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I’ll Take the Movies Every Time

July 25, 2005

George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer are in that jail forever. Hawkeye Pierce never quite makes it home. Bart will never grow older, Archie Bunker will never change his mind or buy a new sofa, and Opie will never grow out of his jeans. These television shows have no denouement, no settled conclusion that satisfies, no weaving of the last strands of the morality play. They are not designed that way and cannot end where good stories end.

In its raw, exposed underbelly, television is for one thing: To bring you back the next time. It is the perennial serial comma, punctuated with commercials and sneak previews. We can always escape the ads by flipping through the channels, but have you noticed that every station now synchronizes their ad moments. All of them have commercials at the same time. Even the sports channels. You eventually give up and return to your original viewing and blithely accept whatever Light Beer is being hawked. Television writes their stories so you have to return next week. Or next half hour even. The stories do not end…in fact, television is seen to have failed if they draw up too many loose ends. Why would you continue watching if they did that?

Not so the movies; at least, the way movies are best produced. A movie is a tale, a blatant story with a beginning, middle and end. Though they may not answer all the questions or paint all the directions the characters head, the main point is made and caught. The exception, of course, are the sequels. But these are made either to wring more money out of the movie-going public (as in Spiderman 2 or Shrek 2) or because the book the movie was based upon was too long for one movie (eg. Lord of the Rings), or both. You might leave a theater wanting more of the story, but that is more a delicious feeling than a disappointment.

I like a well-told story. I don’t need “What About Bob 2” or “The Village 2”, because the tale gives me all I need. I escape, I think (or am entertained), I suppose and postulate and guess…but at the end I am left with my thoughts to linger through the days following. I can be bothered by the theme and have to wrestle with its implications (eg. American Beauty). I can notice the slice of life and see both pain and pleasure (eg. The Shipping News). I can marvel at how life can sometimes work out (My Life as a House) or not (The Trip to Bountiful).

But with television, there is little to marvel at. From John Ritter’s ridiculous situations on “Three’s Company” I learned how little they thought of my intelligence. From Fonzie and his motorcyle we learned the expression “Jump the Shark” where we now measure at what point this constant serialization finally gets on our nerves as we watch a show. Every Seinfeld episode is labeled “The One about the…”, as in “The One About the Soup Nazi” or “The One About the Frogger Machine”. How trivial does that feel in comparison with “A Beautiful Mind”, “The Pianist” and “We Were Soldiers”. “The Princess Bride” doesn’t need us to return next week to see how Inego Montoya continues to sharpen his swordsmanship.

I’ll take movies every time. When they’re over, they’re over. There is nothing left but the popcorn butter stains on my fingers. Those I can lick.

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