Wednesday, 4 November 2009

10 Degrees of Separation

After a good year of stout refusal to subscribe to Netflix, I found myself in the wholly unexpected position of having to make use of their service. A few months back, I desperately needed to watch Popcorn, and having exhausted all other avenues of movie procurement, I turned to Netflix in a last-ditch attempt to satisfy my need. Not only did they have Popcorn, but I could watch it immediately.

Now I'm hooked. I knew this was going to happen. My combined love for movies and procrastination could only result in addiction to a film delivery service. Nothing in life was ever more sure.

Pictured: crack.

And now that I find myself staring down three deadlines, I'm again turning to Netflix, not only to mainline B-grade horror and the occasional shirtless Schwartznegger outing, but to test thier math. Based on my preferences and selections, Netflix suggests movies I might like. I can't begin to understand how that algorithm works, but I will push its logic to the limits of mathmatical possibility. To begin, I will select movie A and Netflix will recommend movies B, C, and D. I will then select movie from this group and so on until I move as far away from horror as possible. And then I'll try to make my way back.

Based on the films I've previously watched, Netflix has already lined up a few recommendations. Because I enjoyed Evil Dead 2, Shawn of the Dead, and The Devil's Backbone, Netflix suggets Cemetary Man. Already, I see a problem with this logic: The Devil's Backbone is not a zombie movie, but Netflix seems to think del Toro's Spanish Civil War ghost story skews zombie. I'll select Cemetary Man, nonetheless.

Round 1
Selection: Cemetary Man
Recommendations: The Crow, The Amityville Horror (2005), Land of the Dead, Murder Party, The Signal, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Lost Highway, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Hills Have Eyes (2006 Unrated), Taking Lives

I would have expected more zombie movies or comror (comdey-horror). As it is, the majority of films in this group are serious serial killer/mass murder movies. Is Neflix tyring to tell me something? Are they suggesting I might be better served if I stayed away from campy zom-coms? Sadly, this list seems more like a craps shoot than a well-reasoned, well-inentioned recommendation. David Lynch is about as far away from liner, predictable storytelling as I can get so I have no choice but to go with Lost Highway. This is almost too easy.

Round 2
Selection: Lost Highway
Recommendations: Fire Walk With Me, In the Cut, Inland Empire, Eyes Wide Shut, American Psycho, The Black Dahlia, Match Point, Following, Unfaithful, Sex Lies and Videotape
Now this is more like it! Here I'm presented with a collection of thrillers that run the gamut from crime to erotic. And then there's Woody Allen who sticks out like a Trekkie at a Star Wars con. Though I don't know the first thing about Match Point, I feel confident that it isn't nearly as dark or sexy as the others here listed.

Round 3
Selection: Match Point
Recommendations: The Black Dahlia, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Breaking and Entering, Melinda and Melinda, The OH in Ohio, The Dreamers, A Walk on the Moon, In the Cut, Scoop, A Good Woman

Based solely on the box art, I'd wager most of these are romance/erotic movies. I'm pretty far removed from horror, with the possible exception of The Black Dahlia. I'll take one more step away from my beloved genre and see how far I get.

Round 4
Selection: A Walk on the Moon
Recommendations: Unfaithful, The Painted Veil, Breaking and Entering, Fur, Waitress, Like Water for Chocolate, The Last Kiss, Henry and Jane, Incendiary, The Piano

Oh. My. God. What have I done? Can I find my way back? I have to get out of here. I can't... There's only so much drama a girl can take! Dear Gods, deliver me from this hell.

Round 5
Selection: Unfaithful
Recommendations: In the Cut, Original Sin, Eyes Wide Shut, Bound, Killing me Softly, Caligula, 9 1/2 Weeks, Deception, Lie with Me, Romance

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Round 6
Selection: Deception
Recommendations: In the Cut, Incendiary, The Informers, Original Sin, The Tudors Season 1, Caligula, Following, Hard Candy, Van Wilder: Fresman Year, The Bank Job
From the look of things, I think I broke Netflix. Romance, psychological thriller, crime, comedy. Still no horror, per se, but I'm hoping Hard Candy will lead me home.

Round 7
Selection: Hard Candy
Recommendations: Derailed, Man on Fire, The Bank Job, Following, In the Cut, Firewall, Trapped, Original Sin, Death Sentence, Munich

I'm now back in more familiar territory with crime, thrillers, and explosions, but Netflix, for some reason keeps pushing Original Sin. I'm not entirely sure which movie to choose and I'm tempted to go for In the Cut only because it's been recommended every goddamn time I make a selection. I think, however, I'm going to have to choose Death Sentence because it was directed by James Wan.

Round 8
Selection: Death Sentence
Recommendations: A History of Violence, The Bourne Ulitmatum, Mystic River, In the Cut, 3:10 to Yuma, Punisher War Zone, Saw, The Brave One, The Assassination of Jesse James, Green Street Hooligans


Round 9
Selection: Saw
Recommendations: Saw II, Saw III, The Talented Mr. Ripley, In the Cut, Taking Lives, Vacancy, The Girl Next Door, The Descent, Untraceable

Not what I was expecting. I was sure Saw would force Netflix to do the math and conclude that I want to watch nothing but horror movies but I'm being presented with a variety of films that cover various shades of darkness. I'll go one more round with my competitor and I'm sure this time I'll force this godforsaken algorithm to bend to my will.

Round 10
Selection: The Descent
Recommendations: The Ruins, Doomsday, Dogsoldiers, Splinter, The Mist, Underworld, I am Legend, Final Destination 3, Underworld: Evolution, Quarantine

Home at last!

I went 10 rounds with Netflix, and though I was on the ropes there for a bit, I fought my way back into the horror genre. It was a lot easier, almost too easy, to move out of horror than it was to move toward it. It took me 3 selections to move away from horror entirely, and 7 more to fully ensconce myself back in the genre. These results suggest that Netflix has a smaller selection of horror films than dramas. Looking at the recommendations themselves we see that In the Cut was recommended 7 times out of 10, Original Sin and The Black Dahlia were both recommended 3 times, and a handful of dramas were recommended twice. It would appear that Netflix doesn't remember what it recommends to its subscribers.

I cannot say that after completing this experiment I'm any closer to understanding Netflix's logic. The algorithm does recognize certain targets, but fails to pick up on others. Selecting Match Point and Death Sentence predictably forced Netflix to recommend Scoop and Saw because both films were directed by Woody Allen and James Wan respectively, but the smorgasbord of movies recommended in Round 6 differ widely from one to the next and are far removed from the steamy romantic thriller that was selected.

If you're looking to broaden your horizons, Netflix can definitley help you out. But if you're like me and just want to watch horror movies all day, you're better off browsing thier catalogue. Otherwise you run the risk being manipulated and hounded into to adding Caligula to your queue.

1 comment:

dementia13 said...

I think that much of Netflix's formula is based on other people who liked a movie, and what movies were popular with them. So, when you picked the surreal "Cemetary Man", you got reality-bending movies like "The Signal" and "Lost Highway". When you picked a Diane Lane movie, you got more Diane Lane. "In the Cut" probably would have got you back to horror the quickest, because it was the least-conventional film in most of the lists in which it appeared. Given that it's about serial murder, and in a harder way than "Taking Lives", it's reasonable to think that it would have produced some harder recommendations.