Like all relationships, we’ve had our ups and our downs. Our good times, and bad. There were times when things were fresh and exciting and there were always new experiences to be had and new territory to explore, and there have been times when the spark seemed to have died and all the magic was lost to the trivial and mundane. Yes, like all relationships, it’s been a mixture of emotions.
If Netflix and I were “Facebook official,” our relationship status would be: “It’s complicated.”
When I first signed up for streaming Netflix, my reaction was mixed. I found a ton of great TV shows that I wanted to watch, but it seemed like every time I searched for a movie I was disappointed. Sometimes I would add a movie to my queue, only to return a few days later to find it gone; apparently, some movies are available on Netflix at the same time that they are available on Showtime or HBO and once it disappears from the network’s lineup, it also disappears from Netflix. I discovered that the hard way: I was elated to find Easy A in my recommendations, a couple of weeks before the DVD released. I set it in my queue at the beginning of the week, planning a movie night for the weekend. Friday night comes, and it’s gone. That was the first sign of trouble in paradise.
Although I wasn’t thrilled with the selection of “blockbuster” movies, I quickly discovered that Netflix had a treasure trove of documentaries available. That was when my relationship with Netflix was really in the honeymoon phase. I can’t express enough how much I love documentaries. I love serious documentaries, I love funny documentaries, I love historical documentaries, and I especially love documentaries about people whose lives or experiences or personalities are out on the fringes. I love them! I. Love. Documentaries.
My first two Netflix documentaries were Obscene and Making the Boys. Obscene was the story of Barney Rosset and Grove Press, his publishing company which published books like Ginsburg’s Howl and Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and whose fight against obscenity lawsuits and censorship paved the way for freedom of expression in the marketplace and in the culture at large. Making the Boys was all about the stage play and film The Boys in the Band, an early depiction of gay men’s lives and relationships in American cinema. These two documentaries set the bar for a lot of my future recommendations: Netflix quickly figured out that I wasn’t afraid of graphic content and that I love me some queer cinema.
Ahh, the recommendations. Netflix, like every other website and service, uses fancy computer algorithms and probably some dark magic to take your viewing history and the preferences you entered when you signed up, to create a series of recommendations for you. These recommendations have lead to some great viewing experiences, and also to the only really big fight Netflix and I have ever had. But first, the positive.
In general, Netflix does a good job of tailoring my selections. Because I have shown a great deal of interest in queer movies, I find that these are not only in their own recommendation categories, but also sprinkled throughout other categories as well. It’s not uncommon for me to find queer-themed films under Romantic Comedies, Foreign Films, and Provocative Documentaries. One day I was scrolling through and saw that I had a recommendation category called Sports Movies. I did a double-take. I thought, “Why the hell would Netflix think I had any interest in sports movies?!” But then I looked at the first two movies in the category: The Broken Hearts Club (a gay rom-com that centers around a softball team) and A League of Their Own. Well played, Netflix. Well played.
But all is not perfect in the land of Netflix recommendations. I watched the 1996 documentary Trekkies and loved it. I adored the wacky collection of Star Trek fanatics and enthusiasts, especially the woman who made national headlines when she wore her homemade Starfleet uniform to jury duty during the Whitewater trial. I have my own geeky obsessions (as I confessed in an earlier blog entry about Dark Shadows) and I could simultaneously appreciate the level of commitment to one’s particular interest while also staring wide-eyed at the what seemed like a real parade of crazy. I say that lovingly, because so much of what is considered “crazy” in our culture is just that which is outside our own realm of interest. One person calls a Trekkie (or Trekker, if you prefer – if you don’t know the difference between the two, you’ll have to watch the documentary!) who is dressed as a Klingon crazy, and then goes home and writes erotic fan fiction about the characters in Battlestar Galactica, who is in turned mocked by a Twi-Hard wearing a “Team Edward” t-shirt. Like Norman Bates says in Psycho, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
A few years later, Denise Crosby and her crew made a sequel, Trekkies 2, which followed up with several of the subjects from the first film and also looked at fandom on an international scale, visiting conventions in places like Italy, England, France, Australia, and Serbia. This film was equally enjoyable, and would seem like a no-brainer recommendation to someone who had just watched the first installment. But Netflix didn’t recommend it to me after watching Trekkies. It didn’t recommend it after I watched the documentary Sci Fi Boys, an exploration of some of the great early sci fi films, including the classic Claymation efforts of Ray Harryhausen. No, it waited several weeks and recommended it after I watched And Everything is Going Fine, a loosely organized exploration of the life and career of actor and writer Spaulding Gray. Huh? It’s like that game they played on Sesame Street with the little song, “One of these things is not like the other.” And it was Sesame Street, so of course you knew which one didn’t belong. Apparently Netflix wasn’t very good at that game as a child, and it’s affected its recommendations to this day.
But that is not the worst problem I’ve encountered with recommendations. I think it’s time to talk about what I like to call, “The Fight.” It was the first time that Netflix and I really experienced a serious and profoundly troubling conflict in our relationship. The time when Netflix ignored my entire viewing history and betrayed my trust by recommending thinly-veiled Christian fundamentalist anti-porn propaganda. Let me explain.
Anyone who knows me is probably aware that my politics are pretty progressive. I believe in sexual liberation and fulfillment; I also think we need, as a culture, to be more sex positive. We need to talk openly and honestly about sexuality in all forms and variations, not reserving our sex talk to dirty jokes and lectures on sexually transmitted diseases. This includes discussions about pornography. In addition to my academic study of sex and sexuality, I’ve also worked at an adult bookstore, written for the cross-dressing magazine Girl Talk (which, though not pornographic in nature, was only available in North Dakota at a couple of porn stores in the larger cities), and worked as an independent Passion Parties consultant where I helped people explore their sexuality and convinced Midwestern housewives that they didn’t need to blush when saying the word “clitoris.” In all of my study and reflection about sexuality, I’ve never understood how someone could come to the conclusion that dismantling the porn industry would be in any way beneficial to our collective sexual health. Are there problems and abuses in the porn industry? Absolutely. But as we’ve learned in the last few years, there are also significant problems and abuses in the banking and investment industries, and no one has ever suggested that we do away with those. Like any other industry, there needs to be regulation and accountability; the fact that porn still carries a certain amount of stigma and largely operates outside of any real regulatory supervision only makes abuses inside the industry that much easier to perpetuate.
But enough about my political tirade against sexual repression: let’s get back to the movies. Netflix has a real treasure trove of interesting films about sex and sexuality (more on those below), and I dove right it. After Porn Ends was a thought-provoking look at what happens when performers in the adult film industry decide to retire; it highlights how the stigma of the porn industry can impact a person’s life long after they leave the business but also how they can take their experience and craft it into something positive. Their were certainly stories of people who felt they had been abused or exploited by the porn industry, and it was clear that those people should never have been a part of the industry in the first place. The film is never pro-porn or anti-porn; rather, it looks at the lives and experiences of a handful of performers and what they’ve experienced since leaving the business, and allows the viewer to think about what these stories have to say about the culture in which we live. The story of Asia Carrera is particularly touching. At the end, as is typical in a lot of documentaries, they show stills or footage of the subjects with updates about what has happened with their stories since filming wrapped. Many of the performers, including some who were the most vocally critical of the industry, returned to performing when the financial offer was right; the audience is left to decide for themselves what that might mean.
One of the films that came up in my recommendations after watching After Porn Ends was Lance Tracy’s Adult Entertainment: Disrobing an American Idol. Here is the description that appears on Netflix: “Nude dancers, porn stars, strip club owners, and experts look at the positive and negative aspects of the adult entertainment industry.” Sounds pretty balanced from the description, right? This documentary is fair and balanced the way that Fox News is fair and balanced. Which means, not at all. Through the course of this documentary, Tracy conducts an “experiment” that mostly just demonstrates that, like most fundamentalists, he doesn’t really understand how science works. He has two subjects (hardly a representative sample by any means) and then links his “results” with those of a study being conducted at a California University, but doesn’t explain how the other study was conducted or how why his results might be applicable to the other study. His “experts” are all faith-based counselors with a clear anti-porn agenda, with one or two exceptions that he works to discredit almost before they even appear on camera.
There are countless other problems with this documentary, but one that I found particularly troubling was the material he provided to his test subjects during the experiment. He talks about “adult material” as though it were one monolithic thing, but then he includes in the materials several types of fetish material, including S&M and watersports. He also surprises them on a trip to an adult bookstore with a private session with a “fantasy guide” (a woman who exists in some shady area between private dancer and escort) which has nothing to do with the bookstore itself. This view of “adult material” is far too reductive, especially in a sham study composed of only two participants. Different types of fetish material exist because people have widely varying sexual interests; to present fetish material to someone who is not interested in that particular fetish and then gauge their reaction as somehow normative is misleading and it doesn’t tell us anything about how pornography affects the viewer. One assumes that when consuming pornographic material, the consumer would be drawn to materials that match his or her own interests. Giving S&M porn to someone who isn’t into S&M doesn’t teach is anything about porn in a more general sense, and it doesn’t teach us anything about how porn portraying S&M activities might function in the life of someone who is legitimately interested in S&M activities. Of course for Tracy and his anti-porn agenda, S&M is already nothing but a more extreme version of the perversion that is pornography anyway so the distinction is lost on him.
When the film ended, I was gob-smacked. Never before had Netflix lead me so far astray. As I went to my computer and Googled Lance Tracy and his particular brand of “sex addiction” ideology, I was pissed. I have no problem watching documentaries that present a specific view of the world, but most of them are upfront about it. Michael Moore, for all of his hyperbole, is not ashamed of being on the liberal fringe. But this documentary, with its “fair and balanced” description, sneaks in under the radar; like so much of what is produced by fundamentalists, it attempts to appeal to the average rational viewer, but presents misleading and often incorrect information. It almost makes one nostalgic for the days of fire and brimstone, preferable to insincere smiles covering jagged teeth.
After that debacle, I walked away from Netflix for a few days. I thought, “How could you lead me so wrong? How could you think, after everything I’ve watched and everything you’ve recommended, that I would have any interest in Christian anti-porn propaganda? It’s like you don’t know me at all. I wish I could quit you, Netflix. I wish I could quit you.”
When I did return, Netflix instantly tried to win me back. Under The Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story, a look at the history of the game Monopoly and people who play it competitively, was a good start. The odd collection of characters was just what I look for in this type of documentary, and I found myself rooting for the elementary teacher who uses Monopoly in his classroom to teach math in his quest to reach the Monopoly World Championship. I disliked the smug Monopoly fan who bragged about assembling his “elite coaching team” which included the first ever Monopoly world champ, and I felt a weird sense of justice when he was bankrupted in his first round at the national competition. It was the same sort of obsessive love that I has seen in Trekkies and reaffirmed my belief that we all have our own inner freak just waiting to find the right cultural product on which to affix itself. It was a good start, but I was still cautious; I wasn’t sure the wounds of this terrible recommendation would ever really heal.
Netflix finally won me back with I Think We’re Alone Now: a documentary about two obsessed fans of 80s popstar Tiffany. I was expecting another light-hearted journey into obsession a la Trekkies, but what I found was much more complex with much darker undertones. The first of the fans, Jeff, is a middle-aged man with Aspberger’s who has been following Tiffany’s career since her early days performing in shopping malls. At one point he was served with a restraining order, and was later arrested for attempting to meet Tiffany at an airport while brandishing a weapon; he explains in the documentary that presenting someone with a katana and five white carnations is the considered the highest honor one can bestow upon someone in Japan. He is such a good natured person, and he is so likable and so creepy all at the same time that it really created a feeling of discomfort in me as I was watching. When he started talking about fascists and secret societies, and put on a bicycle helmet attached to some copper tubing and a quartz crystal (some sort of metaphysical contraption he uses to “communicate” with Tiffany telepathically), it took on a whole new level of strangeness. Many of these fandom documentaries raise the question of “How far is too far?” but this is the first one that really takes that question seriously and one has to wonder if Jeff’s obsession is doing him real harm.
Kelly, the other fan, is a 30-something intersex woman who discovered Tiffany after being in a critical bicycle accident; she was hospitalized and lay in a coma for 16 days in which she had a vision of a woman who she came to understand was her soul mate. When she awoke, a friend gave her a copy of one of Tiffany’s albums as a get well present; though she had never before seen Tiffany or heard her music, she recognized Tiffany as the woman for her comatose vision. Kelly’s story is much more awkward and heart-wrenching. She is socially awkward, her speech and cognition still greatly affected by the aftereffects of her accident; her story is complicated even further by her intersex condition. The people around her are confused about her gender and often refer to her as male. Her obsession with Tiffany is also much more emotionally charged: when she is denied entrance to a Tiffany concert in her hometown of Denver, CO because she doesn’t have proper ID, she breaks down sobbing. At other times, she shows a great deal of anger when someone questions her obsession with Tiffany.
These stories are compelling enough on their own, but the documentary brings these two people together: it is unclear whether Jeff learns of Kelly through the filmmakers or through another fan channel, but he invites her to stay with him at a Tiffany event so that Kelly can see Tiffany in person for the first time. Both are convinced that Tiffany is their soul mate, and both have a very difficult time interacting socially with other people. From the moment they appear onscreen together, you can’t help but be glued to the screen to see if they are going to bond over their mutual obsession or whether it will erupt into jealousy and competition. By the end of the film, it’s hard to know how to feel about these two fans and their obsessions, and you can’t help but worry about what will happen to them in the future. And this is what a really good documentary does: it connects you to some piece of the human experience, and it makes you care about it. Jeff and Kelly’s odd behavior have elicited more than their share of harassment, and their odd behavior is something you might see on the street and turn and look the other way. But through this film, you see the people behind the oddities, and you feel a real concern for what will happen to them in the future.
Netlfix and I are back together, and we’re working through our relationship issues. I’ve gone into my profile and clicked a few more boxes, hoping to avoid any more unwelcome surprises like Adult Entertainment. If I’m really unsure, or if I think a film has a potential to turn into mindless fundi-trash, I seek the advice of my old pal Google to see if I have any real need to be worried. Sure, it takes some of the spontaneity out of the whole experience, but that happens in all relationships. You settle into a pattern, things become more routine, and there are fewer and fewer surprises. But even if it’s not as fresh and exciting as it once was, I think we’re better off for it.
I think we’re in it for the long haul.
(Below I’ve listed some more of the documentaries I’ve discovered on Netflix, and my thoughts on them. Have one to share? Leave it in the comments section!)
(A)sexual: As a queer person in the 21st Century, I think it’s important for everyone to spend some time examining their own privilege and their own biases, and trying to find out more about identities and people that they are uneducated about. I will freely admit that I don’t “get” asexuality. This documentary is an interesting look at a wide range of people who identify as asexual, and I watched it to learn more about something that I am frankly perplexed by. For me, I think that asexuality has a lot in common with race. What I mean by that is that biologically speaking, race is a meaningless designation. Biologists will tell you that genetically, race doesn’t have any meaning: there is more diversity and deviation within supposed racial categories than between them. This lack of biological meaning, however, does not negate the profound cultural meaning that racial identity carries in all societies around the world. I think of asexuality much the same way: it’s hard for me to think that asexuality has a biological basis – after all, it’s one of those bottom of the pyramid Maslow needs along with food and breathing. If there were a real biological basis for having absolutely no sex drive, it seems like there would also be people who were born without the compulsion to eat or sleep, or even breathe. But whether or not there is a biological reality for asexuality, that doesn’t change the fact that it has cultural meaning and that people identify themselves in this way, and the stories of the people featured were really quite interesting. I was not aware that there was a high correlation between people who identify as asexual an Aspberger’s Syndrome, and it would be easy for some to dismiss asexuals as people who are socially-challenged and afraid of their sexuality, but the film does a good job of presenting a variety of people with a range of experiences in exploring this misunderstood identity.
Paris is Burning: This is not a new discovery for me, but since I’m in the process of being filmed for a documentary about my own life and experiences, I decided to revisit this classic look at the New York ball circuit, and the crazy collection of characters assembled by Jennie Livingston. I love the fun costumes and the over-the-top performances, but I also appreciate the depth of character that Livingston reveals in so many of her subjects. I also wanted to revisit it because the filmmaker I’m working with and I have discussed the importance of the scenes in the film where Dorian Corey is talking about her experiences while putting on makeup. I knew that this was an important trope and that we should try to incorporate some version of it into the film, though I wasn’t nearly as good at articulating my reasons why as this Slate article is. There is something about seeing a performer in the process of getting ready that I think is important to understanding drag in a larger sense. It is one thing to see a performer in face and then see them in everyday life, but the ritual of transformation is also important: you get to see someone working to recreate their reality. It’s no wonder that scenes like this, as described in the article, often become vehicles for presenting wisdom or experience or that person’s learned truth.
Though it was filmed in the late 80s, Paris is Burning is actually aging quite well. Though the cultural landscape has changed dramatically from when this film premiered, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about drag and the different types of people who are drawn to this very special type of performance. And the story of Venus Xtravaganza is just as affecting when I watch it now as it was the first time.
American Scary: I grew up loving Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark. I had a VHS copy of her movie that I just about wore out, plus all 11 issues of her DC comic series, a light horror anthology perfect for kids like me who loved a little touch of the macabre without being as graphic as the old EC comics from the 50s. At the time, I had no idea that Elvira was part of a much bigger tradition of horror film hosts dating back to the 60s when networks would license packages of horror films for cheap and play them late at night with hosts to act as “buffers” in between commercial breaks. Like Elvira, many of these hosts became more popular than the films they were hosting and they carved out a very special niche in pop culture for the horror host. This documentary interviews a bunch of horror hosts from the last four decades to hear about how their shows came about, who inspired them, and what they think about the tradition of horror hosting and why it has remained popular despite drastic changes in network television. (As an aside, I also remember being in high school and loving USA Up All Night, hosted by Rhonda Shear on Friday and Gilbert Gottfried on Saturdays. Although their segments weren’t usually horror-themed like the ones in this documentary, they were hosting trashy B-movies, many of them horror films, and keeping me entertained.)
Whore’s Glory: This documentary was very good, but I imagine it gave their translator a nervous breakdown: it’s a German film about the lives of prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. The subtitling must have been a nightmarish experience!
The conditions under which the women work varies greatly from country to country, and each segment only looks at one particular location in the featured country, but a common thread that emerges from all of the stories is the universality of the sexual double-standard: men are expected to be sexually voracious, and women are supposed eschew sexuality outside of a committed marriage relationship. This construction of sexuality leads to the inevitability of prostitution, and you can see how many of these women chafe under the strain of their roles, but what is perhaps most interesting is the portrayal of the men who visit the prostitutes. In the segment filmed in Mexico particularly, the men featured seem compelled to seek out the services of the prostitutes while also denigrating them because of their jobs. This hypocrisy is evident whenever you look at any aspect of the sex industry: there are always people who will decry the evils of the industry in public while consuming the products and services of the industry in private.
Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism: After Whore’s Glory, Netflix decided that I must really like German films about sex. And in this case, Netflix was right. Although it seems to purposely ignore the “mainstream” porn industry, the film does a good job of presenting performers and directors who are interested in exploring sexual depictions in what is thought by some to be a post-feminist and post-porn world. Open to a broader range of physical types and depicted experience, this new sexual art is edgy and often takes its lead from the world of S&M. Its claims that mainstream porn is somehow passé might be overstepping, this look at sexual art on the margins is definitely engaging and thought-provoking.
Mansome: The effects of the beauty and “personal care” industries on women are well-documented and discussed, but much less attention has been paid to how these industries affect the lives of men. Although I often have issues with Morgan Spurloch’s films, this one is a rather lively and engaging look at the increasing role that grooming and pampering is playing in men’s lives. From moustaches to manscaping, men are under greater pressure than ever before to groom, primp, and to alter their bodies to fit certain standards of both hygiene and fashion. In addition to those who subtract, there are also the stories of those who add, including men who grow beards…competitively. Yep, the Beard Olympics. That’s a real thing.
A Complete History of My Sexual Failures: This film by Chris Waitt is a bit strange and there was more than one moment in the film where I felt like I was being duped (the ending especially feels extremely contrived), but the premise is funny enough: in his 30s with nothing to show but a series of broken relationships, Waitt decides to interview all of his ex-girlfriends to find out what was wrong with him and why they broke things off with him. Along the way, he reconnects with women who are generally not pleased to see him; one woman who initially sent Waitt a letter via her lawyer telling him to cease and desist, agreed to be interviewed under the stipulations that she be interviewed from behind a sheet with only her hands visible, and her answers were typed into a computer to be read by a Stephen-Hawking-like voice. He also visits a dominatrix and goes on a Viagra-fueled rampage through the streets propositioning every woman in sight until he is finally arrested, all in hopes of discovering what is at the root of his sexual problem and why all of his relationships have ended in disaster.
That Guy…Who Was In That Thing: This delightful look into the lives of 16 character actors (you might not know their names, but you will probably know most, if not all, of their faces!) who have made a living in Hollywood doing films and television without ever achieving the superstardom that so many actors dream of. Brought in to play villains and psychos, lawyers and bosses, neighbors and coworkers, these men have worked steadily in the entertainment industry, some for more than 2 decades, but can walk down the street in relative anonymity. When people do recognize them, they often can’t place them exactly or remember how they know them; they are just as likely to think they went to the same college as opposed to appearing in that movie on cable last night. A really great film for anyone interested in pursuing an acting career, or who is interested in the lives and experiences of actors.
It would be interesting to see a film like this made about character actresses; because of the way Hollywood treats men and women differently, I imagine that successful character actresses might have very different stories to tell than their male counterparts. Perhaps there already is a sequel; if so, Netflix probably won’t recommend it to me until I watch something completely unrelated. Such is our relationship.
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust: This documentary not only looks back at how Hollywood has attempted to portray the atrocities of the Holocaust on film but also wrestles with the questions of how one should attempt to portray such indescribable cruelty and evil – or whether one should even attempt it at all. Starting with films well before the United States even became involved in World War II up through Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the films presented are of varying quality, accuracy, and even tone; a highlight is footage from Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator in which the comedian mocked Hitler and his agenda while also leaving room for the audience to interpolate the very real threat that Hitler represented.
Meet The Fokkens: What can I say? I love foreign films about hookers! This light-hearted film tells the story of the Fokken sisters, two women who have been prostitutes in Amsterdam for more than 50 years. These grandmotherly figures talk openly about their experiences, how the red light district has changed over the years, what it’s like to compete with the younger women in the district, etc. These women are candid and engaging, and you can’t help but fall in love with their zest for life. Though their story does contain a fair amount of tragedy, they are resilient and strong women with a unique and touching story to share.
Everything or Nothing: This look back at 50 years of Bond explores the history of this wildly successful film franchise, from their genesis in the mind (and sexual fantasies) of author Ian Fleming to the tumultuous legal battles surrounding the various films and why it took almost 40 years for Casino Royale, the very first bond adventure, to get a true big screen adaptation. There is nothing earth-shattering or particularly profound in this film, but it’s a treat for Bond fans who want to know a little bit more about how the whole Bond mythology came to be.
So there you have it – an intimate look at my “Recently Watched” history on Netflix! Be sure to leave movie recommendations in the comments sections below!
Tags: (A)sexual, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, Adult Entertainment, After Porn Ends, American Scary, And Everything is Going Fine, Anti-porn, Aspberger's Syndrome, Charlie Chaplin, Claymation, Daniel Craig, documentaries, documentary, drag balls, drag performances, drag queens, Elvira, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, Everything or Nothing, George Lazenby, Ghoulardi, Holocaust, I Think We're Alone Now, Ian Fleming, Imaginary Witness, James Bond, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jason and the Argonauts, Lance Tracy, Mansome, Meet The Fokkens, mental illness, Monopoly, Morgan Spurloch, Mutantes, Netflix, Paris is Burning, Pierce Brosnan, Ray Harryhausen, Roger Moore, Roland, Saturday Night Dead, Sci Fi Boys, Sean Connery, Son of Ghoul, Spaulding Gray, suicide, That Guy...Who Was In That Thing, The Dictator, The Ghoul, Tiffany, Timothy Dalton, Trekkie 2, Trekkie Juror, Trekkies, Under the Boardwalk, Venus Xtravaganza, Whore's Glory, World Monopoly Championship, Zacherly