Netflix Doesn’t Care About Movies

We were entertaining at Deep Focus World Headquarters the other night. We had a friend over — not just a fan of oddball cinema (you should have seen her face light up when she spotted my Blu-ray copy of Lifeforce) but also a certified lover of accordion music. We didn’t have time to go full Holy Motors, but we did decide it would be fun to screen just the amazing Entracte, in which Denis Levant leads a band of accordionists through a church. Since I’m lazy, I dialed the movie up on Netflix instead of leaving the couch to hit the Blu-ray library. And as I was scanning forward through the movie, saying something like, “I don’t know why I even buy Blu-ray Discs anymore,” I noticed something very odd.

There’s a scene in Holy Motors in which Levant’s character first dresses Eva Mendes in a burka, then poses across her lap in an odd pieta made vulgar by the central presence of Merde’s enormous hooked erection jabbing away from his crotch. (Unless Levant is both exceedingly harry and exceptionally well-endowed, said penis is clearly a prosthetic. But that’s neither here nor there.) And as that image zipped past, I noticed a little something missing. “Hey,” I think I said. “What happened to his boner?”

I scanned backward, then let part of the scene play in real time, grabbing my remote to crank up the brightness on my LCD set. Sure enough, the offending member had been digitally fogged out of existence, only a blurry ellipse at Levant’s crotch offering a hint of its once-tumescent grandeur. The entire picture was unnaturally dark, too, with the shadows crushed into inky blacks that obscured all detail — maybe a gambit intended to reduce the visible evidence of censorship in the frame.

At that point, dear reader, I was on my feet and headed for the movie library, no doubt already in the midst of some barely coherent rant. (“How dare they,” etc.) A quick check of the Blu-ray revealed that, yes, the dick was still in the picture on home video. So what the heck happened to the Netflix version? I was confident I had stumbled across a terrible misdeed. I imagined how quickly Netflix would act, once alerted to the error, to restore the missing imagery and save its reputation. I anticipated howls from the cinephile community once word spread that Netflix, a standard-bearer for digital distribution, was streaming one of the most critically lauded films of 2012 in a clumsily bastardized version.

Before and After

Mouseover to see what you’re missing.

Well, as it turns out, I was hardly the first viewer to notice. Word got out back in February that the film had been sanitized in its video-on-demand incarnations. About a month later, Holy Motors showed up on Netflix for streaming, and film fans learned that it was censored there, too. It seems unlikely in this case that Netflix actually requested that a foggy fig leaf appear in the film. But why hasn’t it taken the time, over the past four months since the issue was discovered, to correct the issue?

This isn’t the only instance of Netflix malfeasance when it comes to showing movies. The Tumblr blog titled “What Netflix Does” is dedicated to collecting frame grabs from different geographic regions where Netflix is showing widescreen films in the cropped-to-fit-your-TV versions loathed by cinephiles. After a rigorous public shaming, Netflix has begun to replace those titles with properly framed versions, and good for them. But Holy Motors? Nah. Still censored. (And starting a Tumblr dedicated to Levant’s prosthetic erection seems like overkill.)

Whether a movie is released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video, the Criterion Collection, Shout Factory, or Masters of Cinema, someone, somewhere, is tasked with making sure that the movie looks as good as it possibly can, and that the version you see in your living room accurately reflects the authorial intent of the film’s director and/or cinematographer. In almost every case, they do a pretty good job. I appreciate it. The studios and major DVD labels act as advocates for the films they release, quality-checking aspect ratios, sound mixes, subtitles and the like. For whatever reason (primarily, I suspect, the sheer size of its catalog), you can’t count on Netflix to show a film in its correct version. Who knows how far you might get into a movie before you start to suspect that something’s wrong with it — that you really are only seeing, as John Sayles once put it, the good, the bad, and the ugly guy’s nose. What if I had been watching Holy Motors on Netflix for my first viewing? How much time would I have wasted? Would I necessarily have figured out anything was missing at all?

Netflix is a terrific value, and on a good day its film library feels like an early realization of the oft-mooted “celestial jukebox.” On a bad day, it looks more like a junk shop. Until that changes, Blu-ray Discs — carefully curated, thoughtful releases from companies that know their reputations are only as good as their presentations — will continue to have their place for serious moviewatchers, and I don’t look forward to the day they vanish from store shelves.

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