In which Brian poses the question: Is life too short for “Rashomon?”
Next to my television, a neatly stacked pair of DVDs is quietly collecting dust. Each disc is in a white sleeve with a description of the film. Underneath is a red envelope bearing the corporate logo of the online rental service Netflix. The titles change from time to time. “Seven Samurai.” “The Seventh Seal.” They could be any number of films that, if one aspires to a higher plane of cinema literacy, seem like a good idea to watch. “M.” “Dr. Strangelove.” They were rented, like many movies before, with the best of intentions. “Salesman.” “Harlan County, U.S.A.” They were rented — days, weeks and months ago — but no one’s watched them yet. It raises a question peculiar to the Netflix age: Is life too short for “Rashomon?” Buy a book you think you should read and you’re out $13. The same goes for an album that a wise friend said you just have to hear. Even if you never get around to them, at least you won’t lose any more money on the proposition. But Netflix movies have no due date. You’re welcome to keep them as long as you want — at least, as long as you’re forking over the monthly fee. (Subscriptions range from $5 to $48 per month, depending on how many movies you want to rent at a time.) Unrealized ambition now has a recurring cost. For me, the all-time record for an unwatched movie was “Rashomon,” which Netflix says I had from July 2008 through December 2008. Released in 1950, Akira Kurosawa’s film is regarded as a masterpiece. In Japanese with English subtitles, it presents four people’s recollections of a rape and murder in the woods, yet they’re all contradictory, self-serving versions the story. It’s a structure that’s been copied time and again, in television programs and movies such as “The Usual Suspects.” The film was innovative for its time, as noted by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: “Much of the power of the picture — and it unquestionably has hypnotic power — derives from the brilliance with which the camera of director Akira Kurosawa has been used. The photography is excellent and the flow of images is expressive beyond words. Likewise the use of music and of incidental sounds is superb, and the acting of all the performers is aptly provocative.” More than 50 years later, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert was similarly effusive in his praise, saying the movie “struck the world of film like a thunderbolt.” “It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West. It won the Academy Award as best foreign film. It set box office records for a subtitled film. Its very title has entered the English language, because, like ‘Catch-22,’ it expresses something for which there is no better substitute,” Ebert wrote. By the time I finally watched the DVD, I expected it to change my life. The thing is, few movies, books or albums ever seem to live up to expectations. That’s especially true at the intersection of a slowly unfolding, subtitled film and our always-on, Twitter-addled attention spans. After a disappointing first viewing, I did a little more homework on just why the film is so important. “Rashomon” cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, for example, re-established the limit of what was possible in his craft by pointing his camera at the sun and creating long tracking shots through the woods. Nuggets like that, combined with an excellent commentary track on the DVD, helped to make watching the film worth the wait. I was also relieved to learn, at the very time “Rashomon” was taunting me nightly, that I am not alone in having a cinematic ambition that exceeds my baser movie desires. Last year, the online magazine Slate conducted a reader survey that revealed some of you have far dustier Netflix piles than I. People reported not watching “important documentaries” such as “Ghosts of Rwanda” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” and art-house classics such as “Yojimbo” and — you guessed it — “Rashomon.” John Swansburg, who wrote the piece for Slate, offered some soothing words of wisdom: “Mailing back a DVD unwatched doesn’t mean you’ll never get another shot at it. And Netflix is the one paying the postage. Why not give yourself a week to see ‘Hotel Rwanda.’ If you don’t get to it, maybe it’s because you’re a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy. But maybe it’s just because you’re not quite in the mood for it right now.” And maybe, just maybe, it’s because life’s too short for “Rashomon.” Brian Mackey writes for the State Journal-Register.