In Praise Of Netflix


These days members of the internet cognoscenti look a bit like grumpy cat when asked about the prospects for the on-demand streaming media provider Netflix. Some were disappointed with the company’s reboot of the cult television show Arrested Development, others still remember the company’s disastrous price doubling in 2011, and still others (mostly the aged) remember that there was a time when any self-respecting member of the internet cognoscenti wouldn’t have been caught dead paying for streaming content. For them the internet was napster, torrents, memes and blogs. The internet was built for sharing, paywalls and the profit motive were passe, and any tech company that aimed to be a gatekeeper and collect a toll would end up like AOL.

Well, screw them. The internet cognoscenti are wrong. Not only is the new Arrested Development brilliant (its like Ulysses only for tv sitcoms) but Netflix is the best thing that’s ever happened to the internet. Here are three reasons why:

1. The success of Netflix proves that technological innovation alone will never bring political or economic changes. The triumph of Netflix means you can stop listening to silicon valley hippies and anti-copyright advocates. It turns out that the old economy with its drive to exploit labor and create profits can easily repel threats to it from bit torrents and RSS feeds.

2. The Netflix catalog is actually navigable. It’s possible to find something worth watching when the number of choices is something less than infinity. This is also a perk that derives from the way Netflix is constrained by its need to make money.

3. Netflix’s catalog includes the 1929 movie Man with a Movie Camera.

What’s so great about that?

Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is a silent film that eschews all of the conventions of narrative film in order to discover what it says is the purely filmic. It is a film about seeing, about the mechanics of film, and about the spectacle that is industrial life.

Now most of the time when you watch something arty like a non narrative film you have to suffer through movies that try to be good for you, or that are trying to make some grand statement, but what’s great about Vertov’s movie is that, despite it being made in the Soviet Union well before the invention of Mtv or even television, its really about fast cuts and having a good time.

It’s the polar opposite of Godfrey Reggio’s non narrative film Koyaanisqatsi which you might have seen in some undergraduate film class and which is currently available on Hulu. Both Reggio and Vertov’s movies present the massive mechanism that is modern life, both bombard us with images of factories, tenements, traffic, and shopping malls, but while Reggio’s version is melancholic Vertov’s movie insists that it’s having a good time. Both movies present a world wherein simple human concerns have gone missing, but Vertov is positively giddy about this. For Vertov the fact that what we once knew to be human life had disappeared was a good sign because it made a vacancy for some new kind of humanity.

Vertov once wrote that machines like the movie camera should make us humans ashamed of our inability to control ourselves. In his WE manifesto he went ahead and “temporarily excluded man as a subject for film” precisely because he thought it was only by taking a path through the poetry of the machines that man could really discover himself.

He wrote that this path through machines will lead us “from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.”

And that is what’s so great about Netflix. It offers us this vision of living like a perfect electric man while demonstrating, by the necessity of its own existence, how far away that kind of life really is.

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image – Netflix