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Filmism.net Dispatch December 8, 2021

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It's time to talk about streaming services and the (inevitable) narrative about how they're destroying the cinematic experience.

No, this isn't that rant. It's not a treatise on how we don't go to the movies anymore because so many movies (in fact many more movies, and TV too, much of it better than what you can see in the average cinema) are available right in our lounge rooms where we can talk and eat as loud as we want, hit pause to answer a call of nature and wear trakky daks stained with yesterday's kebab.

Nor is it another tired defence of the holier-than-thou theatrical experience of the large room, the giant screen, the popcorn and all those trappings we'll lose if cinema goes away.

It's about the particular movie viewing stance we adopt when we sit down to watch a movie, and how that changes into something else entirely depending on a few variables.

Firstly, for the sake of clarity, this argument applies just as much to TV and even shorts you might watch on YouTube. I'm just using movies as an example because they're the only entertainments (so far) you can watch either in a cinema or on the gigantic LCD screen in your McMansion's media room.

The crux of it is in the way we digest the actual movie, the mental posture we go through to consume it. When we go to the cinema we put on clean (one hopes) and presentable clothes that are appropriate for the weather, we take the trouble to get in the car or train and go somewhere, we hand money over at a box office and we sit in a giant dark room to be told a story.

There's no spouse wanting to talk about what the mechanic said, no washing machine finishing its cycle, no phone ringing... and, by the way, if you're the kind of person who keeps their phone on and checks it or answers calls during the movie, it's the official position of Filmism.net that you be ritually disembowelled on a pyre of burning farm beast manure.

You're there to sit still, eyes front and watch the movie because it's the social convention in a cinema, but just as importantly it's because you'd no more pay to see a movie in a theatre and then let yourself be constantly interrupted than you would pay for food in a restaurant, leave it on the table and go eat somewhere else.

When we're at home we're not just more easily distracted, we're more prepared to be and accepting of being distracted. And I'm not just talking about the washing needing to be hung out or the phone ringing, either.

When we're at home we lose that mental 'going to the movies' stance that makes watching a movie something you consciously and deliberately apply yourself to. Actor Willem Dafoe articulated the difference beautifully in a recent interview when he said we 'commit in a different way'.

He went on to raise another insight – the streaming services that purport to bring us the widest possible pool of entertainment in human history are themselves part of the distraction that makes it so hard to commit the way we do when we sit in cinemas.

Partly it's because Netflix, Disney+ et al quietly withdraw a sum of money from your credit card every month, and as any economist or marketing expert will tell you, our bank account paying money automatically out of our sight puts us in a very different frame of mind than passing money over a counter for a service.

But as Dafoe goes on to say; 'When I go to a platform to see what to watch, it's very confusing. You hop around and watch a little bit of everything. Finally, you say, forget it, I'm going to bed.'

He's right, but I still hate that idea. It's the result of market activity by a company whose income is our attention, and it's the ultimate expression of repurposing art into content. Everything they release to capture us is the output of a recommendation engine powered by a thousand machine learning software bots who know more about us than any human being on Earth.

Researchers once had an AI algorithm make scarily accurate guesses about a website visitor's preferences and profile after just a few clicks around the web. Everywhere we browse and click in Stan, Peacock or Amazon Prime Video's apps is keeping careful track of us, and we've been searching and clicking for a couple of years now...

Dafoe cuts to the heart of the matter when he goes on to say; 'Maybe this is something that will win in our society given the technology that people are growing up with... We lose that ability to pay attention for long periods of time and to go places when we don't know how it will serve us'.

That's usually the kind of grumble anyone over 40 reserves for whatever social media service has millennials in its thrall in a given week, but Netflix isn't just for kids and teens, and Dafoe is, after all, right. Is the immediacy of digital culture as a whole both teaching us all to look for quick fixes and making us dumber about seeking out the art we want, eroding our actual cinematic interests and tastes while we merely expect a computer to serve them up for us instead?

With tens of thousands of hours of films and shows just a few clicks away, many of them old, obscure, foreign or arthouse, streaming services should be a movie lover's paradise. A few months back it was reported Netflix had scheduled 42 movies. That's more than the Hollywood majors put together. If you love movies there's never been a better time to be alive.

Instead we distractedly flick around a few menus letting a computer suggest things we should watch and then give up when we can't decide which recommendation actually suits us.

But I won't get carried away and start spewing reactionary bile about these kids these days and their attention spans, because that's not fair. I'm the problem. When it comes to the disconnect I'm describing, I'm actually in a minority.

As a devoted movie fan I take almost no notice of the recommendations. I have a list on my computer eight pages long of movies I know I want to watch, and every few months I go through the various streaming services we subscribe to in my family (although a quick plug here for Justwatch.com, which does it all for you) and search for a slew of the names on my list.

Often I'm pleasantly surprised to see a few I haven't found until then but are now available. Sometimes it's a movie that was only available for rent on one service but is now free (ie part of your subscription) on another.

But Netflix and its contemporaries and the absent clicking around, endlessly distracted and tantalised by the title art (itself incredibly tightly curated by algorithms) and looking for something to watch wasn't built for the likes of me, it was built for the average Jane or Joe.

They're the ones who aren't so obsessive, who like the odd flick rather than sitting down with a carefully crafted plan of what to watch, who are perfectly prepared to go hang the washing out or read their social media feed and ignore the movie completely, or give up the instant they lose interest in something and go back to clicking and scrolling through menus again.

So while I didn't disagree with Willem's assessment of our home viewing habits thanks to the new culture of endless choice recommended by machinery, I was surprised someone of his apparent good taste in movies would fall victim to that kind of behaviour.

I try to maintain my 'going to the movies' stance wherever I'm watching, including a streaming service or DVD at home. Unless I'm eating something I need to see I turn the light off. I pay close attention from the opening studio idents. I don't put washing on. I don't have my phone next to me and if I hear it ring in the other room, I utter an expletive as I pause what I'm watching to see if it's important.

I often watch the end credits, because you can never be sure of the interesting connections and trivia you might learn that furthers your cinema education.

Stay around deep into the credits for The Empire Strikes Back and you'll see one David Fincher as a camera operator. Watch the end credits for 2011 Aussie shark thriller The Reef and you'll see the name of yours truly in the 'Thanks To' section (I was very complimentary about director Andrew Traucki's previous film Black Water).

That window Netflix throws up ten seconds after the movie finishes to give you a preview of something else, thus forcing you to actively opt in to watch the rest of the credits, irritates the shit out of me.

In fact the only difference between the cinema and watching something at home is that I tend to wear pants if I leave my house. Maybe it's my age. Maybe, because of the decades I've loved film and the living I've made from it, I treat it more seriously than the average casual viewer.

But after being vaguely aware of the above for some time and reading someone as smart as Willem Dafoe express it so concisely makes me realise I'm not the streaming services' core customer base.

The economics and attention of a cinema visit made us all equal, film nerds and extreme fans as invested in the experience as the chin scratchers.

(Never heard of chin scratchers? You know, they just fancied going to the movies, they only have a vague idea what they'll pick, and when they arrive at the box office they scratch their chins looking at the titles and session times saying 'yeah, that one had that guy who was in that other one with that woman, that might be all right, I liked her in that other one...').

My fear is that watching movies will be something we do by selecting pre-fabricated choices from endless breakdowns of sections and types; pigeonholes future writers, artists and directors will be only more compelled to fit into, the rest of us barely caring and abandoning it without a thought if it doesn't grab us by the throat like a 30 second clip of a cat freaking out at a cucumber.

Like few other mass media forms, movies can open us to new worlds and show things from points of view we'd never considered. They challenge, move and change us. The economics that bring them to us aside, they should make us audiences to art. Instead, the cherry picked nature of algorithm-driven choice is making us consumers of barely distinct tidbits.

And while I'm on a roll, another shoutout. If you've never heard of Kanopy.com, it's a streaming service with weird, offbeat, old, foreign, festival and awards-worthy movies aeons away from the franchise blockbuster universes. You have to be a member of your local library, and if you are it's completely free.

Among the films I've watched lately; you wouldn't think a slow moving Scandinavian film has anything in common with the films of Tarantino, but in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence I saw parallels with how precisely The Bechinned One so precisely blocks and choreographs shots. Don't expect gunfights, liberal use of the 'n' word and assaultive profanity though, it's a light-on-its-feet yet sombre story made of unconnected snippets and vignettes.

I also caught up with 2002 Affleck and J-Lo bomb Gigli. As you probably gathered at the time it certainly can't be recommended as an enjoyable watch, but when Hollywood finally goes on trial for butchering movies into something the director never intended, it's going to be Exhibit A.

And finally, props to the filmmakers behind Japanese sci-fi love story Your Name, which might have the richest animation I've ever seen in my life.

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