Sight and Sound’s 2002 “Greatest Films Poll” was voted on by the “world’s leading film critics.” See http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/polls/topten/ Here are the results:
- Citizen Kane
- Rules of the Game
- The Godfather — first two
- Tokyo Story
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Battleship Potemkin
- 8 1/2
- Singin’ in the Rain
One of these films was available on the Netflix “Watch Instantly” [WI] list.* The other nine films can be obtained via the Netflix DVD plan. But who wants to wait several days when everything should be accessible–instantly?
It might be unfair to refer to either Netflix’s WI or DVD plan film lists as establishing a millennial film canon. Of course, how Netflix organizes its titles has very little influence on the professional critic and academic thinker, but it can be argued that these lists influence general taste and determine what American audiences consider as good or best in film–or, at least, what they think they should view. Arguments will be outlined here that Netflix film lists influence the unconsidered criteria that organize film judgments by Netflix client-viewers–and there are many. In a recent call for papers for a publication to be titled How Netflix is Changing Media, the “Society for Cinema and Media Studies” reported that the online film supplier commands 30% of all Internet traffic. How do the ways film titles are organized and the process of creating film lists in the Netflix website influence which films are watched and which films are known and which films are judged as “best”? Netflix lists are influential in determining the place of a director or film within the cultural field; but rather than being evaluated (valued?) by a cultural worker such as a film critic, artistic worth is established by a corporation within the economic field of power.
Let’s begin with a traditional approach to aesthetic judgment and taste. Sight and Sound‘s list of best films is the tip of a longer list of 100 best films. Further, the journal presents another list of best films chosen by top film directors, as well as a list of top film directors as chosen by critics. One may disagree with these critics’ choices, but, based on the accepted authority of the journal’s writers, this top ten list is a reasonable place to begin a discussion of film aesthetics. Criteria–social, cultural, historical, theoretical– used by these cultural workers in distinguishing good from not-so-good films can be analyzed and evaluated. [Note: There is no list of top film critics picked by film directors. Shouldn’t the quality of the film critic judgements also be judged?] Clearly, such authorized “best” lists are influential, at least in a cultural field of power.
Can similar considerations be applied to Netflix’s lists of films? Certainly, Netflix presents recommended, or what could be interpreted as preferred lists of films that are graphically displayed on the home screen of its website; these lists are then broken down into a variety of sub lists. Each list has a consistent order–that is, lists are in the same order, every time one signs on. Some criteria was used in constructing these lists, but it is not the criteria used by the Sight and Sound critics; rather, most likely, choices are made by something resembling a business-model algorithm. Of course, this analysis is complex and more research is required. This posting is far from an exhaustive analysis and is formed to point at something interesting in describing not only film aesthetics but audience agency.
Traditionally or historically, what has determined “taste” in the arts? Historically, three basic questions have been asked about art [Western]; in significant ways, these approaches have formed the quality of aesthetic judgments: 1. What are the characteristics of art–as in opposition to what is not art, like religion or philosophy? 2. What is the goal of art? Involved in this question is the possibility that art has no practical outcome. 3. Who determines what is good or worthwhile art? Thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Bloom have considered the first two; Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about the third question. Bourdieu identified who in a society was authorized (recognized as able) to determine what is aesthetically worthwhile. Simply, from this perspective, “taste” in art is an outcome of family background, but it can also be engendered through education. For the former, discernment can be the inheritance of the aristocratic or merely upper-class child who absorbs her high-borne environment. But Bourdieu also found that taste is an outcome of education. Bourdieu’s “disinterested” academic, like Hegel’s “connoisseur” is “thorough[ly] acquainted with the whole sweep of the individual character of a work of art … necessary for the study of art” [“Lectures on Aesthetics”]. From this perspective, appreciation of and enjoyment of art, as well as the capacity to discern good from bad art, requires a broad historical, theoretical, and comparative understanding of an art piece. Thus, a film critic’s authority to judge is based on a recognition of her taste based on education and breadth of experience of the forms that films can take. Thus, without understanding, there is no taste.
In this way, cultural experts are authorized to create Leavis-like lists of best films that make their way into college film studies syllabi. Even the most expansive lists are necessarily based on some criteria determined by expert authorities, and these recognized lists influence the “requirements” of “taste” for others. Of course, any criteria can be rejected and reformed, but the point here is that any change is based on who, at the time, is recognized as authorized to create a canon of important films for a particular era.
Following this Bourdieuian approach, in the dominated field of cultural list-making [my term] there are two sorts of “position takers.” [See The Field of Cultural Production, pp. 16-17]. First, the traditional or “orthodox” list-makers–consisting of academics and sophisticated critics–who “as a function in their position in the field, of their specific capital, have a stake in conservation.” High-end position taking results in Sight and Sound’s “best” lists, the Criterion Collection, Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation with the filmmaker’s goal of bringing old, influential films to the public–see http://bit.ly/1nayTe9–and MUBI’s choices of streaming films–see http://www.mubi.com But position-taking can also be engaged by the heretic list-maker who pushes the boundaries of what is accepted by the first set of position takers. This heretical attitude is taken up, for example, by the Scalarama Film Festival–http://scalarama.com– or the Yellow Fever Film Festival– http://theyfiff.webs.com/
Netflix film list-making process does not fit into Bourdieu’s scheme. Certainly, as a single entity, Netflix is a list-maker with something that can be identified as establishing a “taste.” It’s lists and the order in which they are presented have a constancy and are enormously influential in which films are “good” or at least worth watching. But criteria used by Netflix for list-making are not comparable to the strategies used by position takers discussed above. Netflix lists of film titles are not based on either academic/traditional/orthodox or heretical sensibilities. Choices are not affected by relative placement within a cultural field in which taste is an outcome of knowledge or class; rather, list-making decisions arise from capitalist determinants. This is not saying that Netflix film lists are “tasteless” or have no “taste”– these terms make no sense in this context; the Netflix process of list-making has nothing to do with authorization of cultural workers who possess what Bourdieu calls Symbolic capital. Rather, the Netflix taste emanates from Fredric Jameson’s late capitalism; it is a postmodernist taste–that is to say–it is a “taste” that is distinguished by an absence of “Taste.”
What forms do these lists take? Netflix engages different sorts of lists which are based on a corporate goal of creating and satisfying the needs of the individual client-viewer. Netflix lists films in a variety of ways:
- General list of films on the home screen.
- Genres of films — and sub genres of films.
- Recently purchased or viewed films of the individual client-viewer.
- Lists of the client-viewer’s favorite films based on her own ratings.
- “More Like” lists. Based on a particular film the client-viewer has searched, Netflix suggests other titles.
How are Netflix lists generated? Who or what makes the decisions? What are the criteria used to generate these lists? What might go into the algorithm of choice? Here are some possibilities of what is measured:
- The score–up to five stars–that the client-viewer gives to films she has watched.
- Commercial concerns of what is profitable. Pushing a film or television show to support an investment..
- Popularity of a title. Giving the audience what it wants.
- Variables available to Netflix about their client-viewers via social media. [This is a reach, but it is possible that such information could be obtained and used.]
Let’s use an example to examine a specific “More Like” list. Following my search for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) Netflix offered a “More Like“ list that included suggestions of other films I might like. But titles in the suggested list were confusing. What was emphasized by the algorithm that produced this unlikely list? Old films? Films seldom viewed? Critically controversial films? Actor’s film? Quirky films? Films by independent producers? This is what Netflix suggested I watch after viewing Shadows:
- Lion in Winter (1968)– Due to its good acting?
- Brick Lane (2007) — This is an Indian film about east meeting west, recommended on my interest in “Sunshine Cleaning”? How does this relate to “Shadows” gritty portrayal of inborn prejudice?
- The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) — Huh? Memorable score? Certainly the Cassavetes film was filled with interesting jazz riffs but nothing as hummable as the Kwai score. Hear it at – http://bit.ly/1vRJmS1
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) — OK, I can sort of go with this choice–broody Actor’s Studio acting–angry actors–old film–characters yelling at each other–relationships on the edge.
- Citizen Kane (1941) — Both are “classic” auteur films–but how very different.
- Far from Heaven (2002) — This is a commercial film about marital problems with Julliane Moore and Dennis Quaid. It does involve racial tensions.
- Annie Hall (1977) — Both are auteur directors dealing with relationships. Both directors use improvisation. Of course, one is a comedy and the other is not.
- Rabbit Hole (2010) — Sorry, I do not understand this suggestion. A happy couple falls apart when their son dies in an accident – Nicole Kidman, Dianne Weist – directed by John Cameron Mitchel.
- East of Eden (1955) — Possibly Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause but not James Dean’s first film. Dean is an improvisational actor who is ready to make in-the-moment, inspired choices, willing to spew out his emotional guts to the awe of the viewers and the consternation of the other actors. See how the actor Jim Backus struggles with Dean’s intense, improvisational acting style.
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)– Right. What are you thinking Netflix? Is it because both Kubrick’s and Cassavetes’ films make the viewer squirm?
Netflix’s “More Like” list for Shadows did not guide me to Cassavetes-like films–a film maker dealing with actor improvisation and in-the-moment emotional reality–or to experimental films or to films linked to a certain period of American film making. Why was nothing listed from the French New Wave or British Social Problem films of the period or with contemporaneous films dealing with black-white racial issues of the period, such as Flame in the Streets (1961)? Why was no Mike Leigh film suggested–a director who also worked improvisationally with actors?
Netflix list making is a business-model, production process that resembles a democratic activity in which authority of choice appears to belong to the everyday film viewer. In the past, Leavis-like academic authority over cultural taste was countered by an argument that valued the taste of the common person–an argument for popular culture–as for example was done by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and British Cultural Studies since the mid 1950s. Here popular taste was used to push a New Left agenda in which working-class social realism was seen as an engine for agency for positive–read “socialist”–social change. But despite its everyman approach, with Netflix, there is no sense of a working-class taste or bourgeois taste; rather, choosing what is good has devolved into an absence of any particular taste. A film [or director] is good or bad based how entertaining it is. Does it please the client-viewer? And never mind what “pleases” means.
Traditional sense of authority is eliminated as the opinion of other client-viewers replaces that of the academic expert or critic. As is the case with social media in general, Netflix connects [sutures?] its client-viewers to its product by inviting him to “Write a review” of what was watched. Further the client-viewer review is rated by other client-viewers–via a system of awarding stars–as to whether the review was “Helpful,” “Not Helpful,” or “Inappropriate.” The “Most Helpful” reviews are featured at the top of the review list. But without any criteria, what do these ratings mean? Of course, that is besides the goal of connecting the client-viewer to a product. Shadows has over 60 of these reviews.
At the top of the “Most Helpful” reviews list was this one:
Shadows was one of those rare movies that I like, but I have no idea why. I was bored in places, and I think I might have fallen asleep once or twice. Somehow, in spite of all that the mood and style of the thing drew me in. The improvisational jazz, the cool beat lingo and certainly the racial themes left me thinking about it long after I saw it. If you often confuse yourself by liking movies you hate watching, it’s highly recommended.
Though there are some interesting observations here that may be helpful in making a decision about watching this film–it has “improvisational jazz” and “cool beat lingo” from the period. But without knowing specifically what this reviewer thought about the racial themes or who this reviewer is, we are left with a generalized and useless opinion. The following review was awarded a single star:
I have always been a Cassavetes fan from the start, but, usually only for his acting. This film was awful and a complete waste of time. I expected a lot more, and got a lot less from J. C. He certainly needed to learn a lot more of directing before he even started on something like this. I see where a lot of people here like the film, but, I think that they are only trying to be hip, and pretend to know something. There was nothing about the beat scene, as advertised. The only thing beat was the three guys in the storeroom, and, boy, were they beat.
What was the impulse to write this or the general impulse to share online? Like much of social media this communication is so personal it is impossible to decipher. This last example has the tone of what has been defined here as a traditionally authorized review:
Just before Jean-Luc Godard was preparing to turn European cinema on its ear with the debut of Breathless, a charismatic young New York actor did much the same on this side of the Atlantic. Godard’s film ended up having more widespread impact, as it didn’t have the crowded American movie market that greeted Shadows to compete with, but John Cassevetes’ debut was no less revolutionary. And in the same way that Godard’s film changed the rules for the artistic side of filmmaking, Cassavetes’ ushered in a new business model, practically inventing the independent film industry as it existed for decades. The film, which began as an acting exercise in Cassavetes’ own upstart actors’ studio, tells the story of three siblings rooming together and trying to make it in New York. The oldest brother is singer whose old-fashioned crooning style is making him out of fashion and making it more difficult to find work. The younger brother is more of a beatnik jazz musician. And the sister is a light-skinned black woman who “passes” as white; one of the film’s most dramatic sequences observes the fallout that results when she begins a relationship with a white man who only finds out about her race after meeting her brothers. This was incendiary stuff for the late 50s, and Cassavetes, in what would become a personal trademark throughout his career, never shies away from the most difficult aspects of relationships and friendships. Springing as it does from an acting exercise, all the dialogue is improvised. Shot on the fly and written just as spontaneously and raggedly, Shadows’ energy is just as breathlessly invigorating as Charlie Mingus’ jazz score.
Does Netflix’s “Member Reviews” contain the possibility of Habermas’s “public space” in which aesthetic ideas are democratically shared and communal values formed? Might this be a place for positive social change? I do not think so and not because there is no mechanism for the development of ideas in any directed way; rather, the mechanism is directed by, ultimately, controlled by corporate profit considerations.
Netflix list-making is not opposed to Bourdieu’s models of how “distinction” develops and changes; rather, it is unrelated. What had been understood as “taste” is irrelevant to the Netflix production processes and goals. Film lists are de-authorized, or, rather, the client-viewer is authorized by other client-viewers. But this opinion-making is not within a public sphere; rather it is under the hegemonic umbrella of the corporate structure in which film recommendations are based on business-models and computer algorithms and profit-driven goals of audience satisfaction – in an ultimate fracturing of any notion of “taste.”
*Eisenstein’s paean to Soviet Russia, Battleship Potemkin, can be viewed instantly on Netflix. But you will have to wait a couple of days to receive Citizen Kane in the mail. Is this a capitalist joke?
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass.
– (1993). The field of cultural production. Columbia University Press: NY.
Gilbey, R. (2013, August 30). This week’s film events. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://theguardian.com
Hegel, G.W.F. (1818-1829). Aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Trans. T.M. Knox, 1973. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/index.htm
Olivarez-Giles, N. (2013, August 17). Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation brings eight rare films to Hulu.” The Verge. Retrieved from http//theverge.com
 There is much that could be said about the validity of making lists and what deep assumptions stand behind a particular formation or [production] process of making lists, or what a list means to a particular reader. This analysis is engaging the “fields” approach as a way to examine list making from the POV of authority and what happens when there is no authority–in this sense.
 In a recent public discussion at John Jay College the Executive head of Time/Warner’s Media Responsibility Division emphasized the corporation’s duty to give its audiences what they want. This is the corporate definition of moral and civic responsibility. Clearly in the present sense of corporations and business models, there is no place for aesthetic authority or attitude or “taste” or “distinction.” There is no overlap.