08 November 2010

Let the Right Media In

Yesterday, I was all set to finally settle down and watch Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008) on Netflix Instant Streaming. The film has been well-received critically and highly-recommended to me by people whose tastes in cinema I trust. If the look of those foreign words in the parentheses up there didn't clue you in, the film is Nordic in origin (specifically Swedish), so it is most certainly relevant to my area of focus. It's also been one of the largest commercial successes from that region in recent years, and is even slated to undergo an American remake, so it's certainly a landmark film to see for any student of Nordic national cinema.

A fiend appears in my home, uninvited
The film is, supposedly, a vampire/horror/coming-of-age story. I say "supposedly" because, well, I never got to actually see it. No, wait, I'll be more accurate. I could see it, and even hear it, but I didn't know what anyone was saying! It seems that, in transferring the film to Instant Streaming, Netflix seriously messed something up. Most of the subtitles fell into the letterbox (those black bars above and below the screen when you watch a film in widescreen). This is fairly common, except that usually they appear in front of the black bars and hover there nicely, telling you what people are saying. In this case, the black bars took on the nature of black holes from which no light could escape. If the subtitles happened to be lucky enough to appear within the boundaries of the film's frame, it was able to escape certain death, but this was all too infrequent an occurrence. I may not be describing this the best, so I went ahead and created some visual aids:

Fig 1. What it's supposed to look like.
Fig 2. What I got. (Lovingly recreated in Photoshop.)

As an interesting note, I went into Instant Streaming on my Mac to try to get a screenshot of what I was talking about and, as you can clearly see in Fig 1, it actually worked like it was supposed to. However, as I was trying to watch this with my darling wife on my fancy PlayStation 3 and HDTV, I got what you see in Fig 2 instead. Up until this point, I thought it was a problem with just Netflix, but apparently it's something about Netflix on PS3. So obviously there are some kinks to work out in the system.

However, in the course of this, I happened to check out the film's audio and subtitle options. Peculiarly, I had two audio options: "English (stereo)" and "English (5.1 Dolby surround)." The film does have an English dub on its US DVD release, but neither of these audio options featured the dub. They were both in Swedish. But okay, if there is only one available language, it's frequently registered as "English" because that's what most DVD players will default to. It's confusing, but not completely ludicrous. It helps with the coding for some programs, so whatever. Weird naming practice, but there's a reason.

However, oddly enough, the only subtitle option (which was, of course, selected) was "None." This is weird, at least for how DVDs work. However, streaming seems to often only give you one audio/subtitle set-up that you cannot change. But then there's no option to change it at all. They don't give you that option at all, liek some little tease hanging out in your menu to make you think, "Yes! Maybe!" Perhaps Netflix put this in because they hope to include more in the future? I hope so. I'd like to be able to watch the original Japanese language version of Gurren Lagann sometime as well without having to borrow someone's DVDs or shell out the money for my own copies.

Digital media
All of this got me thinking more about streaming. It's a topic I've discussed in my social circles, but never here. On one hand, I've often spoken against streaming and even moreso against digital downloads. On the other hand, I use Netflix Instant Streaming as my source of television. I have some (though not many) albums that I've only bought mp3 versions of. I even own some digital copies of video games, and not just "download-only" releases like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I own a handful of PSone classics through download, though largely because buying hard copies would be a lot harder and cost a lot more.

Still, my biggest gripe has to do with a little unintentional lie in that previous sentence. I don't "own" those games. I don't actually own Suikoden, Wild Arms, and Grandia. I own leases that grant me access to those games. And, theoretically, those leases can be terminated by Sony. Now, I don't expect Sony to do so any time soon. For one, it would be bad business. Still, that copy of Chrono Cross I have sitting on my game shelf? They have no right to take that from me. They may own the copyright on the data on that disc, but that disc is mine. I can sell it if I really wanted to (though I never will). I can lend it to my friend, which I've done before. I can't lend Suikoden to anyone. And I most certainly can't sell it.

This whole "leasing" concept becomes even more prominent with streaming. I paid a one-time fee for Suikoden, but Netflix only continues for as long as I pay more monthly fee. What's more, I can watch episodes of The IT Crowd as many times as I want... as long as they decide to have it up on streaming. If, one day, they decide to take it down, then that's it. I can't watch it any more.

Why I still love it
So it's no secret that I have certain issues and insecurities when it comes to digital media, and yet I still love Netflix Instant Streaming. Why? Am I being a hypocrite? I don't think so.

See, I don't think anyone sees Netflix as owning anything. It's about rental, which is essentially a lease. The idea is that there is this huge collection of titles that you have access to, as long as you are a member. I'm not paying for Let the Right One In in the same way you could "buy" a movie on PlayStation Network to store on your PS3 hard drive. Or the way I "bought" Suikoden. This isn't a single product being purchased in the form of a currently ill-defined media. It's a lease to an enormous database of products that I can "borrow" by streaming them.

That's why I don't really mind streaming. Not to the level I dislike digital copies of products. Both are essentially leases, but one seems more upfront about it. The other has the feel of ownership, but without having the same legal rights. Hopefully, that will change, but as we all know, laws are horrible at keeping up with technology.

Of course, as my experience yesterday proved, streaming is still in need of some tweaking and perfecting. Even if the subtitle issue only happens on PS3, it's still a problem that needs sorting out. That shouldn't happen.

Will streaming kill the DVD?
There is another topic of discussion pertaining to streaming, and that is that streaming will kill BluRay before BluRay can kill DVD. This is a weird one. Are people really going to sacrifice ownership to such a degree? Certainly Netflix and its Instant Streaming has not been kind on DVD and BluRay sales. Still, I don't think people are just going to accept the all-digital world wholeheartedly. At least not yet. I know I'm not ready, and I don't think I ever will be. I want that physicality. I want to hold it in my hands and say, "This is mine." I want it on my shelf, so I can sit there and notice, "Wow, I have a lot of films by Akira Kurosawa. Seriously, look at them. They're completely engulfing that shelf."

And, so far, digital media has failed to deliver on that entire world of "extras" that the DVD gave to the movie lovers of the world. Where's the commentaries? The alternate audio tracks and subtitles? The production galleries? The "Making of" documentary? These are things you still have to get a physical copy for, at least for the most part. And yeah, the guy who, years ago, was just going to go rent the VHS at Family Video instead of seeing it in theatres, he's going to sit at home now and stream it on his PS3 or Xbox 360. But those who wanted to own it, well... a lot of them are still going to want that. Some may be content with a digital copy, but not everyone. And I don't think that's going to change any time soon.

So despite what so many people are saying, I don't really think physical copies will ever truly disappear. However, I do see them gearing themselves more and more to the "collector" and not just the general populace. That may or may not mean we collectors will have to pay a higher price for our desire for "ownership." However, it may also mean that quality will be very high as well. Who knows? Only time will tell.


  1. yep, finally found someone that has experienced the netflix/PS3 let the right one in subtitle issue....now I can rest in peace.

  2. I have the same problem. I see others having it but no solutions. That blows.