Watching the box

I’m of that generation who were brought up to believe that TV was a privilege and pleasure to be earned. We watched our favourite shows in the evening in a time before cable TV, but it was no more than a peripheral source of distraction. It wasn’t quite a special treat, but there was a small sense of occasion when after dinner we would sit down to watch our favourite shows, or the Sunday movie.

When I was a kid it was absolutely forbidden to watch TV during the day except for special events, and when we were home sick. “Get of the house” was the mantra when I was growing up, “”go out and play”. I spent most of my childhood out-of-doors with my neighbourhood mates, playing street cricket or riding our bikes, building tree-huts or kicking a footy around. That’s a topic for another day, but it was a great way to grow up.

The result of all this is that I retain a WASP-ish attitude to watching TV to this day. I’ll give myself an occasional leave-pass to watch TV before it gets dark, but that’s always an indulgence. As a general rule I won’t flick the TV on unless to a music video program as background to whatever tasks I’m doing.

In the same way I’m sceptical about TV. I love it as much as anyone I figure. There are programs I can’t bear to miss. I reckon the quality on TV these days is better than it’s ever been. Add that to great movies and the TV in the corner is an essential piece of home furniture.

It’s not real though. It’s no substitute for living and doing. I still believe it’s healthier to go out and play in the sunshine than it is to sit in the dark inside and watch TV. I’m wary of the allure of ‘lifestyle’, something we have in abundance. TV is part of that, as are most of the good things we aspire towards. I like them to and have similar aspirations, but fear each extra layer of comfort and ease takes us away from the authentic grit of being alive. It’s more important to have adventures ourselves, or fall in love, than it is to watch others do that while we munch on a bucket of popcorn.

A lot of entertainment is purely disposable. Some is more than that. We tend to look upon people who read books as being more intellectual. Maybe it’s because it takes more effort to read than it does to sit and watch. And maybe because generally reading requires more thought than watching TV. I’m a reader, and believe that it adds much richness to my life. I can’t necessarily say the same for TV – with obvious exceptions, it’s generally entertainment. Movies are entertainment too, often, but often much more besides. Like good books, good movies transcend the medium.

I watched a string of interesting movies over the weekend which has prompted this reflection. It started, unexpectedly, with B&W movie from the ’60’s, The Night of the Iguana. I didn’t intend to watch it, but it was on and I knew of it and was curious. It’s a pretty ordinary print, but a great experience. Tennessee Williams wrote the play the movie is based on and it shows. It’s a movie of depth and intelligence and great writing. It feels profound at times, watching something that makes you ache and wonder. Like the best books it opens you up.

All the performances are great – Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, but Deborah Kerr is special in a great role. Directed by John Huston, this a movie that recalls the depth of life to the front of your mind. For a few hours after watching it sits there in your head. For a little while you feel absolutely and authentically in the middle of something outside of the daily grind.

I watched the original of Walter Mitty – just ok, but Danny Kaye is always good to watch; then one of those 1940’s style crime/espionage movies, with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet: The Mask of Dimitrios. Fun, and doubly so because I read the book when I was a teenager.

Last night I watched The Broken Shore on the ABC – great. Then The Kid Stays In The Picture, about the movie executive and producer Robert Evans. I knew of the book, which is kind of notorious, and found the movie to be just as entertaining and fascinating, and just a little bit wise. Afterwards another movie I’ve written of here, The Swimmer (Burt Lancaster) came on. It’s a sad, profound movie based on a sad and profound story by John Cheever. Another one that makes you think.

The trick, he said, is getting things in balance. TV isn’t bad unless you do too much of it. And there’s nothing wrong with cheap entertainment as long as you mix it up occasionally with the deeper stuff. Sometimes the deeper stuff acts as a jolt to the system. Watching the box can actually remind you of the good things outside the window, and inside where you live. Lifestyle is fine, but don’t forget the clock is ticking.



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