In essence, the movie-criticism paradigm hasn’t changed much since the earliest days of the studio system: We critics publish our reviews the week a movie opens theatrically. What happens to us scribblers when the theaters shutter, and the model that has sustained this dwindling profession is disrupted? With the coronavirus prompting the swift closure of cinemas nationwide, does that mean we’re out of a job until the popcorn machines are turned back on?
Au contraire. In fact, it’s high time for a paradigm shift. These days, for better or worse, the majority of us already consume most of our cinema outside of cinemas. COVID-19 has only put the declining movie theater business, with its diminishing audiences and reliance on a handful of tent-pole blockbusters to stay in the black — to the increasing negligence of movies for cineastes and grown-ups — into starker relief.
Streaming services, by contrast, offer an endless buffet of opportunity, from commercial to experimental, domestic to foreign, Golden Age to fresh-from-the-festival circuit. These opportunities have been around for years, not only from household-name streamers — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime — but from more niche distributors, like MUBI, The Film Detective and The Criterion Channel. Sure, there’s still cable, DVD and Blu-ray, but these mediums have begun to feel as much like relics of an earlier era as gilded movie palaces. Not so with streaming: You can be a cord-cutter without a library card or an interest in physical media, and the movie world is still your oyster.
We will always prefer the visual and sound quality of a proper cinema screening to home viewings, where laptops or — God forbid — smartphone screens mute the widescreen intent of the filmmakers, and where everything these days, from Chantal Akerman masterpieces to TikTok videos, exists on the same continuum of “content.” But the benefits far outweigh the artistic drawbacks and even the cost, as most of these providers keep their monthly rates manageable for middle-class cinephiles. And, for the time being, we literally have no choice, so why not start spelunking the deepest caverns of the streaming-verse?
In this rebooted column we’ll do just that, beginning this week with Netflix, arguably the most critically celebrated of the streaming providers, if not the most ubiquitous (Amazon Prime has 101 million U.S. subscribers to Netflix’s 60 million, but who’s counting?)
As a cineaste, I have a love-hate relationship with Netflix. For supporters of contemporary indie and prestige cinema, its catalog is almost unimpeachable. Alfonso Cuarón, Fernando Meirelles, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and Noah Baumbach are just a few of the world-class directors to embrace the digital distributor, where their movies reach more admirers than they ever would through the theatrical model. The service certainly captures the social and cinematic zeitgeist.
Go back a few years in film history, however, and the selection is not merely thin; it’s anemic. I had hoped to make this first column the beginning of a Home Film School 101, expecting to discover, in Netflix’s deepest bowels, a trove of distinguished titles necessary to building a film education. Instead, an exploration of the streamer’s “Classics” section yields a paltry inventory of a few dozen, with “classic” so liberally defined as to include Back to the Future Part III, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Shawshank Redemption.
Pictures from the 1940s can be counted on less than one hand, an egregious shorting of arguably the greatest decade in film history. That said, you can catch The Stranger, Orson Welles’ 1946 noir — and his first attempt to make a genuinely commercial movie — which would earn an Oscar nomination for its sinister screenplay (co-written by Welles and an uncredited John Huston, among others).
The director plays a high-ranking Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity in Connecticut; Edward G. Robinson is the relentless Nazi hunter who tracks him down. It’s full of magisterial chiaroscuro lighting, the first documentary footage of the Holocaust shown in a feature film, and classic Wellesian set pieces, including its climax on a giant clock face in a church belfry.
The Stranger is Welles at his most audience-pleasing; for a look at the director at his most radical, follow it up with The Other Side of the Wind, his vitriolic, inside-Hollywood passion project shot during a tumultuous six-plus years toward the end of his career, and completed some 40 years later by friend and historian Peter Bogdanovich.
Containing one of the most hallucinatory sex scenes in a mainstream movie, it’s a layered, dizzying, psychedelic look into the final day of a leonine Hollywood director (John Huston), obviously modeled on Welles himself, during a screening party for his latest avant-garde film. Shot in a documentary style that juxtaposes scenes from the director’s film-within-the-film, The Other Side of the Wind is a poison-pen letter to a Hollywood that chewed Welles up and spit him out, and it may be the best movie Netflix has ever financed.
Netflix also offers 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West. At 165 minutes, it’s the sort of visionary time suck perfect for days and nights with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Immerse yourself in Sergio Leone’s sweeping, mythic neo-Western which, with its central characters of a bandit (Jason Robards), a harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson) and his villainous nemesis (Henry Fonda, in a rare black-hat role), plies some of the same terrain as Leone’s earlier The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but with the visual poetry ramped up.
The mise-en-scène is drop-dead gorgeous, with Tonino Delli Colli’s masterful shuffling between widescreen vistas and tight close-ups a film school all by itself. The crew is a who’s-who of Italian cinema; Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci co-wrote the script, and Ennio Morricone composed the iconic score.
Speaking of great films from 1968, you can also catch Rosemary’s Baby, because there’s nothing like a demon seed to take your mind off of a global pandemic. This atmospheric chiller, whose women’s-liberation subtext resonates anew today, was a breakthrough for director Roman Polanski, in his first American feature, and star Mia Farrow, who was then most known for her part on TV’s Peyton Place, and who accepted the lead role over the vociferous objections of her then-husband, Frank Sinatra. Polanski, not surprisingly, had campaigned for Sharon Tate in the role.
Today, the movie is so iconic that we cannot imagine anybody else in it. It’s a slow-burning, psychodramatic shock to the system so intense that you don’t want to watch it with the lights off — and one that achieves its intended effect without gore or even much on-screen violence.
But in essence, Netflix is not your first stop for classics; it’s probably your last. Next week, we’ll highlight a streamer with classics embedded in its mission.