Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

When you gaze into your Netflix queue, does your queue gaze also into you?

As I mentioned back in April, Netflix is ending its DVD service Sept. 29. As part of its farewell to subscribers, the company sent us lists of every DVD they’ve mailed us from the beginning. I found it interesting reading.

The first thing I watched was Daybreak, an ABC series with Taye Diggs as a cop caught in a time loop, It was good but the ratings sucked so ABC yanked it even though they shot the full season. I desperately wanted to know how it all ended so when I saw Netflix had the DVD set … And it was worth subscribing for.

That was in February of 2009. After wrapping up the series, I watched a few more things through June (I was on the one-DVD-at-a-time plan) including Coupling, The Big Lebowski and the excellent British Jekyll. From June through April of the following year everything I checked out was movies or TV shows I watched for Screen Enemies of the American Way, my book on subversion, infiltration and political paranoia in film and TV. As streaming wasn’t an option back then, Netflix saved me buying a shit ton of stuff: The Invaders, Surface, Sleeper Cell, the regrettably short-lived Threshold and John Wayne’s red-baiting Big Jim McClain. in which Wayne plays an investigator for the House Unamerican Activities Committee.I also caught The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, JFK, The Quiller Memorandum and a great many other good films. Some, such as Red Nightmare, were only available on YouTube; I managed to tape Stepford Wives‘ dreadful sequels off the air. Overall, though, Netflix was a life-saver, from the first movie I watched for the book (They Live), through the last, Left Behind and Left Behind: Tribulation Force (subversive Satanist infiltration is a subgenre!).

I performed similar feats for my next two film reference books, though I haven’t checked out that history yet. In between books, the ability to stick tons of films in my queue proved irresistible. Hear about a movie that sounds cool? Throw it into the list! Maybe I’d get to it in a couple of weeks but if there were other things I wanted to move above it in the queue, well the list wasn’t going anywhere,

Once I heard the bad news, though, that changed: I had to prioritize my queue to get the maximum value out of the remaining time. I initially thought I could identify everything on the list available elsewhere for free (streaming services, Durham Library’s DVD collection) but that was too much work with a list of 300 movies. I pruned a few obvious choices — no surprise the library has Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — and then prioritized older or more obscure films that I suspected would be harder to find streaming.

Going through the prioritized movies has reminded me of all the different reasons I’d throw something in the list. I watched the Sexton Blake film The Hooded Terror (1938) because I’d read a collection of the master detective‘s 1920s adventures. The film turned out dull but on the plus side the DVD also came with Crimes in the Dark House (which strikes me as nearly Snakes on a Plane as titles go), a delightfully lurid 1940 adaptation of The Woman in White.

I queued up The Flesh and the Fiends because the commentary track for Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde mentioned it as an earlier take on Burke and Hare, the infamous body-snatchers and murderers. It’s a very entertaining movie (and definitely an influence on the later film) with Donald Pleasance as a low-comic Hare and Peter Cushing as their main client, Dr. Knox, who seems one step away from giving up dissection in favor of reanimating dead tissue.

Sometimes its nonfiction books. I read Matthew Polly’s excellent biography of Bruce Lee three years ago and put all the Lee films I could find into my queue. I watched Enter the Dragon a while back but the others languished in my queue for a while; I only finished The Game of Death II last weekend.

Then there’s the WTF category, where I can’t for the life of me explain why I wanted to Netflix them. I’ve never had any urge to watch Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), for example, but for some reason I put it in my queue, and kept it in even with limited time to keep queuing things. Turns out there was no reason to Netflix it. This story of Knotts as a small town would-be reporter getting a scoop and a romance out of his investigations into a haunted house is nothing the crew in the Mystery Machine haven’t done better a hundred times.

1967’s La Chinoise has more art — Jean-Luc Goddard directed it — but it’s pretentious crap. Parisian teenagers decide to become Maoist revolutionaries, debate Mao’s Little Red Book endlessly, then make inept attempts at launching the revolution (one of them reads an address upside down and ends up shooting the wrong person). As I’m not particularly into Goddard (unlike his contemporary, Francois Truffaut), I’ve again no idea what prompted my selection.I don’t know why I put 1972’s Up the Sandbox in my queue either, as I’ve seen it before and didn’t like it. This time, though, my selection worked out well. The story of Barbra Streisand struggling with her marital frustrations and sliding into fantasy still doesn’t work completely — the fantasy sequences, mostly — but perhaps I’ve grown up enough to appreciate Streisand’s situation is a realistic one (kids eating up her life, husband refusing to help, now she’s pregnant again). And Streisand is not only a good actor, she’s amazing eye candy, especially when she flashes that smile.

I can’t say any of this gives me any deep enlightenment about my taste or selection process but it did fill up a few paragraphs.




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