by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
Last week as I was channel-surfing, I happened on John Jeffcoat's Outsourced, a slight but surprisingly memorable comedy that, I understand, made for a deft cure for narcolepsy when NBC turned it into a sitcom. As we watched, the Goddess and I discussed the core theme underlying most modern movies taking place in India: in order to truly become part of it, you first must surrender to it. (Though one wonders how Robert Luczak would have fared in Dan Simmons's Song of Kali had he surrendered to Calcutta.) We referenced John Madden's recent The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the Goddess mentioned it also occurred in Eat Pray Love. At that point I rolled my eyes, but she insisted that it was a far, far better movie than the previews indicated. I thought for a moment. The Goddess seldom falls prone to piffle; her sister once said to her, "If we are what we watch, then I'm a light-hearted romantic comedy, and you're a depressing indie flick."
So I thought for a moment, figured there were worse things to watch than Julia Roberts finding herself in exotic locales (it's an election year in the U.S.; there are far worse things to watch at the moment), brought up Netflix Instant Watch on our Roku player, and searched for it. It wasn't available streaming. We checked the schedule on our DVR; none of our almost nine hundred cable channels scheduled a showing in the next 30 days. I opened my laptop and found it was available for Netflix delivery; we could have it within a couple of days. I almost balked; I hadn't watched the DVDs we still had, and given that it had been months since I'd considered watching either, it likely was time to let them go… but didn't want to just yet. I contemplated going to a video store, but I didn't know if our small town even had a video store still extant, and did not feel like driving into the university area of Austin simply to pick up a movie from Vulcan Video. (Moreover, I couldn't remember the last time I'd rented a movie there. Two years ago? Three? More?)
Yes, I was in the middle of a major First World problem.
I logged on to my Amazon Instant Watch account and found it available. I scanned a few reader reviews (an average of three stars out of five), checked its aggregate review percentage on Rotten Tomatoes (37 percent positive, usually indicating a movie that is the equivalent of having your eyes masticated by toothless trolls), and decided, okay, what the hell, I'm liquored up enough to have a go. I moved my cursor to the button to purchase it…
…and stopped to chuckle at myself. Not because I'd almost watched this saccharine trifle, but because of my reaction a few moments before. My eyes fell to the Netflix DVDs still in their sleeve, one still unwatched, one watched before The Avengers broke box office records in May, and suddenly realized how much things had changed.
Growing up in Alief, a once-burgeoning suburb in southwest Houston, my diversions from the mundane life I led came from books and movies. I checked out whatever adventure stories I could from the library (science fiction was not part of my main reading material until I was 14), and when I could braved crowds at the multiplexes springing up like weeds in Houston shopping centers to see either major releases (people jammed into cramped 200-seat auditoriums to catch another showing of Star Wars, sans the A New Hope crap, or to watch the rerelease of whatever movie Disney decided to pluck from its vaults) or to view some picture or other that I saw advertised on television. (It was how I caught Robert Zemeckis's Beatles-inspired I Want to Hold Your Hand and Robert B. Griffith's Corman-inspired Eat My Dust; hey, I was eight, and my taste was not very refined.) If I missed a movie in release, then I missed it in release, and had to hope it would play on television at some point… and that I was home to watch it, and could stay up past my imposed bedtime.
At the time, I had no idea that video players were available commercially. We couldn't afford one; no families I knew owned them. In fact, the only one I'd seen was in daycare; our teachers wheeled it out every Thanksgiving to run A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving or Really Rosie. The idea that these shows could be recorded and rewatched at anytime short-circuited my preadolescent brain. I had no concept of future shock at the time, but I was certainly becoming a victim of it.
As I grew older I'd find rectangular videotapes sheathed in brightly-colored covers popping up behind plexiglass in shelves at our local grocery store. While I played Defender I heard people using names like "Betamax" and "VHS" and attempted to puzzle out what they meant. When my mother began dating her second husband he showed me his own VHS player, a metal box that filled the top of the boxy television on which it rested. I marveled not just at the movies he had -- my first exposure to The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came through watching the few movies he had in his collection -- but that one could watch these classics, complete and uncut, in the privacy of one's own home.
Within the next couple of years video stores blossomed everywhere, offering a divergent array of titles. Blockbuster, a veritable warehouse of movies, appeared, and became one of my mainstays for the next decade, even as a new format, the DVD, showed up as a fascinating alternative and, eventually, a replacement for VHS tapes, making obsolete such concepts as the rewind and the mandatory special features. (My oldest son, at 20, still on occasion will tell somebody to rewind part of a movie he might have missed; my youngest, at 12, has almost no concept of it.) The machinery itself changed, and not just because of the formats; my first VCR, purchased for about $400, was only slightly smaller than a desktop computer. The blu-ray player we purchased last year, by contrast, appeared as thin as a credit card and seemed no thicker than the laptop on which I write today.
When Netflix started streaming movies through the eight-by-four-inch Roku player we bought at the suggestion of a friend of mine, I balked at the idea that we would, or should, suspend our DVD service. But today I look at the DVDs that arrived in the mail several months ago and wonder why I haven't cancelled it. Part of it, of course, is that, despite drinking deeply from the datastream for my entertainment, I still prefer the physicality of most items. But I also consider that, while we own movies like South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Dogma, and Sleeper, the prospect of having to get out of my chair to open a newly-purchased movie (and when, indeed, was the last time I actually bought a DVD?) and pop it into the blu-ray player seems, somehow, quaint and old-fashioned.
The other night, my stepson's girlfriend brought over her DVD of The Avengers to watch. I haven't been to a store to purchase a copy, but today I sit at my computer, and in between writing the paragraphs of this column debate purchasing it (and Cabin in the Woods) on DVD, or on blu-ray, or finally fully embracing the 21st century and just buying a digital copy. And oddly, no matter what my decision, I seem unlikely to find a video store (or any other brick-and-mortar shop) to do it. I actually do reside in the future, it seems.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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