I Miss the Video Store: What Netflix’s Algorithims Get Wrong

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Right now, Vulture has a list of the “15 Best Hacks” for Netflix streaming. It runs the gamut from ending buffering, through figuring out how to watch each region’s Netflix options, to keeping your queue great with Instant Watcher, and setting up separate profiles for your separate tastes so you can be a lady on the street, but a freak that watches some crazy reality show like Bridalplasty and Dirty Jobs in the sheets, if you know what I mean. Also, regarding separate profiles, that’s kind of… a lot of work.

But even if you do use all these hacks, the problem with Netflix persists: it’s a candy store with limited selection, that promises you a magical world of sugar but then only offers swedish fish, stale gummy bears, white chocolate Hershey’s kisses and some Maltesers — and you never quite know what’s going to be on offer when you get there, but it will be some combination of the above, with the one you’re craving likely out of stock. Just mysteriously unavailable. The proprietor may even take it away as they see you coming to the door, mocking you.

But what’s the most annoying is the lack of power, which comes with an illusion of I want it now, Daddy! Veruca Salt-style power. Even if you had a giant master list telling you what’s available on Netflix, well, ultimately, the selection is not that great. If you really love movies, good and bad, there are whole swaths of films that just don’t make it to streaming, big (Hobbit movies, the work of Wes Anderson) and small (let’s use a relevant example: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, of which more in a moment) — and your own personal Netflix queue is filled with the same covers for the same films. I watched Drinking Buddies and felt ambivalent about it months ago, Netflix, why must you keep beardy Jake Johnson in my face?

In a recent article for KQED arts, writer Jon Brooks made a frustratingly Sisyphean journey to find a copy of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), a historically significant movie for independent and black cinema by Melvin Van Peebles. It was unavailable on Netflix DVD (although previously available in 2009). It wasn’t on Netflix streaming, iTunes, or Amazon streaming. The library didn’t carry it. Eventually he found it through another library, but it was, at least in this journey, out of print unless he decided to spend $11.00 on a used DVD.

Now if there was still a video store that carried said film, it would’ve been easy. It’s funny as this situation is not just unique to films and streaming — it’s happening across all artistic media, where electronic is shorthand for “ease,” but it’s a fool’s seductive pitch. While you’re impressed with the quick means of delivery, it also has its limits, and it takes out the reliability and thoroughness of a library.

When it comes to the supposed freedom of streaming, it feels to me like there are some parallels to the controversy that had been happening at the New York Public Library. The short version was that the NYPL’s trustees had a plan to take out the research library — the sea of books that keeps the building at 42nd Street up and running — in order to convert the building into what was basically a tourist-friendly internet café. The plan was to ship the books — the books that had given birth to some of the greatest tomes of our times, including all of Robert Caro’s work — out to New Jersey. The library’s patrons protested that plan (and we won), as it would hugely undermine research, which is the heart of the library. How can you write the next great book when you have to wait 24 hours for your obscure, unable-to-be-digitized tome to travel from Jersey?

If you want to enjoy and see the best breadth of movies, well, they’re all in the metaphorical Jersey of the heart nowadays. By ceding movies and television media to Netflix and other streaming plans, we’ve lost the joys of the video store, the power of browsing, and — crucially — the well-curated, hand-picked library. I discovered stuff at the video store. It was where I rented Bottle Rocket on a weekly basis, mostly because I thought Owen Wilson was cute and the Siskel and Ebert review of it was beguiling in their confusion, watching it every day I could until I nearly knew the film by heart.

I was a video store romantic in my time. Much of my adolescence was colored in Blockbuster’s florescent lighting; in a world that was big, crushing, and anxiety inducing, the quiet repetition of browsing, of looking at video and DVD covers and reading about movies, gave me a settled feeling at a tumultuous time in my life. As the video store disappeared, I lost that port at a time in my life where I may not have needed it as much, but I still miss it. Occasionally my husband will grumble about how he hates Netflix, how he wishes there was a good video store where he could find the movie he wants, where he could pick it up right then and there. I understand the feeling.

Netflix feels endless — it promises freedom, but the library has limits. The problem, as Meghan McArdle put it in Bloomberg, is rights: “Essentially, Netflix cannot afford to buy the rights to all the movies you want to watch… Netflix trained its customers to think that the Internet was supposed to deliver them something better than a premium cable subscription, at maybe a tenth of the price.” But it doesn’t, and it’s middling, and it doesn’t even have the personal touch. A video store, on the other hand — once you have the physical media, you can do what you want with it as long as you’re not copying it or showing it publicly. [Ahem – Ed.]

Look at this Vulture list of the “best” of Netflix streaming. It is a good collection of films, but my goodness it is all over the place. It’s in no order that maybe creates a canon, that tells us a story. It is just a list of some pretty good movies that you have probably already seen if you like movies. As pointed out in the comments, it’s not especially informative; rather, it points out the limitations of Netflix streaming when the foreign films are all from 2000 or later. There’s a Billy Wilder film on there, Double Indemnity, but there’s no option to see every Wilder film ever (and you really should, and you could). In this world, a marvelous film like 1998’s After Life doesn’t even exist. Which is a small tragedy, as it’s a beautiful Japanese movie that asks a big question about being a human being: What memory would you keep for eternity?

One of my memories, not a big one, mind you, would maybe be the video store in its prime. The pleasure of browsing. The feeling of something in your hand. We’ve made a trade from quality to ease with streaming, and it’s a loss, even though it may not read as one right away. The algorithm may think it knows who I am and what I like, but it’s wrong and repetitive all of the time. It’s not a sign of shocking individuality when I say my choices are not an algorithm; after all, what I want out of something as ephemeral as my Netflix queue changes all the time, but what’s being offered through streaming is stupider and stupider, making its customers stupider on top of it. Streaming is pulverizing the pleasure of pursuing the life of the aesthete. I miss the video store.