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Memory Lane: The Joys of Channel Surfing…

Hello dear reader. I’m very sorry. It’s going to be a relatively slow week at the blog here, I’m afraid. That blasted real world keeps getting in the way, as it must from time – I’m preoccupied with various boring concerns, and my attention to cinema perhaps isn’t as finely honed as I might have liked. Even over the weekend, although I took the occasion to treat the better half to her first viewing of The Queen (which I suspect I liked far more than she did), I found myself without a clear idea of what I was going to watch. I hadn’t made a note of anything, or decided to revisit a particular classic, or seek out an important film, or even overheard somebody in work talking about a cult or classic film. Indeed, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to watch. So I decided to just turn the television on and see what it was that home entertainment could offer me this time.

My childhood was a bit like this...

I honestly can’t remember a world before digital. Well, I can, but I don’t remember much of it. Probably because there wasn’t too much of it. In Ireland, up until a decade ago, you used to make do with a core package of RTE, Network 2, TV3 and TG4. If you were lucky, you managed to sneak in BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV and Channel 4. About fifteen years ago, I remember stumbling across Sky 1 and Sky News on our television and reacting as if I’d just hit the jackpot. That’s ten core channels, a choice between ten television stations at any given moment. And boy, it was tough some times.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved what I perceived as “the challenge of analogue.” It was a time before we had the ability to watch television at any given time either on-line or through the use of viewing boxes. If the fates were on your side, you maybe had a VCR – you knew you were truly blessed if you could work it. So television was a lot more fluid, it seemed to move a lot quicker. Today, if you find a good movie, you can probably find it one five or six times in the week ahead. Back then, you only really had one shot at catching the beast. Sure, if you really wanted to see it you could go to the video shop, but that seemed like a bit of a cop out to a young hellraiser like myself. I was a hunter, patrolling my ten television stations in pursuit of good entertainment.

... and my teenage years were a bit like this...

This was a time when I used to insist my mother picked up the RTE guide. it was something of a guide to big game. Every Friday, after school, I’d sit at the table and scrutinise the charts and plans, mapping out the migration patterns of those rarest of creatures. If I was looking for a tourist attraction, I could catch Independence Day at 9.30pm on Wednesday. The Mid-Week movie was an institution, and a point at which I seemed to overlap with my classmates. As I grew older, I grew bolder. I wanted to stalk more elusive quarry.

I’d venture just a little bit past the watershed hour at first, dipping my toe into the waters. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs on Channel 4 on Monday night, the cool place to be, for those not necessarily lured in by the promise of Will Smith and strange aliens. Indeed, I still remember Michelle raving about Tarantino’s work before Irish class. I was first amazed that somebody else got it, and then that it was the school’s resident “smart  and cultured kid” who could dance like a pro. It was one of those cool little moments which illustrated how quirky and cool these trips outside the mainstream could be. Still, occasionally my tastes would bring me to the exotic.

It was hard to pull myself away...

There were names in the guide that I couldn’t pronounce, beside strange-sounding films I’d never heard of. Battle Royale, Ringu, Old Boy, The Host – and films containing the oh-so-cultured “(subtitled)” tag. These were strange beasts – completely unlike anything I’d seen pass through the regular hours I kept. It was akin to watching dinosaur feet stomp through the hills – even if the beast itself wasn’t fascinating, there was something intoxicating about the idea that I was one of the few people to have seen these mysterious creatures venturing forth.

Then there were the classic films. They cycled through periodically. Occasionally, you came to notice the routines, as a young child. Wanted to spot an Indiana Jones film? Christmas was your best bet. The same old horrors always congregated around Halloween, so much so that I came to identify the roman numeral that followed their title with only the briefest of glimpses. The true classics were something rarer. The tended to pop up randomly, but they showed up from time to time – it just took patience to catch them. And I knew that if I waited long enough, there’d eventually be the right one in the right place.

I enjoyed it to the Max...

The summer holidays were the best. Those were the days when I was free to stalk the nocturnal predators. Big game hunters like myself knew that the networks tended to take more experimental and outrageous stuff to fill the dead air after midnight. It was like a cult sort of thing, with the more surreal and bizarre films always cycling on in the early hours of the morning. Without having to worry about school (and, I’m ashamed to admit, sometimes worrying about school), I feasted on the work of Lynch and Cronenberg, devouring films like Jacob’s Ladder and Adaptation.

Hell, I discovered that late August was the place where Network 2 used to show a really long classic film starting at Thursday midnight. It was just before I went back to school, so I’d mark the film as some sort of holiday. It was in those wee hours that I saw films like Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged Hamlet or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, as my eyes struggled to stay open. I have fond memories of that.

It brightened my day...

Now, everything is on cycles. If I see a film I like coming up, I just press a button to capture and store it. If I miss one, it will undoubtedly be cycled through one of the seemingly infinite movie channels. Don’t get me wrong, the chance to stumble across a great film is even more likely these days – these channels are, after all, dedicated to movies all year around. Hell, part of my strategy to pick what films to review is flicking aimless through the movie channels until I find something I like. That element is still there.

And I know, as a grown man with a life, with a job, with responsibilities and obligations and family, I should be glad that this spares me the bother of tracking down or scoping out my prey with the cunning and prowess my younger self demonstrated on a weekly basis. I don’t have the time to do that anymore – so this is the best method for me. Still, I miss that. I am proud of my days as a young man seeking out brave and bold new delicacies across the fertile feeding grounds of our ten analogue stations.

Even the ads were fun...

Still, I guess things change. Sorry for the ramble, but it was just on my mind.

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6 Responses

  1. Great post. There is something to be said for randomly finding a movie on cable and just sitting down to watch it. Just recently I watched Oceans Eleven on crappy definition cable with commercials. By any objective measure, it was a crappy viewing experience, but I was very entertained (even if Oceans Eleven isn’t the greatest movie in the world). I think the fact that it’s a shared viewing experience that I didn’t personally select added to the charm.

    • Yep. Casino Royale, The Departed and Inland Empire all hold a very special place in my heart, just because of very particular viewing experiences that I held with each (even if I’ll argue Inland Empire isn’t a good film).

  2. I am back in four channel land at the moment – RTE 1 & 2, TV3 and TG4 and I have to say, I love it. TG4 has some great documentaries and film treasures that I otherwise may have surfed past with the golden remote. There’s something great about having less of a choice! I’m also finding myself watching DVDs more and I’m reading (and now writing) far more than I have in a long time. I’m even finding that the less channels I have, the less time I spend blogging and so on – I missed pen and paper days 🙂 I don’t think I will ever go back to having more channels than a handful. It all depends on entertainment preference and hobbies, I suppose 🙂
    The only thing missing that would really mirror a late 80s, early 90s telly experience is the pre-remote control necessity to sit on the ground in the vicinity of the box and its buttons and change the channels with your toes.

    • After writing this though, I feel I do digital a disservice. I think I might draft a sequel post about the wonders of flicking through Sky channels randomly and discovering the occasional gold nugget.

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