Monday, November 7, 2011

Strange gaps in the Netflix catalogue


Don't you tend to think of Netflix as the one place you can rely on to get pretty much any movie you want?

There are limitations, of course -- out-of-print movies, movies that never made it to DVD in the first place, movies that are still in theaters, etc. But you should be able to find pretty much any other movie of a certain level of prominence, right?

Wrong.

As luck would have it, I struck out twice this past Friday, on movies I thought for sure should be prominent enough for me to rent. Both were movies I've seen -- and both were movies it looks like I won't be seeing again anytime soon.

The first movie jumped back on my radar after I read a very sympathetic article on Howard Stern, in which he talked about how his divorce really threw him for a loop. It reminded me of the other time I'd seen Howard's outer costume peeled away to reveal the human being underneath: Betty Thomas' Private Parts, which I would dare to call a "sweet" movie. (In some respects at least. It also has naked porn stars.)

I think I've only see it that one time, back in 1997. So right then and there I decided to see if it was available for streaming on Netflix, guessing (correctly it turned out) that my wife had never seen it.

Nope. But neither was it available as a physical DVD.

Just that big green Save button.

Really?

(And why is the Save button green, anyway? Is it a way to soften the blow that we won't be able to get the movie we've searched for? In all other places in our world, green means Go. But here, green means Stop.)

The second was a slightly less prominent film, but one that should still be all over Netflix anyway.

Back in college -- and this shows you what kind of college I went to -- I wrote a serious essay on literary theory that compared Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and ... Andrew Fleming's Threesome. That's right, the 1994 comedy starring Stephen Baldwin, Josh Charles and Lara Flynn Boyle. And it wasn't like I was trying to shoehorn the movie into this discussion because I hated English as an area of study and was just trying to get out of an assignment in the easiest way possible. In fact, I was an English major, the class was called Literary Theory of Popular Culture, and this type of outside-the-box thinking was encouraged. (Although I think my professor specifically had to watch the movie in order to grade my paper -- which received an A.)

So I came across Threesome again while dueling on Flickchart, and thought "Huh. Haven't seen that in awhile. Wonder if it's available on streaming."

Same result: No streaming, no physical DVD.

Just this:

(Well, it's not exactly like this -- it just says Save. Surprised I was able to find an image of the button at all.)

I mean, it's not like Threesome is a movie everybody has seen. (Unlike, I would argue, Private Parts, which even Ethiopian children under five years old have already seen.) But it's prominent enough that some friends and I actually used to quote it. Our favorite was this line from Stephen Baldwin: "For me, sex is like pizza. Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good."

Two thousand eleven has been a bad year for Netflix, a year in which the company has come under fire repeatedly for poor decisions and a trial-and-error approach to market research that is astoundingly amateurish. But the actual content of its DVD offerings has never the subject of any debate. Yes, some new releases are delayed from arriving on Netflix in order to increase the company's streaming offerings, and yes, those streaming offerings are going to diminish next year when the Starz contract runs out. But the back catalogue of DVD titles has traditionally been an area of strength, beyond reproach.

Until now.

If I identified two missing titles in the course of one random day of searching films of legitimate stature, how many others are there?

And perhaps more troublingly, how will I actually see these two movies from the mid-1990s that I rather enjoyed?

We live in an era where we have the ability to watch pretty much any movie we want, from any time in the history of cinema, within a couple days of the moment we decided to watch it.

Or do we?

2 comments:

Thaddeus said...

nice! I think the better intellectual question is: do we need to? Is it in any way important to be able to watch every single piece of pop culture entertainment that's ever been produced whenever you want?

As a movie lover, I'm annoyed that I can't find an original (non-disneyfied) version of Drunken Master 2 or The Ipcress File (someone got it as a present for me finally). I also want to see Bullet to Beijing rather badly (it's the sequel to Ipcress), ut it too has no availability. Then there are other pictures, like Mandrill, an argentinian pic from 1-2 years ago.

I want to watch them all, but they're pretty much unavailable. At least a local video/dvd store should be able to provide you with private parts (i think, anyway), and I've seen threesome on shelves as well.

To some extent, you have a point in expecting more from Netflix, since they themselves destabilized the actual in-store video rental chains. This means that they really should stock some more of these movies that were available through those other options. I feel a bit worse about the movies that simply aren't available even in stores.

On the other hand, I always come back to the idea that as much as I love movies, there's a really risk of becoming entitled and impatient by expecting to be able to watch whatever I want, whenever I want. I should be out taking pictures or getting another grad degree or something.

PS, (1) I agree with your assessment of private parts. It's what I wrote in my own review. (2) I wish my own english major courses offered that sort of flexibility!

Vancetastic said...

Thaddeus,

You raise an interesting point about our instant access society. I sometimes think back to the days before movies were available on video, when you had to either wait for a theatrical re-release, or hope to catch the movie on TV. But just as I could not go back to the days before I had a cell phone, I don't think I could go back to those days, either.

It's not necessary to be able to watch them whenever we want -- but it IS nice to know that there's SOME way to watch them, at some point. Sure, I could re-up with Blockbuster, and Blockbuster could probably ship me these two movies through their DVD-by-mail service. Or I could go on Amazon and buy either DVD, probably for $5 or less. But I don't really want to own these movies -- I just want to see them again, at some point.

More than anything I find it strange, hence the word "strange" in the title of my post. Is there some story behind why Netflix doesn't carry Private Parts? Did Howard Stern once diss Netflix on his radio show? Is there some licensing dispute that involves only this one movie? It's curious to be sure.

Yeah, God bless the small liberal arts college education. It was a lot of fun to write about movies you wouldn't ordinarily expect to appear anywhere in academia. I also wrote about Joel Schumacher's Falling Down in a film class on German Expressionism in film. (In that paper I made some kind of comparison between Michael Douglas' square-headed haircut and Frankenstein. It made sense at the time.) Lest you think I always resorted to "easy" films in pop culture whenever I got the chance, I should tell you that I also wrote about Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, a cinematic slog if there ever was one (a rewarding slog, though), by choice.