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Until four years ago, I'd never seen Back To The Future. Mostly due to my own idiot, blowhard nature but also partly because my high school neighbor was a total jerk and had a DeLorean with a custom license plate that said “Flux Cap”, I'd avoided seeing the classic at all costs, lying about the subject to some and acting like I was above it to others. It just sounded awful in my head, but then I watched it and, well, you know the rest of this story. It was obviously great. I felt like a total mouthbreather for wasting two decades hating it, and since, I've probably watched it no less than a dozen times. I still don't own it, not that it really matters though. Television keeps Back To The Future in my life, and that's fine because it just might be the perfect movie to randomly pick up partway through on basic cable.
Stumbling upon movies unexpectedly as you channel surf is like running into people you went to high school with at the grocery store. Most of the time, it's a miserable experience. Age hasn't treated them very well, you have absolutely nothing to talk about, and it really makes you question what you ever saw in the person to begin with. But every now and again, you stumble into someone from your past and the conversation just clicks. Sure, you inevitably touch on the old highlight reel stories you've told a thousand times, but the chemistry is still there, the banter just as fast-paced as in high school economics. Instead of making excuses to bail, you find yourself prolonging the conversation, asking new questions and telling yourself the quiche can be made later. And then you go home and tell your friends. Guess who I ran into at Target today? What a great guy. I wish I saw him more. That's what stumbling upon Back To The Future on basic cable is like. Too bad that'll be nearly impossible within five years.
Just like how Facebook has ruined the beauty of going ten years between life updates, OnDemand services are destroying the random movie discovery. Between that and the increasing availability of Netflix, forgetting a movie existed and then catching half of it on USA Network is almost a thing of the past. It's just too easy for people to restart it on Netflix instant or go to the channel's OnDemand service and fire it up from the first minute. I probably shouldn't be complaining. I love OnDemand just as much as the next good-for-nothing slacker, but it really is sad in a way. Every Christmas, I always watch at least three hours of A Christmas Story, all without ever watching it all the way through. I just sit down and kill an half an hour on six separate occasions because it repeats on a loop, all day long. That's the way I like it, and that's the way I like a few dozen other movies.
It has nothing to do with quality, nor does it have anything to do with humor, violence or heart-warming endings, though those adjectives certainly help. For a movie to work on television, I mean really work on television like Back To The Future or A Christmas Story, it needs five essential elements. Below is a summary of these must haves. As you're reading, think about a few of your favorite films, I bet most of them, regardless of greatness, will fail to pass inspection…
The real trick to sucking people in is that whatever movie you're flipping past needs something happening that you have to watch, every single time you cruise past the channel it's on. I love The Firm but if you motor by and Wilford Brimley isn't on camera threatening someone, odds are you'll hit the remote control accelerator and keep right on going. Sometimes it's simply the look of the film. V for Vendetta hooks me every time I stumble over it, simply because the movie's style is so distinct that no matter what scene they're doing I instantly recognize what film it's from, and then I stick around because I know that it'll only be a second or two before V stands up and says something subversive or quotable. I know this because he says something like that, a lot.
It's not even just about knowing that something cool is going to happen any minute, really it's about something cool happening right now. Some movies are so packed full of can't miss moments that it's almost impossible to tune in at any given second and not see something that you'll have to stick around and watch. The ones that really hook you as you flip, are the movies without any lulls at all. It doesn't matter when or where you happen upon Clue, odds are you'll see Evette's boobs bouncing around in front of the camera, or the chandelier will be in midst of almost killing Colonel Mustard, or if you're really lucky Wadsworth will finally have the whole thing figured out and you'll catch him in the midst of racing around the house shouting out the mystery's solution while terrorizing everyone involved. Clue, like most of the best movies you'll accidentally watch on television, has no lulls. It's all monkeys brains and murder, and that's not something you can skip past on a lazy, Sunday afternoon.
A lot of whether or not you'll be compelled to stick with a movie after it shows up on your television depends not on the movie, but on how the television channel's censors have decided to edit it. Some movies simply don't work if they're edited for TV. While Wedding Crashers is the kind of movie you just can't turn away from if playing in its unedited form off a DVD, if it pops up on television I'm probably going to be more than ready to flip away, knowing that it's just not going to be as good without that hilarious boobs montage at the beginning. For some movies, though, that simply doesn't matter. Sure the TV version of The Big Lebowski will gloss over some of the film's more blatant examples of drug use and sure you won't get to see Maude naked, but none of that will really change the movie's essential Lebowskiness. If it's on, you're going to tune in.
Most of the time the best you can hope for is that television's censors won't really make the movie any worse, but in rare instances it makes the movie even more impossible to resist. Whenever I flip past Showgirls I find myself watching, even though I know they've edited out all the nudity, and that was pretty much the only thing that made the movie even remotely bearable in the first place. Without the nudity and all the weird sexual dialogue and that scene where Elizabeth Berkley learns to ice down her nipples, Showgirls is even worse, and now it's so bad it's impossible not to watch. It goes from being a two vehicle head on collision to a ten car pile up, and you can't help but slow down and look as you drive past.
Thus far, the majority of films we've covered here have served as great excuses to stave off real life, but sometimes, these movies actually become the activity, or at least a companion to doing something else. For example, a few weeks ago, my girlfriend, my roommate and my roommate's girlfriend all watched the last hour of The Mighty Ducks. In between, we each got out a piece of paper and silently wrote down as many players as we could think of who represented Team USA in D2: The Mighty Ducks. Then we had a heated debate on the pros and cons of Hans and Jan and put forth possible theories on why Hans was blacklisted from the second movie. In between, we actually watched the movie, but it didn't matter that we all half paid attention for long stretches because we each knew the plot and could jump in at a moment's notice whenever someone yelled Shhhhh…. Bombay's about to call The Ducks losers.
That's the essence of a movie with perfect recognition factor. Roommates, girlfriends, family dogs can come and go, but anyone who sits down and takes the ride can do so at any point of their choosing. It's like a real-life version of Groundhog Day encapsulated in a two hour window. On this particular night, the film in question happened to be The Mighty Ducks but it just so easily could have been Mean Girls or When Harry Met Sally or A League Of Their Own. We all know fetch isn't going to happen, just as we all know that old lady will have what Meg Ryan's having and Marla Hooch's best beauty tip is more night games. These movies and the dialogue contained within them have entered the cultural lexicon, which means at any point, whether you're doing laundry by yourself or entertaining five people, they become perfect common ground to bond over. Just don't watch them with coworkers on your lunch break or you might end up destroying the copier.
How time much do you have to kill? How much effort are you willing to put into killing it? If I'm going to spend the next four hours kicking back with Return of the King, I might as well turn off the TV and pull out the DVD. At least then I'll be able to watch it commercial free and in high-definition. Maybe I'll even turn on the commentary. But no one ever actually sits around and thinks, “you know what I'd like to watch? Cool Runnings.” It's the kind of movie whose existence you only remember when it's forced upon you, and once it is, you'll remember you kind of liked it and stick around to watch it, but only because it's not too long. If it were longer you'd either go through the trouble to rent it and see it properly, or forget about it entirely and flip over to The Gods Must Be Crazy instead.
Long movies have no place on television. It's too much time to invest in something which when broadcast this way is, admittedly, an inferior product. Movies on television are all about the here and now, something you watch while you're waiting for something better or more important to crop up. They're what you do while your wife picks an outfit, or what you stare at while eating a microwave burrito and waiting for the live episode of 30 Rock to start. If a movie's two or three hours long, you'll never be able to watch a big enough percentage of the film to make it worth your while. If Liar, Liar pops up, I know that even ten minutes viewing is a large enough chunk of the movie that it's probably a good decision.
Deciding whether to invest in a television replay may often end up being the most important decision you make all day. Not because it's liable to monopolize your time, as already defined, most of these films should take you less than two hours to finish, but because movies can dramatically affect your mood. Ever plan some raucous activity and then mistakenly preempt it with a showing of Citizen Kane or Shakespeare In Love? Nothing quite kills a mood like watching Orson Wells lament over a sled or seeing Gwyneth Paltrow in man clothes. A great stumbled upon movie should lift your spirits, or at the very least, convince you to dangle FBI directors off a balcony. Hell, I've known people who've been late to midterm exams because Hocus Pocus was on, but the important part of that story is they went. Bette Middler put a spell on them, and they got their asses off the couch and crushed their Calculus tests. No one does that after catching forty minutes of Schindler's List.
Take a flick like Almost Famous. It has its ups and downs, sure, but on the whole, it's got hot chicks, great music and the right amount of Lester Bangs. There's no unexpected animal attacks or incest like in The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys; it's just good-hearted people screaming the lyrics to “Tiny Dancer” and trying to make Ben Fong Torres believe they're older than fifteen. Remember that scene in Step Brothers where John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell cheer as people's arms are being broken? That's what I want out of random television movies. It doesn't always have to be Swayze kicking ass in Road House, but I do want those same emotions. I wanna cheer as Ferris Bueller becomes the sausage king and pump my fists with Gary from a hospital bed as the Titans take state. Regardless of what the evening's plans were, I want to spend my night searching for someone with six fingers, and when I find him, I'll already know what to say.
Those five reasons explain what kinds of movies are most likely to grab you on television, but they don't really explain what it is that's so great about viewing movies that way. It doesn't explain what it is that we're going to miss when it's gone, and it doesn't explain the connection that's shared by millions of lazy underachievers who can't say no to a 2 A.M. airing of Robocop. Some of you out there are probably shaking your heads, confused at why one wouldn't just turn the goddamn television off if they had things to do. If that's the case, go ahead and navigate away from this page, pat yourself on the back and smile because you probably make more money than I do. You're unquestionably a success; yet, you're not someone I'd want to hang out with. But the guy improvising his own Take 5's with peanut butter, mini Hershey's bars he's stolen from the Halloween bucket and a bag of pretzels while watching My Cousin Vinny? I'd hang out with him.
A few years back, my idiot twenty-something cousin got fired from his job as a pizza-delivery driver when he failed to show up for work. It was a big scandal in my family, not because he was fired, but because he refused to admit any sort of fault. “The Shawshank Redemption was on!”, he kept telling anyone who would listen. I defended him, the only one in my entire extended family. They all thought he was a jackass, but I understood. Turning off The Shawshank Redemption is like covering your eyes if someone's boob falls out. You just have to look, girl, guy, gay dude, whatever. An exposed nipple is an exposed nipple; The Shawshank Redemption is The Shawshank Fucking Redemption.
Six months later, when that same idiot cousin got fired from his new accounting job for staying home to watch Raging Bull, I told him he needed to get his life together. Movies on television are a slippery slope, an awesome, time-wasting, friend-bonding waste of an afternoon that's dying fast. In five years my thirty-something idiot cousin will have no problem keeping a job. He'll navigate away from twenty-four hour news channels and re-runs of Spongebob: Square Pants and show up at 9 A.M. What a sad day that will be, at least for some of us.
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