Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

An Explainer & Elena

Published in Blog. Tags: .

An idea has been eating at me the last month or so about how my viewing habits seem to default to low hanging fruit when I’m not purposeful in deciding what I’m going to watch. This thought has come and gone over the years, but here we are—in quarantine—with a tremendous amount of time on our hands, and yet I’m still slow to watch the films I’ve told myself I really want to watch, instead opting for something to just help mindlessly pass the time. What’s going on here?

While digging around to see what others going through something similar have to say on the matter, I came across this 2006 Wall Street Journal article—where Matt Phillips breached a very similar question—titled, “For Some Netflix Users, Red Envelopes Gather Dust”:

“Researchers have documented this behavior among movie-watchers. In a 1999 experiment, a group of volunteers were asked to choose movies to rent from a list of 24 videos. Their options were a mix of what researchers termed ‘low-brow’ movies—including My Cousin Vinny and Groundhog Day—and ‘high-brow’ offerings, such as Schindler’s List or the subtitled Like Water for Chocolate. The researchers found that when people chose movies to watch the same day, they often picked comedies or action films. But when they were asked to pick movies to watch at a later date, they were more likely to make ‘high-brow’ selections.”

Is it just the self-ascribed weightiness of “high-brow” films that lend them viewing resistance? I think there’s more to it than that. Most of the time, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel like I want to be fully engaged, hoping instead to just “check out”; this is probably why I’ll be texting on my phone and reading an article on my laptop while a movie plays on the TV, the combination leaving me distracted just enough to not care whether I’m remotely present in any of my activities. Novelty, I’m sure, plays into it as well, and services like Netflix offer a hell of a lot of novelty. When was the last time I finished a “Netflix Original” feeling satisfied though? The service brings plenty of alluring options, though when I look back at the past couple months of my viewing history, few of them would seem to be truly any good. Maybe that’s part of the problem, too—just that the limitless number of options to choose from makes the selection process impossible. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis,

“[B]ecause our library is also effectively infinite—no one person can ever read more than a tiny fraction—we face the paradox of abundance: Quantity undermines the quality of our engagement. With such a vast and wonderful library spread out before us, we often skim books or read just the reviews. We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.”

Think about that: “Quantity undermines the quality of our engagement.” Add to it what psychologist Barry Schwartz (in the above video) calls the paradox of choice, which argues that “Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time.” If I’m thinking about this correctly, the quality of our engagement tends to be less because of the abundance of options we have; an abundance of options which also leaves us feeling like we’re making a less satisfying decision due to the infinite number of potentially better selections that weren’t chosen. I’m sure this relates even on a scale of the 130-some-odd titles currently on my list of films I want to see (or watch again). How do I pick the right one to start with?

I ran into this same problem a couple years ago. I didn’t have any streaming services then, and decided I was going to rely on the local public library and used DVDs and Blu-rays for my viewing, to help ensure that I was being more mindful with the selections. Within the six months, in particular, the divide between mindless background noise and intentional, thoughtful viewing has become increasingly noticeable. It could really be that I’m not actually interested in the films I’ve told myself I should be interested in viewing. That’s absolutely true. I mean, maybe I actually don’t want to watch Triumph of the Will. Or it might all just be an elaborate excuse for why I don’t want to read subtitles. Either way, I’m struggling to do the thing I’ve told myself I want to do.

“Why am I not watching the movies on my watchlist?” is a really small deal in the big picture of things, but it’s also emblematic of a larger trend I see in my life. When left to my own compulsions, my decision making tends toward choices that aren’t in my own best interest. I eat pizza over broccoli. I watch YouTube videos instead of doing homework. I watch Netflix comedy “specials” instead of “classic cinema.”

What I’m aiming for here isn’t a rigid restructuring of my viewing habits, but a guideline for better decision making. It’s important to me to start making more mindful decisions again about what I watch, because when I do so I tend to get more out of the process. I want to do so to avoid “mindless” viewing, or at least as much of it, but also to just take a little bit of extra time to consider what this thing is, what it was supposed to be, or maybe what it means to me. This isn’t to say that trash-TV doesn’t have its place, or that I’m holding myself to a standard of no “mindless” viewing moving forward, just that I’m going to try to make more decisions that are in line with a goal. Recording that process here isn’t really about being more productive in as much as it’s using this space as a way to help me better focus on what I’m already doing. In essence, I want to increase the quality of my engagement.

Elena (2012), directed by Petra Costa

Christy Lemire for

“Fusing memory and mystery, director and narrator Petra Costa traces the fate of her older sister, actress Elena Andrade, through the prism of her own childhood. Actually, calling it a documentary isn’t entirely accurate. It’s more of a dreamlike mix of artful images and sounds: decades-old archival footage, snippets of audio diaries and newer images shot in modern-day Manhattan.”

Stephen Holden for the New York Times:

“With its free-floating imagery, Elena unfolds like a cinematic dream whose central image is water, which symbolizes the washing away of grief. But more than that, it represents the stream of life, with beautiful images of women floating through time.”

Elena is based in documentary, but presents as an interpretive diary of a sister reflecting on the passing of her sibling, processing her death through the lens of someone who was part blood, part stranger. The film focuses on Elena’s life, and the circumstances surrounding her death by suicide, before dissolving into a meditation on grief and guilt. In tracing Elena’s finals years, Costa interviewed friends and associates, resulting in 200+ hours of interview footage which was not used in the final cut of the film. That says something to me about what this process might have been about, trying to put myself in Costa’s position for a moment. There was more than enough archive footage and interviews to draw out a traditional documentary, but I get the sense that there was never a clear idea of what this film was supposed to be other than a representation of Costa’s reconciliation of where she fits into the broader picture of what was going on in her sister’s life. In retracing those years, she seemed to learn something of herself, and her connection to her sister and mother, with the result being what ended up being expressed in Elena.