If any further evidence of the uselessness of Netflix was needed, I refer you to the recently concluded four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who is to movies as Danielle Steel and Ken Follett are to the novel. Did you ever forget to bring a book with you on a long airplane trip and stop in at an airline terminal to look for something to read? Wall to wall Steel and Follett, right? Bummer. That’s the same reaction I have been having lately looking for something to watch on Netflix. That is not to speak of the cheesy menu that basically propagates the same junk across “Popular on Netflix”, “Recently Added” and “New Releases”. A quick look there turns up “Jackass presents: Grandpa” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Considering the fact that most Netflix subscribers have never heard of Kurosawa or Godard, it is quite a statement that “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner” only garnered one and a half stars, an inflated grade considering the fact that you can’t rate something as zero stars.
As a sop to the art house crowd, one supposes, Netflix is also releasing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a film that has all of the superficial characteristics of Hong Kong cinema but none of the substance, least of all the nimbleness of the classics like the 1978 “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. Ang Lee should have stuck to what he knows best, tales of anomie in the aging yuppie milieu.
I just checked the archives of the Marxism list and discovered a message I wrote in 2006 recommending Netflix followed by an enthusiastic New York Times article that compared the service favorably to Blockbuster. That was true. Of course a sharp stick in the eye would have been better than Blockbuster as well.
A month after my “Alternatives to Netflix” article appeared on CounterPunch, another take-down of the vulgarian corporation appeared on the KQED website, a PBS station in Northern California. Considering the tripe that appears on PBS, it is a sign of how awful Netflix has become. It is a little bit like Michael Savage complaining about Bill O’Hara.
Titled “For Cinephiles, Netflix Is Less and Less an Option” and written by Jon Brooks, a KQED website editor and playwright, it complains about the delisting of some classic films that were only available on DVD from Netflix. Apparently the new business model is focused on streaming junk like “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Brooks writes:
Unlikely. The death of Netflix DVDs could very well spell the end of the golden days of one-stop shopping. Check out this 2013 Netflix PR video communicating that the company should no longer be looked upon as a massive movie library. What it really is, it says, is the “Internet’s largest television network.”
Great. Just what the world has been waiting for: the “Internet’s largest television network.” To some extent, Netflix has figured out that lots of people are unsubbing from cable TV. Why pay the big bucks for basic cable and extra for HBO or Showtime when you can watch “Housewives of New Jersey” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on the Internet with a relatively cheap Netflix account? Unrepentant Marxist and film snob that I am, I’ll stick with Kurosawa and Godard.
Speaking of which, this is a follow-up on some films I saw recently from my friends at Vyer and FilmMovement, two of the Netflix alternatives I covered in my last article. The pleasure I got from watching some top-rate cinema should encourage others to consider a trial membership in these top-notch services for the cognoscenti.
In my last article I reviewed a Vyer film titled “Yumurta” (Egg) a Turkish film directed by Semih Kaplanoğlu. Since I considered this film to be a masterpiece, I was excited to discover that Vyer had added “Süt” (Milk) and “Bal” (Honey) to its inventory. The three films are a trilogy and it is no exaggeration to state that they are to Turkish film what Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” was to Indian.
In chronological order, the trilogy consists of “Yumurta” (2007), “Süt” (2008) and “Bal” (2010). Like Apu, the character who appears in all three films is Yusuf, an aspiring writer from the Turkish countryside. Going athwart the film chronology, Yusuf is oldest in the first, next oldest in the second and youngest in the last so it would probably make sense to see them in reverse order.
In “Süt”, Yusuf is eighteen years old and desperately trying to get his first poem published. He lives with his mother on a modest farm not far from Izmir and dutifully performs chores like milking the cows when he is not sitting at the typewriter doing what he really loves. Unlike the young man in “Sons and Lovers”, Yusuf does not hate his provincial surroundings but only hopes to connect to a more cultured world. Considering the fact that the symbol of that more cultured world is a local literature professor who loves getting drunk more than discussing art, it is no wonder that he still values ordinary people, especially his mother.
Despite the fact that she dismisses his literary ambitions (“all you do is look at the trees and the bugs when you go out in the morning”), she is the light of his life. When he finally gets a poem published in an Istanbul journal about a beautiful female, she assumes that it is about a girlfriend when it is really about her.
There certainly are intimations of an Oedipal complex in the household but absent a father, there is not the tension one might expect. Yusuf mostly seems to resent his mother’s new suitor, a local man who comes courting in a quite old-fashioned manner. It is Semih Kaplanoğlu’s basic strategy to convey what a character is feeling not through words but through expressions on their face. In a very real sense, the film harkens back to some of the classic silent films, much more so than a gimmick like “The Artist”.
In some ways the real star of “Süt” is the Turkish countryside. Like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Kaplanoğlu has an instinctive feel for evoking the deepest spiritual and esthetic values out of the rustling of tree leaves, a village bazaar or a dusty road. Although I have never stepped foot out of Istanbul or Izmir, watching “Süt” made me want to get lost in the hinterlands. It is, of course, a terrible tragedy that those hinterlands have been a site of so much violence and hatred.
The central character in “Honey” is a six-year-old boy named Yusuf (Bora Altaş, a non-professional) who lives with his father Yakup (Erdal Besikçioglu) and mother Zehra (Tülin Özen) in a remote mountainous village where life appears not much different than it was a hundred years ago in Turkey, especially how Yakup makes his living. He is a beekeeper who scales tall trees in pursuit of the high-quality honey found in the area.
Unfortunately, the disappearance of bees drives him further and further up the mountains where he installs new hives at the top of trees in hope of attracting the creatures that sustain him and his family. The film opens with him scaling a tall tree, navigating to the middle of a branch to which he will attach a new hive. Just as he has begun his work, the branch breaks and leaves him suspended precariously far above the ground.
In a series of flashbacks, we see how the family relates to each other and its environment. While the mother and father are key characters, it is really Yusuf’s story. Early on, his father asks him to read from the Koran, which he does with great ease and fluidity. A day or so later, we see him in a classroom where the teacher asks the children to take turns reading from a primer. When a girl begins reading a page or two from the story The Lion and the Mouse, we see Yusuf mouthing the words silently one step ahead of her. Clearly, he knows how to read. But when it is his turn to read, he has the same paralysis as Bertie, the future king, and cannot utter more than a word or two without looking up at the teacher in total consternation. At this point, all the other students begin laughing at him.
“Honey” dispenses with plot almost entirely. Except for wondering about the fate of the father, we rely mostly on the quotidian existence of a very traditional family to sustain our interest. There is very little dialog in the film apart from the father speaking to his son about his expectations from him. Unlike few films I have seen in this or any other year, “Honey” conveys a father’s love for his son in a more convincing and moving fashion than one would be led to expect. With so many Hollywood films (Little Miss Sunshine, for example) drenched in family unhappiness and loathing, it is a breath of fresh air to be reminded that solidarity within a family unit is possible.
Most of “Honey” follows Yusuf on his daily rounds: picking eggs out of a coop for his mother to make cookies for dad; ambling off to school on a muddy road; following his father as he tends to the hives, etc. All in all, director Semih Kaplanoglu seems to have absorbed the aesthetic of the new Iranian film that seeks to depict the lives of ordinary people in a compassionate and naturalistic manner.
In an interview with The People’s Voice, a magazine that describes its mission as warning that “Civilization is headed in the wrong direction and there isn’t much time left to lift up human consciousness and change course”, Kaplanoglu presented his views on what might seem like the daily menu on Netflix:
Q: What’s your view on the interlaced correlation of modern cinema with violence, aggression and depravity? Are these scenes which we expose to a wide range of large-scale audiences including women, children and the youth enough healthy and proper for them?
A: It is where the human centered civilization takes and leaves us. What we see is falling away from the spirituality and ego being more favored. The art, however, is becoming more egocentric in all its forms. Another drawback is the idea of craftsmanship is extinguishing within the art. Tradition and certain code of conduct vanish too as a result. We are leading lives in such a carnal civilization that it proves to be impossible to feel and perceive what is in front of our bare eyes. On the other hand, imagery is so filthy that it’s no longer able to show. There is a huge mechanism designed to hide the truth or at least tune it down. Truth is perceived as a new contrived world because it is kept away from us. We got accustomed to death and violence. Nothing moves us anymore. There is a tiny single button to switch from child casualties and a silly competition. If truth doesn’t touch your conscience and refused by you then what can a film do? Cinema and other forms of art are helpless in the face of our pathetic and miserable situation. If the images of dead Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan kids or refugees or African poor don’t have an impact on us and we go on our lives undisturbed, then which artist or filmmaker can touch our hearts? We should be more alert and conscious in this world. We should keep remembering these two; Unity of the Creator and his consent. I am trying to make my films based or these principles.
When I got a screener for “Ilo Ilo” from FilmMovement, I was glad to get the opportunity to see a film that I avoided for the wrong reason when it came out last year: its title. I never really thought much about it but feared that it would be some kind of light entertainment, especially since it was described as a comedy.
As it turns out, it is a comedy but it has nothing in common with a Jude Apatow movie or the other detritus on Netflix. It is the story of a Filipina maid named Teresa who goes to work for a Chinese family in Singapore just as the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 is bearing down. As it happens, Ilo Ilo was the name of the province in the Philippines that the maid came from, not a soft drink or the name of a pet poodle. This would have been obvious to the Asian market for which the film was intended and a warning that even an inveterate internationalist like me can screw up.
When Teresa arrives at the Leng household, she is shocked by the behavior of their 10-year-old son Jiale who the parents describe as “naughty”. That would be like describing Hurricane Sandy as windy. Jiale is a lout of biblical proportions, defying Teresa’s every stricture handed down from her employers and insulting her mercilessly–“your hair stinks” is his favorite insult. Like many Filipina women, Teresa does not put up with such nonsense and begins knocking some sense into him from day one. Despite Jiale’s thuggish behavior, she finds a way to win him to her side, mostly as a result of her honesty and her obvious affection for him. If you’ve seen and enjoyed (it is quite a good film) “Nanny McPhee”, you’ll like “Ilo Ilo”.
But in addition to the comic scenes involving maid and ward, the more affecting parts of the film focus on mother and father’s attempt to survive the economic disaster of 1997. Husband Hwee Leng loses his sales job and his stock portfolio goes belly up all in the same month. Afraid to tell his wife that he has lost his job and is working as a security guard, he keeps it a secret. She in turn feels that the earth is opening up beneath her. As so many others facing an uncertain future, she signs up for a training course on “how to realize your hopes” by a shady motivational speaker, who is arrested before the class begins.
The film is humanistic in a way that Hollywood no longer can convey in an industry catering to our basest instincts. It summarizes our political/cultural nexus today in the most revealing manner when you compare Netflix with its alternatives. I would not be surprised if Vyer has a yearly budget that compared to Netflix is in about the same ratio as CounterPunch to Time Magazine. Anybody who prefers Time Magazine to CounterPunch will probably prefer Netflix to Vyer and FilmMovement. It is those who still have a brain and a heart that these recommendations are addressed to.
Louis Proyect manages the Marxism list and reviews films for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org