What do you get the dead president who already has everything? I like to imagine the spirit of George Washington took advantage of the Internet this past weekend to catch up on some of the wonderful cinema he’s missed over the last two hundred years. People on the Internet love free things. So imagine the rejoicing when The Criterion Collection – a specialty film imprint that schedules home releases of well-regarded contemporary and classic films from world cinema – announced that some 800 movies posted to Hulu Plus would be free for the entirety of Presidents Day weekend.
Now, in an era where virtually any film can be accessed on the Internet through 10 or fewer clicks, this might not seem that special. But, there’s still something to say about seeing a film in a theatre as a shared viewing experience with your fellow theatregoers. Then you look at the snow out of the window decide that the ghost of Georges Méliès will forgive you just this one time for watching Kurosawa and his mad films in the comfort of your own dorm just this once.
I took this as an opportunity to binge and marathon on as many classic films as I could stand. If I could cross off several seminal works in between studying for a volley of exams this week, then my otherwise quiet weekend would be a success. But by the time I learned of this free film development it was already late Saturday night. My first selection was Hoop Dreams based primarily on the response of Roger Ebert who named it both the best film of 1994 and the greatest film of the 1990s.
Hoop Dreams is, in many ways, like a prequel to Space Jam if Space Jam turned into a documentary about 1990s sports culture and the characters from “the Looney Tunes” were replaced by poverty. Hoop Dreams tells the parallel stories of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black youths born in the poorest areas of Chicago who try to use their talents at basketball to make it to college. It’s easy to see why Ebert loves Dreams and the documentary holds up so well today: the best-scripted films feature characters with strong motivations. No motivation is stronger than trying to raise your family out of poverty in the face of cultural, social and financial adversities trying to hold you back. The exact same film could be produced today with a few minor edits: the excessively short shorts, other outdated fashions, a visit to an old-school Pizza Hut. But the idea of players trying to reach the next level and failing is a story that still happens every season. 20 years later, the film Dreams holds up, even if the dreams of Gates and Agee to play in the NBA did not come to pass.
But only a few minutes into Dreams it became apparent that there was a catch to the goodwill of free Criterion: viewers were still expected to sit through commercial breaks lovingly inserted every eight to 10 minutes. Hulu claims to tailor a unique ad experience to each of its viewers. Unfortunately, Hulu’s advertising algorithm is not as carefully constructed as Hulu might suggest. Hoop Dreams is three hours long. And by the fourth ad break, I had seen the same 90-second commercial describing the prostate health specialists at the Cleveland Clinic four times. This is an excellent use of your advertising money, Clinic.
Unless, of course, the Clinic is playing the long game and actually trying to target young adults, in which case, bravo sirs and madams. I’ll be sure to schedule a checkup in 30 years.
In My Dinner With Andre, playwrights Wallace Shaun and Andre Gregory sit down in a restaurant and have a meal in real time as they catch up with each other and deliver novella-length speeches on the nature of humanity. Think 24 without the explosions and with more monologues about soul-searching trips to the Sahara Desert and the fleeting nature of happiness in today’s society. I loved My Dinner With Andre to no end. I first became familiar with Andre through Community’s parody of the film, and as much as I loved that television episode the film exceeded pretty much all of my expectations. But what My Dinner With Andre is not about is 12 commercials for Doritos over 90 minutes. Frito-Lay, I have seen the Super Bowl commercials before. And I have seen what both Mr. Shaun and Mr. Gregory order in the film and nowhere are they offered a bowl of Doritos. Shaun orders a spritzer at the start: perhaps the Frito-Lay marketing department is trying to reposition Doritos as the official chip of spritzer drinkers everywhere? In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most people that start My Dinner With Andre at 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday are not big partiers like those football fans seen in the ad. And their parties are more likely to feature boxes of wine than your pedantic snack chip. If Doritos is subsidizing my exposure to great films then I guess that I should be grateful, just like those Nacho Cheesier chips because they are full of grated cheese. But when these films are so easily found on the Internet from both legal and questionable websites, can websites really afford to alienate viewers by repeating the same two commercials?
It is for these very reasons that I failed in my fourth attempt to finish Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Seal famously features a game of chess played between Death and the protagonist: the protagonist will die when Death wins the game. Doritos are death, and to this critic each additional Doritos commercial felt like one step closer to checkmate. I quickly switched films. But every time a new film came to its first commercial I was shown the same clip. Inspecting great films through the lens of a Dorito chip is something that I don’t recommend. The Lord of The Flies becomes normal children driven mad by Doritos commercials. The Doritos clip came only 10 minutes into Seven Samurai. I felt Death follow me into each new film. Quite simply, each crunching of a Dorito was a blow. A blow to my intellect and a blow to my human spirit. I have now lived through at least 200 punches. At this rate only 200 more and the title to that Truffaut film I thought about queuing up will be strangely relevant to my own existence. It is for these reasons I had a perfectly pleasant time watching Hoop Dreams and My Dinner With Andre then ran away crying from my Criterion experiment. And I will not be signing up for Hulu Plus: no man or woman should ever have to pay for this insanity.