Attention, “Disrupters”: Art Is Not #Content

Netflix's latest "innovation" confirms that tech types should stop trying to improve film and TV.

There’s so much to like about Netflix – the original shows, the revivals, the fresh-off-the-festival-circuit movies, the comedy specials – that it’s easy to forget what’s so bad about them. So, here’s a reminder: they don’t curate their film library, they’ve fallen down on their job as the primary provider of cinema for home viewing, and they generally don’t care about movies. You can go a long while basking in the positive and forget about that, and then they’ll do something so egregiously terrible, and the reminder lands like a car crash.

So here’s the latest: back in March, some users reported the appearance of a “skip intro” button during TV shows – mostly Netflix originals, like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, but a few others as well. Business Insider noted that this option would “make binge-watching better,” and they’re probably right; I’d imagine, if you’re watching eight straight hours of Friends, you maybe wouldn’t want to hear “I’ll Be There For You” every single damn time. Except, it turns out, the “skip intro” option isn’t available for Friends. However, it is available for E.T. and Forrest Gump.

Film lovers on social media have been complaining about this for a few days now; Noah Gittell brought it to wider attention over at the Guardian. He points out, rightly, that skipping the ambient mood-setting of E.T. or the floating feather (kind of an important motif!) of Forrest Gump is “like erasing history itself, or at least radically distorting it to fit present viewing habits.” But the problem is, you can’t appeal to these people’s sense of cinematic history or cultural responsibility, because they don’t have any. Increasingly, those who are custodians of cinema and television don’t see it as an art – they see it as content, to be data-cized, targeted, and delivered. The contents of the content are inconsequential.

You can hear it in the bullshit Silicon Valley jargon-speak that permeates writing about the future of movie-watching – one that is certainly in question, as the theatrical experience continues to combust, attendance continues to dwindle, and exhibition windows continue to shrink. But in a widely-shared, dry-heave-worthy Vanity Fair piece earlier this year, writer Nick Bilton insisted, “It would be wrong, however, to view this trend as an apocalypse. This is only the beginning of the disruption.”

There’s that word, disruption, endlessly pliable into verb and noun, easily applicable to any problem that tech people think they can fix. You just have to disrupt it! Change the way it’s done! Turn it upside down! Uber for movies! But the problem is, Uber was a more sensible and convenient delivery system for a service. Netflix (and Prime Video, and whomever else) are a more sensible and convenient delivery system for an art form. You don’t hack art — or, at the very least, you shouldn’t.

Instead, Bilton imagines a cinematic future in which A.I. bots are writing scripts and customizing movies to the viewer – and he doesn’t think that sounds terrible. He all but masturbates to it: “[O]ne can imagine the future looking something like this: You come home (in a driverless car) and say aloud to Alexa or Siri or some A.I. assistant that doesn’t exist yet, ‘I want to watch a comedy with two female actors as the leads.’ Alexa responds, ‘O.K., but you have to be at dinner at eight P.M. Should I make the movie one hour long?’ ‘Sure, that sounds good.’ Then you’ll sit down to watch on a television that resembles digital wallpaper.”

Let’s not mince words: that sounds fucking terrible. To be fair, it sounds like the logical endgame of years of focus-group filmmaking, targeted marketing, and green-lights driven by branding. But that’s not how great movies are made; Citizen Kane and Do the Right Thing and The Godfather and Lost in Translation and Rear Window were great movies because of the artistic visions of their creators, not because they were engineered to the whims of their eventual audiences. “The real winners, however, are the consumers,” Bilton insists, shrugging, “The bad news is that many of the people on the set of a standard Hollywood production won’t have a job anymore. The good news, however, is that we’ll never be bored again.” This is what happens when people who don’t know movies try to “solve” them; movies are a lot of things, but their end game shouldn’t merely be keeping boredom at bay.

Don’t tell that to Jeff Guo, who penned a Washington Post #lifehack last year for watching TV in the Peak TV era – or, as he put it, “the latest twist in the millennia-old tradition of technology changing storytelling.” (Can you imagine having an actual conversation with these people?) What he started doing years ago, “to make my life more efficient,” was watching television at 1.5x or 2x the normal speed. “I quickly discovered that acceleration makes viewing more pleasurable,” Guo panted. “Modern Family played at twice the speed is far funnier — the jokes come faster and they seem to hit harder. I get less frustrated at shows that want to waste my time with filler plots or gratuitous violence. The faster pace makes it easier to appreciate the flow of the plot and the structure of the scenes.” Maybe all of this is true! But that’s not how these things were made, or intended to be consumed, and stuffing them into your eyeballs at the maximum speed only manages to convey the basics of plot and dialogue, while shredding such equally essential elements as pace, tone, and mood.

So watching TV at twice the speed, or flying past the opening credits with a push of a button, is accomplishing nothing but placing your precious media-consumption time at a higher value than that of the writers, directors, actors, and craftspeople who made it. Or, to put it another way, it’s refusing an invitation to go to a fine restaurant and enjoy a meal prepared by a first-class chef, so you can instead go to a Furr’s Cafeteria and stuff your face at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

“The more I’ve learned about the history and the science of media consumption,” Guo writes, “the more I’ve come to believe this is the future of how we will appreciate television and movies. We will interrogate videos in new ways using our powers of time manipulation.” Re-read that last sentence a time or two, and see if you can resist the urge to throw your device through the nearest window. It’s the kind of word salad that techbros throw around with abandon, and that kind of thinking is exactly why techbros should be kept as far as possible from art.

Look, if start-ups and coders and engineers want to continue to find ways to streamline our access to film and television, great – we, as consumers/engagers/content receptacles/whatever you’re calling us this week, welcome and appreciate it. But don’t go trying to make art better; it’s not your skill set. Stay in your lane.