Celebrating scarcity in the age of endless-scrolling cinema.
Film-starved Romanians watch Chuck Norris roundhouse-kick communism. Photo: Twitter.
Netflix has changed me.
Or maybe more correctly, it has changed movies for me. At first it was subtle -- I used it like you might an old-fashioned video store -- but then my patterns began to shift. I went from skipping about, cherry-picking things that looked interesting to watching things that I would never be caught dead renting in a million years.
But in the darkness and safety of your own home, one might take a look at The Longest Ride, a Nicholas Sparks romance that will convince one that the time has come for the human race to vacate the planet. Bring on the next species to march triumphantly forth -- a new master race of highly advanced aardvarks or super cuttlefish.
I noticed there is something else I use Netflix for: namely, therapy. I switch it on like one of those SAD lamps, the kind people use to offset the lack of sunlight at this time of year when grayish depression colours the days and soaks through your dreams at night. I find myself looking for films where the bright light of L.A. sunshine banishes all darkness. Better still if they are films where all the rules are clear and hard. If you are good, you shall be rewarded. Evildoers and mean girls will be punished. It is a world where everything makes sense -- as opposed to the reality, where nothing much does.
Over time it becomes easy to glut yourself on a never-ending smorg of cinema, the filmic equivalent of a soft-serve ice-cream machine; hold the lever and let the sinuous ropes of cool sweetness twist and glide, snaking around your brain until everything is blanked out. You can watch until your head explodes.
So, now we're hooked, good and proper -- Netflix and chill, which my teenage son tells me means something quite different from what I thought it did. But before the dark waters of digital entertainment close over your head, let's reflect for a moment on how much has changed.
Passion in the desert
Scarcity may be a thing of the past, but it is something that people still remember with deep affection. I was thinking about this while trolling through the endless reams of stuff on Netflix, looking for something to take my mind off the grim parade of documentary subjects that are my job to watch. There are so many films, some terrible, some great, but most are in the midrange of vaguely entertaining -- something to watch if you're already half asleep.
I recently watched a film about the popularity of Dallas in 1980s Romania, where almost the entire populace was addicted to the show. When it was broadcast on state television every Friday night, nearly everyone tuned in. Instead of convincing Romanians about the evils of oil barons in Texas, the morality play of American imperialism prompted a national obsession, nay, reverence for the show. J.R. Ewing and his little brother Bobby became national heroes.
My point is that such unbridled passion and obsession can only flower in the desert. Meaning, when there is nothing else, anything that is halfway entertaining becomes a revelation.
An article in the Washington Post recounted the cultural impact of the show thusly:
"In Romania, Dallas was the last Western show allowed during the nightmare 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu was persuaded that it was sufficiently anti-capitalistic. By the time he changed his mind, it was already too late -- he had paid for the full run in precious hard currency. Meanwhile, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap Romanian car.
"After the dictator and his wife were shot on Christmas Eve 1989, the pilot episode of Dallas -- with a previously censored sex scene edited back in -- was one of the first foreign shows broadcast on the liberated Romanian TV. Over the next few years, Hagman became a ubiquitous pitchman in the country for firms such as the Russian petroleum company Lukoil ('The Choice of a True Texan'). … The impact of Dallas on people's worldviews reminds us that the 'vulgar' popular culture that left-wing highbrows and right-wing cultural conservatives love to hate is every bit as important as chin-stroking politics in fomenting real social change."
It is extremely hard to predict how and why audiences will choose to love something and what kind of lasting effect it might have. Another documentary called Chuck Norris vs Communism makes a similar point, detailing the underground network of dubbing U.S. action movies into Romanian. Films were smuggled into the country and translated by a woman named Irina Nistor. Irina became the de facto siren call of the West to a generation of Romanians. From Scarface to The Karate Kid, her voice became that of action heroes and villains alike, even as she carefully edited out swear words and added a particular Eastern flavour to cornpone Americana.
Becoming what we watch
Chuck Norris vs Communism is a mash note to movies -- schlocky, wonderful, glorious movies. But it also has a rather salient point to make, namely that what you watch, you become in some fashion. (Anyone who binges on Adam Sandler, I have bad news for you.) But in the case of the Romanian kids watching Top Gun and Jean-Claude Van Damme, the seeds of rebellion and individualism were planted, sewing the means for societal change.
Both documentaries also make the point that deprivation and scarcity breed passion. If you're raised on bread and water and someone gives you a hamburger and coke, Hello Nurse! It's little wonder that people went cuckoo bananas for delicious American schlock.
I speak from experience. I didn't grow up in Romania, but in the 1970s rural Canada wasn't too different -- cold, dull and with few avenues of genuine escapism.
Movies were hard to come by. In the summer, there was the Drive-In, a place of Kris Kristofferson movies and homemade grocery bags of popcorn, spotted with grease. Then there was the Tivoli, a ramshackle joint held together with binder-twine and spit. If a film played without stripping its sprockets, you were lucky. The first time I ever saw a David Lynch film (The Elephant Man), the bulb was too hot and it melted the film about five minutes before the end of the story. At first I thought it was the greatest way to end a film, ever! Until I understood a moment later that something had gone horribly wrong in the projection booth.
As a child, movies were rare, magical and precious. If they showed up on TV some random afternoon, it was like a divine visitation, a miracle. There are still films that I remember from childhood that I have no idea what they actually were, or even if they were real. Perhaps I only dreamed them.
A particularly powerful memory is of a film about Satanic possession on sailboat, where the devil is gadding about, slipping into one human skin after another, like one would try on pants at the Gap. I remember some poor sucker getting impaled by a swordfish, but after that point I think I blacked out from sheer terror.
That is the other thing one forgets: the intensity of emotion that movies created, whether fear or love, was often overwhelming.
A friend of mine told me a story about her father growing up in Communist Russia, where Hollywood classics were screened in remote villages and towns with their credits carefully excised so that no one knew who was in the film or who had made the film, but more importantly, that no one could be stopped for illegally screening the film. As a young man, her father fell head-over-heels in love with Jeanette MacDonald, even though he had no way to know who she was or if he would ever find out. There is something singularly lovely about this story for me, maybe because of the hopeless romantic nature of such an unrequited passion.
Scarcity is good for humans. We all know this on some level, even without articles about plastic in the ocean or the last rainforests being sold to Chinese oil companies. The world that we have created, of endless goods, choices and so much goddamn stuff is killing us. So it is in the movies as well. There are so many of them that we've ceased to love and revere them as we should.
You can't blame it all on Netflix of course, but it is an indicator of a greater change in the way we access and use content. Much has been made of human's diminishing capacity for attention. Our jumpy brains can't stay still for more than 140 characters at a time.
The more frightening thing is that memory, and the feeling it carries, doesn't seem to last any longer either. Calamities come and go, and it gets harder and harder to retain them for any length of time. Did that atrocity and mass shooting happen only last week? On to the next horror show!
Here's where things get sticky. In looking for escape, we return to the very thing that is hurting us, junkies to the end. Maybe it should be Net fix and chill.