Recently my editor mentioned that he had made a go at watching a movie that had loitered for years in his Netflix queue — or “My List,” as the service now labels the digital list-space where subscribers save the on-demand movies or shows they intend to watch at some point.
The movie was Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier. This rang a bell … because this controversial 2009 film happens to be a lingering presence on my Netflix queue. I’ve been meaning to watch it for, well, several years now.
If you use Netflix, I’m willing to bet that you, too, have that one title you’ve saved to watch someday, but that you never quite get around to. Time after time, when you scroll through your saved choices, you notice this movie — and then decide to watch something else.
And, yet, you can’t quite bring yourself to delete it. Because you promise yourself you’ll get to it. Someday.
In other words, I suspect we all have our own personal Netflix albatross.
Cataloging best intentions
To test this suspicion, I started asking around. And almost everybody I checked with knew immediately what I was talking about and offered up an example (or a slew of examples).
I was curious: What’s the holdup?
“No particular reason,” she answered. “I know it’s supposed to be a terrific movie, but it’s also a long, wrenching, subtitled movie about abortion and political repression. So on the rare occasion I have time to watch a movie, I always end up picking something else. I’ll get to it eventually, I hope!”
This became a recurring theme: a widely praised film that — however great it might turn out to be — is also likely to be difficult for one reason or another. Maybe it’s long; maybe the narrative form is experimental and challenging; maybe the subject matter is harsh.
Meanwhile, right there on your queue, there are any number of choices more likely to deliver easy entertainment.
Consider the film that popped to mind for Dwight Garner, book critic for The New York Times: The epic and decidedly un-fun German war film Das Boot ran two and a half hours in its original release and can be viewed on Netflix as an even longer “director’s cut.” Garner recalled it “lurking down there on my queue, always on the radar screen, looking sinister and asphyxiating. I always pass it by, even though I know I should have seen it by now.”
Bob Garfield, co-host of the popular public radio show “On the Media” and author most recently of Can’t Buy Me Like, finds that “foreign comedies always seem to get pushed to the back by late-night movie triage. Devils on the Doorstep, Where the Sea Rises, The Taste of Others — they just always get squeezed out.”
Writer Cintra Wilson, whose book Fear and Clothing comes out next year, jokes that she has “at least 16 albatri.” She names Naqoyqatsi — the 2002 Philip Glass-scored visual collage by Godfrey Reggio — as “probably my most prodigiously avoided movie.” Hamsun, a 1996 multilingual European film about Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, is another contender.
“Also,” she adds, “I will probably never watch Even the Rain, or anything in the Nova series, because I am a bad person, and I would rather watch Asian horror movies like Ring of Curse.”
And really, wouldn’t we all? The more I asked around, the more I started to think about these Netflix to-watch lists as a personal catalog of good intentions — and a vague source of guilt.
“My entire ‘My List’ is an albatross,” Nick Weidenfeld, who heads FOX’s Animation Domination High Def, producing animated content for TV and the Web, told me. That’s particularly true, he explained, since he had a son three years ago. Now his to-watch list is “like an old storage unit with shit from college that reminds me of a life I used to live — one where I had so much time.”
The first albatross he names: Food, Inc., the acclaimed but harrowing documentary about the industrialization of our food supply. “I hate seeing it there because it makes me feel bad that I didn’t watch it and know that I should. But it’s gonna be so depressing.
“If I take it out [of my queue], then I’m just being a bad human being, ignoring a huge problem. But I know I’ll never watch it,” he concedes. “So I bury it beneath more shit I’ll never watch.”
But as Weidenfeld’s answer hints, many of us have to-watch lists littered not just with good intentions, but also fleeting whims.
My own queue includes something called OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. I dimly remember adding this after seeing The Artist: It stars the same actress, who I thought was terrific in the latter film. But I no longer recall what this movie is supposed to be about and can’t even motivate myself to investigate, let alone watch the thing.
“My current albatross is Dark Tide starring Halle Berry,” Roxane Gay, author of the acclaimed novel An Untamed State and the recent essay collection Bad Feminist, told me. (I wasn’t familiar with Dark Tide; it’s a 2012 action thriller about a “shark expert.”) “I keep telling myself I’m going to watch that damn movie, and yet it has not happened and will likely not happen.”
Wilson said she “can’t bear to delete” certain titles from her list, even if she doubts she’ll get to them, and there’s nothing particularly virtuous about them. She mentioned Carlos, a miniseries about the criminal nicknamed “the Jackal,” as an example.
“When,” Weidenfeld asked after skimming his own list, “am I finding time to watch Season One of the original Twilight Zone? Or the incredibly poorly rated biopic Klimt, starring John Malkovich? I mean, what mind state was I even in when I thought I’d watch that?”
Actually, that brings me back to Antichrist: I have no memory of adding that to my Watch List, or why I did so. And my editor’s review? “It left me feeling very dead inside.”
Maybe I should just delete it?
But wait: Maybe there’s another way. Laura Miller, Salon columnist, book critic, and author of The Magician’s Book, named the same film as Nussbaum: 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Despite being impressed by critical praise for the movie, “I don’t ever feel in the mood to watch it,” she told me.
Then she made two interesting points. First: “Every time I DO make myself watch stuff in my queue, it’s terrific,” she says. “And I berate myself for not doing it more often, instead of watching another episode of Poirot.”
Second: When she actually checked her to-watch list, 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days had disappeared. Perhaps it’s been pulled, she speculated.
And indeed: Because of variable rights deals with film companies, things come and go from Netflix’s selection of on-demand movies all the time. “Luckily,” Bob Garfield observed, “most of my albatrossi disappear by themselves, as Netflix gradually loses rights.”
Therein, perhaps, lies a solution to the Netflix albatross problem that even the laziest among us (me, in other words) can endorse.
Maybe I’ll never watch Antichrist, and maybe I won’t be able to bring myself to delete it. But maybe, if I’m lucky, it will simply disappear.