Netflix’s archive of shadows

In the age of information – of digital catalogues, the iTunes library, and the Internet Movie Database – the Netflix homepage stands out because it is distinctly not-textual. It is a bright wall of film posters, quite like the wall at the local take-away shop that displays a badly lit photo of every single dish it can make. At these restaurants, customers tend to pick something – anything – quickly, because looking at the backlit visual menu for too long hurts the eyes. Netflix is similarly overwhelming. On the site, films are organised in rows of genre or other groupings. Users browse by scrolling through these rows of images, seeing in eight or so titles at a time in each row. It offers no full list of its catalogue.

Since Netflix came to Australia in early 2015, it has been disappointing customers with impressive efficiency. The frequent complaint is that it just doesn’t have very much good content. But for only a few dollars a month it offers users access to more than 1000 titles, which you would have thought was larger than the average personal film library. So perhaps the issue, better put, is that it does not have as much content as people expected it would. But where did this expectation come from? Who ever made any promises?

The service does not pretend to be a comprehensive archive. But it does pretend to have more content than it really has. Speaking to Fairfax, a Netflix representative denied the accuracy of a list of the site’s content that an Australian enthusiast compiled. But, he said, ‘we never reveal catalogue numbers – not because we’re trying to hide anything but because it’s irrelevant’.

It is a very pleasant fallacy to imagine the history of film display as a series of romping victories for viewership. In this image of film’s history, each progression empowers the audience. At every turn they are granted new rights to self-determine what, when, and where they watch. And simultaneously, each progression elevates the artistic status of film. As the physical constraints of the medium – issues of ephemerality and delivery – are overcome, people begin to watch old films again and begin to judge them, reconsider them, criticise them, and canonise them.

In the beginning – the first film screenings occurred in the 1890s – film production, distribution, and display were run by business-minded people. Not like today. Few of these people saw the medium as anything more than a money-making industry. Its products were, in the words of film scholar Justin McKinney, ‘disposable’, and people did not think they had any artistic value. Viewers in this period had to be in the right place at the right time to see a movie, and when it was over and the lights came on everyone just went home. It took nearly forty years until the first institutional film archives came about and began preserving important films for the use of scholars and enthusiasts. A decade after that, television began broadcasting old films into audiences’ living rooms. With TV, people still had to be at the right time to watch, but at least now they could be in the wrong place.

More than any other development, home video liberated the viewers and the medium. Home video, on a mass scale, changed the way we think of film texts. How could it not have? Imagine a world where, unless you one day went out searching through an archive in your nation’s capital, you would never see Toy Story again. Or imagine another kind of world – one in which books are as ephemeral as films once were. What if everyone had a month to read a shared copy of Ulysses before the book moved on to be displayed in another town, or was locked away in a publisher’s vault? Home video created a democratised culture of prolonged engagement, a culture that revisits and rethinks and discusses old film texts, a culture in which one friend can tell another, ‘You should really see Casablanca.’

Following the advent of home video, viewers could begin to build their own film libraries, or source their films from video stores – local repositories watched over by local Clerks. These late-night librarians had seen every film on the shelves (and every film on the Asian Cinema shelf twice). Never had viewers had more power to determine their own route through film culture, guided on the way by a trusty teen in a polo-shirt. And at this time public libraries and archives also began to collect VHS and DVD and to lend them for free.

As do all good fallacious progressions, all this liberation follows an unalterable path towards a perfect consummation. At the end of this particular path lies the perfect archive. It is an archive of every film text ever created, accessible to all people, everywhere, at all times. First imagined as an archive of music, it was called the ‘celestial jukebox’. Media scholar Chuck Tryon, who writes thoroughly about Netflix in his study, On-Demand Culture, calls the film version the ‘celestial megaplex’. And digital technology will make the celestial megaplex possible. Won’t it? This, I believe, is why Netflix disappoints.

But upon closer observation we see this progression was never entirely real. Though   some positive developments did come from the side of the film industry, these were not always expressly intended to put more control into the hands of the viewers. In fact, as the potential for free distribution becomes easier, these companies impose ever more frustratingly artificial controls on their products. DVD introduced region coding, which VHS never had. And digital distribution, which should have made distribution freer than it has ever been, has caused the biggest artificial setbacks of all.

Digital media complicates the concept of ownership. Of course it was legal for a home-viewer or a library to lend a DVD, but is it legal to lend a DRM-protected video file? Digital film distribution has all the makings of the celestial megaplex. And this is exactly why the film industry has to quash these utopian rumblings with legal controls.

Looking again at the history of film it becomes clear that the positive progression for viewership depended not solely on the industry’s technological developments. More vital was the dynamic caused by the distinct roles of the companies that produced the physical media, and the organisations that archived them. The studios put out the films, and they were collected by art galleries, national archives, libraries, video stores, and private individuals. (Video stores were in on the game, of course, but at least our minimum-wage Tarantinos were on our side.) Archives attempted to grasp the ephemeral medium. And in securing it, they set it free.

But with digital distribution the functions of distributing and archiving meet in the middle. The archival spirit depended upon the works leaving the hands of the producers and entering the hands of other organisations. How can it continue if in the era of digital media the product can be displayed without ever leaving the producers’ hands? The studios only license their films to Netflix, and the licenses are limited. As Tryon points out, they can run out unexpectedly. A film which you intended to watch yesterday might be gone today. The point is that the elimination of the issues of distribution should lead to liberation. But when competing motives of distributors and archivists merge in services like Netflix, the commercial interest naturally wins out over the cultural.

The technology of film is developed by the industry, and the industry will always want to protect its interests. VHS and DVD were the best the industry could do at the time, and the freedom these granted viewers was a consequence of their physical nature. But instead of the huge step forward that it could have been, the move to digital subscription services takes us far back into film’s past – all the way back to the ephemerality of cinema display and broadcasting.

One way of beginning to rectify this regression is to grant archives and libraries the right to keep up with distribution technology. This may seem like the logic of the film pirate, who wants films to keep being made but never wants to pay for them. Admittedly, the issue is complex, and the potential power of digital distribution really does make film’s future unclear.

But ask yourself why we allow libraries to exist. Shouldn’t the readers have to pay a fee, which goes to the people who wrote the books? Of course the answer will be that it is for the sake of education that the government sponsors libraries, and for the sake of cultural heritage that it sponsors the preservation of old texts and other artefacts. The other essential role of the library is to provide access to its texts. To do so it must keep up with movements in distribution.

Comical as it may sound, public libraries have begun lending e-books. The files are lent for a fixed period, at the end of which they must be renewed or ‘returned’ (that is, allowed to expire). Could such a system for film not take us another step closer to the digital utopia we’ve been all waiting for?


John Fisher

John Fisher holds an honours degree in film studies from the University of Sydney.

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