Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The DVD Changed My Life! (Simplicity, Part 2)

The Timothy Burke post I alluded to below has a lot to say in defense of all the alluring and complicating stuff which modern life confronts us with, but it begins by focusing on just one slice of it: TV shows. Tim, it turns out, is a huge fan of The Avengers, The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Firefly, Batman and more, and thanks to the DVD can happily surround himself with them. A few years ago--even a few months ago--I suppose I'm not sure what I would have thought about all that. Unlike my brother-in-law, I've no problem with TV itself; I'm a TV watcher, and always have been, though not as much as some. My TV watching, and Melissa's too, goes up and down depending upon innumerable factors; right now, besides Melissa's beloved Trading Spaces and What Not to Wear and the occasional PBS special, the only program we watch at all regularly is CSI (the original, of course). But I can't deny that at least one of those factors has been an old and deep bias against TV, a sense that it consists of little more than utterly disposable entertainment. Books and music and, perhaps, movies make for a durable aesthetic architecture in one's life; TV does not. I'm sure this prejudice of mine goes back to when I was young, and simply wanted to make myself distinctive somehow; since then, however, I'd like to believe that I've been able to develop arguments in support of that bias, arguments that cohere together and amount to something. Call it leftist puritanism, call it liberal snobbery, call it cultural arrogance--but the fact is, it just never occurred to me to take anything the tube presented (that is, any television program; movies and specials and miniseries are a different story) "whole," as a complete work of art in itself. Rather, I figured anything produced and marketed as long-term entertainment was hopelessly compromised and frivolous, whatever momentary insight and enjoyment it may have provided. It was just . . . TV. Our collection habits reflected this sense: especially in the early years of our marriage, we recorded on videotape lots of stuff to make part of our (at that time quite primitive) home entertainment collection--mostly music specials of one sort or another, plus Ken Burns's The Civil War and some other documentaries. But never did we record television the way both of families did while we were growing up (the 1980s--the Golden Age of VHS). We just didn't have the desire, and perhaps more importantly, couldn't see clear to how we could bring such into our lives without becoming more addicted to the tube than we wanted to be.

The real problem with TV programming, from the point of view of someone who'd like to maintain an ordered home without the tube constantly forcing its way into a family's time and space, is that it's relentless, driven by far more than just storyline or any other aesthetic purpose. No, it's a commercial enterprise, meaning that those working in TV, as is no doubt obvious to everyone who thinks about it, are obliged to find ways to layer, arrange, package and deliver their entertainment and news and snippets of the world in such a way that will lure viewers, keep viewers, please viewers, while also juggling performers, producers, advertisers, and a dozen other interrupting interests. Rare is it that a television writer or director can put together something that isn't almost immediately torn away from them, and put onto the usual commercial treadmill. Again, everyone knows this, or at least everyone who has seen great--or even just modestly entertaining and informative--stories and series and programs stretched way beyond their credibility point, such that all affection and spirit in the enterprise is lost. (In other words, they Jump the Shark.) But it's significance for collecting TV, recording it and cataloging it and making the watching of it part of the cultural infrastructure of a home is that, very quickly, there's just too damn much of the stuff, and most of it is crap--but what are you going to do? Can you just shut off the tap? Of course not: you're invested, you have to follow the damn thing until it ignominiously ends or you simply can't stand it anymore, and meanwhile the VHS tapes pile up and gather dust, waiting to be recorded over or filed away. That's why it's called "addicting," and that's partly why I was rarely interested in actually viewing any of it as something worthy of lasting, much less permanent, attention. Books and music and film: all of those I can see playing a legitimate role in creating a cultured environment, though things can get excessive there too. But TV? Not a chance.

Expect that, there were exceptions. I said I was only "rarely interested" in television programs in any sort of permanent way, and that's accurate--because the truth is, as in many things, I'm a hypocrite. As I mentioned in a previous post, there's been a few programs which Melissa and I just got sucked into, and were loath to see disappear into the ether. Northern Exposure was one; the original Star Trek is another (though that's my geekiness, not hers). Yet even there I was torn and reluctant. It's not just that I didn't want to turn into one of those people obsessively ordering lengthy sets of The Honeymooners or Upstairs Downstairs from the latest PBS catalogue--it always made me think of an old episode of Cheers, in which Frasier's proud ownership of a complete collection of I, Claudius was the punchline to some joke--but also, and more importantly, that it just occupies so much space, temporally and physically. All those tapes, all that fast-forwarding through so much junk that I can't stand, just for the sake of the one or two episodes that transcend the genre. It's pointless.

Well, you can see where I'm going: the DVD has changed all that. Not only has it made the storage of television more compact and manageable, but it's changed our relationship with it. Like what Peter Jackson managed to do with Lord of the Rings, the DVD enables the sprawling, interconnected, trailing-off and then starting-over, multidirectional and multifocused aspects of TV programming to be contained, filed, put together in the way that a book or a piece of music or movie might be. I never would have thought of this before I started working through Monty Python and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes on DVD, but now it seems obvious: while the depressing realities of television entertainment aren't going to change, and thus its addicting, interruptive, distracting, and disposable quality will continue to suggest that TV deserves to play only a minimal role, at most, in the culture of the home, technology in this case has allowed us to master the medium to a certain extent. Given time and some creativity, even the most ridiculous and forgettable television series can potentially be turned into a tidy little bit of art, to be tucked away on the shelf and pulled out when you want to look up and show your kid that one episode when all the tribbles fell on Kirk's head. Whereas I once would have thought that Tim's TV collection was over the top, now I can see how he can keep a handle on it, use it, make it part of his artistic environment rather than being sucked into the relentlessness with which TV mixes decent entertainment with schlock and throws it out for us to catch hurriedly and indiscriminately.

One reader of my post on simplicity framed the issue even more explicitly in terms of technology, though not in a Luddite sort of way. I'm not as up on the philosophical literature regarding technology as I once was, but I can still cite Martin Heiddegger and George Grant as appropriate. I'm not a Luddite myself, as should be apparent, but I know that at least part of the attraction which a structured, "simple" existence has for me is that such a life would make it easier, at least in theory, to resist that technology which I consider invasive, the sort that seems to provide convenience but actually makes more and more choices and external events incumbent upon one's time and life. (I've no idea how much longer we'll be able to go without a cell phone, given that the infrastructure of the world--as the near-total disappearances of pay phones on street corners suggests--has embraced the cellular world so thoroughly that my resistance may soon be reduced to mere crankiness, if it hasn't already.) Very early on, I wondered whether or how DVD players would fit into this; I don't any longer. In a very simple way, this is one invention that has taken a truly disruptive yet, I think, wonderfully necessary technological and social development--the television set--and enabled us to more easily accommodate its primary product (TV shows) to our own choices for our home and time. It occurs to me that the same might be said for TiVo, which I first thought was ridiculous (oh great, a toy that will keep throwing even more TV programming at you!), but now seems rather more impressive. Records programs on its own, takes out commercials, files them away for your own convenience? Sounds like a much better away to find the time to distinguish the art from the dreck than obsessively running home every Saturday night at 9pm. Something worth considering, anyway.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea. I am coming at it from a little different approach I think. I have (or have had) a similar bias to the one you talk about against TV programs as durable works of art -- I started gradually to feel differently about them a few years ago and nowadays I think of shows like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy/The Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour, as worthy of spending some time thinking about and reading about.

But -- I don't collect videotapes or DVD's, feel no impulse to. (Don't have Tivo either.) I think the reason is that TV shows only make sense to me when they are "on the tube", with advertisements and everything, and you need to tune into them at a specific time -- that is part of what a TV show is to me. (I'm happy there is a TV Land.) 

Posted by Jeremy Osner

Anonymous said...

What to buy? How to set limits?
Your first post on simplicity mentions that we should think of the people in relation to simplicity, not the stuff. I agree. What should the people use as a guage to tell them 'ENOUGH'?
How do they keep some kind of grip on the changes which are seemingly out of their hands, such as globalization, taxes, etc.?

Local control. Buy local foods, use local banks, invest in local business. There is always the desire to seek new technology which may benefit the world around us, but the key is to be a Net Creator. (re. Schroedinger, "Life as Anti-Entropy" Modern living is all based on volume consumption, not net creativity.
When we work and live locally, we can reach all the heights that our talents provide us the tools for, but we avoid the exploitation that is inherent in mass marketing. Whether we work to pass laws that encourage local business and personal choice (, or we just choose to tune out the morass, the key to liberty is taking responsibility for it and our future.
One argument against sales taxes is that they encourage the black market. On the farm, this is called 'direct sales'. The difference is that if transportation subsidies are taken out of the picture, local products are much more viable. Blackmarket sales of local products only hinders (face it, most people want to be honest and fair) the nationalist and globalist products which probably aren't necessary to our communities, anyway.
It's all fine and good to lead cheers for modern life, but you have to spend enough time looking at the soil to understand it can't be sustained for much longer. Whether or not we reach peakoil problems soon, our food is no longer nutritious, and people are dying and getting treated for problems which should be cured with proper foods. (
The data is out there, but the media isn't going to print it. Raw milk (from grassfed clean dairies)is GOOD for you. Eggs are GOOD for you. FAT is GOOD for you. The things that are necessary to healthy (sustainable) minds and bodies don't come in plastic wrappers.
The key to localised living is not elitism, it is diversification of the individual vs. specialization of the 'worker' in a hive. 

Posted by Dan Conine

Anonymous said...

While I can understand the argument that TV is overly commercialized, and that (the horribly unquantifiable value that is) "art" is compromised by said commercialization.... I don't really see how this is any different from other cultural medium. Books included: not just historically, in terms of the effects of serialization on a story, but genre conventions are rather strong as well--one need only look at a year's sampling of what comes out as "literary fiction" to see the power of convention.

Even opera, not just in the creation but in terms of what is the current repetoire has been selected. Performance styles are popular or less popular, and have been codified.

I think the distinction between things like opera or classical music and televsion/radio (perhaps also newspapers, and the novels or sequential art serialized therein) is that consumer-focused advertising has been included and presented alongside the work in question, and that one of the measures of success of the work in question is the effect that the work's consumption (and the corresponding consumption of the advertising included alongside) on sales. But even this, I would say, is not new. (Dickens, for example.) 

Posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Man, I loved Northern Exposure. Do you have the episode where Maggie gets a washing machine and then sends it back because she misses the sociability of the Landromat? I was never able to track down a script for it to cite it (or the specific dialogue) but it captured an important phenomenon about community identity and formation that helped me understand my dissertation topic better. Let's just say that Gallup, NM has a lot of laundromats per capita.  

Posted by David Salmanson