Monday, July 20, 2009

The Great Netflix-"Crash" Mystery

Somebody noticed that Paul Haggis's Crash has been Netflix's "No. 1 rented movie" for more than three and a half years, since it was released on DVD in September 2005. Needless to say, this is not the kind of factoid that speaks for itself and must be dealt with until a satisfactory explanation if forthcoming. God knows that Haggis, who write and directed the Academy-Award-winning message movie, has no earthly idea why anyone would want to rent the thing: "I have no idea why anyone went to the movie in the first place," he told the Chicago Tribune, "let alone rent it. It was a little independent film, and when people started to see it, I was amazed." (Haggis, to his credit, is also bewildered that the fruit of his loins won the Oscar. "I love the Oscars; I just think they are the best thing in the world, but if you asked me if it was the best film of the year, I'd say, 'Of course not.'" He adds, "I happened to like my second film [In the Valley of Elah] better than Crash, but no one went to see it." Incidentally, Elah was technically his third movie as a director, the first having been 1993's Red Hot, but apparently even he didn't see that one.) If it makes him feel better, Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey confirms that, based on his numbers, "More people have now seen Crash on Netflix than in the theater." He added that, because the movie is on so many people's queues, it's always out and people have to wait a long time to get to rent it, which in turn "adds to the demand for people wanting to see it."

A couple of points might be added to the discussion. First, to make any broad assumptions about how many people have "seen" Crash based on how many people have rented Crash might be kind of a broad leap. Lots of people who had been barely cognizant of the movie's existence prior to the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony probably automatically stuck it in their queues as soon as it won the Oscar. And a lot of other people probably did the same thing at some point, not because they could barely contain their excitement at the prospect of having Thandie Newton and Don Cheadle demonstrate to them the folly of racism, but because they picked up some vague signs in the atmosphere that this was a worthy movie that they should see. It may be that one of the major advances in the culture for which Netflix can take a bow is that, rather than actually going to see such films, people can now stick them on their rental queues, and then, when the discs arrive, procrastinate for weeks and even months before returning them unseen. (Let's face it, that has to be what a lot of people are doing. Either that or they're holding onto the disc for extended periods of time so they can watch it again and again, carefully studying it so they can savor all the subtle nuances they missed on the fourth or fifth viewing. The thing is, if there's anything in Crash that wasn't crystal clear to you the first time you saw it, your senses are in such desperate needs of heightening that your only hope may be to get bitten by a radioactive spider.) Then there's all the people who thought they were renting that movie where James Spader can only get it up with the aid of a car accident.

Whatever the case, the idea, at least, that more people are experiencing his best-known feature film on their TV screens is one that Haggis, cutting way against the grain, claims to find pleasing. "It's a small movie," he says. "And I like to see small movies on a small screen. I'm a TV guy, so I'm much more comfortable watching something on a small screen, particularly movies I've made. Other people's movies, I want to see on a big screen." Which reminds us that Haggis's best work was actually the short-lived 1996 TV series EZ Streets starring Ken Olin, Jason Gedrick, Debrah Farentino, and Joey Pants. And the pilot is available on DVD! The next time you rent Crash and don't watch it, why not, as a treat, rent EZ Streets too, and watch it. Live a little.

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