The Netflix rentals Slate readers just can't bring themselves to watch.

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Sept. 5 2008 12:58 PM

A Very Long Engagement

The Netflix rentals Slate readers just can't bring themselves to watch.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Slate readers, I'm afraid I've got some bad news: You don't care about Africa as much as you think you do. Last week, I asked you to reveal what Netflix rental has languished on your coffee table the longest without getting watched. More than 1,000 of you sent in e-mails confessing to having sat for days, weeks, months, and even years on everything from All About Eve to Z, the Oscar-winning French drama starring Yves Montand. Renee from North Carolina has conceived and carried a child to term in the time since Fracture, the Anthony Hopkins thriller, arrived in its red envelope. ("I'm sure it's very good, I really want to watch it," she writes.) But the movie you had the most trouble actually watching is Hotel Rwanda. Grant from New Jersey captured the predicament best: "What could be worse than the agony of having Hotel Rwanda stare at me from on top of the DVD player everyday for two months? Oh ... right."

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Hotel Rwanda is currently the 10th most popular Netflix rental among the service's 8.4 million subscribers. Which simply means that a lot of people have been mailed a copy—to judge by your e-mails, only a fraction of them ever get around to watching it. Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told me the company doesn't keep track of which movies its subscribers hold onto the longest but said he wouldn't be surprised if Hotel Rwanda was the one. He confessed he's been sitting on a copy since September 2006.

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Hotel Rwanda is that rare movie about a devastating subject that nevertheless feels like something you really do need to see. The same goes for Schindler's List, which finished a close second among Slate readers. Both appeal to the lofty sense of ourselves that comes to the fore when we're managing our queues. Neither feels especially appealing after a long day at the office. Yet it's not just "based on a true story" movies about mass murder that caused trouble. You have found ways to not watch movies from just about every corner of the Netflix universe. In February 2006, Amanda from Ohio invited into her home a film called Roll Bounce"featuring Lil Bow Wow on roller skates in a '70s period piece"—where it stayed until she returned it unwatched that December. Ginny from Illinois had heard wonderful things about Pilates—Beginning Mat Workout but never had the willpower to pop it in. "I could have bought that video twice for how long I kept it," she says. Nick from Virginia was held hostage by Iceman (1984): "I was on a Paleolithic kick after seeing Quest for Fire, but it took 3 months to finally watch it."

So, how to prevent a seemingly harmless, worthy movie from clogging your queue? Herewith, a field guide to the movies that tripped up Slate readers:

The Classic: I actually expected to see more On the Waterfront and Citizen Kane in your e-mails, though the movies on the AFI 100 were certainly well-represented, none more so than Lawrence of Arabia. Allan from New Zealand notes that his copy—mailed to him from the kiwi version of Netflix, Fatso—has been lying around for so long that a spider has "nested" on the disc. Chin up, Allan: I'm sure the next time you have 227 minutes of free time, you'll zip right through it.

The Art-House Classic: Like the classic in that it feels like eating your cinematic vegetables, only more daunting because these are existential vegetables. Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman alone must save Netflix millions in postage each year. Two subgroups here: Half of you get hung up on the gateway stuff—your Seventh Seal, your Seven Samurai. The other half of you loved Rashomon and wondered if that meant you'd love Yojimbo. You're still wondering.

The Important Documentary: As Slate's Green Lantern has explained, renting a movie from Netflix is greener than driving to the video store to pick one up. Few Netflix films have a smaller carbon footprint than An Inconvenient Truth, copies of which are apparently biodegrading in their envelopes across the land. A wide range of documentaries were cited by readers, but most, like Inconvenient Truth, were of the apocalyptically depressing variety. Yep, turns out you don't want to watch Ghosts of Rwanda, either.

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