The Eradication of Memory on Netflix, Amazon and Other Streaming Video Sites

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Search results on July 6, 2018 for "Toshiro Mifune" on Netflix. What did I get? A selection of film and television ostensibly inspired by the iconic Japanese actor, but not starring him. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

If you can’t find something you want to watch online these days, there is something seriously wrong with you. Giants like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are spending gazillions buying the rights to popular film and TV series—and gazillions more funding original content.

But with all this focus on the new, new, new, what happens to all the old, “classic” stuff? A lot of it falls off the menu. It may be there as available option, but you have to know what you're looking for. Let me give you an example.

Toshiro Mifune was one of the most famous Japanese actors of all time, and not just in Japan. In this 2015 documentary about the actor, narrator Keanu Reeves tells us that without Mifune’s commanding macho swagger, world-weary eyes and gonzo sense of humor, "There would have been no Magnificent Seven, Clint Eastwood wouldn’t have a Fistful of Dollars, and Darth Vader wouldn’t be a samurai."

No wonder Berkeley-based documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki wanted to profile Mifune. His movies helped lead the young Okazaki into filmmaking in the first place. "The films are so great. I mean, you do have to slow your brain down a little bit, and I think it’s hard to watch films with subtitles, but God, the films are so rich," Okazaki says with a sparkle in his eyes.

The Japanese-American director grew up in the 1970s, when art house movies were still a thing, and that’s how he was first exposed to all sorts of films that were considered old or classic even then. Today? "Now, you are dependent on these streaming services and hardly anything’s there," Okazaki says.

Okazaki says he was "saddened to note how few young people in Japan had seen any of [Mifune's] films with [the great Japanese director] Akira Kurosawa. Likewise, American kids don't know who John Ford or John Wayne are. And forget about Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Jean Renoir or Yasujiro Ozu."

It Can't Be That Bad—Can It?

Check this out. Let’s say I just streamed Okazai's Mifune: The Last Samurai on Netflix, and now I want to watch some of Mifune's original feature films. Mifune made more than 170, but I’d be happy with a handful of his greatest hits.


I type "Toshiro Mifune" in the search box for streaming: nothing. In the search box for DVD: I get films inspired by him, sure, but not starring him (see screenshot above). By film title: Seven Samurai. Yes! Rashomon, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood. Yes! But only on DVD.

As anybody with a yen for a rare title learns, it's not a given that the film you want was released on DVD, or VHS, or even film stock. Also,  most distribution deals are for a limited time only. We've all gotten used to those articles with headlines like, "The Best Movies and TV Shows to Stream on Netflix Before They Expire."

Netflix gives you the option to “save” the movie down at the bottom of your queue. But you know what that button means.

Availability: Unknown

Seriously, try searching for the very first movie you rented on Netflix. The older you are, the more likely it is you can’t stream it today. Now, you can request a title and hope the company responds, but you have to know what you're looking for.

What if I’m eight years old, or 18, and I don’t know about Mifune or anybody else famous in the 20th century? Netflix isn’t going to serve up the ancient past, not to me or any of its other 125 million subscribers worldwide. You can stream a wider selection of titles on Netflix rivals like Apple and Amazon Prime, but you have to search. The platforms won't suggest what's old in a bid to help you educate yourself.

"I just don’t think it’s much of a business for a Netflix or a Hulu," says Rick Prelinger, Professor of Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz and a board member of the Internet Archive, a free-to-the-public digital library based in San Francisco.

He points out something else: a surprising amount of famous footage we think of as part of our collective history is locked away from the public, journalists and documentary filmmakers. "The body of moving images that has been created is owned by so many different companies and so many different people and it's fragmented," Prelinger says. That makes it hard for archivists and librarians, he adds, but what makes them different is they’re not serving shareholders. They’re serving the public.

Imagine if it wasn't Prelinger Archives that owned the famous footage of Market Street days before the great earthquake and fire of 1906 in San Francisco, and that owner wasn't willing to share the footage without being paid a lot of money?

You wouldn't see thoughtful news stories like this one:

Many copyright owners charge cheaper "rental rates," if you will, for nonprofits wanting to use historically valuable footage. Other copyright owners don't care who you are or what noble cause you serve.

That makes building and maintaining a comprehensive collection of feature films and documentaries an expensive proposition.

"Nobody's going to take a risk on archives," Prelinger says. No privately funded company, he means.

Prelinger says entertainment companies naturally want us looking at what they’re spending money on now. If you want a comprehensive set of foreign, classic, or independently produced films, you have to subscribe to a streaming service like Fandor, MUBI or FilmStruck.

That suits Jenni Olson just fine. "People want to spend $10 a month and get everything," says the co-founder of PlanetOut, a public media and entertainment company that focused exclusively on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender demographic. Today, Olson writes about queer films, and also creates, collects and curates them.

"Silicon Valley has created outsized, irrational consumer expectations," Olson says. "We used to have almost zero access," especially to more obscure film titles. "We just have to accept the reality of the world we live in, and put our money where our mouth is."

For Sam Green, who made the documentary The Weather Underground, it matters that the trailer is available for free for the foreseeable future to anyone who searches for it on YouTube. Even if he doesn't see a dime.
For Sam Green, who made the documentary The Weather Underground, it matters that the trailer is available for free for the foreseeable future to anyone who searches for it on YouTube. Even if he doesn't see a dime. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Or you could watch dubious bootleg copies uploaded to YouTube or torrent sites, as many of us—cough—do. Not that the prospect troubles every filmmaker. "YouTube is fantastic, and I happily refuse to complain that my film is on there," says Sam Green about his Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground.

Green adds, "If you just look at the new, you get such a limited and skewed view of what the world is. To me, YouTube is one of the great cultural and educational institutions we have. It's a way for things in [copyright] limbo to be available."

For now.

I'll leave you with this thought from Prelinger: "We shouldn't rely too much on either the entertainment business or the for-profit tech sector to preserve our history for us.  Yes, there's a lot of product available if you really really look hard, but we're avoiding the question: do we as audiences, and do we as citizens, deserve access to our moving image heritage?"


Well, do we?