When I first started looking at my friends' Netflix lists, it felt a little creepy. The records of our cultural consumption (video rentals, library checkouts) have traditionally been protected by law, for all kinds of excellent reasons—tyrants, stalkers, mothers-in-law—so even though I'd been invited to look, my conscience kept telling me I'd crossed into sacred territory. I felt like an information-age window peeper, like I had dipped my toe into the shallow end of a pool whose deep end was Watergate. This feeling only intensified when many of my real-life friends refused to accept me as their Netflix friend. Though they'd talk to me all day about their DVD-watching habits—their three-month Buffy binges and methodical screenings of the entire Owen Wilson catalog—for some reason they wouldn't let me see an actual list of the actual films they were actually renting. They seemed to fear some kind of Netfloixtation.
Fortunately, a small percentage of my friends still believed in the possibility of blending our souls in pure, nonjudgmental, nurturing sympathy. (Or possibly they thought I was someone else.) They signed me up. At first I only peeked at their lists, looking for recommendations. While I was there, however, a few things caught my eye. One of my friends, for instance, had given Mr. and Mrs. Smith—a film so notoriously bad it took all kinds of scandalous celebrity name-blending to get people to see it—a rating of four out of five stars. Also, one of my smartest, most sophisticated friends had rated Lindsay Lohan's Mean Girls as highly as he'd rated Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Other friends had given perfect ratings to productions as various as Deliverance, Pretty in Pink, Edward Scissorhands, Madonna: Truth or Dare, and Xena: Warrior Princess (Season 3). Who were these people, I wondered, and what kinds of unholy amalgamations were their movie tastes? Soon I lost all restraint. I started studying their tastes like fruit flies are in a lab: printed out the lists, went over them with a highlighter, cross-referenced them, wrote notes in the margin. I isolated small variations and extrapolated huge conclusions. I learned that they loved Twin Peaksand hated Adam Sandler movies and were polarized by Amélie.I started fantasizing about a giant merger between Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and FreshDirect—the friend-stalker's ultimate online tool kit.
There's something magical about spying via Netflix. Unlike the fantasy worlds of MySpace and the blogs, it's less a social platform than a practical tool, so the data is exceptionally pure. Netflix allows our tastes to flourish in their full, omnivorous, complex human glory, free of shameful image-management and the high/low divide. Earnest Goes to Camp consorts freely with Citizen Kane. It's like a self-portrait in movie titles: Nowhere else is cultural desire so nakedly on display.
Since its founding in 1999, Netflix has established a death grip on the rent-by-mail DVD market (even Wal-Mart surrendered), allowing Americans to enjoy a rich cultural life without ever putting pants on. For readers not among the company's 5 million subscribers, the service works like this: You choose DVDs online from a gigantic archive (60,000 titles, 42 million discs) and a couple of days later they arrive in the mail in floppy red envelopes; after you've watched, you send them back and get new ones. But what sets Netflix apart from other testaments to the power of American sloth—the Clapper, say, or the beer helmet—is that it also sells enlightenment. By encouraging members to rate every film they've ever seen and forcing them to compile a "queue"—a neat (and actually patented) list of every DVD they might ever want to watch, ranked in the order they'd like to watch them—Netflix has become one of the world's leading digital storehouses of artistic taste. (The company boasts that its subscribers have submitted over a billion ratings.) It has turned us from a disorganized, nomadic band of hunter-gatherers into an advanced civilization of renters. It has taught us to think of our rental history—all these discrete occasions of media ingestion scattered over the weeks and years—as a single, continuous, cohesive experience. Wedding Crashers is no longer an evening's disposable entertainment but part of a sustained interaction with the culture industry—an entry in your oeuvre as a film-watcher. Laymen suddenly have film histories as well-documented as professional critics.
Although my friend-sample was smaller than I would have liked, it covered a nice demographic range—straight, gay, single, married, office worker, poet, highbrow, lowbrow; Arab, Latino, and WASP; in-laws, acquaintances, and soulmates. It included more than 4,000 ratings. Some of my friends' queues were like formal French gardens: vast spectacular landscapes organized down to the smallest detail, with different genres and moods so delicately interwoven that the discs arrived at home in perfect complementary patterns. Other lists were pure wilderness: big shaggy patches of documentaries interrupted by massive blocks of anime, with scattered thrillers blooming in the middle of bright wide fields of sappy comedies. One friend seemed to be systematically testing the limits of how many Ken Burns documentaries a human being can withstand. My in-the-moment friends, I discovered—the ones who eat canned sardines for dinner and tend to let leases expire without finding new places to live—were also living hand-to-mouth on their Netflix lists (one had only three titles in her queue), while my more practical friends had lists long enough to keep them entertained for years, and—in the event of untimely deaths—to bestow upon their families generations of orderly, effort-free renting. Some lists were tortured records of cultural duty: Dense classics would march solemnly towards the top, only to be demoted (as soon as watching them became a real possibility) and replaced by season three of Felicity, until finally all the most challenging films of the 20th century were pooled at the bottom of the list like dark sediment beneath a froth of romantic comedies. It's the Netflix version of the divided soul: The end of your list is the person you want to be—Eraserhead, the eight-hour BBC Bleak House, the complete Werner Herzog—while the top is the person you actually are: Wedding Crashers, Scary Movie 4, The Bridges of Madison County.
On close inspection, my friends' lists provided many, many examples of the embarrassing "Annie Hall = Mean Girls"phenomenon—mysterious critical binaries in which incongruous films are given identical ratings, yoked together regardless of any obvious considerations of quality, style, or genre. One friend gave four stars to both Elephant Man and Father of the Bride. Another equateda documentary about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with Beverly Hills Cop III. Admittedly, translating the nuances of your response to a film onto a five-star scale is like pruning a bonsai with a chainsaw, but it was still shocking to see some of these titles equated:
Blade Runner = Jewel of the Nile
Casablanca = Chicken Run
Rear Window = Pirates of the Caribbean
Blue Velvet = Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (and Crocodile Dundee 2)
Apocalypse Now = Willow
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? = NBA Champions 2003-2004: Pistons
One of my friends used his ratings almost exclusively to sucker punch conventional filmic wisdom: He rated Gandhi the same as Die Hard With a Vengeance (two stars), and he rated Crash—Netflix's most popular rental and last year's Oscar-winner for Best Picture—the same as Turner & Hooch (one star). Another friend was his polar opposite, a saint of critical forgiveness: She gave four stars to the classic (To Kill a Mockingbird, Taxi Driver), the unclassic (Runaway Bride, You've Got Mail), the blockbuster (Star Wars, Harry Potter), and the indie (Reservoir Dogs, Napoleon Dynamite). Her charity was bottomless: Not a single film out of 1,300 total ratings—not Pearl Harbor, not Patch Adams, not Pay It Forward—was bad enough to get one star.
The Netflix revelation, of course, runs both ways. After spying on my friends for a few weeks, I started to wonder what kind of portrait they must be piecing together of me. They have probably learned, to their surprise, that the top of my list is clogged with films about how to poop, that I adore middlebrow artsy girl movies (Amélie, Moulin Rouge), that I stockpile foreign classics and then let them sit unwatched at my house for weeks, and that I seem to believe (I'm not sure how this happened) that the early Matthew Broderick film War Games is better than The Godfather—which is, however, every bit as good as Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Depending on one's interpretive perspective, this data could suggest that I'm either a sensitive, culturally ambitious guy with wretched taste and a potty-training toddler—or just someone with gastrointestinal problems and some kind of serious head injury. As usual—and as I'm sure my friends would tell you—the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.