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‘Annette’ vs. Bob Ross and Netflix’s Algorithm

Netflix’s new documentary about Bob Ross feels like a parody of algorithmic programming. ‘Annette’ feels like something else entirely.
September 2, 2021
‘Annette’ vs. Bob Ross and Netflix’s Algorithm

Here’s the thing: I’m part of the problem.

It’s not an enormous problem; there are bigger problems. Heck, there are bigger problems recounted by smarter people on this very website on this very day. But still: I’m part of the problem, and I feel the need to acknowledge that so what comes next is read not as a man-yells-at-cloud lament about the state of the culture but an honest reckoning with the world we’ve made and are leaving to our children.

The problem is that of the almighty algorithm, the software we’ve let help decide on our programming. Because nothing has ever smelled like algorithmic programming quite like Netflix’s new documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed.

When I first saw an image for the documentary, I assumed it was a parody of sorts. Like, a prank. A mashup of two genres—that of the “unassuming documentary about a nice guy” with the “true crime documentary” phenomenon—designed to make fun of both of them at the same time.

This initial idea was, sadly, mistaken. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed is, in fact, about the painter Bob Ross, the happy accidents that led to him becoming one of the most popular and famous American painters of the latter half of the twentieth century, the betrayal of Bob Ross’s child by his business partners, and the greed that underscored that betrayal. But the betrayal and greed are, frankly, deeply uninteresting, boiling down to a contractual dispute between two people no one has ever heard of (Annette and Walt Kowalski) and Ross’s kid, Steve.

Despite dark overtones (Walt seems to have worked for the CIA and, gasp, recorded his business calls, which, honestly, is not the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard) and some mild scandal (hints of infidelity are dropped) it is, really, all just kind of boring. Very few people were willing to talk to the filmmakers, citing fear of lawsuits, which means it’s just a couple of guys on camera complaining about a married couple (who also refused to talk to the documentarians) mixed in with some archival footage. Bob Ross remains magnetic and getting some of the background on his rise was interesting, I guess, but it is unclear to me why this documentary exists at all.

Except it’s very obvious why this exists. Netflix’s preview tile for Happy Accidents has (as of this writing) a red “Top 10” sticker in the corner. The algorithm wins again: It knows what we want, even—perhaps especially—if what we want is soothingly dull, the cinematic equivalent of a Bob Ross landscape.

The thing about algorithmic programming is that it encourages watching without seeing. I don’t mean that in a deeper sense about “what it means to see the beauty of the art” or whatever, but literally: It is programming designed to be watched while looking at a phone or chatting with a friend or just kind of zoning out and staring into space after a hard day at the cracker factory.

An algorithm could never create something like Prime Video’s Annette, the new tragic rock opera from French filmmaker Leos Carax about comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), his wife and superstar opera performer Ann (Marion Cotillard), and their baby girl, which is portrayed (mostly) by a wooden puppet. Over the course of the 140-minute movie, we see McHenry’s rise and fall as a shock-comic musing about the very nature of comedy who gets Me-Tooed, kinda, before Ann’s tragic death and the rise of their infant daughter as an otherworldly singing sensation.

Let me amend the declaration above, slightly: If an algorithm were to design something specifically to annoy me, it might look something like Annette. I am not a fan of musicals (they just do nothing for me) and Carax’s previous flicks, like Holy Motors or his segment in the short-film collection Tokyo!, actively annoyed me. Then again, I do love Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and the whole idea of the film was weird enough to pique my interest.

And I’m glad I watched, even if I didn’t really care for much of the movie. Again: musicals aren’t really my jam—I have difficulty parsing lyrics as dialogue, especially in a movie with overlapping vocals like this (I turned on subtitles after about five minutes)—and there are ways in which this really feels like a parody of an arthouse movie. See, e.g., the wooden puppet baby.

As Annette continued—as McHenry wrestles with his demons, becomes warped by his failures, exploits his daughter and the accompanist (Simon Helberg) who loved Ann—it won me over, at least in the sense that I wasn’t actively annoyed by it as I often am while watching musicals. But then, out of nowhere, the final musical number—a confrontation between McHenry and his daughter, now made flesh by her acknowledgment of her father’s crimes, a modern Pinocchio shedding the lies that surrounded her—absolutely wrecked me. Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel.

It was something about the plaintive nature of Driver’s face, the realization of what he’s lost. Or maybe the childlike innocence of his daughter removed in her rebuke of him, the realization of what she’s had taken from her. Or something else entirely. I don’t know what it was, exactly, or if it was even one thing—maybe it was a culmination of every weird little thing Carax had done for the preceding two hours. Whatever he did triggered something deep and primal and, honestly, a little scary inside of me.

Annette is the opposite of algorithmic art; it is sui generis, and in its distinctiveness, it demands attention to detail, to dialogue, to musical themes and motifs. I have no problem conceding that the movie is kinda goofy, and I hesitate to recommend it to the sort of person that made Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayals, and Greed a hit on Netflix. But it is fascinating and worthy of your attention if you’re interested in something that won’t survive a zone-out.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association