Lost in the Movies: Farewell to Netflix DVD: the end of an era...

Farewell to Netflix DVD: the end of an era...

Netflix's DVD mailing service ends today, and my last disc (Carmen Jones) was sent a few days ago. Although the closure received buzz in the past few months since it was announced, the vast majority of Netflix users - streaming subscribers, if it even needs to be said - likely have no idea that the postal service was still delivering those once-famous red envelopes at this late date (and technically, still will be as the last stray scarlet survivors reach their now-permanent homes early next week). As with so many of these mercurial changes, it's hard to say exactly when "Netflix" came to mean streaming from a number of quite limited titles rather than choosing a rental from a vast library of physical media and receiving that object from the company. Some time around the middle of the last decade, while I stubbornly persisted with this practice, most of my friends and family would appear surprised when they spotted the envelope, or heard me reference "getting a Netflix"...as if this could mean anything besides picking up a remote control and pressing a button. Much of my own work for the past fifteen years of this site - a period that parallels Netflix's own gradual shift away from its original model - would have been far more difficult and even impossible without access to a catalog far more vast than anything offered by a single streaming service (or even a collective sampling of many individual subscriptions).

This quiet termination, long expected among those of us aware it hadn't already happened, is indicative of much broader cultural trends. Sam Adams has already written a piece that articulates most of what I'd want to observe: "The Death of Netflix DVD Marks the Loss of Something Even Bigger". (The piece was either promoted or originally titled, before an all-too-revealing namechange to something catchier and more recognizable, "Remember the long tail?" Apparently not.) Adams references an article and book from the early zeroes (in the spirit of the general intransigence that led me to keep skirting streaming in favor of renting physical discs, I still won't call that era the aughts): "...on-demand manufacturing and digital distribution would disrupt the winner-take-all logic of monopoly capitalism and allow businesses to profit by making a nigh-infinite variety of products available to any audience, however small." The cultural trajectory of my own youth was in many ways the peaking and waning of this phenomenon - so in addition to the more generalized obituaries of Adams and others, I'd like to offer a few of my own personal reflections at the graveside.

My Netflix DVD history not only parallels but precedes my online work, stretching back between June 28 and 29 in 2005 when three discs were shipped to myself and my two roommates: Blazing Saddles (which I'm pretty sure was someone else's pick), Hotel Rwanda (which was definitely another roommate's, since I still haven't seen it), and Rebecca (that would be my own selection). I was living in Brooklyn, awaiting my senior year of college, and had moved into my first apartment just weeks earlier. Up to this point, my main source for rentals in New York was the legendary Kim's Video at St. Mark's Place, which would go out of business a few years later - part of a general trend of rental store closures initially spurred and eventually joined by Netflix's mail service - and experience a strange afterlife when its VHS/DVD library wound up in Sicily, enmeshed with the Mafia (a recent documentary relays this bizarre story). Truthfully, however, I hadn't been renting many films at all for the past year or so: music had completely captured my attention and eclipsed my cinephilia, and for a while Netflix was just another arm of that obsession. My rental history shows multiple chapters of the Beatles' Anthology documentary (alongside curios like the Pete Best doc Best of the Beatles) as well as Tommy, Live from the Isle of Wight, and so on.

A new phase of cinephilia was sparked a year later when I began renting more classic and contemporary art house films - as well as a little something called Twin Peaks. Prior to even the Gold Box collection, I rented "Season 1: Disc 1" of the David Lynch series on July 11, 2006, returning it a long fifteen days later with a resolution to wait until the pilot was available: this disc actually began with the first "regular" episode of the series rather than the one establishing the story. I'd finally come back to Peaks exactly two years later, by complete coincidence. On July 11, 2008 - after a six-month break from the service - I rented three discs simultaneously: Twin Peaks disc 1 (this time a version with the pilot), Be Kind Rewind, and Landmarks of Early Film. Five days later, the latter two would become the first films I'd ever review for this site. I'd always thought, for some reason, that I rented one of the titles - the more recent one, ironically - from a brick-and-mortar store, but no, apparently Netflix came in clutch from the beginning. From this point, my rental history (which parted ways with my roommates when they stopped the service and I took over their queues around 2006 or 2007, long before moving out) looks like an archive of my early blogging. Aside from some cinema attendance, and dips into my own collection, Netflix (which back then still just meant Netflix DVD) was my main dealer and perhaps occasionally my pusher, though I had enough endless requests that I didn't really need to ask for help finding more.

My queues - the list of discs Netflix would send me as soon as one was returned - grew to five and were organized thematically. In fact even that first trio had a rationale: Peaks topped the TV queue, Landmarks the chronological classic queue, and Rewind the new release queue. The first two topics remained until (literally) this very day, while new releases were phased out in favor of a random queue, a queue based on the Wonders in the Dark canonical countdowns, and a Criterion Collection queue which eventually became a home for acclaimed twenty-first century films instead. Each queue included hundreds of titles but I never got very far into most of these backlogs. My last disc is from my not-all-that-crowded chronological classics list which means in the fifteen years since Lumiere and Melies, with years passing between dips into this particular pool, I'd only reached the fifties. Now they all stand, Ozymandias-like, as relics of a time when the possibilities seemed endless.

As I plan to draw my own public film and (non-Twin Peaks) TV commentary to a close in just over a month, the closure of Netflix DVD feels like an intimate part of a long goodbye. Thanks for joining me in the neverending (until it ended) queue.

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