Dancing in the dark | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Apr 26, 2017

An idle algorithm from the fine folks at Netflix can make my day. It’s a neat trick, and pretty impressive most of the time. I usually get recommendations for films or shows that I like.

It’s just that I already know what I like. I’m not immune to boredom, but I’m also fairly resistant to upselling at my stage of life, and these friendly suggestions are most definitely upselling. I’ll watch what I want to watch, thanks anyway.

One of these recommendations, though, led me to watch a few minutes of a TV show from 17 years ago, in which they argued passionately about when exactly the new millennium began. The good old days, in other words.

There were also a couple of references to DVD players, in which they were viewed as sort of high-end consumer electronics, something to wish for or spend that tax refund on, sending me on a spasm of temporal archeology. I started amusing myself by noting the two worlds I had an eye on, a couple of decades in which so much changed.

The primitive, outsized cell phones jump out, but that’s too easy, like looking at car models over the years. Styles change; phones got smaller, then bigger again, then indispensible.

It was the DVD thing that got my attention. I remember those days, which felt similar to the vinyl-to-CD period for our household: Aware but relatively late adopters, we saw the new technology as something for serious hobbyists, not casual listeners or viewers.

I should have known. When we finally upsold ourselves into the digital media world, the first CD I bought was a copy of the first vinyl album I’d paid for with my own money, around the age of 12. Same music, same artist, same songs. The genie is way too big for the bottle now.

Another thing I caught on that old TV show was a stray reference to buying a book on Amazon, in which the character said, “Amazon dot com,” apparently in case we thought he was referring to the river in South America, along with some commentary on how the internet wasn’t a fad and might be, you know, important someday.

Netflix and Amazon have become de facto near-monopolies, convenience and price always trumping customer loyalty or anything else. Half of all American households are Amazon Prime subscribers. Netflix is small potatoes in comparison, with 50 million subscribers, although in a niche market that pretty much makes you king. Netflix produced 126 TV shows or films last year, too, making it No. 1 in that arena, a staggering thought when drifting back to 2000.

All this technology wallowing, though, makes me think about the way we’ve changed. I’m not mourning anything; life is a one-way street, and missing the good old days is pointless, not to mention that those days weren’t all that good, sometimes.

But I can’t remember what film I last saw in a theater, and it bothers me. It’s not only me, either; I have friends who are passionate and true cinephiles, and they say the same thing. The bleeding of our private lives into our public ones is nothing new, but pay 12 bucks to sit behind people who seem oblivious to the fact that they’re not in their own living room? Home is starting to look like the better choice, particularly if half a dozen people in the rows ahead of you are desperately texting.

I suspect this is less a breakdown in social norms than just a fairly obvious spillover of technology and commerce. It’s less expensive, more convenient, and just easier to watch at home. Make your own popcorn, drink your own drinks, shush your own spouse when appropriate, and enjoy from the comfort of your couch.

There’s just something about sitting in the dark with strangers, watching the efforts of hundreds of people, thousands of hours, and millions of dollars play out that feels important. It feels communal, in fact, a shared experience that isn’t exactly the same as a live performance or sporting event. It’s supposed to be a quiet time, bracketed by murmurs of anticipation and then analysis.

And I think it’s lost. I’m sure we’ll still have blockbusters and breakout films that drag some of us out of our houses, blinking and stunned by the price of admission, because we want to see it right away. I just think that the era I have in mind has come and gone, and I’m a little sad about that.

I’m honestly not complaining. I appreciate living in this time and space, having access to an unlimited library of movies, television shows, and music to enjoy whenever I want. The price is right and the choice is mine; if I wanted to go to the movies more often, I would.

That’s the answer, of course. If you have an aesthetic or sentimental attachment to vinyl LPs, you’d be smart to visit your local record shop on a regular basis. That favorite bookstore, where you can get lost for hours among the titles? Shop there more often, and tell your friends.

And if you share my affection for going to the movies, I think we should all do that more often. Buy some popcorn, turn off the phone, and wait for the lights to go down. Use it or lose it, in other words. It’s show time.

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