Classic #fux: The New Netflix App for XBox

On the happy occasion of a bug fix by way of which my list of recently watched titles reappeared in the new Netflix app for XBox, I unleashed a tirade on Twitter against the rest of what’s wrong with the app, namely, a handful of new features. I’ve adapted my rant for the blog, added a useful photo, and corrected one error I note below.

So, for starters, the new Netflix for XBox autoplays the next episode of a TV show, for example, instead of just showing you the list or the title’s info screen and letting you pick what (and when) to play. It’s possible I’ll get used to this, but I don’t feel at that stage like I’ve asked the system to play anything, so it’s annoying and obtrusive and hides what I really want, which is a list of episodes. Also, it’s wrong about my current episode and cue point more than half the time, where the previous app did land me on the appropriate episode almost 100% of the time. So get that sorted and maybe we can talk.

The inability to see an info screen without the app autoplaying means that to get more info about a title, you have to select it in the browse view and then just sit and wait for more info to scroll up, on the timeline Netflix determined was most useful for us all. This is a classic example of what I’ve called #fux (“F___ You” + “user experience”): The app punishes your simple desire to learn more about a title by making you sit and wait or making you start watching. I wonder if Netflix gets payed for every second of video you play.

Notice how much more difficult it is to see the category titles than in the old version (linked to in the paragraph at left). And look how far the still can be from my only reminder of the title it’s from.

As for the new Netflix App’s browse view itself:  The new “Let’s show a million movies so you all get a sense of our awesome selection” layout (see the conclusion of this post for more on that rationale), pictured at right, means that you can only see the titles of three browsing categories at a time. The old layout allowed you to see five, but more importantly, the categories seemed easier to navigate because they were immediately adjacent to one another, not separated by rows of images. In fact, in the new Netflix app, the category titles are superimposed on those images (or, in the uppermost category’s case, well washed out into the strong red background—as pictured at right). Their scannability in the old version made them much easier to use.

(In a Tweet, I had incorrectly suggested that you could see “eight or ten” categories at a time. I take this factual inaccuracy as a faithful reflection of my subjective experience of the difference between the two apps in terms of ease-of-use.)

Finally, it’s a minor gripe, but when I’ve landed on a certain title in the browse view, after about three seconds, the image of the cover is replaced by a seemingly random still from the title (as pictured above, like that will somehow help me make my decision about whether to watch. Instead, it just makes it harder to to get a reminder of which title I’m looking at, because of the spatial separation between the still and the name of the title (if you’ll pardon an awkward phrase). The stills are also sort of aggressively less engaging than the covers—which have been designed and tested, it’s worth saying, to get your attention and get the right people watching the right content. It’s a useless, counterproductive “feature”—and a spoiler risk—that I can’t believe somebody at Netflix green-lit.

And I guess that’s my point. I know I’m outside the target audience for autoplay (though I wonder if there really is one in this case), but this new layout—who does it serve? In his announcement of the new app on the Netflix Blog, Director of Product Innovation Chris Jaffe writes, “You really get a sense [from the new layout] of the depth of movies and TV shows available with a simple and elegant interface optimized for TV.” That rationale is so clearly driven not by user-experience but, defensively, by the critique that Netflix’s Watch Instantly library is mediocre. Stuffing a bunch of extra images down users’ throats is really a self-defeating measure, if the idea is to portray Netflix’s online streaming as a higher-quality service than current perceptions would have it.

What’s Wrong with (Movie) Comedy

I have never posted a link to anything without substantive commentary of my own, but I have almost nothing to add to this piece and it’s too much a crusade of mine to pass up.

See, I’ve been complaining about comedic movies for years now, and Adam Sternbergh has done the best possible job of it over at the New York Times:

Together, like Lenin and Trotsky, [Todd] Phillips and [Judd] Apatow have engineered a comedic-cinematic putsch. “Old School,” in 2003, was the April Theses for this uprising, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in 2005, was its October Revolution. […] What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too.)

As an aside, I am quick to defend TV comedy without really knowing why. In Sternbergh’s formulation, it’s because TV comedy still features jokes. Amazing stuff.

A Tree Falls in the Woods: Avatar as the First “Post-9/11” Film

When you’re not a professional film reviewer, when you don’t live in New York, when the only advance screenings you attend involve a doctor doing something untoward—when these things are true, trying to write about a new film can seem almost useless: The pros get all the good meat, and you’re left to dig around for scraps.

That’s why I usually write about films that have left the theaters, sometimes years or decades prior to my writing. It’s easier—and often much more fun—to try to make an old film important or interesting again, through a deeper kind of analysis, than it is to try to express the importance of a new film when each reviewer you read has beat you to every punch you can think to throw.

With James Cameron’s Avatar, though, which has just opened nationwide, two things are different.

First, on reading the reviews (Ebert, Denby, Stevens)—and especially on seeing the film—one gets the sense that this event simply matters too much for any writer to let it pass by.

Second, though the credentialed reviewers really do have a lot covered, the film fits so perfectly with a cultural development I’ve already written about that I cannot help myself.

In particular, we’ve all come to accept Cloverfield (2008) as a kind of slap-happy, thrill-ride retelling of the 9/11 story. In a piece on Knowing (2009), I identify that film as addressing 9/11 in a more serious and also a more distanced way, and asking spectators to do the same.

Put simply, Avatar is the last film in the series, the one that (finally!) takes up 9/11 without taking on 9/11.

Avatar‘s sprawling narrative and physical spaces center around a towering tree occupied by the Na’vi people you know so well from the trailer. When the human military destroys the tree two-thirds of the way through the film, it’s impossible not to think of 9/11.

Overtaken by flame, the tree plows to the ground, its disintegrating wooden frame rendered meticulously by the filmmakers. The collapse scatters the Na’vi through their woodsy, alien equivalent to the streets of lower Manhattan, as smoke fills the forest. Finally, when the white dust has settled, our protagonist trods through the forest in a daze, in a sequence closely resembling not only 9/11 but scenes from both Knowing and Cloverfield.

Any message in the film, though, anything you can say the film is “about,” reads as wholly environmentalist. Unlike the other two films in the trio, it really seems unrelated to 9/11 in every way except the visual. It’s on this basis that I want to claim that Avatar marks the end of our culture’s assimilation of the imagery that, it’s fair to say, has haunted us most over these last eight years.

In other words, I want to call Avatar the first “Post-9/11” film because it seems to me to be the first (popular) film to appropriate the imagery of 9/11 for “selfish” reasons—to support a storyline and a visual vocabulary unrelated to the original (recorded) event. In this sense, it’s the film I’ve been waiting for since Cloverfield—and maybe the film we’ve all been waiting for since 9/11.

Reality TV and Parasocial Bonding

In a post at The Frontal Cortex on television’s ability to stave off loneliness, Jonah Lehrer writes:

I imagine we’re even more likely to form attachments to characters on reality TV shows, since the characters are purportedly “real.”

It’s a minor point in his post, but prompted a lengthy comment from me, which I repost here, slightly edited:

Against what was then a common thread in media studies, I’d argue that the real allure of reality TV is not voyeurism, as the old guard of the discipline would have had it, but parasocial relationships [which, as Lehrer notes, are “the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies”].

The problem with the voyeurism account is that it doesn’t require narrative to function; it can work even without sound (as in hidden camera footage on all the shows that feature a bunch of housemates).

However, every “docusoap” from The Real World forward has focused on narrative and conflict above all, with moments of voyeuristic appeal merely intruding before commercial breaks, or appearing only in order to heighten narrative tension. (“I can’t believe those two hooked up!”)

The parasocial model, though, does require narrative to function. We don’t get to know people without understanding how they make choices in tough situations; any writer of fiction or screenplay would tell you as much. So, the ways that reality shows construct narratives serve to heighten our knowledge of and attachment to certain “characters” or personae.

(And the narratives are heavily constructed, as indicated by industry terms like “frankenbiting”—faking sound bites out of a hodge-podge of shorter phrases.)

In short, from a paper I wrote addressing the topic:

Social actors in the shows are not (or not primarily) objects of a distant, pathological gaze emanating from the viewer, but instead are involved in a perceived friendship bond, one which on an experiential level contains moderated versions of the highs and lows of normal, two-sided social relationships.

Puzzles or Placation?: How We (Can) Watch Movies

In a recent post on his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer responds to David Denby’s review of State of Play. In accord with Denby, Lehrer remarks:

Ever since Pulp Fiction, and certainly since The Usual Suspects, there’s been a segment of filmmakers that sees the movie as akin to a puzzle, an artistic form which should only make sense in the moments before the final credits start to roll.

He then remarks that “the essential state of movie-watching”—which he also calls “the fundamental experience of watching a movie” and refers to as the reason “people go to the movie theater”—is a state of “total immersion.” The “puzzle film,” as we might call it, defies these practices.

In this post, I want to complicate the privileging of this one way of watching movies, which Lehrer also describes as “dissolv[ing] into the spectacle on the screen.” Are there other possibilities? What kinds of value do they have?

First, some of us will enjoy films like State and Play more than others. As an afterthought, Lehrer mentions the postmodern novel as in the family of the puzzle film; it’s worth noting that few critics question the “art” of the postmodern novel—they just reduce the problem to one of personal taste.

Not so with film, which has since its earliest days been kept to the wrong side of a false dichotomy involved “art” and “entertainment.” At a minimum, people ought to treat puzzle films at least like Seinfeld and Costanza treated homosexuality, with a committed not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that attitude.

Second, and more pertinent from a cognitive-science perspective though, even the most conventional narrative films necessarily engage us in puzzle-solving activity. Even setting aside the detective film, understanding any story requires a mix of attention, memory, and other forms of cognition to make sense at all.

Most narrative films make these tasks easier for us by adhering to a well-developed system of conventions, or by carefully taking into account our attentive or perceptual capabilities and limitations. But if they do so, it’s to satisfy an expectation, and to make money—not because there’s something more fundamental within the art itself of film about this approach.

To see how all this works, try this exercise (which my Intro to Film Studies class will also undertake in their first session on Monday): Choose a Hollywood film you haven’t seen, but that you can easily watch. Write down everything you know or expect about the film before you begin watching. What do your experiences of the genre, stars, country of origin, marketing, and other factors prepare you for? Next, watch the opening of that film and take careful note of everything you learn—from the music, the dialogue, the cinematography, the editing, and so on. It’s truly an overwhelming amount of information to list out, and you have to understand most of it to follow even the most basic of films.1

Finally, it’s worth noting that varied models of spectatorship go back a long way in film. Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) not only forces the puzzle mode of spectatorial engagement, it avoids providing any solution—and even takes steps to ensure no cohesive solution can be found. The film, in other words, presents a kind of internal narrative contradiction not as complete as in surrealist films like Dali & Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), but at any rate well beyond Tarantino.

The kind of thinking has led to new theories of artistic practice outside the cinema, too. As the first commenter on Lehrer’s post notes, Bertolt Brecht (among other interwar German thinkings, including Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin) had the idea that to lose oneself in a dramatic work would interfere with one’s full understanding of the human situation in the work and in the world surrounding it. Empathy, in other words, breeds sheep. Need that be our only choice at the movies?

1Many books and journal articles have been dedicated to spelling out these complex interactions of world, film, and mind. These include David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, and Edward Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension in Film (1992), and Carl Plantinga’s and Greg Smith’s anthology Passionate Views: Film Cognition and Emotion (1999).