Binge is the New Black: Netflix and Contemporary Cinematic Practices
In his seminal 1971 essay “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field,” Jean-Louis Comolli calls for a conceptualization of the cinema that takes into account the historical point in which it is constructed. This is necessary, Comolli argues, because the moment and place where a theory of cinema is produced is not without significance (237). Film is a medium whose modes of production, distribution, and exhibition are constantly changing, so analyses of cinema are informed by the period of their inception and therefore cannot be conclusive or indefinitely relevant. Comolli’s prompt for a history and understanding of cinema situated in the present (rather than one that is teleological) is all the more pertinent now, 43 years later, when fundamental alterations to the filmic medium resulting from technological advancements and digitally- driven consumers urges a contemporary re-conceptualizing of cinema.
The on-demand video streaming website Netflix serves as an ideal platform through which revisions to older notions of cinema and spectatorship can be made, as the service is a prominent example of the burgeoning form of digital media creation, distribution, and reception. Significant differences in the way television and films are produced and viewed—namely, “binge-watching”—have emerged in recent years from the increasing dominance of digital distribution services like Netflix, yet eminent film theories like Comolli’s and Jean-Louis Baudry’s in “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus” cannot sufficiently address these changes.
This is not to say that the work of these theorists is obsolete, but rather, that the study of modern cinematic expression would benefit from a modern vantage point. What specifically needs to be updated to better fit the current climate of media consumption is apparatus theory as posited by Comolli and Baudry. Before amendments can be suggested though, it is first necessary to elucidate apparatus theory and why it is the locus of a contemporary reexamining of cinematic conditions.
“Apparatus” in this context refers to the equipment used throughout the process of filmmaking and exhibiting, but leaves ambiguous which machinery in particular. Comolli states that theorists like Baudry have tended to cite the camera alone as “the apparatus,” yet he qualifies this point with an excerpt from “Cinema and Ideology” by Jean-Patrick Lebel: “the word camera here (and in everything that follows) does not just designate the normally black object which goes under the name of ‘camera;’ it takes in the whole of the technical operation, from filming to projection, which brings about the mechanical reproduction of reality in the form of images” (216). Indeed, to Baudry, ideologies and implications for the viewer—the focus of his apparatus theory—can be found within “the camera, site of the inscription [of signification]” (40) and the viewing process as a whole, including the screen, projector, and darkened theatre (45).
While films are still made and exhibited with the apparatus as Baudry defines it, i.e. filmed with cameras and shown in movie theatres, another apparatus has entered the equation which must be accounted for: the personal computer. Similarly to the synecdoche of cameras representing the entirety of the mechanical film process in Baudry’s apparatus theory, laptops (or desktop computers) can be considered the physical stand-ins for the whole of digital distribution and its associated viewing conditions. In fact, in this instance, hardware (the visible) arguably plays a subordinate role to software (the invisible), as Netflix demonstrates.
Founded in 1997 initially as an online DVD-by-mail service, Netflix incorporated the option for users to instantly stream content in 2007, leading to the site’s now 40 million-plus global subscribers (“Company Overview”). This figure alone suggests the real impact that Netflix and other streaming sites like it (YouTube, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime) have had on the way media is both produced and consumed. These effects on production and spectatorship are most salient in their relation to television. In his article “Formatted to Fit Your Screen,” Jonathan Sterne recounts the familiar situation when peers declare to him that they have forgone the pursuit of watching television to the point of not even owning one, only to then list off the shows that they do in fact keep up with on other platforms, which are usually computers. Sterne notes a key shift in our semantic understanding of what it means to “watch TV”: For most of the medium’s history, watching television meant watching a television, a sensibility still well-established in practical reason and everyday conversation. But of course, this is no longer the case. We now live in an in-between moment, when it is possible for educated and thoughtful people to spend many hours of their lives watching television shows and yet not think of themselves as watching television. Rather, they are watching Netflix, a phrasing that minimizes the importance of distinguishing between the mediums of television, Internet, and film, and the actions historically associated with their consumption. It is not necessary for a viewer to go to a movie theatre, physically rent a DVD (as outmoded as this is becoming), or even turn on a television. Instead, digital distribution platforms come to the forefront as their own unique medium whose particular characteristics are apparent on interrelated economic, aesthetic, and spectatorial levels, which will each be addressed in turn.
One of the most significant and distinctly contemporary features of digital distribution is its production mode and how this functions financially. As Chuck Tryon explains in his book Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence, “because of the availability of unlimited bandwidth and increasing access to broadband internet, [digital distribution] has been widely promoted as an alternative to a theatrical system that often excludes independent and do-it-yourself (DIY) filmmakers” (94). Netflix has indeed fulfilled this role as an alternative to traditional methods of production, evidenced in two key ways. In addition to offering network shows formerly and currently on air, like Breaking Bad, Glee, and How I Met Your Mother, Netflix has original content available to stream, which has proven highly successful.
Already a thriving service with their model of virtually unlimited TV shows and movies for a $7.99-monthly subscription fee, Netflix has further prospered with the critical and commercial acclaim of original series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. At a cost of about $4 million per episode (Wallenstein), Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black boasts a budget that rivals that of even major broadcast network programs; notable as the show, produced by the independent company Tilted Productions in association with Lions Gate Entertainment (also independent), likely would not have achieved this same financial backing or attention without Netflix’s support. It is also of note to mention that Orange’s enormous budget signals a victory for female-centred and female-created content.
Even more indicative of the way Netflix is dismantling established production practices, though, is the case study of Arrested Development. Cancelled by Fox after three seasons in 2006 due to its low viewership on the network, despite critical recognition and accolades that now include six Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe Award, cult followers of the dysfunctional-family sitcom were left unsatisfied, wanting more of the series but not given it. That is, until, Netflix announced in 2011 that it would be teaming up with Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz to produce a one- season revival of the show. Finally available in 2013, eight years after Fox’s cancellation and with a significant audience already established, season four of AD came ideally primed for Netflix’s all-at-once release and binge-watch model.
Leading up to the show’s highly anticipated return, viewers could (and would) reacquaint themselves with AD’s characters and “prepare” for the fourth season by marathoning episodes of the previous three seasons already available to stream on Netflix. When the final season came out, this spree-style viewing intensified to the gluttonous form of media consumption referred to as binge watching. Early data collected by Procera Networks, a broadband technology firm, revealed that within the first 48 hours of Arrested Development’s fourth season launch, 10 percent of viewers had watched all 15 episodes (Cullen). Averaging at 28-37 minutes per episode, this translates to a minimum duration of 420 minutes, or seven hours, spent watching the entire season. Needless to say, this type of viewer engagement is not that as conceived by Comolli’s and Baudry’s theories; binge watching was simply not facilitated at their time of writing as it is today.
With an increasing (albeit not complete—yet) shift away from the spectator who sits in a darkened theatre, watching a film, toward the spectator who sits in his bed, binge watching a series, come subject-effects that are at odds with apparatus theory. As previously suggested, today’s common practice of watching television and movies on laptops—the apparatus in a modern configuration—calls into question Baudry’s claim that “the spectator identifies less with what is represented, the spectacle itself, than with what stages the spectacle” (45). If what stages the spectacle (after the camera has captured visual and aural content) are the screen and projector, and the laptop is their contemporary counterpart, do viewers then identify with their laptops? No—what has the biggest impact on the spectator, where the signification of the viewing process lies, is not in the content (the spectacle) or the laptop physically, but in the stylistic form and resulting spectatorship spurred by digital on-demand streaming. In other words, the aesthetic tendency of serialization and corresponding binge-watching.
In his article “Binge Viewing: TV’s Lost Weekends,” John Jurgensen remarks that Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, once practiced the art of the cliffhanger to entice audiences back to shows like The X-Files each week, but now writes episodes that are, in Gilligan’s words, “hyper-serialized” for fans who consume Breaking Bad “in a giant inhalation.” Jurgensen further confirms what has been iterated here about the significant impact that this rapid “inhalation” has on the spectator and viewing process by turning to a psychiatrist for a cognitive understanding of binge-watching: ‘We get into something akin to a trance with great storytelling,’ says psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself. Viewers identify with characters on screen and subconsciously begin to mimic their emotions—be it sadness or triumph or anxiety—and each emotional state triggers different brain chemicals, which linger. ‘These tend to be protracted states,’ he says. The urge to sustain that inner experience leads you to press ‘play’ on the next episode, and the one after that—the equivalent of the book you can't put down. Longer, uninterrupted viewing sessions can lead to ‘a deeper virtual-reality experience of the narrative. It can seem more real, from a neurological point of view,’ Dr. Doidge says.
Indeed, these neurological corollaries emphasize the substantive implications for spectatorship that result from contemporary modes of digital media production and viewing practices, and thus why notions about the cinematic medium must be updated to fit these new conditions. Apparatus theory as posited by Comolli and Baudry can no longer sufficiently speak to the state of the cinema today, but applied in conjunction with the aforementioned critical revisions serves as a fecund point for new scholarly discourse.
Works Cited Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” Trans. Alan Williams. Film Quarterly 28.2 (1974): 39-47. Print. Comolli, Jean-Louis. “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field.” Cahiers du Cinema: 1969-1972: The Politics of Representation. Ed. Nick Browne. London: Routledge, 1990. 213-247. Print. Cullen, Cam. “Arrested Development Netflix Launch: Frozen Bananas and Ostriches for All.” Procera Networks. Procera Networks, 28 May 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. Jurgensen, John. “Binge Viewing: TV’s Lost Weekends.” The Wall Street Journal. 13. Jul. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. Sterne, Jonathan. “Formatted to Fit Your Screen.” Flow 15.5 (2012): n. pag. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. “Company Overview.” Netflix. n.p. n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. Tryon, Chuck. Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009. Print. Wallenstein, Andrew. “Netflix Series Spending Revealed.” Variety. Penske Media Corporation, 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.