Slate readers, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news: You don’t care about Africa as much as you think you do. Last week, I asked you to reveal what Netflix rental has languished on your coffee table the longest without getting watched. More than 1,000 of you sent in e-mails confessing to having sat for days, weeks, months, and even years on everything from All About Eve to Z, the Oscar-winning French drama starring Yves Montand. Renee from North Carolina has conceived and carried a child to term in the time since Fracture, the Anthony Hopkins thriller, arrived in its red envelope. (“I’m sure it’s very good, I really want to watch it,” she writes.) But the movie you had the most trouble actually watching is Hotel Rwanda. Grant from New Jersey captured the predicament best: “What could be worse than the agony of having Hotel Rwanda stare at me from on top of the DVD player everyday for two months? Oh … right.”
Hotel Rwanda is currently the 10th most popular Netflix rental among the service’s 8.4 million subscribers. Which simply means that a lot of people have been mailed a copy—to judge by your e-mails, only a fraction of them ever get around to watching it. Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told me the company doesn’t keep track of which movies its subscribers hold onto the longest but said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hotel Rwanda was the one. He confessed he’s been sitting on a copy since September 2006.
Hotel Rwanda is that rare movie about a devastating subject that nevertheless feels like something you really do need to see. The same goes for Schindler’s List, which finished a close second among Slate readers. Both appeal to the lofty sense of ourselves that comes to the fore when we’re managing our queues. Neither feels especially appealing after a long day at the office. Yet it’s not just “based on a true story” movies about mass murder that caused trouble. You have found ways to not watch movies from just about every corner of the Netflix universe. In February 2006, Amanda from Ohio invited into her home a film called Roll Bounce—“featuring Lil Bow Wow on roller skates in a ‘70s period piece”—where it stayed until she returned it unwatched that December. Ginny from Illinois had heard wonderful things about Pilates—Beginning Mat Workout but never had the willpower to pop it in. “I could have bought that video twice for how long I kept it,” she says. Nick from Virginia was held hostage by Iceman (1984): “I was on a Paleolithic kick after seeing Quest for Fire, but it took 3 months to finally watch it.”
So, how to prevent a seemingly harmless, worthy movie from clogging your queue? Herewith, a field guide to the movies that tripped up Slate readers:
The Classic: I actually expected to see more On the Waterfront and Citizen Kane in your e-mails, though the movies on the AFI 100 were certainly well-represented, none more so than Lawrence of Arabia. Allan from New Zealand notes that his copy—mailed to him from the kiwi version of Netflix, Fatso—has been lying around for so long that a spider has “nested” on the disc. Chin up, Allan: I’m sure the next time you have 227 minutes of free time, you’ll zip right through it.
The Art-House Classic: Like the classic in that it feels like eating your cinematic vegetables, only more daunting because these are existential vegetables. Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman alone must save Netflix millions in postage each year. Two subgroups here: Half of you get hung up on the gateway stuff—your Seventh Seal, your Seven Samurai. The other half of you loved Rashomon and wondered if that meant you’d love Yojimbo. You’re still wondering.
The Important Documentary: As Slate’s Green Lantern has explained, renting a movie from Netflix is greener than driving to the video store to pick one up. Few Netflix films have a smaller carbon footprint than An Inconvenient Truth, copies of which are apparently biodegrading in their envelopes across the land. A wide range of documentaries were cited by readers, but most, like Inconvenient Truth, were of the apocalyptically depressing variety. Yep, turns out you don’t want to watch Ghosts of Rwanda, either.
The Recent Oscar Contender: At first I thought it was merely that there were two bleak, violent tales from the American West vying for Oscars in 2008. But it wasn’t just No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood that kept popping up in your e-mails. Into the Wild, Last King of Scotland, Crash, and other recent Oscar bait showed up over and over, too. Each possesses that special, upper-middlebrow sensibility that thrills the academy, tantalizes the queue updater, and stymies the would-be viewer. A special acknowledgement is due to nominees in the Best Foreign Language category: Pan’s Labyrinth and The Lives of Others were among the most common movies cited by Slate readers. You guys love it when the human spirit triumphs over adversity. You’d just prefer it happen in English.
Subtitles, great length, and difficult and/or depressing material can all grind a Netflix subscription to a halt. Movies that combine these elements are especially deadly. After Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List, the movie most commonly cited by Slate readers was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It insinuates itself into your queue with its good notices, Oscar buzz, and intriguingly artsy pedigree. It then defies your efforts to watch it with its depressing subject matter (man in his prime cut down by freak medical condition), subtitles (he communicates by blinking—in French!), and (the more you think about it) irritatingly artsy pedigree.
Violence is a particularly potent viewer-repellent. A good many of you reported renting The Passion of the Christ to see what all the fuss was about and then never working up the nerve for all that flagellation. (Or is there just something about Jesus movies? A bunch of you couldn’t get through Last Temptation of Christ, either.) Several readers couldn’t even make it through Un Chien Andalou, a film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel that, at 16 minutes in duration, is the shortest movie to make the poll. It wasn’t that you couldn’t spare the quarter-hour; you couldn’t handle the graphic material (a woman’s eye is slit open). C’mon, it’s surreal!
The high frequency of the violence excuse among your responses pointed up another obstacle to efficient viewing: the old ball and chain. When, as is often the case, a Netflix subscription is shared by the family, things can get especially complicated. Jeff from Virginia is 38 and has never seen The Exorcist. But his wife won’t watch it with him, and he’s decided that the kids aren’t quite old enough to appreciate Linda Blair’s spinning-head trick. Things aren’t necessarily any easier for folks still on the market. Several of you wrote in with stories of Netflix returns delayed by the vicissitudes of the dating game. “My ex was a huge hip-hop fan, so we watched Beef. He loved it, so I ordered Beef II,” writes Sara from Nebraska. “A few weeks later we split, and moved out to go our separate ways. Beef II was packed up in a box of junk, and sat in my storage for about 5 months … and I hate hip-hop.”
So, how can you avoid developing a long-standing beef with a Netflix rental? You could simply eschew renting anything long, foreign, or potentially depressing, but the prospect of dumbing down your queue is itself depressing. Better to stay ambitious, but also be a little strategic. One thing I noticed is that readers on the more expensive plans—the folks who pay to have three or four movies out at a time—tended to be the ones holding on to discs for months and years. Those third and fourth slots are an invitation to rent something you don’t actually plan on watching anytime soon. Consider saving your self some money and guilt and downgrading to a plan with only one or two movies at a time.
One final thought: Mailing back a DVD unwatched doesn’t mean you’ll never get another shot at it. And Netflix is the one paying the postage. Why not give yourself a week to see Hotel Rwanda. If you don’t get to it, maybe it’s because you’re a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy. But maybe it’s just because you’re not quite in the mood for it right now. Perhaps in a few months the disc will again reach the top of your queue and you’ll tear it out of the envelope and throw it into the Toshiba the day it arrives in the mail. In the meantime, you can get started on a good Paleolithic kick.