Columns / Discourse / January 18, 2012

Check the Reel: Coming to the defense of Netflix

January might kick off the new year, but think about it: is there any month more bland or depressing? There’s no big holiday to hang your party hat on, the weather is dreary without the Christmas cheer to sustain it, you’re back in school and worst of all … there’s nothing good anymore in theaters.

The eligibility dates for the Oscars have passed, along with the winter break that placed butts in movie seats. The movie industry has no reason to put anything of value at the beginning of the year, turning early January through mid-February into a dumping ground for schlocky horror, small-name media adaptations and Mark Wahlberg. What a horrible time to be a movie lover!

Or so it would be, if you don’t use that ubiquitous, red webpage, a goldmine of movie titles from all kinds of genres, every conceivable genre, with room for big names and small names, even names you thought had no right to exist outside a fifth grader’s scribbles (“Killer Klowns from Outer Space”? “The Hebrew Hammer”??). Of course I mean Netflix, and it just might be film distribution’s greatest boon since VHS.

Netflix, for the uninitiated, is an online service that allows you to stream movies or TV shows to your computer, TV or even some game consoles for a monthly fee and nothing else. Its film library is constantly shifting and switching items in and out, with an option provided to have a movie sent to you in the mail if it’s not available to stream. This option, however, is drastically more limited than streaming, which takes up most the service’s emphasis.

I received a Netflix account for Christmas at a time when the company wasn’t faring so well. They had recently bumped up subscription prices for users who wanted to both stream and rent DVDs through mail, and other public gaffes — a planned, then quickly scrapped, spin-off service called Qwikster — helped shake Netflix’s sturdy base until the talking heads started asking: “Could this be the end? Has Netflix seen its time in the sun?”

For others maybe. I’m too busy filling my account’s instant queue with hundreds of titles to care.

See, before I got Netflix, I was cautious about what the service could do. I had grown up on rental stores and the physical act of browsing through aisles of VHS tapes and DVDs. Running my fingers along a line of movies, instead of just flipping between them on a TV screen, was the apotheosis of the movie lover lifestyle. Netflix devalued that, I thought. It traded the search and adventure for instant accessibility.

In some ways I guessed correctly. Netflix is all about conveniently accessing movies. But I failed to realize until I actually browsed through the streaming library that, holy crap, in lots of ways this beats a rental store. The variety of selection — where the most niche titles mingle with the blockbusters, the foreign and indie choices balance out the mainstream — is not limited by shelf space, and there is no fear that someone will rent a movie and never return it. The options are up there for anyone to watch, regardless if someone else is watching it. When it disappears, other movies rush in to take its place.

More than anyone realizes, Netflix is an educational tool. Someone could feasibly argue before that it’s not worth the effort to search for movies unavailable on TV or the video store. That discounts a shocking number of titles: works by Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard, Griffith, Takeshi Miike, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton … Netflix, bless its heart, ensures those titles can be found. There is no excuse now to not watch classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Duck Soup. “They’re up there with “Toy Story 3” and “The Expendables.”

And no matter what the news stories say, Netflix is incredibly cheap. If you want to use it, don’t bother with the DVD service. Streaming gives you a huge selection you can watch whenever you want, as often as you want. If you like movies, you’ll watch more movies than the monthly fee would cover at the store. Rather than stifle one’s choices, Netflix broadens them exponentially, verging on the infinite. And I haven’t even cracked the surface of what’s possible …

Will Netflix survive, then, with all the flak it’s received? I’m willing to bet yes. Just think about how many ads you see for the site online, and you’ll see what I mean. The more important question is, does any of that matter? If you’re a true movie lover, the politics shouldn’t matter. Here is a means to fuel your passion. Make use of it, and don’t look back.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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