Last night I watched Alex Garland's new film Annihilation; I remember seeing the trailer some months ago and, as it was portrayed as potentially just another 'the team goes in; creepy things happen; most die' scenario, I didn't pay much interest. However, I've read a few articles on it since and, as it's gone straight to Netflix, it was a ready choice (and it was Saturday night after a day of overtime work).
I don't really wish to comment on the film itself. It reminded me of Tarkovsky in that it left open for the viewer more questions than answers; this, though, is frowned upon in commercial cinema. The studio financing the film attempted, as is their wont, to alter the content and ending to make it palatable for mainstream audiences (read, 'people are thick and aren't going to get the gist of this'). I think this, first, doesn't give much credit to the sophistication of viewers but, concurrently, speaks to a mass market demand to have narratives fed to us in an easily digestible form. If a film is 'too difficult' and gives rise to consideration, then it's often derided in reviews and does poorly at the box office. This is by no means a new realisation, it's been the threshold filmmakers have balanced upon since the beginning. What's changing is the means of distribution for these 'challenging' films and I wonder how that's going to alter what we see on the screen/tablet/phone during boring meeting.
For the past year or so, I've enjoyed a range of films and series on Netflix. Their subscription model allows for a wide reach of international and in-house productions that appeal to niche tastes. I would think that is, overall, a benefit to both creators and viewers. However, like much of social media, it could tend to narrow both the creation and discussion of 'content'. On one hand, it allows for the creation of films and series with significant production backing; a local production company in Germany would have little purchase to invest heavily in a series that would only be seen on German screens. But if the reach is global from the outset, they can produce a series like Dark or Babylon Berlin and garner many millions of viewers. I think there is little argument against the benefits for small regional productions gaining a wider audience. It also allows for a continuum of conversation between the creators and viewers. I'm on season three of El Ministerio del Tiempo from Spain; I tweeted a comment this week on how I was enjoying the series—which was then liked and retweeted by the creator of the show itself.
My concern is, though a given film that would otherwise languish in obscurity might gain global prominence, there is still the danger that it's isolated to a self-selecting audience. This kind of access could even further separate the 'guaranteed to make money sequel blockbuster' from the 'difficult arty' films with the further marketisation of main-street cinemas and broadcast television. We need art to challenge and inspire in public; art that only speaks to and through 'the elect' is not only ineffectual, it's self-indulgent. I'm thinking of much modern art that risks becoming a parody of itself; it attempts to convey serious social themes to an audience who is so far removed from the realities depicted that it becomes an even greater abstraction. I have a sense that we are, increasingly, able to opt out of discussions and presentations of art that challenge our perceptions. This at the same time that we are, in free societies, more able than ever to access the material that would do just that.
Equally, arguments about creation and distribution are beside the point. There are the concerns that I've mentioned above; however, the pivot point in a free society always comes back to artistic literacy. If people don't have the tools to discern and decipher the messages of music, literature, cinema, and all the presentations of artistic expression, then all the art in the world is moot. Conservative and dictatorial governments go straight for the arts in both propaganda and censorship; they know that controlling these narratives are the keys to power. This is why, under the same governments, funding for arts education is the first to go. The excuse is that it's unimportant to 'real' learning; but, of course, it's squelched as it's one of the greater threats to power. In the long game, there is little need to actively oppress the arts if the sensibilities of the people are gradually worn down. If the arts are segregated and siloed, there is little risk to power; art loses its ability to either inform or challenge—it just becomes the background noise between commercials or the piece hung on a gallery wall to fulfil a quota. (The flip side of that is when governments offer significant funding for the arts as a patron of indulgence; this can have its own dulling effect—the whole 'the best art through struggle' argument.)
Where does this leave us? Probably at the same point the arts have always lived; though I'm imagining some kind of sea change with technology and our own awareness, I doubt it's as grand or significant as that. I think we risk excusing ourselves and placing blame on the technologies at hand; we have agency in this. Ultimately, we have to make a choice to engage with the world and the narratives that we have access to. We can contribute to a wider discussion or close down into a self-enfolding rabbit hole of our own making. Sometimes that may manifest as a dramatic public expression...or, just as valid, an evening with Netflix and frozen pizza.