Monday, January 23, 2012

Netflix, giving context to my childhood

As a kid I read a lot of MAD magazine. I believe that the first issue I ever bought had a parody of Superman III, which Wikipedia tells me would date it to December 1983, when I was 9. Following the same list forward and remembering the issues as well as I can, I probably retained the subscription for about ten years and dropped it when I went to college. I still have a box with some of those back issues, although they're not exactly in mint condition and hence worthless.

Thinking back on the experience, I find myself realizing for the first time that a nine year old is not the intended target audience. It had heavy political content which, like The Daily Show, educated while entertaining me, and probably shaped a lot of my political views. (There was quite a lot of mockery of the religious right, which is no friend to satire.) Also, the movie satires were often based on R-rated material, and the artists didn't shy away from drawing semi-nude characters. From the back, or using creative scenery covering, but as a teenager you take what you can get, ha ha.

So MAD sits in an odd place for me, because I remember it as kid's entertainment but it apparently was not. And I enjoyed a plenty of satires of TV and movies that I couldn't or wouldn't see, because of the rating or because the subject matter was a kind of adult that wasn't interesting to me. I never cared to watch watch Dukes of Hazzard or The A*Team, but I did read the fake versions. I remember loving their parody of "The Shining," and yet not seeing the movie until years later.

Netflix is providing an interesting service these days which has really altered my entertainment habits. Ten years ago you rented a movie from Blockbuster, and you paid for each movie you rented, so if you wanted to watch something then it had better be worth at least $4 to watch that particular movie, or you wouldn't bother. Five years ago, Netflix was mostly replacing Blockbuster, but you still had a limited number of discs available at any given time, so you had to carefully choose what you might really want to watch.

That's all changed now. Netflix's live streaming capability covers a good half of their total content, and therefore renting a movie is a lot more like highly interactive television. Pay the monthly fee, and watch whatever you want. With TV, you might be fine leaving a crummy show on as background noise that you only partly pay attention to. Likewise with Netflix, you can watch half a movie and then quit if you don't like it. Run a movie in a computer window and only pay partial attention to it while you do something else in a different window -- that's my preferred viewing method. Also, here in Austin there is very good high speed satellite wifi coverage to support my Android, and the Netflix app works pretty well. If I run out of podcasts and don't feel like listening to books, I can always turn on a TV series, stream the sound through my car speakers, and turn the screen face down to avoid the temptation of peeking when I drive.

As a result, I've got a lot of TV series and movies to catch up on that may not have been quite good enough to rent, but are still interesting for historical purposes. Which really helps for me to understand what those MAD satires were all about.

For example, I recently finished a movie called Jumpin' Jack Flash. Has anybody even heard of this one? It's a 1986 comedy/thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as a hapless computer genius (in 1986 terms, that means she knows how to replace broken parts and use this arcane program that resembles a chat room). She starts getting mysterious messages from a British spy who is trapped in Soviet Union somewhere -- the Soviet Union being a convenient omnipresent villain in Reagan's America.

What's weird is that this movie has not left a significant mark on the cultural world in any sense, but I remember the satirical version pretty well. It was called "Jumbled Joke Flash."

The main running joke throughout the comic was about the fact that Whoopi Goldberg swears all the time. Nearly every single panel contained some variation of ASCII swear symbols, e.g., "@!#$". I even remember asking my mom how all these symbols should be read for maximum humorous effect, and she says "Why don't you just insert 'gawl dang' everywhere?"

Now I think it's kind of odd, though. Having watched the movie, there is quite a bit of casual swearing, although not much more than most people I know would do when in a stressful situation. Why draw so much attention to this? Was it very novel to have lots of swearing in an R-Rated movie? And doesn't the idea that swearing is silly and embarrassing enough to hang such an obvious lampshade on, support the notion that MAD really is targeted at young kids after all? I dunno, maybe I really was the intended audience.

Anyway, the movie was pretty unremarkable on the whole, and I see that Ebert hated it even though he thought Whoopi Goldberg made a valiant effort to save it through charisma. What surprised me the most was the complete lack of any particular twist that would make the sequence of events a surprise. Sure, there's a double agent who tries to kill her after appearing trustworthy, but that barely counts as a twist at all. I was wondering if "Jack" the mysterious chat room agent, would turn out to be entirely fictional, or right in her office the whole time. Except, nope, at the end of the movie he shows up, and he is indeed a British agent, and they appear to have a potential romance there, and that's the happy ending.

So, yeah. There's a movie I wouldn't have seen without free streaming. On the flip side, Lynnea and I have gotten heavily into Arrested Development, which is a delight.

I guess all I'm trying to say here is that new technologies keep on subtly changing our habits to the point where the old ways of doing things start seeming quaint very quickly now.

It's been a few years since I broke out that box of magazines. I should go search it for more movie recommendations.