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Telling Vision: The Digital Age and Freedom…

We’ve been digital now for about five years. I have to admit, as much as I might have admired the scavenger sensibility that standard ten-channel Irish television might have taught me, I find it hard to imagine what it must have been like. It’s like the way I can’t imagine a world without easy-to-carry mobile phones, even though I lived in it for quite a while, or I can’t remember what the world was like without access to the information super-highway (though I do remember when we used to use dial-up internet… oh the pain). Digital television is a wonderful invention, and one that I truly treasure. It’s been heard so often that it’s become something of a truism to remark that we get 999 channels, but there’s never anything to watch… but I think that people who feel like that simply aren’t trying hard enough.

In fairness, if I start the day with a good idea of what I want to watch, then it’s more than likely that the seemingly infinite diversity amongst my television listings will find a way to thwart me. As I flick through the channels, it’ll seem increasingly probable that everything else on the face of the planet is being broadcast, but I can’t find a programme that suits my particular needs at that given moment of time. Hell, even the movie channels, which I love, seem to have a hardtime broadcasting anything especially gripping or exciting or buzzworthy.

Sure, occasionally I’ll catch something like Short Cuts, but it’s just as tough as trying to find a good movie on the old terrestrial stations. Maybe it’s even harder – after all, I’m wading through a significantly larger volume of trash to find it. I have to circumnavigate a seemingly endless parade of channels showing godawful comedies starring former wrestlers before I can actually find something worth watching – and then I have to tag it to record in the early hours of the morning to watch the next day (or even the next weekend). In an earlier post, I described “hunting” through terrestrial channels to find good cinema, and it’s a similar experience on digital.

That said, digital does have one major advantage over the ten-odd channels that used to be fed directly into the house: the sheer volume of programming on offer. I’m a movie buff, so I’m primarily concerned with the numerous movie channels, and perhaps this approach only really works in the context of movies (it’s easier to jump into a two-hour movie, for example, than one episode of a long-running, continuity-heavy television show). Still, I find that while there might not ever be something I want to watch on, there’s usually something I’d be willing to watch, if that makes sense.

Perhaps that makes me sound like I have low standards. That wasn’t what I meant at all. I meant that the odds are high that I’ll discover something that I deem “worth a go”, or that I rank relatively higher than doing something else. It’s not a choice I actively would have made myself – and I think that’s a key point. While certain movie writers might claim that the digital age is potentially killing niche genres, there’s also the opportunity to reach a much wider market, and to increase the odds of an arthouse classic getting seen by somebody who would never actively seek it out. It’s like an “impulse buy” at the DVD store, except it’s free.

Given the number of options presented at a given moment in time, the odds are in favour of me discovering something that I would happily sit down and consume, rather than something I’d actively seek out. It might seem like a minor distinction, but I think – if you’re willing to embrace it – it’ll make watching digital something of an easier, more enjoyable experience. It’s the kind of logic that can be hard to explain to a non-cinema-fanatic. I know, for example, my mother is dismissive of the idea of settling down to watch a two-hour film that you were never really interested in before – especially when you could use that time to do something that you know you’d enjoy.

I can appreciate her position, but I still like the idea of finding something on that I will gladly sit through on digital. Sure, part of the thrill is the hope that I might unearth some hidden gem, and discover a movie that happens to be so quirkily tailored to me that other film critics and writers have been dismissive. I’m sure we all have movies that we like more than most, and I think we all sort of “lucked” into seeing some of them rather than actively seeking them out. I think that sensation explains part of my willingness to sit down with the digital remote and go straight to the movie channels.

On the other hand, that sort of thing doesn’t happen too often, I’m afraid. I’d like to pretend that it did, so I could vindicate my weekend digital safari, but that isn’t quite the way the cookie crumbles. That said, I do think there’s a lot of merit in exposing yourself to as much cinema as humanly possible, and taking a nice random sampling of it. That’s not to forsake the sorts of classic films that make up the cornerstone of any healthy movie diet, but merely to allow you to broaden your tastebuds.

It’s fun to see familiar actors in unfamiliar films. It’s interesting to have a look at what certain genre films do right, and what others do wrong. I think that every movie-watching experience, no matter what the film might be, helps build our own attitude and receptiveness to cinema. At the very least, it means getting a chance to see films I never would have had a chance to see otherwise – Wild at Heart and Koyaanisqatsi come to mind. I won’t pretend that films like that represent some sort of formative personal experience, but I am happier for the chance to see them. I don’t believe I’ll reach the end of my life harbouring the feeling I wasted that time.

Besides, if I ever do get the sense that a movie’s not worth the time, I can always just change the channel. There’s sure to be something watchable on elsewhere.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting article. Personally I hardly watch movies on TV as I can’t stand all the commercial breaks. Of course you have your dedicated movie channels, but somehow I never watch them. I stopped flicking through channels years ago and rather just watch a movie instead, at the time I choose. Don’t really feel like I’m missing out on TV and if there is a TV series I want to see I usually just buy the boxset.

    Completely agree with you on your feeling of an age when we didn’t have mobile phones or internet…when you called people at home and hoped they were there or when you had an appointment and just had to wait to see if someone showed up. It feels ancient now, but that’s only 15 years ago….

    • Thanks, man.

      I agree, it feels like forever, but it was within our lifetime. We watch digital and the movie channels (luckily) seldom interrupt the broadcast with commercials. Or we record them so we can fastforward through.

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