Moving Pictures
May 27, 2024, 06:28AM

The Joy of Cable

Reinventing and rediscovering the concept of cable television through Criterion 24/7.

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A Tale of Springtime, ~2:20am May 27, 2024

I needed a new TV. The TCL my brother got me as a housewarming gift eight years ago still looked great to me, but it was 1080p resolution, and I needed a 4K HDR display for work. One neat thing about our future: televisions are so much cheaper than they used to be, and they’re easy to get and generally look great (as long as you have motion smoothing turned off). But I didn’t have to change any frame rate settings, it was a Roku, and I guess my TCL was a Roku too (?), so when I plugged it in everything was the same, little activation required. I’ve been a devoted moviegoer my whole life but until the mid-2010s, I rarely watched movies at home simply because the quality was shit or the screen was too small. I had a Sony CRT for over a decade, a square 27” that was great for cable and video games, but watching movies, especially widescreen, was a drag—basically pointless. I’d get to them eventually.

And I did, but I still don’t have cable! I think I did for a brief period in 2016, when my brother got me that TCL and we both got help transporting it from the Waverly post office to my house (what a nice woman she was, driving us in a USPS truck right before close because the TV got abandoned on the dock—long story, but then again that’s about what happened). I must’ve had it through part of 2018, since I remember watching Guillermo Del Toro invoke Douglas Sirk in his acceptance speech for Best Picture at the Oscar’s. The 2016 election, but that was multimedia—probably the most enduring symbol of that night is the New York Times probability meter.

So I got a new TV. I looked up the serial number of the old one, unable to eye the size and without a ruler. 43”, great—and then I put it up and it’s seven inches smaller than the old one.


It worked out, because now I’ve moved the new TV into my office, and can recreate the experience of having cable. The Criterion Channel wisely added a great new feature recently called Criterion 24/7, essentially their own TV channel with random films shown every day constantly. As I’m writing this, Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild is on. On the night I put the TV in, they played Mona Lisa, Assault on Precinct 13, and Purple Noon. Before Mona Lisa, I caught the end of some wuxia movie and still haven’t found out what it was—recreating the experience of having cable in more ways than one. Because Criterion doesn’t show their schedule on screen or their programming or their recent history; the only way of finding out what’s on is to go to their website during the movie.

I didn’t watch any of these movies in full as they were on the channel. But as I was working on my new film SATUR-19 with my editor Monica Quibbits, I kept looking over my shoulder and glimpsing Purple Noon: a door closing, a couple embracing, Maurice Ronet in the water, Alain Delon on the run. I heard somewhere that Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph leave Turner Classic Movies on in their house 24/7 on all the TVs so that hopefully it’ll seep into their kids. Worked on me: no matter when or where I watch Sex and the City, I’m back in the penthouse on Hudson and Duane with my mom.

But the joy of Sex and the City isn’t the kind of cable experience I’m talking about. I’m talking about basic cable—knowing that when you were watching some comedian named Demetri Martin or Dane Cook or Daniel Tosh on Comedy Central, you were going to talk to someone at school the next day who saw the exact same thing. Quoting it, talking about it, “what was that about?,” and it was as much a lingua franca as major commercial cinema, and even the mythical mid-budget arthouse film like Broken Flowers that could still pack the Charles in 2005.

And so while so much of that world is gone, we have these TVs. They’re cheap and huge. Films can be seen the way they were meant to be seen—unless Amazon keeps cropping anamorphic widescreen into bland 1:78—and we all know they’re easier to lug around now. But what’s the point of sleeping with the TV on if nobody else is watching?

Days of Being Wild will be over in an hour. Did you watch whatever’s coming next with me?

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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