If you’re learning how to write, most of the advice you’ll get is pretty standard. Show, don’t tell. Make sure every word is there for a reason. Stop chewing on your sleeve and look at the board. But my most recent writing teacher told me something I never expected to hear: he said that if I didn’t like a book, I probably shouldn’t finish it.
This was the opposite of everything I’d been told about how to consume literature. This teacher’s predecessors told me that a good book required patience, effort, and attention to every word. They made me think that if I didn’t like a classic, I was destined for a life spent attending monster truck rallies, and saying “seen” when I meant “saw.”
Now I’m stuck trying to figure out who’s right. I tend to be pretty patient with books, but I’m far more fickle when it comes to movies and TV. As a frequent viewer of both the silver screen and the small screen, part of me finds this new perspective pretty compelling.
Like most people, I don’t have a lot of extra time, but Netflix, HBO GO, and all of their dastardly time-draining cousins give me extra options. When tens of thousands of titles are an app-click away, why should I sink time into something I know I don’t like? I’m no Roger Ebert, but I think I’m a fairly educated and thoughtful viewer. When I don’t feel obligated to finish something, I don’t have to worry about where it ranks on the IMDB Top 250. I can let my own opinion reign.
Case in point: I’ve tried to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#85) twice, but have bailed both times. I think it’s one of the most contrived and self-consciously quirky films out there, and if someone forced me to watch the damn thing again, I could point to evidence that would, I think, support my opinion. I don’t care that the critical consensus puts me in a very small minority.
I also wonder if combining options with selectivity raises the bar for creative types. Just like competition among Italian restaurants must lead to better pizza, more viewing options must lead to better cinema and TV, right? There’s no question that a video streamer, who has access to thousands of titles at a fixed price, is going to be much less patient than someone who committed to a $5 DVD rental (back when that was a thing) or a $12 movie ticket (which is still a thing, somehow). And filmmakers must know this. If Woody Allen understands he has just five or ten minutes to win me over, isn’t he going to work a little harder and, therefore, do a little better, than when he had me for the full hour and a half? You may not think so, if you’ve compared his old films to his new ones, but I guarantee you he feels more pressure than ever to make that very first scene count.
But that’s all theory. Then there’s the practice.
Welcome to my typical weeknight, when my iPhone and I (yes, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I watch most things on a five-inch screen) spend some quality time together before bed.
9:00 PM: Wide Awake (2006): a filmmaker documents his bout with insomnia
Cool! Maybe I’ll finally get some answers about the scientific consensus on counting sheep.
9:05 PM: There are millions of other insomniacs out there, ripe for the documenting, and I’m sure all of them are more interesting than this self-absorbed fool. Click.
9:10 PM: The Ref (1994): A cat burglar is forced to take a bickering, dysfunctional couple hostage on Christmas Eve
Kevin Spacey is a great actor! Denis Leary is a great comedian and human cigarette! Let’s do this.
9:30 PM: Did you know husbands want to have sex, and wives don’t? And that women always say the opposite of what they really mean? These hilarious insights will revolutionize the institution of marriage. Click.
9:35 PM: Transparent (TV Series, 2014): An LA family with serious boundary issues has its past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone’s secrets to spill out.
This show’s getting great reviews, and is going to win a bunch of awards. And Jan from The Office is in it, too! Looks like I’ve found my new series for the next couple of weeks.
10:05 PM: That was very good. I’ll watch the next one soon.
That was over three months ago, and I still haven’t watched the second episode of Transparent.
I don’t think this is exactly what my writing teacher had in mind. And it makes me wonder: What if Eternal Sunshine has the most glorious final hour in the history of cinema? What if I watched all of it, and everything I hated about the beginning fell into place? What if Jim Carrey suddenly becomes a good actor halfway through? Some say that the most satisfying films build themselves up calmly and methodically. If I were to get all film-criticky on you, I’d call it the “slow burn.” I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of films just like that, but I fear I’ve missed out on a lot of them lately.
In other words: what if the changes they’re making to the pizza aren’t “better,” per se, but just more broadly appealing? What if they’re getting rid of the cheese and tomato sauce, and replacing it with chocolate bars and butter-cream frosting? Instant gratification doesn’t usually come from the highest-quality or most satisfying sources. But when I’m looking for a quick hook, I find myself gravitating toward easy entertainment rather than the challenging stuff. I can’t tell you how 12 Years A Slave is, because I’ve never seen it. But I’ve spent hours listening to Keith Morrison’s pulpy murder-mystery narration on “Dateline: A Pun With ‘Dead’ In It.” It goes down easily enough, but I’m hungry for something better as soon as it ends.
I just don’t know. Am I right to make quick judgments, potentially saving myself hours of misery? Or should I stick with my picks all the way through, as they’re meant to be watched? I’ll get back to you as soon as I watch Episode 2 of “Transparent.”
Dustin Petzold, As Not Seen On TV, can be found on Twitter.