A Farewell to Netflix

I had a great run as a Netflix subscriber, six or seven years of film exploration, one red envelope at a time. But after my Significant Other got the full FIOS package with HBO and Showtime plus Amazon Prime plus Netflix Streaming, my cable choices became so massive that I found myself taking longer and longer to watch a DVD from Netflix. The days when I could turn around two movies a week (as when I swept through Mad Men) dwindled down. And my queue was growing stale. Some genres, like Holocaust documentaries and the collected works of John Cassavetes, had been lingering there for years as French fare of the Belle de Jour type and 1950s film noir rocketed to the top. As a result, I pulled the plug

I’ll always think fondly of Netflix because it let me broaden my film knowledge. The ease of searching and suggestions for related films let me go deep in emerging interests, like French new wave, which I found I really enjoyed. Films like Jules and Jim, Breathless and Rififi were very appealing and approachable, nothing tedious or discordant. Most “art house” movies, I realized, just had subtitles. .

Looking back, several movies stand out. I’m sure I saw most on Netflix, although some might have come from the impressive international section of the Westport, Connecticut, Public Library. They’re all foreign movies. That’s not by design, simply they were the movies that took me from my daily world to places and matters far from my experience. They said something about the human condition, that’s all. Titles that stand out, with some commentary.

Alexandra, Russian. Set in Chechnya on a Russian army base, the movie follows the grandmother of the Russian commander, who comes for a visit. Her interest in and appreciation of weaponry hint at an intriguing life for her during World War II. Alexandra also shows the uneasy interactions of the Russian military with Chechen civilians. The tension builds but never goes in an easy, explosive direction. Honorable mention: Hipsters, a romantic musical comedy set in 1950s Moscow. Not quite girl-meets-tractor, but close enough.

Daughter of Keltoum, Arabic and French. A young adoptee returns from Switzerland to birth family’s home in Algeria, as she searches for her mother and family. Jolting encounters and revelations appear along the way, with sharp commentary on the social situation facing women in Algeria. Outstanding.

Mother, Korean. How far will a mother go to protect her son? This movie explores that question with plenty of twists and turns.

Owl and the Sparrow, Vietnamese. This was the last Netflix movie I saw, a romantic drama set in Ho Chi Minh City. Given the enormous role Vietnam played in U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s, very little entertainment from that country comes here. We have plenty of U.S. novels and films, but how do the Vietnamese view their society? This is an intensely human movie that shows the universal nature of yearnings for security and love, with nobody truly bad or good.

Strike, Polish. Actress Katharina Thalbach is a force of nature in this look at the factors leading to the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. It follows the main character’s life from the 1960s on, exposing the pitiless working conditions and uncaring union bosses of the Gdask shipyards. The comic and dramatic moments of the beginning are beautifully balanced.

Ascenseur Pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), French. Director Louis Malle’s debut is a crime caper with music by Miles Davis. French crime movies, I discovered, are insanely entertaining and stylish. Breathless and Rififi are just as great.

Knife in the Water, Polish. Before Chinatown, before Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski was a gifted Polish filmmaker. Knife in the Water was his first full-length feature and it shows how highly effective films could be made in the constrained circumstances of communism. Constantly surprising, Knife in the Water gave me a feel for life behind the Iron Curtain, on a boating trip.

Z, French. You’d think a French-Algerian movie based on Greek political intrigue would be a heavy slog, but it’s not. Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller has a sense of humor and a driving plot, and it surprised me.

Gloomy Sunday, Hungarian. This is one of the best of the genre of Holocaust revenge movies. Another excellent Holocaust movie, which I saw theatrically, is Black Book, a Dutch film.

I can think of others that impressed me, like one about a young woman drawn into a kidnapping ring (Sequestro Express, maybe?), but I can’t recall the names. These are the highlights from my Netflix years. They all resonate in me and influence what I enjoy watching, when I can find the time. .

My Life as a Sydney Schanberg Fanboy

The passing on Saturday of Sydney Schanberg, the NY Times reporter and columnist best known for his coverage of Cambodia, stirred me deeply. He had been one of the writers I most avidly followed in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of him, probably in college in the years after the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia. I’m sure I read Schanberg’s New York Times Magazine story  “The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia,” the basis for the movie “The Killing Fields.” I remember my excitement to see the movie version when it appeared in 1984.

I still have some of the “New York” columns that Schanberg wrote for the Times. A sample, from December 4, 1982, is titled “Wall St.’s Turn to Help,” The lead got right to the point of the column:

That the city’s fiscal bind is urgent seems to be seeping in. Once sign of this collective acknowledgement is that Mayor Koch is proposing to revive the recently phased-out stock transfer tax and, more revealing, that this time the financial community is not threatening, in knee-jerk outrage, to move en masse to New Jersey.

(Truth be told, I might have saved that op-ed page because of Russell Baker’s “Observer” column of the same day, on editorial variations of the “man bites” dog story.)

The Times dumped Schanberg as a columnist in 1985 when he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Westway Highway development project; he soon left the Times (slick personnel move there, Sulzberger family!) for New York Newsday, where he was an editor and columnist for a decade. I read him at Newsday,where I had been a summer intern in 1978 and 1979, and retained a great affection for the paper. Schanberg was a terrific addition to a paper that was on the go in those pre-Internet times  Schanberg went on to write the “Press Clips” column for the Village Voice–and he resigned from that position in protest of the policies of the Voice’s new owners. He never let a paycheck stand in the way of his principles. I followed him from place to place, and if there were reporter versions of baseball cards, I would have collected all of his.

These days, I don’t follow any Times columnist with the same enthusiasm. Roger Cohen holds my attention because he’s literate and somewhat unpredictable, and I glance at Ross Douthat,Nick Kristof and Charles Blow. David Brooks? I think of him mostly as a punching bag for more conservative writers. Among the Schanberg generation of reporters, I remain a big fan of 91-year-old Nat Hentoff, who writes fearlessly about civil liberties, the media and his Jewish upbringing in Boston. He had a 50-year run at the Village Voice, then got dumped. But he’s a man with a mission and he’s still out there going wherever his principles lead him..

My editorial tastes shifted to the Internet, and the stable of columnists that most resonates with me now is at PJ Media: Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Fernandez, Roger L. Simon, Ron Radosh, David “Spengler” Goldman. You probably don’t know them; Hanson and Fernandez could add some intellectual heft to the Times op-ed page, but I’m not expecting that to happen since their views would cause a riot among the survivors left (in every sense of “left”) in the Times’ newsroom.

The world moves on, technology guts the old media and something new and shiny and loud replaces it. Schanberg is now gone, but I hope his spirit and tenacity can infuse the tweets and snapchats of the new generation of journalists.

 

This American Life’s Shalom Auslander and Elie Wiesel: It’s All in the Timing

Writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2. On Monday, July 4, I heard writer Shalom Auslander using Wiesel in jokey Holocaust-related material in a podcast segment called “Paradise Lost” on This American Life. The episode had the theme of “Got You Pegged,” about snap judgments gone awry. This American Life summarizes Auslander’s segment like this:

Shalom Auslander goes on vacation with his family, and suspects the beloved, chatty old man in the room next door is an imposter—and sets out to prove it. This and other stories about the pitfalls of making snap judgments about others.

The timing seemed peculiar, to say the least. I realized this was a podcast and it might have been scheduled well before the airing, which was on July 1, according to the home page of This American Life. Especially on a holiday weekend, the archive would be a good place to find material.

Still. wry Holocaust observations two days after Wiesel died surprised me.

In the spirit of the podcast’s theme of avoiding snap judgments, I checked This American Life’s website and found that the episode originally aired on August 22, 2008. The confluence of material and demise was simply one of those crazy, unintended trapdoors that the universe occasionally sets in front of me.

What did the formerly Orthodox Auslander say, anyway, that snagged my astounded attention?

He relates a family trip to a Caribbean island for vacation. The elderly, chatty man in the next villa casually mentioned that his wife and parents were killed in the Holocaust, mostly at Auschwitz. The extended quote from the show gives the rich flavor of Auslander’s darkly Jewish ruminations. He said,

I should have been compassionate, I know. I should have taken pad and pen and committed his story to paper for future generations. Instead, I seethed. Twenty minutes of genocide stories later, I went into our villa, closed the door sharply behind me and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips.

I threw my hands into the air.

Auschwitz, I said.

Pardon? (said his wife).

Auschwitz.

What are you talking about, she asked . . .

He’s a survivor, hon, a Holocaust survivor.

I don’t have anything against Holocaust survivors. Some of my best friends are Holocaust survivors. OK, that’s not actually true, but I don’t have anything against them. But if I want to relax and forget about life for a while, maybe hit a bar and get a drink, I’m not going to call Elie Wiesel. “Hey, Elie, how’s it going? I had a tough day, want to come over and we’ll watch Schindler’s List? Bring beer!”

In typical circumstances, the Wiesel reference would have flown by me, a rebellious knock against Wiesel’s somber image. But coming 48 hours after his death, the passage left me queasy. At first I thought I had Auslander pegged as somebody willing to score literary points off a death, but my fact check showed he did nothing of the sort. Anyway, the rebroadcast had been on July 1–the day before Wiesel died. Reality had simply arranged itself to make a line in a long-ago recording reverberate like a crashing gong.

On the other hand, a link from Auslander’s website to a list of his This American Life essays has “Got You Pegged” at the very top. Perhaps Paradise Lost holds a special place in his heart or in listener popularity. I may even listen to his other presentations to hear what else Auslander has to say. I can tell by looking at his credits that our paths have crossed in some ways.