Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of heat for invoking “unknown unknowns” when he was Secretary of Defense — understandable, given the way things were generally going for him — but it’s a legitimate philosophical idea. There are somethings you know: how many fingers you have. That’s a known known. There are some things you don’t know but understand that you could: how many players in Los Angeles Lakers history have stood 7’1”’ tall. That’s a known unknown. But there are those things that exist completely off your radar, outside your worldview, hidden from every map you have. They’re the cultural artifacts you don’t even know you don’t know.
I think about those things a lot when I’m trying to find new movies or TV series to watch, and by new, I mean new to me. A known unknown would be something like “There are Steven Spielberg films I haven’t seen, and I know they exist, and I’d like to watch them.” I’m aware of those things as objects even if I haven’t experienced them. But an unknown unknown means watching a film or series I hadn’t read about, heard of, or ever gone looking for. It means finding something I never knew existed.
Case in point: the 1986 buddy comedy Running Scared. I didn’t know it existed until The Dissolve talked to comedian Paul Scheer about it as part of their ongoing “Compulsory Viewing” series, in which guests talk about movies they feel people need to see. I watched the movie a few days ago, and it holds up surprisingly well for a buddy-cop flick that’s almost 30 years old, thanks to the chemistry between leads Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. But beyond the movie, I was aware of how easy it was for the title to have started to drift off into the fog of movie history. Every year, a few more titles like it just kind of fade from our memory, and each successive generation is handed down only a few titles as part of the ongoing canons we construct in different genres. If not for my decision to visit The Dissolve that day, I might’ve gone my whole life without knowing that movie existed.
Now, Running Scared is not a life-changing movie. I would likely have found the will to keep soldiering on with existence even if I hadn’t spent a couple hours watching a comic and a dancer chase bad guys and hit on women in epic montages. But my finding it was a reminder of how easy it can be to overlook hundreds — thousands — of movies.
The problem gets worse when you factor in things like Netflix. Their Watch Instantly service has exploded in the last five years, so much so that when people say a movie’s available on Netflix, they usually mean it’s available to stream, not rent on disc. On multiple occasions, I’ve seen friends lament that Netflix doesn’t carry a movie or TV series they want to see, but when I send them a link to the relevant Netflix page saying the disc is available, they clarify that they only have the streaming service and don’t pay for disc usage. So it’s not that the film isn’t available to see; it’s that it’s not available at that moment to stream on the device of their choosing. Scanning the streaming selections means going through a body of work that’s smaller than the total amount Netflix actually has to offer, which is in turn smaller than the amount of movies actually available on DVD or Blu-ray, which is itself still smaller than the amount of movies that have been issued on home video, which is — finally — smaller than the number of movies that have actually been released.
In other words, it becomes really easy to close yourself off to new or challenging or just plain different film experiences because you don’t even know they’re out there. You’re not passing on a movie after consideration, however brief; you’re skating right by without ever knowing it was available. Patton Oswalt joked a few years ago that digital access and mash-up culture would usher in the era of “Everything That Ever Was — Available Forever.” But “everything that ever was” is actually “everything we can remember at the moment, based on recommendation algorithms.” It’s a lot, but it’s not everything. And I don’t want to miss out on those other things.
I’m not sure how to solve this yet, either, or even if it can be solved. But I’ve started taking baby steps: I regularly solicit movie-watching advice from friends and fellow critics; I willingly tumble down the rabbit hole of “You Might Also Like” and “Related Titles” whenever I’m organizing my streaming queues; I try to watch new-to-me movies instead of rewatching ones I’ve seen before; I bookmark like crazy. It’s a start, and I know it’s more of a journey than any attempt to reach a destination. But I’m driven. Those unknown unknowns gnaw at me.