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Streaming Ourselves to Death

Streaming Ourselves to Death

Darrell Varga

Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, on the decline of serious public discourse in the era of mass media and celebrity culture, now reads as a quaint accounting of a simpler time within bourgeois intelligentsia.1 After all, there were then some limits on the expansion of American empire and the wholesale destruction of the North American industrial working class, though underway since the 1970s, had not yet culminated in globalized free trade. Amazon was not yet a book vendor, never mind a soul-crushing and worker-destroying retail behemoth. I am suggesting here that there is a link between the nature of public discourse and the increase in violence and chaos in the American imperium, though I qualify this concern by noting that violence and chaos has mostly been the norm of the “American Century.” Postman was riffing on the totalitarian warnings of George Orwell’s 1984 as situated against Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the libertine pleasures of the latter are a distracting gloss to the authoritarian tendencies lurking beneath the surface. These were useful books in my own 1980s public school education in Winnipeg’s working-class north end, but they posit totalitarian dangers either in the administrative state or in our pleasure-seeking selves, as if this is an individual choice between one or the other. More important, for the purposes of an essay in CineAction, is to understand the entanglement of both radical and repressive tendencies in and around our uses of mass media, not to mention in hallucinogenic pleasure-seeking, all of which exists within the machinery of violence that is the nation-state.

Back in the 1980s, the corporate brand known as Ronald Reagan was pushing its neoliberal opiate for the elite and selling crack to the poor in order to bankroll its proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.2 In those analog days I studied film on beat-up 16mm prints and VHS tape while Reagan occasionally took a break from war-mongering to declare the nutritional value of ketchup, deregulate industry, and make good use of his B-Hollywood gravitas to stir-up anti-union sentiment. I worked part-time in a photo lab—not the kind with attention to detail but one housed within a glass cube elevated above the retail aisles of a major grocery chain. If you were a Canadian who was overcharged for bread you will know which one.3 The purpose of this lab was to produce photo prints as quickly as possible, in one-hour for those who paid the premium as did one obnoxious customer, a local dentist, who demanded fast work on close-up shots of the ghastly conditions inside the mouths of his patients. If there was any overlap between this job and my film education, it was not so much the semiotics of the image but the work conditions depicted in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Feed the machine and keep up with the machine if you want to earn money enough to eat and have a few dollars remaining to spend at the neighbourhood video rental store. Exposed negative rolls had to be fed into a processing machine and once that was running you had to run over to operate the print machine and select from a handful of pre-set options and click print on each shot. Prints would shoot out from the back of the machine and had to be gathered together with the negatives and packaged for customer pick-up. These machines had to be kept fed or they would time-out, with minutes of production time lost waiting for the reset, and time lost meant lower productivity and fewer shifts on the next schedule. 

There was no identifiable product being made on Chaplin’s assembly line, and likewise during the Christmas rush—one photo after another of the Christmas tree, indistinguishable from the next. The amount of care taken in image handling was commensurate with the working conditions. In Modern Times, Chaplin is eaten by the machine, and it may well have been a film camera. I mostly remember the surveillance by security on employees and the stress in the lunchroom, all eyes glancing at the clock with palpable anxiety over penalties meted out for an extra minute of unauthorized break. Come to think of it, this was a good education on the making of images in our modern times. Chaplin takes a pee break, lights a smoke, and the boss appears on the giant screen to order him back to the line. It was while on Vaudeville tour and staying at Winnipeg’s Windsor Hotel in 1913, then called the Le Claire, that Chaplin wrote to his brother the promise of a career in the movies. I appreciate the need to get out of Winnipeg. In 2023, the long-neglected Windsor Hotel burned to the ground.

Chaplin 1913 winnipeg
Chaplin 1913 Winnipeg

To think that the moving image could convey meanings that transcend the corporatized ideological constraints of the everyday is to trudge through the ruins wondering what is even possible in the mainstream where streaming services rely on algorithms to determine pacing, plot points, and character trajectory? Remember the 1990s when Netflix was a niche mail-order video rental outfit? Now if you are a subscriber, Netflix has data tracking not only your viewing habits but when and how often you hit pause, whether you skip forward or go back to watch something again, what you stop to look at in previews, what thumbnail artwork attracts your attention, and every other imaginable metric of viewing behaviour. The product, after all, is not the cinematic experience, it is the collection of data. Remember the drug wars of the 1990s as surrogate war on race and class and the launch of Oxycontin and the opioid epidemic? Like the more recent wars of empire for which launch is as much an exercise in product branding as territorial expansion. From a seemingly endless list of Desert Storms (Iraq) to Enduring Freedoms (Afghanistan), the names appear as if torn from the pages of a Hollywood blockbuster and are marketed with flashy graphics and theme music provided by corporate media allies. The point, like all advertising, is to associate the product with the false promise of pleasure and prosperity ever after. What remains unstated is the fact that products can never provide what they promise except in a fleeting instance, but that they generate a desire for more of the same: new variations on salty-sweet junk food, ever-softer toilet paper, predictable narratives with familiar villains and heroes (with skin colour and demeanor varying to match the demonization of the contemporary moment), and forever wars. What villains are being delivered to our attention: commies, Asians, immigrants—variations on the same from over the entirety of cinema history. This is our addiction.

Netflix makes extensive use of data fed into its algorithms to determine programming, and what programs will be made prominent in the feed of individual viewers. This information is not accessible by filmmakers and, for Netflix-owned productions, programs can disappear without notice. This is especially a problem for activist filmmakers who are unable to screen their films in alternative venues. Likewise, the platform’s design encourages binge-viewing thus minimizing opportunities for reflection and further engagement.5 Netflix owns most of its content with filmmakers taking a fee up-front but generally do not share in future revenue. In other words, the artist-workers have little control over the means of production and are thereby limited in the degree that any given production can criticize the market system and its destructive tendencies. To the ire of striking actors and screenwriters, in the summer of 2023 Netflix advertised an executive position for a machine learning program manager with an advertised salary range of $300 – $900k USD. As reported in The Guardian, the position is intended to  “increase the leverage of our machine learning platform”, billed as “the foundation for all of this innovation,” and indicating that the company intends to use AI to “shape our catalog of movies and TV shows by learning characteristics that make content successful.”6 This is a familiar story of the inequity between worker and manager wages as well as corresponding levels of power, but the job postings are also illustrative of the high-level and internationally-based ways that content is shaped. Like the Hollywood studios of the classical cinema era, there is a house style at work, but no longer driven by the sensibility of individual producers but overwhelmingly by artificial intelligence. As in the heyday of Hollywood, there are jobs-a-plenty at Netflix, a quick glance at vacancy listings shows positions based in the US, Japan, South Korea, The Netherlands, Turkey, The UK, Brazil, Sweden, Mexico, The Philippines, India, Thailand, Italy, Germany, and Poland. The only Canadian positions advertised at the time of this writing are for a tax incentive analyst and a Toronto-based production manager, surely a requiem for the idea of a national cinema.7

Painkillers (2023)

Turns out, the data says that Canadians are fans of serial killers (Monster: The Jeffrey Dahlmer Story, The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, The Ted Bundy Tapes, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes to name just a few); cult leaders (How to Become a Cult Leader, Waco: American Apocalypse, Wild Wild Country); porn (Money Shot: The Pornhub Story, Hot Girls Wanted); drugs, addiction, and chemically-assisted transformation (Xanax: Take Your Pills, The Business of Drugs, Have a Good Trip, How to Change Your Mind); AI and robots (Unknown: Killer Robots, Coded Bias, The Great Hack); and stand-up comedy because people need to laugh in the face of all these worry-driven subjects, and because it is relatively cheap to produce. We cannot, however, expect to hear jokes that target empire and endless war, in the vein of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, instead the butt of the joke is invariably individualized. This is not by any means a comprehensive list of popular streaming entertainment; it is more like a snapshot printed at a one-hour photo outlet. It is reasonable to assume that these subjects reflect our social concerns and anxieties, though presented in a manner that mostly follow familiar plot lines. It is with all this in mind that I look at the current Netflix villain, the Sackler family and Purdue Pharmacy in the limited series Painkillers (2023). Without a shadow of a doubt there is villainy aplenty here. Purdue, owned by the Sacklers, developed and marketed Oxycontin in the 1990s and it soon became the by-prescription heroin for the masses.

Painkillers (2023)

The Sackler family laundered its reputation by making substantial donations to galleries and museums, though in recent years some major institutions such as The Guggenheim and The Louvre have removed the Sackler name from exhibition space. I am sure this pierced some fragile egos, but it is also emblematic of how the elite deals with inequity—change the label, as Purdue did with the marketing of Oxycontin in response to eventual regulator demands, but that the conditions for addiction continue. Painkillers makes an earnest effort to draw a parallel between Oxycontin and crack cocaine addiction, but the stories are mostly individualized rather than understood as symptomatic of the function of drug addiction under capitalism. Capitalism likes to tell us that our choices are personal, that advertising is simply a provision of information, that the market mitigates social problems, that we stand or fall based on our own freely made choices, and that drug use could not be a function of politics. By this logic, addiction could certainly not be fueled by the profit motive for opioids but that individuals make their free choices in the context of precarious employment, existential fears, and an absence of adequate medical and social supports for mental health conditions. Many of those precarious jobs in the service sector are non-unionized and are physically demanding (remember that capitalism moved the better blue-collar jobs to regions of the world with lower wages and fewer obligations toward workers). Rent and grocery costs continue to rise and swallowing a pill makes the brutality of work manageable, until it no longer does. That a pill is the easy answer is precisely what capitalism intends: it generates profit, gets workers back on the job, and as an individualized treatment it does not require more complex social services or structural changes. If the pain continues, increase the dose, but understand that lingering pain functions on behalf of capitalism to detach workers from activism and engagement, since the goal is to simply get through the day. In the show, Sackler declares the addict as the enemy of “pain management,” that is to say human emotion and subjectivity are at odds with the smooth-running machine of capital. This narcotic effect may also be the function of Netflix, to keep us distracted, notwithstanding that at least throughout the first episode of Painkillers, I wanted to give Oxycontin a try. But that is the problem, get hooked and the price goes up, just like streaming.

The gross excesses of Purdue ad the Sacklers perfectly fit within the logic of capitalism in the creation of market demand, through addiction, while encouraging compliance of users since the drug creates a feeling of well-being akin to heroin, likewise derived from the poppy plant. Painkillers points out the affinity between the Sackler family and earlier robber barons, noting that we remember the Rockefellers because of libraries and public amenities, not because of brutal tactics in the monopolization of markets. Despite this lineage, the excesses of the Sackler’s were too much for capital at this time of increasing if inchoate working-class rage, thus the emergence of negative media portrayals. There is a scene in Painkillers where addicts are shuttled in a panel van from one pharmacy to another that could be torn from Threepenny Opera (1928) where the bible-reading character Peachum has a monopoly on street begging, taking a cut from all handouts and proving Brecht’s point that it is always a crime to rob a bank but never a crime to own one. The show illustrates the evil capitalist through innovative use of stock footage, and it affirms legitimacy with introductory pre-credit testimonial scenes with survivors matter-of-factly stating the impact of addiction. These documentary moments strive to affirm the truth value of the fiction show to follow, but the more important function is to affirm the twin notion that capitalist excess can be tamed, and that Netflix is central to this process. This is “good TV,” meaning that it provides the narrative hooks to keep us watching while offering enough gravitas to convey an idea of social criticism. Painkillers shows us the machinations involved in obtaining regulatory sanction, with reference to tactics borrowed from the CIA and used to target the one recalcitrant scientist blocking the path to approval, but he is eventually bought with trinkets and, by the show’s conclusion, a cushy corporate job. This does suggest the larger societal context of graft and exploitation, but the story is mostly confined to the realm of the individual. 

Netflix assures us that, yes, there are monsters, but not to worry since the hard-working heroes will bring them down. Is the Sackler monster an avatar for Trump? If this is the case, then any reassurances that can be gleaned from Painkillers depends on the idea that Trump is somehow an exception rather than the unadorned totem of American oligarchy. During the 2016 US election campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Slavoj Žižek borrowed from Stalin by saying “They are both worse.”9 Žižek’s point is that tactics against Trump function to affirm the hegemonic status quo, as he says: “Liberals who fear the Trump victory are not really afraid of a radical Rightist turn. What they are really afraid of is actual radical social change. To repeat Robespierre, they admit (and are sincerely worried about) the injustices of our social life, but they want to cure them with a ​“revolution without revolution” (in exact parallel to today’s consumerism which offers coffee without caffeine, chocolate without sugar, beer without alcohol, multiculturalism without conflict, etc.): a vision of social change with no actual change, a change where no one gets really hurt, where well-meaning liberals remain cocooned in their safe enclaves.”10

The Fall of the House of Usher (2023)
The Fall of the House of Usher (2023)

These same well-meaning liberals get to experience a fall from grace within the horror-fantasy genre, again with no real-world repercussions. The Netflix series Fall of the House of Usher (2023), based on the Edgar Allan Poe gothic short story, makes no claims to documentary reality but the crimes of the titular family circulate around the wealth generated by a drug that looks a lot like Oxycontin, particularly with references to mass addiction. It is a deal with the devil that needs to be paid with the death of all family members. The devil comments favorably on the death toll with an image outside the boardroom window of an endless stream of falling bodies, perhaps recalling the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent carnage of war. There is a visceral satisfaction in the downfall of these vile overstuffed capitalists, and of scathing commentary on the inability of the free market pharmaceutical industry to address real problems: “We will get around to funding Aids research and diabetes and heart disease just as soon as we figure out how to keep geriatric dicks harder for a few more minutes. …The fucking Supreme Court does its part, tears the autonomy, rips the liberty away from women, shreds not just their choice but their future, their potential. We turn men into cum fountains and women into factories cranking out an impoverished workforce there for labour and to spend what little they make consuming.” The devil ensures that there is no punishment, that like climate change the next generation will foot the bill, and that this critique of capital could just as well stand as a justification by putting the blame on individual desire and avarice. As the devil says: “It is one of my favorite things about human beings: starvation, poverty, disease, you could fix all that just with money. And you don’t.” This is followed by an explicit, if unnamed, Trump reference: “Like I said to one of my clients, when I’m done you could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and it won’t cost you a thing,” echoing a statement he made during the 2016 presidential campaign. Retribution takes place at the pleasure of the devil, but the horror of capitalist inequity continues apace even if some of the blood money is redistributed and the audience gets the satisfaction, for the price of a Netflix subscription, of searing critique from the comfort of our couches and with no real social impact.

How to Become a Tyrant Cover
How to Become a Tyrant

Speaking of Trump avatars, the Netflix series How to Become a Tyrant (2021), associates the show’s subject of authoritarianism through narration by Peter Dinklage, made famous for his role in Game of Thrones and thus affirming the real through fictional referent. Tyrant builds its premise on the dubious claim that everyone wants absolute power to transform society to its liking and then purports to explain how this can be undertaken. There is no evidence to support this claim, but its assertion implicitly reassures us that existing power relations are needed to keep a lid on the collective Id. Tyrant is released as the Trump-era is winding down, and I like to think of this series as the hegemon letting go of this particular brand of authoritarianism, having run its course. The show then provides us with a Reader’s Digest list of likely candidates: Hitler, Amin, Kim, Hussein, Stalin, and Gaddafi. There is no analysis of, say, the complicity of western power in allowing Hitler to flourish, no discussion of the ongoing sanctions and attacks against Russia, the Soviet Union (and now Russia again) that may galvanize support for authoritarianism, and certainly no inclusion of tyrants allied with the west such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others too many to mention. In other words, Tyrant gives us history as if written by Artificial Intelligence, combing through internet sources to provide a list of likely enemies to satisfy on one hand the spectacle of disaster while also giving viewers in the west the allusion of distance, culpable deniability, and implicit affirmation of existing social relations. this structure is in keeping with the way streaming is designed to work, continually prompting us with one stimulus after another, to keep our personal data streaming outward while our eyeballs are glued to the screen. In a discussion of The Social Dilemma (Dir. Jeff Orlowski, 2020), presumably a critique of this situation, Elizabeth Pankova puts it this way: “This is the mechanism of the clickable documentary complex—an infinite cycle of shock and comfort, of reveling in horror and promptly wiping your memory clean of it. You can go from Jeffrey Epstein’s victims to Zac Efron’s six-pack; from serial killers to cute dogs; from Fyre Festival to Taylor Swift; from meat industry evils to Chef’s Table: BBQ; from The Social Dilemma to the biopic of Bill Gates.”11

Industry reporting on trends in non-fiction filmmaking refer to the “teeth gnashing” and “grumbling” of documentary filmmakers, while affirming that there is money to be made in true crime programming, implying that the use of the medium to tell more substantial and locally-based stories is a relic of another era.12 I cannot confirm the specific use of AI in Tyrants, but it is interesting that the Netflix credits do not include that of director. The show also streams on the auteur-oriented site Mubi, and here the director credit is given to David Ginsberg, one of the show’s executive producers. He has no other director credits listed on IMDB, suggesting that this credit was pro-forma. Does this mean that authorship has declined in marketing value, at least within certain algorithmic configurations? This is, after all, the era of content that can be streamed in the background rather than of compelling and idiosyncratic storytelling. As screenwriter Alessandro Camon wrote, amidst the 2023 WGA/SAG strike: “The rise of AI now allows us to foresee an even darker future: originality getting phased out altogether. Megacorporations will be able to throw the entire cultural output of the human race into the AI grinder and churn out an endless stream of sausage. It will be cultural appropriation on a civilization-wide scale, disenfranchising all human creativity to benefit a corporate elite.” By this logic, quality is a problem because it is expensive; better to focus on “content,” which Camon describes as “reduc[ing] everything from Hamlet to Power Slap to an undifferentiated morass. When everything is just content, what matters is owning the biggest container, and the ultimate dream is “the everything store”: Amazon selling pharmaceuticals, mortgages, and insurance along with socks, dishwashers, and movies.”13

My Octopus Teacher (2020)
My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Here we are with this rickety term “quality” as relief from “content.” It is worth remembering that the “Tradition of Quality” was the sarcastic target of François Truffaut’s manifesto for the primacy of the director as author and of cinema as distinct art in a statement that served as intellectual armour for the French New Wave.14 With that caveat in mind, I turn to another Netflix documentary celebrated for its auteur-driven humanism: My Octopus Teacher (Dirs.: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, 2020).15 Already authorship is muddled as the narrator and on-screen persona of the film is neither of the directors but is producer Craig Foster. Octopus won the best documentary academy award in 2020 and is made with a high degree of visual and auditory sophistication, drawing from the narrative conventions of Hollywood-style filmmaking.16 Like mainstream Hollywood film, it provides a gloss of pleasure but does not really enhance our ability to see the world; instead, it affirms existing social relations. The film is, however, precisely the kind of documentary favored by Hollywood. It is set in a distant “exoticized” locale—under the ocean off the coast of South Africa, and prompts viewers to feel compassionate without doing anything that would impact their immediate environment or wealth. 

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Octopus follows on the path set out by Robert Flaherty in Nanook of the North, a great film, but one that is as much fiction as it is actualité. When I prepared to watch the film and for reasons that I can no longer recall, I was thinking about the subject of aliens and documentary. To my surprise, the very first line of Octopus is “A lot of people think of an octopus as an alien.” If that seems like a random coincidence, in another diving scene Foster exclaims “You might be on another planet!” We are also told that octopi and aliens are very similar. This may well be true insofar as we do not know much of anything about them, though we can at least say with certainty that Octopi exist. Aliens, on the other hand, may not exist but whatever it is that we know of them at this time is a projection of the human imagination. This pretense of knowledge and familiarity is the thrust of the film. It is presented as a cross-species love story in the form of the most banal anthropomorphism. The main insight of the film is that non-human creatures have consciousness and complex emotions. In my view, this is a rather simplistic truism. Octopus is structured around the hero’s journey on the part of the producer-filmmaker, following the patterns advised in countless books and seminars on the subject of how to write a screenplay.17 There is a self-satisfied tone of the narration as it describes the ocean as like an old-growth forest, thus suggesting a parallel between this story and broader environmental struggles, but it is a virtue signal disconnected from the ecological disaster facing above-ground forests. The filmmaker is inviting the audience into an idealized Edenic garden safe from the risks of knowledge.

The hero’s journey structure is explicitly introduced with Craig Foster describing his desire to seek refuge from the tribulations of everyday life and here, as often the case, the journey is a movement into the wild as part of a pseudo-spiritual quest. He makes a point in telling us of his “instinct” to dive bare-chested without a wetsuit. When we first see Foster, he is on The Cape of Storms, the tip of South Africa—looking out at dangerous waves in a moment of contemplation as if standing in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, (1818), the famous image from 19th century romanticism associated with German nationalism and the idea of the sublime. Foster then refers to his own filmmaking from twenty years earlier in Central Kalahari, exoticizing indigenous hunters in a film called The Great Dance (2000). From filming black bodies to life under the sea, there is a curious parallel here with the career of Leni Riefenstahl.18 South African apartheid ended in the early 1990s, so not long before Foster’s filmmaking adventure, and it would very much be in the air especially for a white filmmaker filming black men as we see in an excerpt from that film. Instead of reflecting on this context, with a low angle shot of the filmmaker he says: “I had a deep longing to be inside that world.” He then mentions a rift with his own son, and instead of doing the work of parenting, he takes to the sea. Thus begins the soft-core Octo-Porn. Or: to put it more gently, a typical romance, but then how many Hollywood films present stalking as romance? Hitchcock’s Vertigo is only the most famous example.

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

At around eighteen minutes into Octopus and pretty much on cue according to the conventions of the hero’s journey, the music swells and a long shot shows us the octopus appearing to reach toward the subject. Following first contact, we see Foster buff and shirtless in preparation for another undersea dive, referring to his process as “instinctual.” It is with this kind of language throughout that the film performs a kind of reverse anthropomorphism, situating the human subject as part of the animal world. I do not think we should organize our thinking into a strict dichotomy of animal and human, but situating the animal within the clichés of romance is not exactly rethinking our relationship with nature. If we do accept the romance pretense, then we should consider the colonial legacy informing the idea of cross-cultural contact. As the scene unfolds, the romance appears to heighten, but then the octopus is scared off when our man drops a camera lens. As in so many teen romance movies, there is an initial interruption when the boy acts prematurely. The stalking does continue and at around thirty-two minutes the piano music cues us to more romance and the narration says: “no greater feeling on earth” and “the boundaries between her and I seem to dissolve.” This is where the hero loses his virginity, metaphorically speaking.

The narration that follows is of a boy now fully obsessed, saying: “I can’t wait to get back in the water” and asking, like a teenager would: “Does she dream?” The narrative then gives us an increase in maturity as we see Foster reading animal behaviour literature. Would it be more convincing if he was shown reading an etiquette book on dating and teen relationships? In any case, we are in the young adult phase of this relationship and, since the hero is grown up and can presumably be allowed into nightclubs, we are given a simulation with a scene of diving at night (because the octopus is nocturnal), but the visuals give us something akin to a mysterious nightclub scene. As is typical with this kind of romance narrative, there is a sense of worry because the hero cannot find his idealized partner. He is about to give up and just at that moment, following the narrative formula, the mood turns dark. The octopus is being chased by sharks and our man cannot protect her. Foster then describes his own feeling of vulnerability because he cannot protect his love. This is the culture industry’s male hero marketed for the MeToo era, now vulnerable and nurturing in contrast with the predatory behaviour of the shark. Foster brings food to the octopus after the attack and says: “She was teaching me to become sensitive to the other.” Soon after this moment, Foster tells us that he has reconnected with his son, so he is a good dad after all.

Our hero’s sensitivity is no match for the cruelties of nature and this is where the film makes clear, if unintentionally, that it is not about the octopus at all, but about the plight of the filmmaker. It is a rough day on the water and as he goes under, another bigger octopus is right next to Foster’s fantasy projection. This likewise recalls narrative conventions in the teen romance where the sensitive boy must give way to the muscle-bound competitor. The now cuckold must accept the loss—she has a new species-appropriate lover but with a cruel twist. She mates, lays eggs, and dies as the eggs hatch. Our long-suffering hero swims in the water column filled with her eggs. Here I hesitate to ask if this is the film’s pedophilia moment but the film frames this as one of sacrifice and duty. Returning to her den, or octopus garden for Beatles fans, our hero is overwhelmed with emotion but also relief, framing the relationship as one that was bound to fail—no kidding!

I have described a documentary structured around a formulaic narrative journey, purported to be about the natural world but mostly about a middle-aged guy seeking a thrill and then finally realizing that his obsession was too much. Late in the film, he is bonding with his son (from a previous human relationship, not an inter-species copulation), to affirm conventional notions of fatherhood. The mother remains absent. The final shots even have a home-movie quality presumably made with readily available software that mimics the grain of Super8 film. I have called this story Octo-Porn, which is itself a clickbait title and I stand by that because the story functions in a way similar to pornography as well as other Netflix programming, promising something new but mostly giving us the same old thing. More to the point, the triggering of emotions, triggered by repetition of familiar romance tropes, is as limiting as pornography in representing the complexities of relationships and of sexuality. Like most documentaries on Netflix, the visuals are lush, the music is rich, and there is even complex foley sounds in the underwater scenes. In other words, all the techniques of the Global Hollywood machine designed not to invite us to see the world in new and more complex ways, but to repeat once again a narrative fantasy. Nothing here teaches us about the ocean or the complexity of animals, not to mention the impact of human society on the natural world. If Netflix was once a place for indie cinema, like what the Sundance festival was in the 1980s, now it is the new TV with an even-bigger carbon footprint. That carbon cost is not only from the data that forms the film itself, but also all the associated algorithm calculations and the massive data centres and networks built to manage this information. Data collection and manipulation is, after all, the goal with the movies as a means to that end. Films that offer an individualized and highly romanticized view of nature, one that is seemingly non-threatening and universal are beloved by awards shows. But whose universalism is on offer and what do we not see in this creative treatment of actualité? The ways that we see nature intersects with the ways that we see ourselves. This vision, or limit to vision, shapes how we act in, and give shape to, the world.

1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985).

2 Malcolm Byrne, Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (University Press of Kansas, 2014).

3 Bryan Carney, “Grocery Giants Discussed Fixing More Than Bread Prices, Court Files Suggest,” The Tyee (14 July 2021), accessed 24 October 2023 https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2021/06/14/Grocery-Giants-Discussed-Fixing-More-Than-Bread-Prices-Documents/ 

4 For an overview of the naming of military campaigns and the development of protocols to suite propaganda objectives, see Gregory C. Sieminski, “The Art of Naming Operations,’ in https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1995/sieminsk.htm accessed 25 August 2023.

5 For an excellent overview of these limitations, along with a history of Netflix’s involvement with documentary, see Joshua Glick, “Platform Politics: Netflix, The Media Industry and the Value of reality,” World Records 5:9 accessed 28 October 2023

6 Adrian Horton, “Netflix lists AI job worth $900,000 amid twin Hollywood strikes,” The Guardian (international) 26 July 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/jul/26/netflix-ai-job-hollywood-strikes accessed 31 August 2023.

7 Netflix job postings https://jobs.netflix.com/search?page=1 (accessed 31 August 2023)

8 On the depoliticization of health alongside the medicalization of human nature on the part of the DSM, see Iain Ferguson, Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2017).

9 Slavoj Žižek, “Slavoz Zizek on Clinton, Trump, and the Left’s Dilemma,” In These Times (7 November 2016), accessed 24 October 2023 https://inthesetimes.com/article/slavoj-zizek-on-hillary-clinton-donald-trump-and-the-lefts-election-dilemma

10 Ibid.

11 Elizabeth Pankova, “The Social Dilemma and the Rise of the Clickbait Documentary: Why the Netflix movie falls short as a critique of Silicon Valley,” The New Republic (8 Oct 2020), accessed 27 October 2023 https://newrepublic.com/article/159657/social-dilemma-rise-clickbait-documentary

12 Cynthia Littleton, “‘Crime, Food, Music, Sports’: Documentary Producers Get ‘Very Strategic’ as Content Budgets Tighten,” Variety (30 June 2023), accessed 25 October 2023 https://variety.com/2023/biz/news/documentary-12th-victim-nicola-marsh-imagine-sara-bernstein-1235658696/amp/

13 Alessandro Camon, “How to Destroy a Creative Industry (And How to Save It),” Los Angeles Review of Books (3 September 2023), accessed 25 October 2023 https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/how-to-destroy-a-creative-industry-and-how-to-save-it/?mc_cid=3f21a0943d

14 “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” originally published in Cahiers du Cinema, 1954.

15 This is an expanded version of “Click Bait and Switch: The Netflix OctoPorn Documentary,” my conference paper presented at the Film studies Association of Canada annual conference, spring 2022.

16 An example of the gushing praise is Aryn Baker, “My Octopus Teacher Became a Viral Sensation on Netflix. Its Human Star Craig Foster Wants the Film to Inspire Change,” Time (10 November 2020), accessed 26 October 2023 https://time.com/5909291/my-octopus-teacher-craig-foster-interview/

17 Most of these guides follow the precepts Joseph Campbell first outlined in 1949 in A Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon).

18 Here I am thinking of Susan Sontag’s take down of Riefenstahl’s African photographs in her essay “Fascinating Fascism” published in Under the Sign of Saturn (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980): 73-105. 

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Darrell Varga

Contributing Writer

Darrell Varga is Professor of film in the Division of Art History and Contemporary Culture at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University) in Halifax where he is the current president of the faculty union. He is also a filmmaker (breadinthebones.com).

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