Movies vs. TV

I need to take a break from doing class work regularly these days. Sometimes I get home from work and I’m worn out, and I need to turn off my brain for a couple hours before starting on class work for the evening. Sometimes I just want to distract myself for a bit before heading to bed. In either case, I don’t have the brainpower to write a good blog post (as evidenced by my lack of posting) or even read a book.

The interesting thing I noticed is that I’m much more prone to watch TV rather than movies when I want to be braindead. It’s not a matter of channel flipping – I only watch DVR’d TV without commercials. But for some reason, starting to watch a TV show feels like less of an investment than starting to watch a movie.

Part of that is the time commitment. A TV show without commercials is about 40-45 minutes, whereas a movie is double that length. But I’ll often watch two episodes of TV, so that negates the “I didn’t have time” argument. So what’s going on here?

I was talking about this with my friend Rebecca over Thanksgiving, who had noticed the same tendency in herself. Her explanation? “Movies are a thing.” This is the sort of argument that would be better handled by Grant McCracken, but I’ll take a swing here at what she means, which resonates with my own experience.

Watching TV is just watching TV. All of our connotations about TV are relaxed and comfortable. We flop onto the couch, grab the remote, flip on the TV and see what’s on. It’s the ultimate in informality. If we don’t like what’s on, we change the channel or turn off the TV. Many people leave the TV on while doing other activities, just to have some background noise and chatter. It’s an acquaintance, one that we can drop in on anytime we want.

Watching movies is a “thing”, a cultural experience and ritual. We make a trek to our local shrine (theater), and pay obeisance in the form of purchasing tickets. We are ushered into a temple for worship purposes at specified intervals decreed by the movie gods. Suddenly, the curtains are drawn back to reveal our object of worship, with images that are literally larger than life and surround us with a wall of sound. We shush others who dare to interrupt our experience of the movie, and leaving the theater in the middle of the movie would be sacrilege. Watching movies, at least in the theater, is a far more formal experience than watching TV ever is.

Even though watching a movie on DVD isn’t the same as going to the theater, I think these sorts of connotations and cultural archetypes affect my perception of how to consume the different forms of media. I feel like when I start a movie, I have to block out two hours of time to watch it uninterrupted, and I have to be in a frame of mind where I can focus on the movie. This rarely applies when I’m just looking for some distraction in the evening before starting class work or going to bed, so I end up watching a TV episode from my DVR or DVD collection instead.

I think I might feel differently if I were a Netflix subscriber. My sister has a much more relaxed attitude towards movies than I do, where she’ll start DVDs and stop them, leave them on while doing other things, etc., and I wonder if some of that is due to the fact that movies come to her in her living room rather than being part of the cultural ritual. The effort of going to rent movies, even back in Oakland when I lived a couple blocks from a rental place, was enough of an obstacle that I rarely did it.

The anthropological observation of my friend amused me, so I figured I’d blog about it. Plus, we got out of class early tonight, so I’m a bit more awake than usual and figured I would procrastinate productively for once. But it’s time to take another look at my master’s project.

5 thoughts on “Movies vs. TV

  1. I think you’re right about Netflixed movies being different than rented ones. The other night I was watching a DVD from Netflix, and it was late and I was tired, so even though I was enjoying the movie, I stopped it and went to bed. Then I finished watching it the next morning.

    It felt very weird to do this. Transgressive. But after it was done, I felt it was the right thing to do. I enjoyed the whole movie and didn’t mess up my sleep schedule. I’m not sure I would have done it if there had been the pressure of needing to return the movie the next day.

    So if your DVR records a movie for you, does it feel like TV? Or like a movie?

  2. I think it has something to do with the built-in community of a TV show. When you’re braindead you’re going to watch a TV show that you’ve already watched a few episodes of, right? So you know the characters and the setting already, and you’re willing to let yourself be carried along by the plot, rather than having to focus on all of the aspects of the world. Or the cinemagraphic language used to describe the world.

    But since I’m only watching half hour sitcoms, it really is all about the plot and the jokes. Perhaps if I were watching hour dramas those aspects wouldn’t hold true. Though the currently famous hour dramas do seem to be winning with plot, thinking of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Not that I’ve seen them.

  3. I’ve experienced the same thing with preferring TV to movies while I’m in school. Netflix is useful for TV shows, too :). (We get TV series during the term and only get movies when I’m not actively taking classes)

  4. Despite the current writers strike, the existence of American Idol, and our cultural bias against it, television has actually become incredibly sophisticated in the last 10 years. The Sopranos is approaching 150 hours long and has probably 20 characters that regular viewers can recognize and trace through the plot of the series. LOST, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica also all have large casts of primary characters and will likely be 100 hours long by the time they end. There are also lighter examples, such as Buffy, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock. The best of television has a narrative complexity that simply cannot be replicated in a 2 (or 3) hour movie. So, what is amazing about the best television writing is that they slip this all the sophistication in precisely when we flop down on the couch expecting to zone out and avoid thought, when we think we are “just watching TV.”

    (Although for the fans of any of these shows, or Grey’s Anatomy, or Football, or the Oscars, television certainly is “a thing” once a week, or for the big games, or once a year.)

  5. I’ve experienced the same thing an awful lot lately, via the programming on our AppleTV. How I’ve been explaining things to myself is that when I’m nearly full, and simply “can’t” eat another slice, I’m very happy to cut a slice in half and eat that. Twice.

    Two slices of 45 minutes back to back are just easier to swallow than a whole 90 minute piece, I think. It’s an incremental commitment.

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