The Snoot Letter
Issue #16 – May 11, 2020
I watched Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern over the weekend, and I was blown away by the movie. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen. But as far as I can tell, it’s only available in the US on a mediocre DVD release or a $1.99 rental on Amazon Prime Video that I’m not convinced is officially licensed. This is a masterwork by arguably the greatest director of cinema from mainland China, and by modern streaming and packaged media standards it’s barely available.
What happens to the great works of cinema when they aren’t available in formats most people use to watch movies? It’s an interesting question to me. Yes, great works of art last in a literal sense as long as they exist in some lasting form, but they only exist in the cultural zeitgeist if they can be easily seen. What if Raise the Red Lantern wasn’t available for rent on Amazon Prime? I wouldn’t have watched it this weekend, and I would have just watched something else. The nature of media abundance is that there is always something good to watch, and so there is less incentive to take the time to seek out the harder to find gems.
What happens if the services we use to watch movies are no longer curated by individuals who pride themselves on championing hidden gems? Video-store and record-store employees provided these services, even if it sometimes felt like an unforeseen side-effect at the most corporate versions of these stores. But very few streaming services seem to care about personal curation. The recommendation engines of most major streaming services are built around massive data analysis. In my opinion, this process doesn’t result in finding and surfacing unique films that will appeal to your specific tastes, it results in finding relatively good mass-appeal films that over-index with other people who match your taste profile. That is simply not the same thing!
Big data analysis and opinion aggregators (like Rotten Tomatoes) can be helpful when it comes to finding something you might like, but I don’t think they’re very helpful when it comes to finding something you might love. At least not yet. The engine for passion is still people, and especially the people who know you. A recommendation from a friend who loves you is worth more than a hundred recommendations from a machine that doesn’t.
~ Keith Calder
This Week’s Recommendations
🎬 Obviously, I recommend watching Raise the Red Lantern
📖 Like many people, I find a lot of appeal in the various “minimalism” movements that seems to be sweeping the world. If you want to dig deeper beneath the surface of minimalism, I highly recommend reading “The Longing For Less: Living With Minimalism” by Kyle Chayka.