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The Trouble with (Net)Time Travel

Glenn McDonald
Warners' Theatre photo from Michigan State University

It's the ultimate in entertainment options when Netflix and the time-space continuum collide.

It's hard to quantify, exactly, what makes Netflix so surpassingly cool. A combination of things, I suppose. For the uninitiated, Netflix is the US Internet service that provides unlimited DVD rentals by mail, using various subscription models. As a business, it's a weird hybrid of high technology (Internet and DVD) and old-school mail-order catalog, like Sears-Roebuck circa 1956. Improbably, it works great: you order your movies online, and the DVDs arrive in little red envelopes within a day or two. By keeping three or so in rotation at all times you can watch a new movie every night of the week. I've probably watched more DVDs in the last six months than in the previous six years combined. I'm not proud, and the lawn has certainly suffered, but hey -- there it is.

Netflix has a catalog of more than 60,000 DVD titles. It's practically limitless, really; films, TV shows, documentaries, sports, instructional and exercise tapes. . . I've yet to want something available on DVD that Netflix could not provide. If, like me, you love movies and have poor impulse control, this kind of immediate gratification is very, well, gratifying. Good thing they don't offer porn, I'd never leave the house.

I got myself into some trouble last weekend, though, when I decided to start renting titles in thematic batches. I'd read some good stuff about the indie thriller Primer, which debuted at Sundance in 2004, along with the Courtney Cox mind-twister November. Both films, I knew, had to do with fractured narrative and time paradoxes, so I decided to round out the batch with Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut and have a time-travel film festival.

Note to self: Do not watch three time paradox movies in a row. These kinds of stories literally keep me up at night, trying to figure out exactly what happened, and how, and when. I seem incapable of simply allowing the story to effect me on its own terms. I must solve the puzzle. This is, of course, quite impossible when it comes to causality violations and rips in the time-space continuum. Einstein and Feynman couldn't figure it out, so I'm unlikely to get very far. (Except when I drink Robitussin; then it's easy.)

Any one of those films would have launched me on a three-day odyssey scouring IMDB link and dozens of message boards trying to make sense of what happened. Three in a row -- terrible idea. I went into cerebral lockdown, my head awash with grand unification theories involving James LeGros, quantum entropy, and Frank the goddamn bunny.

I've only recently emerged from this trauma. For the record, I liked Primer the best, if "liked" is the right word for the mental beatdown I endured. If you enjoyed Donnie Darko's time-travel elements, Primer is Darko cubed, with some theories positing up to nine parallel timelines to keep track of. If you have a few hours, and several advanced degrees in theoretical physics, check out this "movie timeline" on For further mind-blowing, consider that director Shane Carruth reportedly made the entire movie for about $7,000.

The bright side is that I have some ideas on how to leverage Netflix and my new fluid, devil-may-care approach to the time-space continuum. Forthwith:

When the technology becomes available, I plan to send my Netflix queue into the future to the exact day when Lost: The Complete Series released to DVD. This way, I can get the entire metaphysical castaway story and watch it in sequence without having to squander all my Wednesday nights for the next five years. This may wreak havoc with ABC's advertising revenue model, but that's not my problem. I figure I can digest the whole series in about six days and seven nights.

Speaking of which, I'd also like to sort Netflix for all Harrison Ford movies, then spin them into an endless time loop where it's 1977-1983 forever, and Ford keeps making variations of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner films endlessly. All his other wasted efforts, from Sabrina to that ridiculous submarine movie, would necessarily phase into an alternate timeline and never exist at all in our universe. This seems to me the best solution. I realize I have an unhealthy fixation with this Harrison Ford Thing (see PopShots: The Last Action Hero . But I really do think it's the critical dilemma of our time. (And by the way, I've finally found the one guy who might be able to take up the Harrison Ford movie star mantle: Firefly's Nathan Fillion. He's dreamy.)

There's one more aspect of Netflix and time-space that has been impressed upon me of late. Because rentals are essentially unlimited under the monthly subscription plan, there's a strong inclination when assembling your Netflix queue to order up classic "eat-your-vegetables" type movies. This seems like a great idea at the time. It's a proud feeling to have a queue stacked with Bergman, Hitchcock and Fellini. But it doesn't always work out as planned.

For instance, I was until very recently one of exactly 14 people in the world who had never seen Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Just never got around to it. So I ordered it up a few weeks ago, finally ready to experience an American film classic when � to my surprise and dismay � I hated it. Hated, hated, hated it.

I took a lot of heat for this from friends and family, but I think I've figured out why the movie came across to me as so obvious and labored. My entire adult life, I've seen so many rip-offs and appropriations of the Annie Hall style that the original itself seemed like a bad facsimile. Each of Allen's dialogue-slash-stand-up-bits came lumbering toward me from the screen like I'd seen them coming years away. I've had similar experiences with other classics like Mel Brooks' The Producers and old SCTV episodes. They've been plundered over time by so many others that the original impact has long since been blunted by decades of cultural assimilation. I'll bet an endeavoring film studies student could make a very postmodern case for this phenomenon. I've seen too much ersatz Woody Allen to be able to enjoy Woody Allen.

Annie Hall is obviously a great movie. The real culprit here is time itself. So I'd like to use Netflix' time travel option to erase the last 30 years of my own personal pop-culture immersion. I'm not sure the exact mechanics of this, but ideally I'll be spit out the other end in a small art-house cinema in Greenwich Village and be able to see Annie Hall as it was meant to be experienced. In 1977.

See how this could all turn out nicely? It's really about problem-solving, and I've long felt our linear approach to time management is simply a problem of inertia. So thanks, Netflix! I can't wait to see what comes in my little red envelope tomorrow! Or yesterday. Whatever.

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