Missing the Mystery of Late-Night Random Acts of Nerdery

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Some movies leave an indelible impression the very first time you see them. For me, one of those movies is Highlander (showing tonight as the debut offering from Fantastique, a new fantasy film series at Alamo Drafthouse). Something — hell, everything — about this eon-spanning, sword-fighting tale of immortals captured my imagination when I saw it almost thirty years ago and simply refused to let go. Most of that is due to the film itself — it’s pretty goddamn great, rough edges aside — but looking back, I can’t help but think that part of it is the way I discovered the movie.

Right up until the moment I started watching Highlander, I had no idea that the film existed. I’d never seen a trailer or commercial, read a magazine article about it, nothing. I came across it at random during a late-night spin through the meager cable offerings of the late ‘80s. I mean, we had to make do with like twenty, thirty channels, tops. I’m flipping through, and suddenly men in kilts are hacking the shit out of each other with swords and that was it — for the next ninety minutes or so, I was transfixed.

Here was a movie that hinted at a deep mythology that was barely glimpsed in between the badass sword fights. There were great characters and performances (okay, great to my thirteen-year-old take on acting), and a villain for the ages. It was an epic movie, and not in the overused, hyperbolic sense that people throw the term around these days, but epic in only the way a thirteen-year-old nerd kid can find something epic. It was, in short, nearly as great as Star Wars, my all-time favorite movie at that age. And I never would have discovered it had it not been for the wonders of cable TV.
Okay, yes, I probably would have come across it eventually. I mean, I have seen a shitload of movies since then and there’s nearly zero chance that some other geek somewhere along the way wouldn’t have had the “What do you mean you’ve never seen Highlander?!? We’re watching it RIGHT NOW” run in with me at some point. But who knows when that might have been? Or what my take on it would have been at whatever age I would be in this thought experiment? No, I saw it at the right time, in the right way — expecting nothing, but ready for anything.

And I don’t think that happens any more.

I don’t just mean for me. As a seasoned fortysomething veteran of the geeky side of pop culture, obviously I don’t experience films the same way I did as a barely adolescent nerdling. I mean that no one in this part of the world really gets that kind of experience. How can you? First of all, who channel surfs now? We all just turn on Netflix and flip through the recommended lists, or our “watch later” queue. Or we bust out a DVD from our collection, or that someone has loaned us, or just dig through the hundreds of hours of stuff we have saved on our DVR.

On those rare occasions we do come across something unfamiliar, we have a limitless sea of resources to help us decide if we want to watch it. IMDB, Wikipedia, even dedicated wiki sites can give us anything from an overview to a detailed, spoiler-laden analysis of what we’re considering before we ever make the decision to hit play. It can be overwhelming, in part because it feels necessary — with so many goddamn entertainment choices at our fingertips, who can risk ninety minutes on some unknown quantity?
That wasn’t the case back then. If I had decided to flip past Highlander that night, I would have had maybe a couple other reasonable geek entertainment options, on the order of a Mork & Mindy rerun or maybe some forgotten monster movie on a basic cable channel. And if I wanted to know more about the movie before I decided, I could probably have dug out the HBO guide and gotten a fifty-word plot summary and a clue as to whether or not I could expect to see boobies, but by the time I found the movie’s entry I’d have missed the first fifteen minutes anyway. Why bother, when I can just watch the damn thing?

Would I go back to the old way? No, I wouldn’t. But there is something to be said for the simple joys of discovery, and random acts of serendipity. Along with Highlander, I discovered a handful of my other favorite films the same way, and all of those random late-night discoveries stick out in my memory as something special, like stumbling into a pirate’s cave full of treasure when you were just looking for a rock to pee behind. I don’t know if kids today will ever find that treasure, and that makes me kind of sad. But hey, at least they can still go see Highlander , even if they do know everything about it before the movie even starts. 

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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