In his recent moving tribute to Federico Fellini for Harper’s, Martin Scorsese opens with a nostalgic trip down memory lane written in the form of a screenplay. A young man—clearly the director himself—traverses the bustling thoroughfare that was New York’s Greenwich Village in the year 1959, overwhelmed by the arthouse offerings open to him. An excerpt:
The young man is zeroed in on one thing: the marquee of the Art Theatre, which is playing John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins.
He makes a mental note and then crosses Fifth Avenue and keeps walking west, past bookstores and record shops and recording studios and shoe stores, until he gets to the 8th Street Playhouse: The Cranes Are Flying and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is coming soon!
He walks down LaGuardia Place to Bleecker, past the Village Gate and the Bitter End to the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is showing Through a Glass Darkly, Shoot the Piano Player, and Love at Twenty—and La Notte is held over for a third straight month!
Were I to ape Scorsese—and why shouldn’t I, given how many filmmakers have done so over the decades?—my own cinematic reminiscences would read thusly:
The youth—age 12-15—is lying in bed at 2 a.m., watching the television set he got for his birthday a few years ago, the sound turned low so as not to wake his sleeping parents down the hall. It’s a school night, but he is not worried about being alert for class tomorrow. Instead, he’s focused on keeping awake for the last five minutes of Pink Flamingos, which is airing on IFC and which he knows includes a scene wherein a drag queen eats a real piece of dog shit.
He succeeds and is overjoyed to finally witness the scene for himself after having read about it in his well-thumbed copy of The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film.
Tomorrow at school, he will regale his buddies with a description of what he’s seen, just as he did a few days prior after catching the bloody conclusion to a movie called Whore—starring Teresa Russell, who he recognizes from a small part in Wild Things, the new VHS of which has proven a hot commodity among his social circle—on Cinemax.
The visceral, prurient thrill of these moments will be much easier to relay to his friends than that of the week before, when the youth—who, it should be noted, has been raised Catholic—tuned in to HBO for the back half of something called The Rapture, which initially caught his attention because it promised lots of sexually explicit swinging scenes, before it slowly morphed into an existentialist nightmare about the Christian apocalypse.
After the credits roll on Pink Flamingos, the youth switches over to HBO, where a strange, incestuous neo-noir called This World, Then the Fireworks is just starting. He’s dozing off now, so he’ll only retain bits and pieces of the film, but those bits and pieces will stay with him, leaving their greasy fingerprints on his brain, as will the fragments he’ll catch from airings of Henry and June, Castle Freak, Angel Heart, and any number of titles—none of them retained—starring Shannon Tweed over the weeks and months and years to come…
Okay, so, granted, my memories aren’t quite as romantic as Scorsese’s. But I’d bet a lot of people share and (like me) cherish them. Ask almost any film fanatic over a certain age and they’ll regale you with similar recollections. Just the other week I was speaking to a friend who only recently realized what he thought were a handful of films he saw bits and pieces of late at night on cable 20 years ago were, in fact, different sections of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I have another friend who, for the longest time, thought he’d dreamt a really cool idea for a sci-fi action film, only to later figure out that he must have fallen asleep during a showing of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Universal Soldier.
Then there’s the great anecdote from Charles Bukowski:
“We got cable TV here, and the first thing we switched on happened to be Eraserhead. I said, ‘What’s this?’ I didn’t know what it was. It was so great. I said, ‘Oh, this cable TV has opened up a whole new world. We’re gonna be sitting in front of this thing for centuries. What next?’”
Unfortunately, Bukowski would quickly discover that the majority of cable offerings were nowhere near the level of Eraserhead. However, assuming he kept his subscription going, he had to have come by plenty of other stuff that was almost as interesting, possibly including the seedy minor masterpiece he himself wrote, Barfly, which I know I caught at least a couple of times by way of the idiot box (likely on IFC).
It’s fitting the example Bukowski uses is David Lynch’s debut feature, since it is arguably the film that most perfectly captures the sensation of dreaming. For that was the same sensation you’d often be left with when watching movies on cable into the early hours of morning. When I finally re-watched This World, Then the Fireworks a few years back, I was pleased to discover it held up quite well—I’d put it high on the list of 90s neo-noir, in fact—but there was no chance it could have unsettled me the same way it did when I first watched it, half-asleep, as a young teen. This isn’t just because of age and experience, either–my state of half-somnobalance actually enhanced the power of the film. Far from being a dig on the movie, I’d argue mine was the ideal viewing experience for so sordid and surreal a film.
Alas, it’s an experience that is no longer readily available. Granted, plenty of people still routinely fall asleep watching their TVs—so many, in fact, that Netflix is set to launch their own sleep timer feature—but it’s just not the same when it happens during something you yourself picked out, and that you can easily pick back up on, right from where you left off, the next day.
In all of the discussions about the state of cinema in the age of streaming—including real fear over the longevity of movie theaters even before the pandemic utterly devastated the industry, as well as a growing nostalgia for the VHS era—there hasn’t been much focus on the decline of cable television, even though it, too, is on the verge of extinction.
Like other people my age, I bear my share of responsibility for this, since I haven’t subscribed to cable in years, relying instead on streaming services for my home viewing, even as the expense continues to rise alongside the number of individual platforms (making it clearer by the day that, actually, cable was the better deal).
As they’ve continued to fold into one another, the giant media companies have mostly dumped cable—formerly their biggest revenue stream—as a venue to show their films, choosing instead to launch their own streaming platforms. As a result, networks have increasingly turned to original programming and reality TV, even as they continue to bleed subscribers.
While basic cable is still host to the same handful of middlebrow movie staples, it’s the late-night programming that’s changed the most, especially now that so much of its adult programming has been phased out (Alas, poor Skinemax! I watched it, Horatio.) A quick perusal of the nightly TV listings reveals a dearth of interesting movies available (although I was happy to see that, as of the date of this writing, The Sundance Channel is playing the scuzzy, underrated Stephen King adaptation Thinner— definitely a late-night favorite of mine back in the day—at 1 a.m.).
Granted, the movies I and others would have seen on cable, including most (though by no means every) title I mentioned earlier, can be found via streaming. But access isn’t the only, or even main, issue.
In that same Harper’s article, Scorsese sums up the biggest problem with streaming, at least when it comes to its effect on cinema, in one word: algorithms. “If further viewing is ‘suggested’ by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen,” he writes, “and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema…algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.”
Scorsese notes that there are still a few venues—“Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM”—that offer curation, but these are few and far between. Even fewer and farther between are venues that give the viewer the chance to organically discover something completely unexpected the way they could from late night channel surfing.
There are a few examples that come close: there’s the horror platform Shudder, which, along with expert curation, also includes a live stream that members can jump into at any time, as well as original programming like The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, which harken back to the classic Late Movie program that predates cable. Similarly, Pluto TV has a channel selection and live jump-in component. There are also pirated streams of which are designed to replicate the old TV watching experience—across a number of Twitch channels. But as admirable as these exceptions are in their efforts to recreate the past, they just can’t capture the specific seediness of the old experience.
Unfortunately, the late night cable discovery is, like so many other avenues of the filmgoing experience–the video store, the drive-in, the grindhouse, the arthouse wonderland of Scorsese’s charmed youth–a figment of the past. It may not be as fondly remembered as those other examples, but I think it deserves its share of nostalgia.