The Problem with Your Netflix Recommendations

I despise The Big Bang Theory to an almost pathological degree. According to Netflix, The Big Bang Theory is an 88% match to my interests. By contrast, Blackadder is just a 71% match, even though it’s a show I’ve watched and loved my entire life. Breaking Bad, which I’ve watched from start to finish multiple times on Netflix, has a healthy 96% rating. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I used to watch on Netflix until it got crap and I stopped three and a half years ago, has an even healthier 97%. Hannibal, another show I’ve watched from start to finish on Netflix, clocks in at 84%, narrowly ahead of Peppa Pig at 82%. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show I would only watch if paid a princely sum to review, is a 90% match to my interests. Only Fools and Horses, a show I watch all the time, is rated too low for Netflix to even bother giving me a number. My recommendations are full of anime, even though I haven’t watched any anime since I was a child. Netflix thinks I’d like every single Louis Theroux series it has, even though I have never, ever watched any documentary TV series in my life.

Netflix’s recommendation algorithm seems like it’s broken. But it’s not, it’s working just fine, at least for now. The problem is the algorithm’s job isn’t to help users find TV shows and movies they would enjoy. It’s to trick Netflix’s investors into thinking the company is worth more than it is.

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What Disney Will Destroy Next

We don’t much like giant media conglomerates around here – they make art inaccessible to the poor and abuse the copyright system to steal from the entire human race. But if I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney, no question. The Walt Disney Company is now the second-largest media conglomerate in the world following its acquisition of Fox, just behind AT&T. It is by far the largest film company in the world, collecting over a third of the global box office this year alone. And it’s a terrible, evil company that can’t be trusted with the power it’s acquired.

The merger’s first victims – after the thousands of people who lost their jobs because of it – were independent cinemas. Disney has a unique policy about who can screen its new and old films. It divides theatres into commercial theatres (which can show new Disney films, but not old ones) and repertory theatres (which can show old Disney films, but not new ones). Most independent theatres don’t fit this binary, of course. Many will screen some new releases so their foot traffic can subsidise smaller films or releases. After the merger, Disney extended this policy to the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, with disastrous implications for independent theatres. Disney is arbitrarily ruling theatres commercial or repertory, often without communicating this fact to their management, so they only learn when an attempted booking goes nowhere. The Fox catalogue contains loads of classic films whose well-attended rereleases are the financial backbone of many independent theatres: Young Frankenstein, Alien, Raising Arizona, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Die Hard. Without them, independent cinemas will struggle to survive. (There is a purported exemption for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for unexplained reasons.)

But it won’t stop there. Disney doesn’t care about the collateral damage of its endless pursuit of profit for its own sake. The people who run it are perfectly willing to lay waste to anyone who delays them even one second on their way to the next billion dollars. Disney will only grow more and more powerful unless it’s broken up by state action.

Until then, here’s some other things Disney will destroy.

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Nobody is Ever Supposed to Win Motorama

“I want you to listen for a moment. Nobody is ever supposed to win Motorama. Okay? Not really. It’s just something that’s been, well, sort of set up, you know? It’s just something to kinda give people something to do, something to talk about.”

For years, I’ve tried to put my finger on the best way to describe Barry Shil’s 1991 road movie, Motorama.

It’s a road movie where that kid who played Rusty, the bratty practical joker from Full House, curses like a sailor and gets tattooed by Meat Loaf. It’s Lynchian, if David Lynch had a budget of only $1.8 million. It’s Interstate 60, if Interstate 60 was written by the man who wrote Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and filmed in the style of a Nickelodeon show from the ’90s. It’s Home Alone if Kevin McCallister had decided to use his newfound independence to steal a car and get filthy rich, only to get the shit kicked out of him by the bad guys.

Motorama is all of these things. But the best way I’ve come up with to describe Motorama is that it’s a cult film severely lacking in a cult.

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Netflix and the Obama Legacy

When Netflix announced last year it had entered a production deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, trading as Higher Ground Productions, the response from the right was predictable. Tons of extremely online conservatives who’ve spent the better part of a decade criticising every single thing that Obama does just because he’s Obama tried to start a boycott. Extremely online liberals and leftists made fun of the extremely online conservatives, but rarely commented on the deal itself, save the occasional prediction the shows would probably suck. And most people didn’t hear about it or didn’t care.

It was all very predictable, yet also confusing. I’m an extremely online leftist and when I heard Netflix had signed a deal with the Obamas, I was disgusted, so I thought the extremely online left response would be to make fun of extremely online conservatives for coming up with an incorrect explanation for their correct conclusion this news was messed up. But no one else seemed disgusted, so I waited to see if maybe some disgust would develop, but everyone just forgot about it, and now it’s a year later and I’m finished waiting, so here’s why you should be disgusted by the Obama-Netflix deal.

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On Cinema(s)

In 2018, Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema attendance of any country in Europe, averaging 3.3 visits per person and just edging out France’s average of 3.2. This really surprised me, because I go to the cinema a lot more than that. I go to the cinema most weeks, and it’s not unusual for me to see two or three films in a row on the same day. Last year, the Pálás cinema in Galway had a Jeff Goldblum day, and I went to see The Big Chill, The Fly and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and really regretted not seeing Independence Day because I was at such a loose end, and I don’t even like Independence Day. I once saw Justice League, Murder on the Orient Express and Suburbicon on the same day for some reason. I pretty regularly miss out on seeing films in the cinema that I’m interested in, and yet I regularly beat the Irish annual average in a week without even thinking that I’ve been going to the cinema “a lot”.

This means that just by myself, I’m skewing that average up a bit. I can’t imagine going to the cinema three times a year, but there are obviously loads and loads of people that go far less than that. I think for some people, going to the cinema is something you mostly do as a child, the way lots of people think of libraries or bowling. It makes me sad.

Cinemas are special places, and they offer a special experience. And I’m terrified of them dying.

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It’s Not Your Art, It’s Ours

Last month, James L. Brooks announced that The Simpsons had decided to pull “Stark Raving Dad”, its classic episode guest starring Michael Jackson. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Brooks said that he and fellow producers Matt Groening and Al Jean agreed to stop airing the episode in reruns, drop it from the show’s streaming service and cut it from future DVD releases. HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has brought renewed attention to the accusations against Jackson of serial child sexual abuse, and many have had to answer difficult questions about how to relate to Jackson and his work. Brooks et al. apparently felt this was most appropriate for a show that had collaborated with Jackson.

“I’m against book-burning of any kind,” he explained. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, most people would instinctively concede that the producers are perfectly entitled to do with their property what they will. But that’s exactly where they were one hundred percent unequivocally wrong.

The Simpsons doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.

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Digitally Reanimated Corpses

In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.

The critics call it the best performance of his career.

When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.

A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.

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Things Like This Are Not Supposed to Happen in Our Neighbourhood

The Purge franchise is one of the stranger phenomena in modern popular cinema. Its financial success is unsurprising – it is virtually impossible not to profit on a wide-release horror film – but it receives constant commentary far outstripping its popularity.  All but one installment of the Insidious franchise, Blumhouse’s other four-film horror series, outperformed the corresponding installment of the Purge franchise by a significant distance, but barely made a blip in the cultural discourse. There’s just something about The Purge that inspires furious fits of hot-takery.

Obviously, part of what makes it such a popular topic is that it’s just about as overtly political as horror comes. No one needs to tease out subtext when they’re writing about The Purge, because there is no subtext. Everything is helpfully signposted by the filmmakers. The official rationale for the Purge – a 12-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal – is that it promotes social harmony by giving everyone a sanctioned time and space to “purge” their negative feelings. They credit the Purge with producing extremely low crime and unemployment rates, less than one percent, and they’re right to do so. But it’s not because everyone’s working out their anger issues by murdering each other. It’s because the wealthy are able to fortify their homes to protect themselves from the Purge, while the poor are not only without protection, but actively hunted by the wealthy, who can also afford to arm themselves better than the poor. Every year, rich people spill into the streets of this dystopian future America and murder the impoverished and vulnerable en mass. It’s not psychology, it’s eugenics. The Purge could let you work this out on your own, but it doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity, so the first film is peppered with news reports where this point is made explicitly. Lots of reviewers criticised the lack of subtlety: we get it, we get it. The Purge is about class warfare.

Except it’s not. Not really.

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Don’t You Want To See What Happens Next?

American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.

American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.

Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.

“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.

“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”

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I Just Hope I Don’t Get More Out of This Than You Do

It’s been almost three years since one of the worst webcomic artists in the world published one of his worst webcomics of his career. The artist is Adam Ellis, formerly of Buzzfeed, whose work is likely familiar to anyone who’s ever used Facebook: it may well be mathematically impossible at this point to go a whole hour on Facebook without catching sight of his bug-eyed self-insert in a “relatable” and yet “funny” scenario. The comic in question was posted to Twitter with the caption “shhh” and depicts one of those deeply unfunny people who thinks not liking or knowing much about sport is a personality being silenced by an American football fan who tells him to “let people enjoy things”.

I loathe it more than most of his awful, awful work because, while I find “sportsball” types risible, it can’t mount a more thoughtful objection to their behaviour than “let people enjoy things”. It’s a nice slogan, but obviously a terrible blanket policy when people enjoy lots of bad things, and not just aesthetically bad, but morally bad. But even when there’s arguably not a significant, urgent moral dimension to something people enjoy, the “let people enjoy things” mantra makes me nervous. It’s one thing as a response to someone who’s snobby or pushy with criticisms of your likes or interests on an interpersonal level, the kind of people who comment on how unhealthy your food is or rag on the shows you like for no reason. But at any more macro level, like in online cultural discourse and, increasingly, in professional critical writing, it eventually becomes a way to deflect unflattering critiques or is so internalised that it pre-empts criticism at all.

Of course, Ellis and his comic aren’t responsible for the rise and spread of this attitude in online cultural discourse – how could it be, when Ellis’s work consists almost entirely in arriving three years late to observations that were already trite the first time they were verbalised? – but it’s emblematic of it in a way little else is, and for that, I hate it.

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