Like a lot of folks I know who suffer from delusions of smartness, I went through a period of a few years when I prided myself on watching absolutely no television. (At least I wasn’t one of the ones who brag about it.) My monklike abstinence ended in the early days of broadband, when in order to use a cable modem I was required to subscribe to cable TV as well. Hello, Daily Show. Still, aside from tension-relieving late-night yuks and the occasional news broadcast, I was pretty good.
For the last 10 months, though, my television has been in use for a startling, and increasing, portion of the day. No: I didn’t get hooked on telenovelas. I got a DVD recorder for Christmas and caught the archiving bug.
It started with the same guy who eased me back into TV in the first place. Jon Stewart’s take on the hypocricies of politicians and the sheepishness of reporters had become an essential part of my strategy for coping with the world around me, and I decided I’d record every one of his shows this year, along with those of his protégé, Stephen Colbert.
Every show, you ask? Why would you want to do that? Well, for years I’ve resented half-hearted home-video releases of TV comedy. Those Best of Saturday Night Live releases, for example, just don’t cut it: If DVD producers can’t recognize the need — and I do mean need — for a disc packaging every single instance in which Will Ferrell impersonated Dubya, then they just can’t be trusted to get around to more obscure delicacies. I did the math and realized it’d cost me about 30 bucks’ worth of blank DVDs to record a whole year of both shows.
Of course, I didn’t factor labor into that cost. It’s true that I didn’t necessarily have to decide to edit out every commercial from every episode before burning them to disc. But it gives me pleasure to know that, should I dig these things out in 10 years, I won’t be faced with any insultingly stupid 30-second reminders that Axe Body Spray or the series Drawn Together ever existed.
I understand that it’s a tiny bit unlikely that I’ll want to watch much of this stuff 10 years from now. If I don’t want to remember Axe Body Spray, you can bet I’ll be trying to forget secret prisons, torture “compromises,” and the myriad other scandals that have been fodder for Stewart’s correspondents. But after settling into my Comedy Central routine, I discovered a channel whose offerings are indeed timeless: Turner Classic Movies.
Did you know that, while every Police Academy is available for sale on DVD, there are dozens of Cary Grant movies that haven’t been released, some of which probably never will be? Are you aware that, while hack directors like Brett Ratner have their whole filmographies on Best Buy shelves, artists like Fritz Lang have some of their most appealing titles languishing in retail limbo? TCM knows.
What’s more, they care. At the risk of sounding like I’m writing an advertorial for the network, TCM has wowed me this year by the breadth of their programming, showing hundreds of movies I’d never heard of from Hollywood’s finest years, all uncut, with no commercials, and almost always letterboxed when applicable. If you know how to set a recorder and don’t mind the occasional appearance of a discreet network logo, you too can own more films from the ‘30s and ‘40s than will ever be released commercially.
Where do you draw the line, though, once you start? Back in January, I would only record films I knew by reputation and had always wanted to see, but which weren’t out on DVD: Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, for example, or Journey into Fear, starring (and, though uncredited, partly directed by) Orson Welles. Soon, though, I’d snag things I’d seen before and loved — Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in Gambit — that were inexplicably MIA in stores. By summer, I was recording almost anything that wasn’t available commercially.
Before I knew it, I had 600 discs sitting on spindles around me, mocking me with the fact that there’s no way to watch ‘em as fast as I dupe ‘em. It’s a problem, or, at least, an embarrassment. On the other hand, 600 movies stacked up neatly like that take up a lot less space than an equivalent number of store-bought DVDs, not to mention the fact that the latter would cost you as much as a car. I’ll never embrace actual piracy — but until some smart studio decides that Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder deserve to have all their films in print, this is an addiction that a cinephile can’t be too ashamed of indulging.