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.
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.