SOME YEARS AGO, I WENT through a divorce and lived with my sister’s family for a time. They went to bed early, which left me with the run of a big house in Toronto. This meant the run of the Netflix.
I had never used Netflix before. I have always been a late adopter, perhaps the last adopter—less Luddite, say, than laggard. In any case, I didn’t use the platform well. Instead of scrolling through the seemingly endless rows of tiles organized into categories—“Trending Now,” “True Crime,” “Reality TV”—I cued up reruns of the sitcom Community. I even rejected Netflix’s suggestions supposedly customized just for me (“Because you watched Community . . .”). I wanted comfort food, not a buffet addressed to catholic tastes.
The sheer volume of stuff on offer—which only seems to intensify during Hollywood’s awards season—can paralyze your mind. But Netflix charges a flat fee, so you can be cavalier about your choices. The platform abets sampling and second thoughts. You can leave things half-finished on your plate—or you can binge. It’s all you can eat. It’s all good.
But the constant press of incoming material means you can tear through an entire season of something, sincerely enjoy it, and barely recall an episode a week later. Streamed content, as forceful and ephemeral as wind, demands about as much mental space as it does shelf space.
It wasn’t very long ago you had to rent your movies or, if property was your thing, amass them gradually, one VHS tape at a time. New videos didn’t simply appear, as streaming content seems to, muscling in among the mainstays because some algorithm said so. Whether you were renting or buying, you had to leave the house.
In that Age of Browsing, you had fewer choices and you had to navigate them carefully. Unless you’d elected to make do with your cable package—or what your rabbit ears had raked from the sky—you had to accept what you found at HMV or Blockbuster. You sometimes brought home a dud, and if you’d gone so far as to buy it, you were stuck with it.
And yet none of that was a problem. My family gamely amassed its modest VHS collection, choosing from what was physically available at the store and what the studios had allowed to come to tape—that is, from what circumstance had culled for us.
My mother, especially, took to our first VCR. She bought blank tapes in bulk and recorded off cable whatever she could. A given tape had no unifying theme and contained anything from an episode of Phil Donahue to a documentary about Newfoundland’s religious school system (my mother was from Newfoundland). She typed out the sticker on a typewriter. Each tape was a perfectly postmodern curiosity.
We were an earlier people attuned to cyclical time: a merry folk revolving around its maypole.
Because we often programmed our recordings, they were roughly hewn, edged with frayed scraps of commercials and network messaging. Eventually, my sister numbered the spines and authored a guide in a Duo-Tang folder. The guide made sense of the many tapes and cross-referenced their contents. The tapes came to fill a shelf in the basement.
Because we couldn’t afford to buy many movies at once, we rewatched, again and again, what we’d bought or taped: Ghostbusters, Romancing the Stone, From Russia with Love, I Love Lucy, Cheers, The Guns of Navarone—a motley mix. We frequently revisited Mildred Pierce, a soapy piece of noir pulp; the film’s bratty daughter Veda, played by Ann Blyth, never failed to scandalize my mother. Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert always made us laugh, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest aroused Aristotelian helpings of pity and fear.
Our little hive mind was particular, though. We loved an old British sitcom called Are You Being Served?, set in a department store, but only the early episodes, when Mr. Grainger was still around. We adored the films 9 to 5 and Trading Places but didn’t consider their last acts successful, so sometimes we turned them off early. We knew what we liked and circled back to it, feverishly. We were an earlier people attuned to cyclical time: a merry folk revolving around its maypole.
Our VHS collection defined a canon—and the canon defined us.
There’s great pleasure in repetition and ritual. My family came to know a lot of dialogue by heart. We anticipated the lines we cherished collectively, even if the teleplays weren’t exactly “Birches.” It never occurred to us to scrutinize the credits and look up the writers of these lines we’d internalized. Where would we have even started? There was not yet a search bar to feed names to. The critic Camille Paglia once likened the creative team behind a beloved M&Ms commercial to “folk artists, anonymous as the artisans of medieval cathedrals.” The shows and movies my family adored were of similarly mysterious provenance. No algorithm had placed them before us; they described a specific constellation that we had strewn across the sky, and that only we could see. A bespoke set of stars.
Our VHS collection defined a canon—and the canon defined us. For instance, a documentary called The Art of Violin, taped off television, introduced me to the violinist Josef Hassid, who’d had schizophrenia and perished at the age of twenty-six. Or rather: my father, by playing the documentary over and over, ensured my brain would never forget Hassid’s performance of “Hebrew Melody.” Years later, Hassid still seems to me the consummate cult artist, and “Hebrew Melody” the most spectral music I’ve ever heard.
Choice can be oppressive, and the lack of it, liberating. The poets who still try to rhyme know this. A rhyme scheme only seems
to narrow your options, forcing you into warrens that will suddenly widen, leading you to unforeseen words. Anyway, artistic freedom is always a feint. “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
When the Prufrockian rocker Jack White came to record Elephant, The White Stripes’ fourth album, he insisted on using Toe Rag Studios, a cramped space in London whose most modern piece of equipment was from 1963. (As the liner notes take pains to boast, “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record.”) What’s more, White imposed a deadline on himself: ten days to record. He delighted in self-inflicted limits, in wrangling an album’s worth of sounds from only two guitar pedals, in recording to finite spools of tape. The sessions yielded “Seven Nation Army,” an instant chestnut of stadia, its riff a trigger to mass sing-along. Constraint can be generative.
If you’re a consumer of culture, as opposed to a creator of it, a lack of choice can force you to revisit the available options, even those that didn’t impress you at first. Many of my favorite albums disappointed me initially. Primal Scream’s Screamadelica bounced cleanly off my brain on first listen. Had I streamed it, that might’ve been it. But I’d bought the CD on the advice of a record guide—a codex one sometimes consulted in the Age of Browsing—and felt compelled to give the disc another hearing. I’d made the investment, after all. I’d brought it home to live with me.
Like most insufferable young men, I went through a Quentin Tarantino phase.
As a teenager with limited means, I often made do with what I found around the house, choosing from the finite number of cassettes that I could slot into my Walkman. I wore out my music collection, and in time turned to my sister’s. Her cassettes were by mysterious outfits with names like The Smiths, The Cure, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. None of the cassettes particularly gripped me at first. The hits, such as they were, weren’t always immediately obvious, and the music, stripped of context, sounded alien and bleak: spindly guitars in cavernous settings. But the trove of tapes was small, so I played them relentlessly—more out of boredom than some noble desire to give great art its due. I didn’t realize I was absorbing some of the most thoughtful music recorded in Margaret Thatcher’s England.
Many of my favorite movies also required second and third chances. Like most insufferable young men, I went through a Quentin Tarantino phase. When I read somewhere that Tarantino rated Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) above all other movies, I sought it out—only to balk. Here was John Wayne and a handful of deputies holed up in a jail—a dreary, Spartan set, almost stock in style. They had a murderer in their charge and were waiting for the cavalry. The actors talked, joked, sang together, and only occasionally defended the jail against the advances of the murderer’s gang.
What I’d missed on first viewing, waiting for the movie to dole out the least pellet of action, was some of the finest dialogue ever delivered to actors’ mouths. “That’s all you got?” says one character, sizing up Wayne’s ragtag deputies. “That’s what I got,” replies Wayne, delivering one of the film’s many classic lines, cowritten by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman.
That’s what I got—a mantra for a mindset that makes do.
If the present age, the Age of Scrolling, abets sampling and second thoughts, the Age of Browsing encouraged second chances. Owning physical media forced you to reckon with it, to appreciate it. (Maybe you sometimes tried too hard to appreciate something, but there are worse sins.) We steeped ourselves in stuff, and the stuff would start to sink in. Art has always required second—and third and fourth—chances to saturate the mind.
All these unstreamed streams are worrying. They lie about quietly, like trembling firehoses.
Streaming platforms, on the other hand, flood the mind. They set it afloat and bear it away—on to the next novelty. They promise abundance but deliver a deluge.
In time, I moved out of my sister’s house. A few years later, I remarried. My wife and I have a couple of kids, five and two, and our household subscribes to Netflix and Disney+. I remain a poor user of streaming platforms, except now there’s the nagging feeling, shared by buffet-goers the world over, that I’m wasting good money by not consuming as much as possible. Plus, isn’t there a cultural conversation to keep up with? Shouldn’t I have streamed WandaVision by now? Will I ever get back to The Mandalorian, which I streamed for a few episodes? Will this marquee stuff wait for me, like a wartime bride? Nearly two years ago, my wife gifted me with The Criterion Channel. I’ve yet to activate it. All these unstreamed streams are worrying. They lie about quietly, like trembling firehoses.
When I do use Netflix, I never scroll very far. The new and trending content appears near the top of the Netflix homepage. Beyond those rows, I start to feel like I’m combing a remainder bin—an unfair feeling. My inner connoisseur, ever bucking against the popular, should want the buried stuff. But the abundance of the harvest and its ephemeral character—items come and go as per the vagaries of licensing agreements—can diminish your sense of its worth. It’s one big pile of leaves, whose parts are always arriving and departing.
None of this is the content’s fault, of course. Blame the surrounding buffet, which lowers the prestige of the individual lobsters. Cinephiles waited years for someone to finish editing Orson Welles’s film The Other Side of the Wind. Long-suffering fans prized a precious handful of scenes featured in a 1995 documentary about Welles’s unfinished work. But now the completed film is just another tile on Netflix, next to Squid Game and Selling Sunset.
Naturally, my five-year-old has acclimated to Netflix. But there are only a few shows he’s ever interested in. (He, too, is overwhelmed by choice.) And there’s enough physical media lying around the house to encourage, in his pliant mind, subversive thoughts: streaming is imperfect, and some content is only available on disc.
In fact, my kids have taken to an ancient ritual: Saturday morning cartoons. “CBC Kids!” they cry, as they negotiate the narrow basement stairwell, down to the TV room. They seem to get that CBC Kids is something they have to be on time for. And they don’t mind the lack of choice, the inability to change a mind and tap a tile. They relax and submit themselves to the schedule. What comes on is what they get. They make do. For now, anyway, they are swimming against the stream.
Jason Guriel is the author of the verse novel Forgotten Work. His writing has appeared in Air Mail, The Atlantic, Slate, Lit Hub, The Walrus, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto. “Against the Stream” will appear in his forthcoming book, On Browsing.
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