vendredi 11 février 2011

The Netflix Curator

                                                                 Dennis Hopper on the set of Easy Rider (1969)

Chers tous,

Today I am switching to my second language, hello English!, because I want to talk about something that has become very mainstream in the US, but that is still only available in the US... Netflix! (As for my French friends that might feel left out, have you ever tried Cinesnap?). Also, the good thing about writing in English is that my favorite American is finally going to be able to read one of my blog posts without using Google Translate and me repeating obsessively "But it is impooooossible to produce a good translation that way!". (It took me long enough to master the subtleties of American-English to now be told by the Huffington Post that I could have waited for a Google iPhone app all along! Plus my Mom has done a lot of professional translating over the course of her career, I have to defend her honor and say it is a real human job !). 

So... to get back to Netflix! As most of you already know, it is a very successful American company that offers you, for a shockingly modest price, to receive film and television DVDs in your mailbox in an unlimited turnover, or to watch "instantly" on your computer, (or even on your TV, with a special plug), movies and series from a huge catalog available for streaming online. Of course, I still love going to see films on the big screen (especially with my favorite American), but Netflix is really convenient! That being said, I have to voice a serious complaint here:) The classification that the Netflix people came up with to help their users browse is very "insufficient" (and here, I have to give credit where it's due, I just used Google translate to confirm the translation of "insuffisant")! Here are the main categories on Netflix:

New to Watch Instantly
New Releases 
Critics' Picks
Award Winners
Netflix Top 100

Action & Adventure
Anime & Animation
Children & Family
Faith & Spirituality
Gay & Lesbian
Music & Musicals
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Special Interest
Sports & Fitness

If you add the subcategories, (check it out here), fair enough, it looks like you have plenty of options to start with. But there are thousands and thousands and thousands of film and TV works available on Netflix. It's true that the website tries to organize the movies so that when you pick one, they suggest similar ones for you. I find this useful but very limited, the same films keep showing up over and over again. Also, if you take up the time to rank what you've seen, or to taste your preferences, Netflix will come up with "suggestions for you". Those suggestions are based on somewhat arbitrary computer mix-and-matches of styles, genres, eras, moods etc. and the results are weirdly labeled, or rather, they make you look like a weird person. For instance, my Netflix account currently suggests for me to watch more "Violent Prison Thrillers" or "Critically-acclaimed Dark Movies about Marriage"! Another interesting feature, but more so for a sociologist than for a film buff, is to be able to see what people who live in the same zip code as you are watching!

In any case, even if you've become a master in the art of tweaking your Netflix suggestions, I believe that the browsing options could be improved. It seems to me that they were designed as if Netflix were a giant rental video store. Which it is, but by focusing too much on this marketing approach, the creators of the website forgot about a very important and enthusiastic fringe of users: the cinephiles! I am definitely one of them, and I keep running into instances where I just can't find what I am looking for in a easy way on Netflix. I realize that it's hard to cover all the angles that the subscribers would want to see covered, and that the definition of "genre" is very elusive (I even had a film class dedicated only to the exploration of what a film genre might be!).

So, in order to cover the "cracks" that I regularly find on my Netflix, I wanted to post on this blog a  list that I have in mind. (You can also make queues and lists on the DVD rental website, but only your "friends" can see them, and the friends interface is not so easy to navigate...). Let's take the example of one of my favorite periods in American cinema, the 1970s, also known as The New Hollywood. Well, you can't find it on Netflix! But if you scroll further down on this page, you will see that I have assembled a new Netflix category! I actually cheated a little bit and only included films that I have seen myself, but I didn't lie when I said I was a cinephile, and the following list should give you a good starting point to explore The New Hollywood cinema. The films are listed by year. And the "magic" trick is that, if you click on a title, you will be redirected to the Netflix page for this film! If the title has a star* attached, it means that, as of today, the film is available on Instant Play (but that comes with an expiration date).

I should mention that in order to come up with this list, I used various sources, including the good old... I also strongly recommend this book, by Peter Biskind, that has actually been made into a documentary (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls [2003]) that you can find on Netflix. Like him, I used those two films as a starting and as an ending point of reference. Full circle!



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