encounter a glitch in the playback, a skip, a stall, a stutter. One disc, Carlos Saura's Antonieta, was unwatchable for other reasons, looking as soft and fuzzy as a third-generation VHS recording straight from a television broadcast; and I had a powerful hunch that if I could only have seen the box (the name of the manufacturer, the cover art, etc.), rather than just reading the online description, I would have been tipped off to its lower standard. Several Satyajit Ray rarities, Nayak, Joi Baba Felunath, Kapurush, and the above-mentioned Mahapurush, with their ill-timed subtitles and dimly illuminated images, were substandard, also, though not unwatchable. And it was nice, right after seeing Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn in a theater, to get hold of his documentary on the same subject, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Nice, too, to catch up on another Hayao Miyazaki anime, Kiki's Delivery Service. Nice (but not all that nice) to finally see something by the minimalist Hungarian terror, Bela Tarr.
And yet, in my Charlie Chaplin assembly-line mode, I continually had to scramble to replenish my queue. Netflix promises to disclose "two movies you'll love," if you will simply grade your latest rental, but I gave that up the first week when my high marks for Carlos Saura's undistributed dance film, Salome (I had been hoping to find his Iberia, but no luck there), fetched the recommendations of The Sea Inside and Butterfly, two movies I've seen, one of which I kind of liked, whose only connection to Salome is in their shared Spanish language. And my guilt over Kensington Video never did subside. In that Chaplinesque scramble, I became remiss in first checking the stock at Kensington. (Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, for one, was a wasted pick.) And, even if the store could have fulfilled a sudden whim, why would I ever rent a DVD from there when I was already paying Netflix? -- and with the convenience of home delivery? It was a slippery slope. Or a pit of quicksand. I cancelled at the end of two months. And Antonioni died. So did Bergman, same day. Kensington should be able to meet any needs for a private tribute to them in my living room.
Netflix, upon my exit, e-mailed me a routine questionnaire asking, among other things, "What is your primary reason for cancelling your account with Netflix?," and proposing choices ranging from the subtly insulting ("My household needed to cut costs") to the craftily self-congratulatory ("Movies took too long to get to me/back to Netflix" and "The movies I wanted often were not immediately available"). Not among the choices was anything in the vicinity of "My sabbatical is ending." I was thanked for my patronage, and invited to return as a customer in the future. I can just about envision the day. The day I've seen everything I could ever want to see at Kensington or the darker day when Kensington goes the way of Tower. Collapses.