Can Netflix Make Adult Movies Like 'Velvet Buzzsaw?'
Quick question: have you heard of YOU? What about Bird Box? Or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? Have you maybe even already watched them?
Each is a recent release that has become a breakout hit on Netflix, so much so that the streaming giant notorious for keeping its viewership numbers private divulged all have been viewed more than 40 million times on its platform.
Whether those numbers are artificially inflated or not (they are), the success has created a perception that Netflix has the Midas touch. After all, YOU was a preexisting television flop on Showtime, only receiving a measly 650,000 viewers per episode before Netflix scooped it up and fed it into the IV tube they have directly hooked into the arm of every angsty teen in America, if not the world.
However, there appears to be limits to Netflix’s hit-making ability. How many of you all have heard of Beasts of No Nation? What about Mudbound? Have you seen Oscars frontrunner Roma?
My guess would be no (though we’ll never know, because again, the numbers are kept private). At least within my slice of the internet and social media, these Netflix originals have barely made a blip in the public consciousness.
Whether or not Netflix’s attempt at awards fodder is successful in finally collecting trophies, which would certainly raise the prestige of the platform, its ability to deliver these projects to an audience far larger than they would have received in independent theater release—which is at the core of the company’s pitch to filmmakers—appears to ring hollow.
Instead, the company has made its hay on titles that seem to be spit out directly from its magical algorithm machine. They have revived the romantic comedy genre almost single handedly, created a near monopoly on tween melodrama, and made the casts of Friends and The Office even more famous now than when their shows were at their peak.
While it might be easy to point fingers and accuse Netflix of simply reaching for the lowest hanging fruit, I actually think this preference speaks more to the behavioral conditions associated with how we use the product. Film industry analysts forget that Netflix movies are not competing on the same playing field as your local arthouse cinema.
The average viewer flips on Netflix when they’re plopped down on the couch, perhaps after a long day or in-between activities trying to kill time. They sit back and turn on the television. They might have their laptop open in front of them, be checking their phone or looking over some papers. If they lose interest, at any moment there are thousands of other options waiting a click away.
Point being, people aren’t really primed for event viewing. The conditions aren’t ideal for a viewer to be receptive to the kind of stimulating experience associated with high brow adult drama. To make a food analogy, nobody is flipping on Netflix to eat their veggies. They come to snack on some empty calorie popcorn, or maybe if they’re lucky get addicted to some highly pleasurable chocolate chip cookies.
Enter into this void Velvet Buzzsaw. The movie was released on Netflix last Friday. One more time I ask, have you ever heard of it?
Or did a movie directed by Dan Gilroy (of Nightcrawler fame) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, Toni Collette (of Hereditary fame), Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame), Billy Magnussen (of Game Night fame…or Get Shorty for the real heads out there), and Netflix’s own Natalie Dyer (a.k.a Nancy from Stranger Things) somehow sneak past you?
If so I think it’s worth going back and giving it a try. Turn out the lights, turn off the phone and make an event of it. Although I want to be totally clear about what you’re getting yourself into.
For the most part this movie is aware of what it is, smartly using its tone to match its setting: the high stakes modern art world of Los Angeles. The absurdity dial is turned up to 11 from start to finish, whether it’s employed for horror or humor, right down to character names like “Morf Vandewalt” and “Jon Dondon.”
It’s shot and constructed like a tense thriller, including a few legitimate jump scares and several moments of impending doom that make you want to hold your breath. But I love that it still finds room for eye-rolling self-parody.
In one scene, the aforementioned Jon Dondon kneels in front of a pile of garbage bags with wonder. “It’s stunning,” he says. “That’s not art,” John Malkovich’s artist character replies callously, before showing him what he claims is art: a large white canvas with a pink circle and a blue circle on it. Somehow we can laugh at the foolishness and simultaneously believe the painting could be worth millions, if only it gets the approval of a critic like Morf Vandewalt.
The cast, which is as impressive on the screen as it is splashy on the poster, all gives worthy performances. But ensemble films are a tricky business, and ultimately there may have been too many storylines and competing interests crammed into this two-hour film.
And though the tropes like art coming to life and a master artist being insane or even demonic are well worn, they remain effective. We want to believe in art as having some higher power, and this is a natural manifestation. Unfortunately, the movie steers away from satire and commits to those tropes a little too fervently as the narrative progresses, leading to a rather unsatisfying conclusion.
The real question is, will you make it that far? Or will you, like so many others, click away and get back to your binge of YOU?
An American in Paris (1951)
Many people believe this film to be Gene Kelly's masterpiece, a performance even greater than his iconic role in Singin' in the Rain. I am not one of those people. That said, Kelly is spectacular as he sings and tap-dances his way through set piece after set piece, playing a young struggling painter caught up in a love triangle with his close friend. I don't think anyone has ever dominated the screen with as much charisma as Kelly before or since. Aside from being a piece of film history, this movie picked up eight Oscars nominations and SIX wins, in case you needed any reason to check it out. It's a ton of fun.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Just like Velvet Buzzsaw, this movie focuses on the life of a struggling artist, the difficulty of that artist to find love, and the unsuspecting intervention of the supernatural. But where Buzzsaw turns towards thrills, this turns towards sappy sentimentality. What else should we expect from the always-nostalgic Woody Allen? Still, this is a delightful romantic comedy starring Owen WIlson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard that will have you wanting to book a trip to Paris ASAP.