How I Choose What to Watch

Photo by Johanna Vogt on Unsplash

I started logging the books I read in 2010. I added movies and television shows to my list in 2018. I keep a Media Log.

The book list began as a way to chronicle my intellectual journey. It was also a way for me to review what I’d been up to each year, like a time capsule. I’ve found it useful when someone asks for a book recommendation. I review my list and pluck titles that match the inquirer’s interest. I propose books based on my evaluation of the author, their work, and knowledge of my friend’s loves and distastes. Furthermore, if someone reviews my list, it is possible for a connection based on shared interest to result, or at least a conversation. Finally, the list helps me to be aware of how, with whom, and toward what ends I am spending my time.

The movie and television lists, once added, have served the same purposes.

A friend recently asked how I choose what to watch. My viewing choices are made in light of:

  1. What’s available. It has been several years since our family has subscribed to a cable service. We have antenna for our television, a collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, and streaming services. Right now, I have access to Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Kanopy. In the past, I’ve subscribed to Sling TV, Netflix, Hulu+, ESPN+, and Disney+. As streaming has become more mainstream, properties (movies and shows) are diffused across multiple sources. We can’t subscribe to them all, or I can’t. One result: I watch a variety of things, even movies and shows I don’t find interesting. I’m passing time. The scarcity of my choices is a factor. Not everything available to me is great.
  2. What my friends and acquaintances are watching. I ask around. We no longer live in the monoculture. Everyone watches different stuff. But if I can watch what friends and acquaintances are watching I’ll see if it is available to me for the possible conversation points. Chances are it won’t be if it is exclusive to a streaming service. If so, I’ll let that one go, or I’ll file it on a list (properties are dropped and picked up by other services). Movies and shows are reference points for connection. I never know when I’ll pick up a line, reference, or illustration that will help me communicate with those in my circle.
  3. When something is popular. I’m not always interested in Academy Award nominated films because after watching a lot of those films I’ve decided many of those films (in recent years), while beautifully shot and artfully crafted, aren’t any good. These days, they are made for critics. If you want to be in conversation with critics, watch those films. I’m not a critic in any formal or technical sense. But I am interested in people. People, generally, are not the audience for the movies that win the top awards. When the general public is interested in a movie (Top Gun: Maverick), I’m interested in why. So I see it.
  4. What’s considered an important, notable, or classic film. In the past, I’ve consulted a list of top films and then seen what is available to me. I enjoy culture and culture making. I have also learned filmmakers are in dialogue with other filmmakers. This took me a long time to pick up on. But if you read about movies and shows, if you pay attention to what you’re watching, you’ll begin to see what the filmmakers are doing. These movies may be available on a streaming service, or they may be…
  5. What I can get my hands on through the public library. If it is an old, classic film, it is usually available. If it is a new DVD release, I check a list like this one and scan back over the last few months, seeing what has come to home video. Libraries usually add new DVDs to their holdings, and you can place a hold request before the DVD arrives at the local branch. A simple search reveals if your local library is planning to obtain a copy. They create the record before adding it to the shelves. One you request it, you’re in the queue.
  6. What I’ve recorded on a list. I write down movies and shows to check out. I have a list titled “Movies to Watch.” This connects to the next one…
  7. When I hear about a movie or television show in a book, sermon, or podcast, and the way it is talked about compels me. Sometimes this is when a part of a movie, or a theme, is offered as an illustration of something. A scene is depicted, dialogue is quoted, or a description is offered that makes me think, “I need to see that. I want to see that.” Then I chase. If I have the time and energy to get my hands on it quickly and watch it soon, I do it. If not, I file it (see #6).
  8. When I’ve spent energy on more meaningful pursuits. I watch movies and television late in the day, usually in the evenings, with the energy I have leftover from a day at work, helping around the house, spending time with family, volunteering, or some other escapade.
  9. When it is a genre I enjoy. I’m a caveman: I like action films. If it stars Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Tom Cruise, Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Kurt Russell, Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’m in. Especially Arnold. I like science fiction and fantasy films, too. In my second genre tier, I like animation, detective stories, thrillers, and drama. On the third tier is comedy and documentary films. I stay away from horror, with a few exceptions. I’ve been interested in the Jordan Peele movies. I’ve dipped in and out of Hitchcock films.

From the above it is easy to tell that most of the movies and shows I watch are viewed on my television set, computer monitor, or tablet screen. But I enjoy watching movies on the big screen. I’ll go to the theater on occasion. What do I see? Summer blockbusters, particularly action films or select super hero movies, stuff that is better viewed in a room made for visual spectacle and earth-shaking “boom boom.”

My primary interest in movies and shows is entertainment. My rating system is straightforward: “I loved it,” “I hated it,” or “It was okay.” My conversation around movies and shows can be more layered. I’m happy to talk about the themes, or if I pick up on something the filmmaker is doing I offer analysis. I do think movies and shows capture, relay, or move ideas forward, some good, many bad. They are reflections of the zeitgeist. I do like it when I sense the filmmaker attempting to do something, even if they fail spectacularly. And I do give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Making art is hard. I’ve liked shows (labeling something “okay”) that other people didn’t enjoy at all. I accept the derision that comes my way as a result. It might even be deserved.

My secondary interest is for the references. I want to be conversant with friends, neighbors, and the culture; I want to understand the times. I want to be an effective communicator. Movies and shows have helped me convey ideas, teach, preach, and coach. I watch animated movies because I volunteer with kids. On a number of occasions my knowledge of movies and shows has helped me generate a laugh. Movies and shows provide shorthand that have helped me make connections.

It is thought that the first movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878: The Horse in Motion. You’ve probably seen it. Movies have been around about 150 years. We’ve come a long way. Tons of stuff has been made; more bad than good. Even with that being the case, it would require a serious investment of time, energy, and resources to become fluent in the good stuff.

I’m content with my bricolage, my bizarre mix of what I’ve found at hand. I’m open to recommendations. I may like your suggestion. I may hate it. I may think it is okay. I hope I’ll be entertained. But even if not, we’ll share one thing: the reference.