The Time Vampires

April 17, 2011

They’re heeere! The “cloud-based” content providers have arrived. Netflix now streams thousands of movies and TV shows (like Steven Spielburg’s Poltergeist (shown above); all 138 episodes of the original Twilight Zone; the BBC’s Top Gear; the last four seasons of AMC’s Mad Men – coming mid-July) direct to your TV. Amazon, Apple TV, Hulu, Boxee follow with their own vast collections. The result is now there is always something on TV you’d like to watch.


It’s next time again.

In case you hadn’t noticed there are several alluring strangers at your doorstep and, so the story goes, they can’t cross your threshold unbidden, you have to invite them in. The technologies we’ve been dreaming about and waiting for are ripe and ready. The “cloud” beckons with virtually limitless collections of pastimes at your fingertips. Streaming instantaneous Netflix is the best example: on-demand, no late fees, 24/7, instant gratification. I have been thoroughly seduced and I’m starting to worry about the narcotic-like way these irresistible time vampires are eroding my attention span.

So what do you look for in entertainment? Oblivion? Escape? Thrills? Meaning? Goose bumps?

I’m starting to worry about how lazy I’m getting when it comes to leisure pursuits. Vegging out in front of gratuitous TV is easy and relaxing. Used to be there was never anything on I wanted to watch. Now, there is alwayssomething on I want to watch and, especially when you’re tired, it’s a vampire’s bargain that’s hard to resist.


The late David Foster Wallace was fascinated by the concept of an entertainment technology so engrossing it was lethal. This was part of the premise of his masterwork Infinite Jest. His latest book, The Pale King was published posthumously last month. Photograph by Gary Hannabarger


David Foster Wallace, the amazing novelist and essayist probably says it best:

“I think a lot of people feel–not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete different things that come at them. And the number of small . . . that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some–in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

Entertainment’s chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise.

So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just—we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. . . . And so TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than the real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food. . . . What has happened to us, that I’m now willing–and I do this too–that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people.

And that as the Internet grows . . . at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology’s just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re gonna die.

. . . this idea that pleasure and comfort are the, are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life. I think we’re starting to see a generation die . . . on the toxicity of that idea.”

– From “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” by David Lipsky in conversation with DFW


Maybe you think this is hyperbole. For David Foster Wallace it was deadly serious. I think David Foster Wallace was searching for an effective way to shut off his massive brain. I think he used TV so he didn’t have to think ahead. I think this concept was at the core of much of his art (consider the premise of his masterwork Infinite Jest) and unfortunately at the core of his addictive personality. I think these obsessions contributed to the inescapable depression which ultimately led to his heart-wrenching suicide.

The first remote controls had a wire leading to the TV. The copy in this ad talks about the innovation as “like something from the Arabian Nights.” The genie is definitely out of the bottle.

The other factor I can’t help but consider is the national average on television consumption. If, as David Foster Wallace says, TV is candy, we have another major obesity epidemic on our hands. According to the the Nielson rating service, thanks to the Digital Video Recorder (DVR), TV viewing is at an all time high. They estimate the average American spends 135 hours a month in front of the TV. That comes out to 4 hours and 50 minutes every single day. When you think about this you realize it really is something pervasive and maybe a bit perverse. As a filmmaker, I’ve always said everyone is an expert when it comes watching TV. Imagine if we all spent 4 hours a day playing the piano and then you were invited to perform? The level of expectation is daunting.

This issue is not just about television. I should point out David Foster Wallace also said that reading is usually our first addiction.

So what is entertainment? We know certain things. It is not monolithic. This is my new word courtesy of curator Barbra Tannenbaum who was nice enough to point out China is not monolithic in a great comment to last month’s blog. This word works for almost anything but it is something we often forget. Entertainment certainly is different for everyone but what ties the concept together for all of us?

Part of it seems to be something that gets you out of yourself for a few minutes. So is it like sleep? Something absorbing from which you return refreshed and energized? There is more to it than that. I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks now and I’m going to need your help to make any sense out of this because the question gets really complicated – really quickly.

Let me give you a few examples. I love going to the Cleveland Orchestra except when I actually have to go. When I get home from work on concert night I am often crabby and usually just want to sit on the couch and veg out in front of the TV instead of having to make the effort to actually go. What is puzzling about this is that every time I do go, I adore it. I always have a great experience which is due to the quality of the performers. It is a world class concert every time. So why do I fight it? The easy answer is I’m just tired and stressed-out and don’t want to make the effort of paying attention. This is where it gets complicated.

Thomas Crown Affair

Faye Dunaway cheats a bit at chess in this famous scene from the original Thomas Crown Affair (1968). The 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo could also qualify as “perfect non-think entertainment.”

I can remember a review I read of the classic move The Thomas Crown Affair. The reviewer called it “perfect, non-think entertainment.” I love that movie, and that phrase, and sometimes perfect non-think is just what the doctor ordered. But, there is much more to this issue than just “turn off the damn TV!”

Do we really want the candy of non-think entertainment to ravage our leisure time? If you are like me I guess the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. I think there is a big difference between the quality of the entertainment choices out there. Literature is different than trashy novels. Watching Kubrick is different than watching Wheel of Fortune. What are the differentiators? I’ve been trying to come up with a better word for high quality entertainment and all I’ve come up with is “enrichment”. What do I mean by that? I mean something that does more than pass the time. Something memorable. Something that is complex and layered. Something that holds your attention and does not reveal itself all at once. Something you can watch or read or enjoy over and over again and always find something new. Something which somehow changes you for the better.

Hard to imagine a more disparate group than Opera fans and gamers but both dedicate long hours to the entertainment choices they adore.

Some would say it is a question of attention span. I’m not so sure. I think of how many of my friends, at one end of the age spectrum, adore Opera and how many adore video games at the other. I think it would be a hysterical short film to see what would happen if they switched places and tried to interest the uninitiated into their entertainment of choice. Both Tannhäuser and Call of Duty take a significant time investment to enjoy. Both have layers of complexity. Both genres have rabid fans. Both can offer a satisfying experience to their audiences but most Opera aficionados consider video games a complete waste of time and the reverse is equally true.

Here is the concept with which I am wrestling: Is there a connection between how much effort we put into an entertainment and the scale of the enjoyment we then derive from it? What is the nature of that equation? If there is a relationship, why do we so often take the easy way out when we know we’ll get more value out of the more challenging path? As the number of entertainment choices increases are there effective strategies for making better choices? To use David Foster Wallace’s metaphor of candy, maybe it’s about time we started to read the (nutrition) label.


  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    At the age of ten in 1968 in Caracas Venezuela, my father announced to the family that we were moving to Bolivia. A TV-less country at the time. I desperately asked him if one could get comic books, and he said yes. I had watched TV all my short life, and suddenly I was saying farewell to LOST IN SPACE and STAR TREK. Once in Bolivia, (where I felt “where no man has gone before”)besides learning piano, reading, going to the movies and painting, I became very fond to my radio. Every night the escapism to radio programs like “La Doctora Corazon” and “El Monje Loco” kept my imagination running. TV arrived to Bolivia, but we didn’t buy one for five years. Obviously we have come a long way. NETFLIX comes religiously home three times a week, with a range of amazing choices. The MAD MEN series are seen voraciously in a few days, rather than slaving on TV waiting every week for the new chapter. The instant gratification of movies and documentaries have trumped TV. Yes, there’s CNN and Turner Classics, and occasionally a cooking channel, but with so many choices today on cable, the flat screen TV mimics the feeling to go to a movie. The cropped BEN HUR or GIGI from old TVs have been replaced by handsome panoramic screens. The price is right too. I still paint, and listen to the radio as well, but the choices have become endless. I am just very happy to have had the experience of the narrative of the radio days, where my imagination run wild listening to the crazy laughter of a mad monk playing the organ, every night at 11 pm.

  • Richard Hardy says:

    Tom-Thanks for sending me these emails as a reminder to check up on your blog. A lot of what’s on your mind is also on mine (and probably on the minds of everyone still thinking these days) so I enjoy the chance to check in. While I’m probably making excuses, one more reason its easy to sit on the couch, rather than get out, is that TV is just so damn much better than it used to be. From The Sopranos to Modern Family, the production values, the writing and acting is way beyond what some think was TV’s “Golden Era”. The fact is that a really good TV show these days actually does require engagement. I can combine my physical laziness (stay at home) with my desire to be mentally engaged. That said, The Sopranos at home can’t compare to the experience of The Godfather in a crowd at the theater and plugging in the earphones of my iPod to listen to opera can’t compare to Don Giovanni at Severance Hall. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, the discussion led me to think about a poem I always loved but haven’t thought about in years. Here’s a snippet for your enjoyment (and in honor of the Indians). See you soon. Richard

    The Crowd at the Ball Game

    –by William Carlos Williams

    The crowd at the ball game

    is moved uniformly

    by a spirit of uselessness

    which delights them—

    all the exciting detail

    of the chase

    and the escape, the error

    the flash of genius—

    all to no end save beauty

    the eternal—

  • Martina says:

    My son wants to go around projecting movies onto blank walls. He makes video streams for musicians to project when they play onstage. He constantly colludes life and art, and collages cartoon characters onto and around people on-screen. He is 22. His world is so different than mine, which is actually kept to such little image-input by my actively avoiding movies and tv. I love the comments here, and the feeling of stretching, that many people express for dealing with art. Last night I got a YouTube video of two Russian men opera singers singing the aria from Bizet’s the pearl fishers. I thought of Bahrain, the statue of pearl fishers in the main square. I thought about Russia, how artists from there sometimes are unknown in the west– at least until easy you tube recordings. I feel lucky to have wonderful memory banks of art to lean back on, but the feeling of sensory overload persists. Still, when I see a tv program, I fall into believing it. All the emotions wring me out. It does not lull me. I hope you will look at that clip–.it is so powerful— beautiful, strong, true. Great music, perfectly rendered.

  • Thomas Lee Randleman says:

    Regarding watching films at home via Netflicks. I find that it has become much more satisfying than going to a theatre. In the past it embodied a sense of sharing and reacting with an audience that could at times be thrilling and titillating. But recently the bad manners of other patrons one encounters in theatres, not to mention the high cost of a simple candy bar are really less than thrilling and not titillating at all.

    Most of us have large flat screens which when viewed in our relative spaces can be just as exciting as going out to see a film. Actually some theatre screens seem “smaller” than what we have ourselves! And some of us have marvelous sound systems which enhance the at home experience. To be sure there is the added benefit of having a glass of wine and a well prepared snack not generally available in conventional theatres. Beyond this, one can “pause” the film if need be. For more bubbly perhaps?

    Watching at home can also engender us to ask fellow film buffs to be part of the pleasure.

    It is a bit sad that this experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre with others has been sullied. I remember as a student having many happy moments going to “art films” and than going to a pub or cafe afterwards to dissect and critique what we had just seen. And there was indeed a collective heightened sense when being in the theatre with a mass of other theatre goers. But times change and our priorites change also.

    So for “now” Netflicks is pretty wonderful. Who knows what is next. Maybe we use our blank wall to screen the films. I am sure it is available already. “sic transit gloria mundi” has new meanings all the time.

    Thomas Lee Randleman

  • hi tom,

    it’s taken me a while to respond to this one. but i can’t get it out of my head. at some point after being at minor’s in the early 70’s i had not looked at a tv set for 18 years. one night at a friend’s house the set was on and i saw this grey haired man and asked who is that? johnny carson. no way, he has dark hair. that much time had passed since i had last looked at a tv. of course the medium is even more ubiquitous now and even though i see it occasionally, i still make an effort not to turn to it for entertainment, as inevitably after a long day, just sitting in front of the tube will put me to sleep. only at a theater will i be in a state of heightened awareness and realize i’m having the art experience not the zzz experience.

  • steve elllis says:

    Maybe too good of a question. The nature of “entertainment” is pretty close to the nature of “happiness” which is one away from why are we here to begin with. But frankly I think you covered most of the bases I can think of.

    I’m having a hard time finding the common element in the enjoyment I get from working through a challenging piece of literature (Wallace advises that we like hard books because they remind us how smart we are), watching Raising Arizona for the 25th time or simply listening to Howard Stern. But each of these “entertainments” is in stark contrast to “The Da Vinci Code”, Rocky VI or anything by Nancy Sinatra. “Plot”, in any of these mediums is never enough; what I find compelling is originality and some insight into the human condition. I think the reason I can go back to the same engaging book, movie or radio personality is I expect to learn something each time, even if it’s simply a take on things that strike me as funny. But somewhere in there is, “I never thought of it that way before”.

    Our philosophers have not had a lot of time to dissect this question of what entertains us or even why we are attracted to entertainment. In the days of the French aristocracy I suspect there were maybe 500 people who were overwhelmed with diversion. Now almost all of us face the question and one aspect I try to keep front and center is the real difference between fun and happiness. The former is easy to come by – we’re all easily amused. The latter is where your question takes us. What in our lives makes us “happy”? I submit precious little “entertainment” does.

    Next time an easy question. This one makes my head hurt.

  • R.J. Clancy says:

    The ancients had pyramids, obelisks and the seven wonders of the world that they incorporated into everyday life. The Romans had games in the Coliseum and wars of conquest to entertain themselves. Byzantines had chariot races in the Hippodrome as a way to escape and indulge. Northern Europeans spent a lot of time looking at paintings, statues and stained glass in cathedrals. Being entertained and distracted is not necessarily separate from life…it seems to be part of living, from the earliest cave drawings and 30,000 year-old earth-mother fertility sculptures down to Dirty Bird and You Tube. I don’t know why one would draw a distinction between entertaining ourselves and “living”. We used to labor 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year, to provide our family with food, shelter and clothing. Now we have more leisure time than any period in history. I think it’s only part of the human condition to seek out entertainment. Watching TV or playing computer games may be more “real” than any activity in our life. I don’t think being “addicted” to entertainment is something extraneous to human nature. It just might be the essence of human nature. As a personal example, last night I viewed again (on Netflix) “Rivers & Tides” about the nature artist Andy Goldsworthy. Today, I took a 90 minute walk through the Cuyahoga National Forest and experienced the low, dark clouds, dropping temperature, budding trees, swollen stream — all of Nature’s theater — with a fresh, new perspective. I was connected to the movie, to the moment, to Nature, to myself, to Goldsworthy in a way that transcended each individual entity. Where does entertainment end and reality begin? I contend, it doesn’t.

  • Cloudia says:

    With the chaotic energy surrounding us daily, in weather, or human drama, sometimes the only time we give ourselves permission to take a break is under the pretense of being sucked into that vortex of mindless “watching.” It feels like a mini vacation from the emotional, intellectual and psychological pressures raging around us……almost like napping with one eye open, except that the nature of the TV content so often further plunges us into greater concern. As the viewing mind tries to go unconscious as a temporary pause to catch one’s breath, that T V escape takes one momentarily OUT of the very place we are supposed to be at this very time in our evolution : Fully experiencing our Raw Feelings. Its where we can mine the gold of our greatest identity, and move forward in an accelerated pace on our life’s path. If we examine the excuses we create to justify or escape the Raw Feelings…in truth they are just the stories we tell ourselves to NOT be in those Raw Feelings…and those stories become emotions that then run us.

    So as I reach for the remote and turn on Dr. Mc Dreamy and go unconscious, and personally feel spared by watching someone ELSE’S Raw Feelings unfold… part of me feels like I’m still in control of the universe on some level…as long as I’m holding the remote. It ends up feeling like the ultimate power nap. …….but is probably not Universe’s intended outcome. “200 tornados touch down in one afternoon” Really ???

  • Charles Michener says:

    Years ago when I was cultural editor at Newsweek, I thought about writing a book called “The Over-Entertained Society” in the spirit of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society.” Such a book would be even more timely today. Just as the boundary between politics and entertainment has all but vanished (think Sarah Palin and Donald Trump), so—thanks to the Internet—has the boundary between entertainment and the gathering of information. How many times have we Googled for a valuable piece of information, only to find ourselves diverted by a link to pure fluff (what’s Lady Gaga up to?), only to follow another link to more fluff. Maybe a better title would be “The Distracted Society.”

    I regard entertainment as a necessary distraction, offering relief, however fleeting, from our quotidian chores, from the discontents of the self and the increasingly bewildering world. At best, entertainment is a healthy way of taking a break.

    Our enjoyment of that which we call art-whether great literature, great music, great painting, great architecture, great theater—is something else altogether. Here are six things which, as I see it, differentiate the pursuit of that experience from our indulgence in entertainment:

    1) Great art demands engagement, not disengagement; 2) it reveals its intentions gradually, not immediately; 4) it values ambiguity over resolution; 4) it seeks to illuminate what we don’t know, rather than affirm what we do know; 5) it aspires to be timeless, not of the moment; 6) it invites further study, not instant consumption.

    As someone who’s spent a good deal of time thinking about these things, I’ve come to an additional conclusion: we need entertainment because it can also be a respite from art.

  • martina says:

    Really profound reflection, Tom! I loved it. I stopped watching tv about 18 years ago. It was just too much “sensory overload” for me, after a hard day’s work. I still love reading, but am careful about what I choose to read. I love talking to friends on email. I find that email makes it possible to connect with people who are also very busy, in the interstices of their real lives.

    Today’s Wild Artist reflection by Heron Dance painter and writer Rod McIver was a quote from Miles Davis, about making music, about picking people to go deeper with, in the creative process. To find the magic, not repeat the known. That is beyond this question of ego-candy, eye-candy, addiction to non-think media, entertainment, or infotainment. You touch on it when you speak of finding something memorable, or something which makes you grow.

    This month I have been thinking again about Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou”, and I am reading Ken Kramer’s book “Dialogically Speaking”– which explores the thinking of Buber and also Maurice Friedman. These two thinkers both talked about the space between persons in dialogue, the relationality itself, as the most important matrix for becoming more deeply and fully human. The actual speech, into the listening presence of the friend who is listening– and the complexity of each person’s presence and meaning to the other. It strikes me that this is the most important response to you– to speak of dialogue, and how irreducible it is, for our being human. To receive images is too passive. We need to share. The lopsidedness in our culture could be corrected if we would just recognize this, and try to hold hands as we cross the street.

    I am also reading a book which was written by an old friend who is a Trappist monk. It is called “At Home with St. Benedict”, by Mark Scott. It is a series of reflections given informally to monks in a small abbey in Missouri. He takes the 1500 years’ tradition of the Benedictine rule, and talks about what is meaningful in our time, for living together in community and as a community of brothers. I find this wholesome and nourishing– like bread for the hungry in the time when we only SEE the image of bread, but never get to taste it, and never get to assuage the hunger. I do not want to live in the world you describe– of being alone, watching images on a screen. I want to exist in community. I want touch, healing, presence, dialogue. Small doses of those complex art, like opera, music, painting, interspersed with dialogues of good quality. And silence.

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