Monday, December 8, 2008

Cheap Entertainment

While attending college, I lived with three guys. Each of us had our quirks and mine, I think, was my practicality and down-to-earth attitude. However, this may be an optimistic way of saying that I stood out as the least intellectual. Sitting at our second-hand kitchen table eating dinner, I’d have no idea what they were talking about. I consistently accused them of turning every conversation into a philosophical or theological discussion. I might have a lousy day at school or a fight with my girlfriend and tell them about it only to have one of them respond, “So what did you learn from that?”

It wasn’t just the difficult stuff either. An interaction with the cashier at the grocery store, the decision to buy brown shoes rather than black, when you set your mind to it, anything can be made a teachable moment.

I remember watching some forgettable schlock movie and later making the mistake of telling one of them about it. “So what did you learn from watching this movie?” he asked.

“I didn’t really learn anything from it.”

“Then why did you watch it?”

It was a legitimate question and I found myself at a loss for words. I thought, it didn’t teach me anything. It was nothing more than mind candy and it served a film’s primary purpose – to give me ninety minutes or so of peace from worrying about my checkbook balance. But this didn’t seem an adequate answer.

My interest in movies has grown exponentially over the years. I haven’t had even basic cable since I lived with my parents and built up my hobby with videos and DVDs. With roommates, it was no problem to escape into my room or the garage for a few hours, but when I got married, my hobby became more complicated.

The first year of marriage, my wife and I got by with just a DVD player. These were the nights we spent going out with friends or enjoying quiet nights talking. Then my father-in-law installed an antenna and gave us the gift of network television. Overnight, frustrated yelling replaced calm conversation. “Move it more to the right. The OTHER right! That’s too much. This isn’t working. Let me go stand in the kitchen and hold my arms up. That worked yesterday.”

To this day, my wife and I don’t share the same taste in TV and film. She gravitates to the traditional chick-flick while I will watch just about anything that doesn’t have Meg Ryan in it. Thus, when we agree on a show or movie, we embrace it with the zeal of a Trekkie.

To this day, whether I’m watching a sitcom or an epic period film, Yoshi’s question haunts me.

The Manhunt
In a day when television has to be very careful to use words like “alleged” when referring to a murderer or pedophile, John Walsh and America’s Most Wanted appealed to my wife’s conservative sensibilities. This is a world where “innocent until proven guilty” means nothing.

“Good evening. I’m John Walsh and tonight we need your help in catching some perverts. Our first story tonight is about a real dirt bag.” Where else but Fox will you find a grown man revert to name-calling? Everyone’s a creep, slime ball, or a cold-blooded sicko.

We started watching AMW a few years ago, back when the show announced their 700th capture. Their tally now runs over a thousand, many of whom never knew their profile had been shown on network television. They’d been on the run for months or even years until the broadcast and then a coworker who regularly watches the show turns them in. The update usually aired a few weeks later.

“Good work this week, guys,” John tells us. “Your tips led to the capture of this scum bag and lets hope this time some incompetent judge doesn’t let him out on bail again.”

What I’ve learned: If I’m ever on the run from the police, casually find out if my employers or landlords watch the show. Also, set aside time every Saturday at 8pm and find a private place to watch. That way, if I’m profiled, I can get some kind of head start.

Bad Boys
In Dallas, COPS airs right before AMW. At first, my wife or I would turn on the television ten minutes early and catch the last segment. Then we’d tune in earlier and eventually planned our whole day around skipping afternoon naps so the kids would go to bed at seven in time for COPS.

We’ve been watching COPS for almost a year now and I still haven’t figured out why. Maybe it’s the show’s predictability and simplicity that initially drew us in. Without the need for a script, narrator, plot, or any real production costs, all the producers have to do is send a camera crew to just about any city with legalized gambling and they’re sure to find primetime gold. The busts usually start with a routine traffic violation but quickly escalate when someone throws something out the window. As sure as death and taxes, the cops take the driver into custody and find a trunk full unlabeled pill bottles. “Those aren’t mine,” the driver says. “Those belong to this guy, Paul, I know.” The cop then finds out the car had been reported stolen and that the driver has a warrant out for felony drug trafficking.

What I learned: The next time I’m driving down the Las Vegas strip with enough crystal methamphetamine to supply the West Coast, I will first check my taillights, as well as the registration and inspection stickers.

My Tube
When there’s nothing on TV, my wife and I sometimes settle into bed with the laptop and randomly search the web. Occasionally we’ll get lucky and find a full episode of something we both want to watch. Other times, we wind up typing funny things into the search engine.

Our love of dogs eventually drove us to the Sonoma-Marin Fair, otherwise known as The Ugliest Dog in the World Competition. Together my wife and I scrolled through the archive of past winners and saw a history of protruding tongues, bald spots, blackheads, broken teeth, warts, and cataracts.

This led to our discovery of youtube. Here we found a link to an emcee reading the judges’ ratings system for the competition:
· Overall appearance
· Teeth – noticeable overbite or buck-toothed
· Special/unusual attribute
· Legs – crooked or missing
· Eyes – Sad sack, bug-eyed, or missing
· Tail – crooked or missing

My wife watched these videos while I was at work and updated me on her research when I got home. “This is Tater. His tongue looks like that because he’s got permanent nerve damage.” She insisted we watch these and then wondered why she had nightmares for days.

The tricky thing about youtube was the sidebar of “Related Videos.” This lured us into a world of highly educational videos like “Anaconda vs. small white boy” and “Hamster eats own young.”

What I learned: Videotape everything. Eventually, it will pay off, especially the next time I’m vacationing in the Amazon and see a pack of alligators attack a hippo.

The Other Greatest Story Ever Told
This past Christmas, I turned on the TV horrified to see that my regularly scheduled program had been postponed for the annual broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t mind the film without commercials which clocks in at just over two hours. But the network television version begins at seven o’clock and concludes just before sunrise. At eight, George is just now beginning his battles with Potter. At nine, George is slapping around his drunken uncle. At ten, he’s in a bar praying and gets punched in the face. By eleven, he’s finally on the bridge and I’m so despondent that I find myself wishing Clarence would mind his own business and let George do his thing so I can go to bed.

At some point, I asked myself, does this film really represent Christmas? The film is about a man’s downward spiral and subsequent realization that his life really is significant. The message is good enough despite the fact that the decline takes up over ninety minutes of the film. It’s not the negativity that bothers me. I just don’t see what it has to do with Christmas. It has nothing to do with the birth of a savior. Rather, the climax of the film happens to occur on December 24th.

Finally, I got fed up with the film and clicked around until I found an edited-for-television version of Die Hard. This is the version where McClane jumps off the Nakatomi building after overdubbing to himself, “John, how the ‘heck’ did you get into this ‘crap?’”

In light of the holiday season, I reconsidered the plot. A foreigner saves a bunch of upper-middle class Americans from the forces of evil. This, I thought, is the true meaning of Christmas.

What I learned: Die Hard is a better Christmas movie than It’s a Wonderful Life. Yippee-kay-yah!

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