You Are What You Watch

The red envelope, please....
The red envelope, please....

I’m a browser by nature. By that, of course, I don’t mean I’m Firefox or Explorer – at least not until I wet-wire into the neural network (Then you’ll see! You’ll all see!). Rather, I’m a great reader of spines, those on books, those on DVD cases, those that are shelved alphabetically, vertically and occasionally with a fine patina of dust. I’m a lover of bookstores and video stores alike, so it is with some trepidation that I admit I also enjoy clicking through the endless loop of titles one can scroll through on Netflix.

Thanks to the Los Gatos-based company’s finely-tuned algorithms, the online, movie-rental site can predict my interest in a prospective rental within a single degree of separation, meaning, if I don’t like it, Flash Lely will. Good for him. This week, however, while trolling the “Watch Instantly” section because I’m too impatient for the red envelope to arrive in the mail (yep, just another way the Internet is sticking it to the post office), I discovered the “Local Favorites” section. What is Sonoma watching? Moreover, whose watching Sonoma while it watches what’s it’s watching? I had to ask.

“Netflix sources data from a pretty complex database that’s managed by a group of brilliant Netflix software developers who make it their business to tell us what we and our neighbors are watching from Netflix,” said Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications at Netflix, via e-mail.

“‘Local Favorites’ is simply a list of the movies that folks are watching in their community more than folks in other communities. It’s not a top 10 list but an indicator of how tastes vary by region.”

Relieved that some hybrid of Big Brother and Roger Ebert wasn’t quietly patrolling this corner of the Internet, I proceeded to source some intelligence on local viewing habits.

At present writing, Sonoman’s seem enthralled with “Up The Yangtze,” which, I learned was not as salacious as its title first suggested: “When the Three Gorges Dam makes life hard for the Yu family, daughter Yu Shui must take a job aboard a cruise ship, where she enters into a dizzying microcosm of modern China…” This sort of rental, a documentary and a foreign film in one, is consistent with the viewing patterns Movie Merchants proprietor Joan Reibli has tracked at her West Napa Street video store, where Sonomans often seek higher-minded fare. “I do really well with foreign films and documentaries,” she says, then added that her most popular rentals are usually the releases. “It’s always whatever came on Tuesday,” she explained.

Had I not learned Riebli’s release schedule, by the titles alone, my armchair analysis of Sonoma’s collective psychology would infer a pandemic of paranoia – this week it’s “State of Play” and “The Informers;” last week was “Duplicity.”

Online, however, the top ten Sonoma rentals are docs and foreign flicks, except for, inexplicably, “Mad Money,” a comic caper starring Queen Latifa and Diane Keaton, which is number 9. Okay, Sonoma, who slipped?

Number one in Napa is “My House in Umbria,” in part because they probably have a house in Umbria and the movie rental counts toward their homeowners insurance as video surveillance. Last week, Sonoma’s favorite flick is “Humboldt County.” Enough said. In Eureka, the seat of Humboldt County, the top flick is also “Humboldt County.” So much for cinematic reciprocity.

The 2004’s merlot-hating wine film, “Sideways,” is number 13 in Santa Inez, in Santa Barabara County, where the film takes place. The 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” the locally-produced seriocomic docudrama about the 1976 Paris tasting is number 5 in Napa (it’s currently number 21 in Sonoma, where much of it was shot).

What Netflix does with all the rental data it accrues on us I do not know. I do know, however, that Byron, the Dark Lord at Movie Merchants, is kind enough to “believe” me when I blame the rash of chick flicks I’ve rented this past month on the Contessa.

And that, dear readers, is priceless.