Roma, Benny Hill style: why film-makers hate Netflix’s fast-forward button

Yada yada – hurry it up, can’t you? … Al Pacino in The Irishman.

‘It is what it is,” says the union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) during a tense pow-wow in the forthcoming gangster drama The Irishman. To which the mildly perplexed crime boss Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) replies: “What is it?”

The same question might well be asked of Netflix. On one hand, the streaming service has stumped up the readies to enable some of the world’s finest film-makers to work without cuts or compromises: not only Martin Scorsese, who couldn’t get the $160m needed to make The Irishman from anywhere else, but Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), David Michôd (The King) and Fernando Meirelles (The Two Popes). But then Netflix goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like: “Who has time to watch movies anyway?”Advertisement

A new facility on the company’s Android app enabling the site’s content to be played at a variety of accelerated speeds, without the loss of volume that comes with common-or-garden fast-forwarding, is currently being tested. Remote controls have always had the FF>> button, but for cinephiles this is more like the FFS one.

“Netflix in ‘Shoddy Attitude Toward Movies’ Shock!” is no one’s idea of a scandalous headline, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. This is the company, after all, which pioneered the “skip intro” feature to do away with those pesky opening titles (who cares who shot or scored or directed the damn thing, right?) while also making it maddeningly hard to watch the end credits before being whisked on to another trailer, episode or recommendation. The Netflix philosophy is one of equality through truncation. Saul Bass be damned: no movie is too important to be topped-and-tailed like a shrimp.

No wonder the service is looking to speed things up. The sooner a film can be over and done with, the more time the user will have to consume other Netflix products, and the higher viewing figures will rise. Perhaps some users will even be multi-screening, watching one film at an accelerated speed on a mobile device while another streams, half-watched, on the TV in front of them. This vision of a future in which movies are taken out of their creators’ hands and effectively re-edited by the time-pressed consumer has rightly prompted outrage from film-makers, including Judd Apatow (“We give you nice things. Leave them as they were intended to be seen”) and Brad Bird (who called it “another spectacularly bad idea”). One Twitter user, @mikeyplondon, was moved to wonder whether the variable playback function might otherwise be known as “the Benny Hill effect”.

Certainly it belongs on the same bonfire as colourisation (which needlessly jazzed up black-and-white movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life to render them more palatable to modern audiences) and pan-and-scan (used by broadcasters to squeeze widescreen films on to TV screens without resorting to the letterbox format). But Netflix’s dubious move would be easier to square if the streaming service was devoted exclusively to trash – if it was all Adam Sandler quickies, say, but no Scorsese or Alfonso Cuarón. It’s the contradiction that jars even more than the technology itself. Netflix needs to decide whether it is cinema’s champion or its desecrator because it can’t easily be both.

Of course, what this whole furore has done is to keep Netflix in the news. So if anyone from the service happens to be reading this, allow me to suggest that it considers implementing the only radical measure possible in this age of enfeebled attention spans and multi-screening. I propose the introduction of a Philip French button in honour of the late, long-standing Observer film critic. Or rather, long-sitting: French never left his seat before the final line of the end credits had disappeared from the screen and the house lights had gone up. He paid even the worst movies the respect of watching them as a complete experience from start to finish. In a culture where a contributor to an arts show can admit without fear of censure to fast-forwarding through supposedly uneventful passages in a film (as Giles Fraser did in 2012 when reviewing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for Radio 4) or when a newspaper columnist confesses to checking emails on his phone at the cinema (that was Charlie Brooker watching, or not watching,Avengers Assemble) then it’s time for some pushback against philistinism, and a full-scale revenge of the movie nerds.

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