Thursday, May 7, 2009

Idiot Box

I rarely watched TV as a child; I missed most of the 1970s hits, although I was aware of them. I have a flash memory of standing in the gym in my elementary school, in line for some equipment, and not being able to add to the conversation about the previous night’s episode of The Bionic Woman. The homework load of a yeshiva day school education coupled with two hours of piano practice each night left very little time for such activities and when I had the time I preferred to read. Many years later when I moved into my own apartment I was so removed from the idea of TV that I hardly thought before I decided to not buy one; I also did not buy a VCR – I have now bypassed this technology completely - or a cable subscription. I reasoned that it would save me a lot of money and wasted time. A friend’s boyfriend was so incensed to learn of my TV-less state that I quipped that if it bothered him so he could get me one. A few weeks later I received a small black and white, encased in colorful plastic like an Apple machine from the turn of the century. It came in time for me to watch the breaking news about the recount of votes in Florida. I kept it unplugged on a shelf but it took it out one morning in September after hearing on the radio the first report that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center. I saw the first footage and thought to myself that the subway would be backed up and I had better take a bus to work. I saw comparatively little of the endless loop that that story would become. It was only the news that really made me feel like I was missing out on anything, and of course I was, for media is a critical tool of popular culture in our society. Oh, I eventually gave away that little model - sorry Don – maybe because of the associations with that morning report but mostly I think because I wanted color TV if any at all.
These days, not so much farther in the future, thanks to computers with DVD players and to the growing amount of video on the internet I have the ability to procrastinate by browsing through a treasure trove of shows (and movies) from my youth and beyond. This is a terrible admission from someone who has long prided herself on not owning a TV. And I need to clarify: I watched little but I did choose to see some things that were significant influences. Hill Street Blues appeared when I was in middle school and I was rapt; I followed it religiously. Much has been written about the show’s innovations and importance, how it was unlike anything else broadcast until its time, gritty and fast and complicated, with continuing storylines and a large ensemble cast. Watching the first two seasons again (I am stuck in the third season at the painful moment when an old Jewish man is threatening to jump from the roof rather than be evicted from his apartment) I was amazed at how practically every shot and line were imprinted somewhere in my memory; it was the oddest form of déjà vu, with the consciousness and realization of how deeply these episodes were imprinted on me. Today I see that some of it is silly – to be fair, much of intentionally – and that some of it is dated. But it is still breath-taking for all of the risks that it took, for all of the tough narrative turns and for how human it made its characters.
I was also a huge fan of PBS and when Brideshead Revisited appeared I became obsessed. I saw each episode at least three times. One friend gave me an old-fashioned jointed teddy bear that she named Aloysius for me. This summer another friend gifted me (for my birthday) the whole series on DVD and I spent one weekend dreamily immersed in that grey landscape, heavy with history, marveling once again at the gorgeous settings, acting and ennui. The DVD set came with bonus features, including a number of those involved in the production commenting on how unique an enterprise it was, with thirteen hours given over to the adaptation of a single novel, a particular gift for the actors. I have not yet seen the recent remake in part because it is so radically short, that is the length of a regular movie. I hope that you are humming the theme music of one of these series to yourselves as you read. For a while I had the following quote from Sebastian as a message on my answering machine; it was particularly appropriate for graduation week, although one caller protested that it was too sad. He says it to Charles during an early escape that they take, while they are lying in the grass post-picnic: “Just the place to bury a crock of gold. I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable I could come back and dig it up and remember.” It now seems to me that this is exactly what our favorite old shows and movies do for us: we revisit them but we also revisit ourselves when we first watched them. Even better, as long as the video is playing we get to travel back in time as well, pretending that we are once again viewing from the vantage point of our younger selves.
©2009 Leah Strigler


chayaruchama said...

Our tastes don't vary much, here;
NO surprise to YOU, LOL.

TV, for me- yields mostly IFC and Sundance, which regale me with documentaries, edgy, and the classic.

Or cinematherapy, prurient cartoonage of perverse delight [ i.e., Adult Swim on Cartoon Network]...

Otherwise, gimme a gooood book.
Love you.

Ask Leah said...

No surprise! And I already have two posts on books, with mention in at least one other...