A fond farewell to the ritual of the red envelope
Yes, I’m one of those people who had a Netflix DVD subscription right to the very end: 29 September 2023. I’m that kind of guy, and therefore I frequently get accused of being a “Luddite.” This annoys me. As it happens, I’m a historian of nineteenth-century England, so I know who the real Luddites were. They were workers who destroyed machines because they believed, not irrationally, that they would undercut their jobs and incomes.
I have destroyed a fair number of machines in my time, but never on purpose. More to the point, I am not against the introduction of new technologies. I am more a late or selective adopter. These are temperamental, prudential, and aesthetic judgements. You can’t argue with me about it because I am not defending any principle.
New technologies are a trade-off: There are losses as well as gains. I was also one of the last people still listening to audiobooks on cassette. There was a late, golden age when I could pick them up for virtually nothing at library sales. I always found listening to books on compact disc a backwards step. CD players were either large and cumbersome or they required headphones. I liked taking my portable cassette player from room to room as I did chores and letting it play out into the air so I could still hear if a child wanted me. Also, you could not stop a CD anywhere and pick it up again later where you had left off. Instead, you were forced to start the whole track over again.
Now I play audiobooks on my iPhone. I can easily carry it from room to room, and I can play it out into the air, though these days I am mostly doing so in case the dog needs me. This is definitely an improvement over any technology I have ever used for audiobooks, but it too has losses. My iPhone has a bad habit of starting my book by accident without my knowing it, and so I can lose my place with it as well.
Other articles about the demise of Netflix DVD have pointed out the ways that it was superior to the streaming service. For one, it had a much larger and more diverse collection. Also, DVDs include bonus features. The last handful of discs Netflix sent me included The Roaring Twenties, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (1939). I was thrilled to discover that the bonus material included Martin Scorsese discussing the film’s significance.
In truth, I never really thought about these advantages, and I certainly can’t claim they were the reasons I stayed with service. Most people who expressed incredulity that I still had the DVD subscription would point out the deluge of content that one can access at any time with the streaming service.
I experienced such scarcity, however, not as a bug but a feature. I do not find myself longing to spend more time being entertained by moving pictures. I have plenty of other things I want to do with my time. I liked the ritual of the red envelope coming in the mail, liked knowing that the moment had come around again for me to schedule a movie night. It became a social occasion. My wife Jane, who does stream content, would often decide that she wanted to watch with me. Occasionally even one or more of the kids would join in. It was not an endless stream; it was a scheduled event.
My brother David first gave me a year’s subscription to Netflix DVD for my birthday in September 2011. Over the years I received 805 films. That seems like plenty. I’m even a little embarrassed that I plowed through that many movies in less than a dozen years. I shudder to think how many I would have watched if I had been using the streaming service.
Netflix tells me that my most active month was June 2020. That makes sense. June is out-of-term time. And in 2020 we were hunkering down for the pandemic. The nine films I saw that month ranged from Terrance Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019) to a documentary about Ulysses S. Grant to The Lady in the Van (2015), a quirky British film starring Maggie Smith.
Across the years, I devoured stacks of films from the 1930s and 40s, especially musicals. I learned a trick for discovering new ones: I would pick a character actor that I liked from a film of that era. Who played the waiter in Casablanca? (S. Z. Sakall.) I would then search their name and see what Netflix had on offer.
Admittedly, many of these movies were viewed even at the time as throwaway efforts, so they are not for everyone. (Jane would bail about a third of the time.) I think they land differently for me because I’m a historian. I enjoy them on another level than the all-too-thin plot. They are a kind of historical primary source. So, there used to be a member of the hotel staff who operated the elevator for you. So, apparently, you could order things in a department store and they would have someone bring them around to your house. Can you still go into a barber shop and ask them to give you a shave?
As it happens, the last disc Netflix sent me was High Hat (1937). It is a musical starring actors I’ve never heard of. In it there is a broadcast of a radio show with a live audience. The show’s sponsor, the owner of a soap company, is there watching. He is in a tuxedo with a white bow tie. He is better dressed to see his soap plugged than most men today are at their wedding. The jazz band is also wearing tuxedos—and top hats. The highlight is a special singer. As her identity is a secret, the announcer refers to her as “Madame X”. That gave me a jolt because I had only ever heard the term as a persona Madonna used in 2019.
My “DVD History” tells me that the first film I received was Riding High (1950). I did not remember it, and so had to look it up. It stars Bing Crosby and was directed by Frank Capra. Just my kind of thing! Now I want to see it again. Only I’m not sure how. It is not offered on the streaming service.