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We may only be a few days into this social distancing and quarantine thing here in the U.S., but no doubt there’s a phrase that has already become etched into our consciousness, a waking nightmare accompanied by the cacophony of Netflix’s autoplaying teasers: “What do you want to watch?”
Despite the excess time many of us now have on our hands due to the coronavirus pandemic, deciding how to spend our non-working hours isn’t as freeing as many assumed it would be. Based on social media, it seems that a lot of us are choosing to spend our time at home watching movies and television. But the decision of what to watch is sometimes just as time-consuming as watching the thing itself, because the overwhelming amount of access to streaming services provides an overwhelming amount of options. It’s a feeling I’ve come to know all too well. There are plenty of great articles, lists and threads online about specific things to watch during this time, and there’s no need to repeat that here. But perhaps I can provide a method and motive to our watching madness.
There is an understandable desire during these trying times to comfort-watch and put on the old reliable, familiar movies or TV shows that can lessen the panic of these strange days. But we’re going to be stuck inside for a while, and with movie theaters closed and TV productions on hiatus, there will eventually be a dearth of new content. I love a good rewatch, but there’s only so many times we can all watch The Office again, and marathoning the MCU movies and Fast saga isn’t going to make up for postponement of Black Widow and F9. And sure, memorizing every line of dialogue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy may sound like a good idea now, but a few months from now you’ll find yourself hating hobbits and emerging back into the world looking like Gollum. And no one wants to be a Gollum.
I’ve found that watching something new lessens the drain of social distancing and staves off the potential of going stir crazy. Now is probably the best time we have to clear up our streaming service queues and watch all of those things we’ve been putting off. That three-hour award-winner? Give it a watch. How about that foreign film you were recommended that’s been sitting in your watchlist for the past three years? Give that a watch, too. And that critical and commercial bomb you heard was awful but have always been curious about? Well, why not hit play on that, as well. We owe it to ourselves to have new experiences during this time, to learn something new, expand our tastes and connect with characters onscreen, even if we can’t connect with people in person for the time being. Watching films and television, even if it’s by ourselves, is a conversation, one that allows a chance for introspection and an evaluation of our personal tastes.
There’s even an opportunity with this quest to watch new things, or revisit films that you haven’t seen in a while, to make a game out of it. Some have chosen to build watchlists of unseen movies based on a theme (pandemic and zombies seems to be a popular one), while others have made it their goal to make their way through a director or actor’s entire filmography from beginning to end. There have even been a few Skype viewing parties hosted by some social-media mutuals, a few of which have turned into RiffTrax-style commentaries. Personally, I’ve chosen to form a ‘six degrees of separation’-style viewing pattern in which each new film I watch shares an actor with the previous pic I watched, leading to someone new within six movies. It’s become my way of working through my various watchlists on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and it’s amazing to see where it leads. Already I’ve made my way from Pan (2015) to Raising Arizona (1987) with three actors — Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore and Nicolas Cage. It’s silly, but it saves me the time of having to overthink what I’m going to watch. If a movie sucks, it’s OK, the next one will probably be better, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of time.
Another thing that can be helpful in figuring out what to watch is the app JustWatch, which allows you to select every streaming service you subscribe to and shows you what’s new on that service daily. There’s also a search option that allows you to find out if that TV show or movie you’ve been wanting to watch is streaming anywhere, or available for rental. If you’re bored of looking at the same old options on Netflix but don’t want to sign up for another service, Vudu, Crackle and Tubi are all free with some surprising hidden gems in store, if you’re willing to wade through some D-list titles to get there. And most streaming services offer a week-free trial to new members, with the ability to cancel before you get charged. The Criterion Channel is currently offering a free two-week trial and is particularly great if you do want to fill in those blind spots you have for classic movies, foreign cinema and auteur directors. Additionally, the horror streaming service Shudder, a personal favorite of mine, is offering a 30-day free trial with the promo code “SHUTIN,” for those looking to expand their knowledge of horror new and old.
I think many of us will find this whole situation a lot more palatable if we give ourselves the opportunity to learn something new, to utilize our new viewing habits as a way to broaden our conversations and if not gain inspiration of some sort, to at least make it fun. Deciding what to watch doesn’t have to be a chore, and it’s still possible to find comfort without watching The Avengers (2012) for the 19th time. So, with all of that in mind, “What do you want to watch?”
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DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts