music friday: aretha franklin, "think"
35 years ago today

what i didn’t really watch last week

Perhaps it’s time to question the ability of AI recommendation systems to tell me what I’ll like.

I got the movie Samsara from Netflix. I knew nothing about it, but MovieLens predicted I’d give it 8/10, so onto my queue it went, and into my house it came. When I took it out of the package to watch it, I peeked at the description, and I knew right away it was not the movie for me. I tried … got through just over an hour, although much of that time was spent sleeping. Then I gave up, put it back in its package, and placed the mailer in the mailbox to be taken away forever.

Samsara is the sequel to director Ron Fricke’s last movie, Baraka, which, it should be noted, came out nineteen years ago. Fricke takes his time getting his movies just right. There is an audience for Fricke’s films … Samsara won the Best Documentary Award at the 2012 Dublin Film Critics Award, for instance, and the reason I saw Baraka many years ago is because one of my students told me it was the movie that changed his life or something like that, so I felt I had to see it. I gave it 5/10 … in deference to the fact that I slept through what little I “saw” of Samsara, I’ll give it an “Incomplete”. Both of those movies are stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective. There’s another movie, Fricke’s first as a director, Chronos, that I might have seen (although since I’m not sure, perhaps it didn’t impress me much). I saw that one in a theater … I feel like it was the first IMAX movie I ever saw. My memory is I liked it, but then, it was only 43 minutes long.

Samsara looks stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective on the Blu-ray … if you can’t see it in a theater, Blu-ray is a necessity. Fricke’s movies are documentaries with beautiful cinematography shot all around the globe, with a nice interplay between picture and music, and no narration or apparent plot. In short, they are moving picture versions of coffee-table books. If that sounds good to you, check it out … if you liked Koyaanisqatsi, check it out (Fricke worked on that picture, as well).

The point of this post, though, is that I am not the audience for Samsara, which I’d think was obvious given the 5/10 rating I gave Baraka. So why did MovieLens think I’d give Samsara 8/10?

First, it’s a documentary. Of the 19 genres MovieLens lists, documentaries get the third-highest ratings from me (7.6/10) behind “Film-Noir” and “War”. Next, only 42 MovieLens users have rated Samsara, which doesn’t leave much for comparison, and their average rating is 8.4/10. I’ll see this happen a lot when a movie is first released. The first people to see a movie and rate it tend to be fans of the film, so the average rating is high. The rating drops over time. Samsara hasn’t had a chance to drop, yet.

Netflix, where I got the movie, predicted I’d go with 6/10, which is a lot closer to reality. Netflix has a good AI system, but I think my ratings are affected by the stuff Robin watches, so I’m not sure their ratings are “pure”. Criticker, though, agreed with MovieLens, predicting 8.4/10.

Obviously, the real question is why I let AI systems pick my movies for me. At the least, I should have an override button when something turns up that is clearly outside my interests. But I hesitate to do that, because relying on AI means I regularly watch movies I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, and most of them are good movies. Maybe I can just call it progress that I gave up on Samsara, instead of keeping it around the house for weeks while I decided whether to watch it.