As Americans, we spend hundreds of hours a year consuming mass media. I am no exception. In fact, thanks to commercial-skipping technology and careful planning, sometimes I consume hundreds of hours of mass media in one day. But where is all that time going? What are we actually watching and reading and hearing?
This year, for the first time, I kept track. I kept a media diary, with a daily list of the movies and TV shows I watched, the plays I attended, and the books I read. I was curious what the statistics would look like when the year was over.
So this is an inventory of my media consumption for 2004. Critical commentary is provided where appropriate, but mostly it’s a recap, a stroll down memory lane. Maybe this summary of my life will only be of interest to me, but maybe some people are curious what I’ve done with my spare time. Maybe what I’ve watched, seen and read matches up with what you’ve watched, seen and read. Let’s find out, shall we?
I made an unusual goal for myself this year. I wanted to watch 365 movies, one for every day of the year. Then I remembered it was leap year, which meant 366. I briefly considered waiting for a regular-length year, but I decided not to procrastinate.
The reason was more obsessive-compulsive than anything. I’d been keeping casual track of my movie-viewing for the past few years, and I’d found I usually wound up at around 300 or 325. I thought, why not put in a little bit of extra effort and make it an even 365 (or 366, in this case)? I want to be more of a film buff and a better-educated critic, but I’m so often busy watching the new releases that I don’t have much time for the classics, nor even to re-watch some of my personal favorites. Forcing myself to watch an average of one film per day, every day, would allow me to work some of that into my schedule.
And scheduling is all it really came down to. Once you’ve got it in your head, you just factor it into your routine the same as you do any of your other daily activities. (I mention this in case you are considering a goal of 366 movies per year.)
Now, my goal was not necessarily to “go to the movies” 366 times. Goodness knows I dislike multiplexes, or more accurately the audiences in them. Films viewed on DVD or on satellite TV in the comfort of my own home counted, too.
January got me off to a good start. I saw 56 movies that month, most of them at the Sundance Film Festival. Seeing 56 in 31 days gave me 25 “free” days, days I could not watch any movies and still be on target. Without meaning to, though, I used those days up within a few months. I hadn’t taken into account that, unlike most people, I watch a lot of movies during the week and almost none on the weekends. The weekends are usually for catching up on the TV that I missed during the week (when I was busy watching movies).
Weekends add up, and so after a great February (35 films), I had 22 in March, 27 in April, 26 in May and 20 in June — the lowest of any month the entire year. (June was one of my lower TV-watching months, too. You’d hope I was out enjoying the sunshine or something, but mostly I was just moving to a new apartment.)
The next few months proceeded more or less the same way: 34 films in July, 22 in August, 23 in September, 28 in October. By November, I was beginning to realize that if I was to meet my goal, I would need to get serious about it and stop assuming I would watch 366 movies without putting forth a little extra effort. I got back up to 34 in November, bringing the total to 327 for the year. This means I had to watch 39 movies in December — one a day, without fail, plus eight more at some point.
I will save you the suspense. I did not meet my goal. I watched 33 movies in December, bringing my total for the year to 360 — a nice round number, but six shy of what I’d hoped for. I wept bitter tears.
No, not really. The goal was 366, but the point behind the goal was to watch old films I’d never seen before, to get out more often to the weekend midnight movies at Salt Lake City’s Tower Theatre, and to see more of the independent and foreign films that I often wind up missing. Were it not for my 366 goal, I probably wouldn’t have been properly motivated to catch the re-release of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” when it came to town, nor to TiVo “The Philadelphia Story” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” I might have watched “The Maltese Falcon,” but I probably wouldn’t have watched it again when a friend and I happened to stumble across it one night while channel-surfing. I’d heard plenty about “Deliverance,” but would I have made a point of seeing it when Turner Classic Movies showed it, had I not been trying to watch 366 films in 2004? Probably not.
In all, I saw 41 films this year that were released before 2004 that I had never seen before. (The list is below.) Plenty of classics, a few obscure ones, a few awful ones, even a made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime Network. (It was about Kim, the dumb daughter from “24,” having a gambling problem. It was AWESOME!!!!!!)
I also rewatched some of my favorite films from yesteryear, including “Blazing Saddles,” “Pulp Fiction,” the first two “Superman” movies, and “Memento.” In many cases, I was watching them with someone who had never seen them before, spreading the joy of great movies while also working toward my goal.
I went to the movies with my mom, something I had not done since 1993, when we saw a matinee of “Jurassic Park.” Tragically, the film we chose this time was “Darkness,” and we saw it on Christmas night. I also watched “The Maltese Falcon” and Disney’s “Robin Hood” with my friend Luscious Malone while we were babysitting for our friends in Las Vegas while said friends were performing in a crappy play. I went to several midnight movies at the Tower Theatre, including “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “The Shining,” both of which benefit greatly from being seen on the big screen with a good sound system. I attended a screening of “Dr. Strangelove” at the Broadway Centre, which was unfortunately preceded by an anti-nuclear spiel by whatever group it was that had sponsored the screening.
Of course, most of the 360 movies I watched were new releases that I reviewed for my Web site and for EFilmCritic.com (and its sister site, HollywoodB****slap.com). My list of the best and worst movies of the year is featured in a separate article.
For the curious, here are the 360 movies I saw this year, arranged by category.
2004 releases that I saw and reviewed:
You can go here to see my movie reviews listed in reverse chronological order, if you really want to see a list of all the films I reviewed in 2004.
2004 releases that I watched a second time:
“The Bourne Supremacy”
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
“Kill Bill Vol. 2”
“The Saddest Music in the World”
“Shaun of the Dead”
Pre-2004 releases that I had seen before, and reviewed, that I re-watched this year:
“Death to Smoochy”
“Final Destination 2”
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
“Kill Bill Vol. 1”
“Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
“Meet the Parents”
“The Triplets of Belleville”
Pre-2004 releases that I had seen before but did not review, that I re-watched this year:
“I Accuse My Parents” (on MST3K — heck yeah, it counts!)
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
“Robin Hood” (animated)
“The Sixth Sense”
Pre-2004 releases that I saw for the first time this year:
“Alice in Wonderland” (animated)
“The Amityville Horror”
“Cape Fear” (1962)
“The Crow: Salvation”
“Dawn of the Dead” (1978)
“The Elephant Man”
“Father of the Bride” (1950)
“Freaky Friday” (1978)
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
“The Hills Have Eyes”
“In Cold Blood”
“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
“King Kong” (1933)
“Kramer vs. Kramer”
“La Dolce Vita”
“The Maltese Falcon” (twice)
“My Daughter’s Secret Life” (Lifetime Network movie — really awesome!!!!!!)
“The Philadelphia Story”
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”
“The Thin Blue Line”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“West Side Story”
“The Wild One”
Here is the best thing about TiVo. You can program your remote control so that while you’re watching pre-TiVoed shows, you hit a button and it skips ahead 30 seconds — the length of most commercials. Hit that button four or five times, then, and you’re through the break and back to the show, all in a matter of seconds. It’s a thing of beauty.
What this means is that, while I watched 782 hours of programming over the course of the year — an average of 2.1 hours a day, which is about average in America — I watched it in only 523 hours. So I spent only 1.4 hours in front of the TV every day, yet watched 2.1 hours’ worth of material. How’s that for efficiency!
(By the way, 23 percent of the time I was watching TV, I was watching something with “Law & Order” in the title. Seriously: 115 episodes of “Law & Order,” and 68 episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” I’ve seen all the old “SVUs” now, but there are still a couple hundred “Law & Orders” out there, waiting to be TiVoed.)
These are my 10 favorite shows currently on the air, all of them works of genius in their own way. For people who think TV is nothing but a vast wasteland, I point to these shows as examples to the contrary.
1. “Arrested Development”
5. “The Simpsons”
6. “Law & Order: SVU”
8. “Reno 911”
9. “South Park”
10. “Saturday Night Live”
Here’s what I watched regularly in 2004, listed by day. Please note that I never watch reruns, which means I watch these shows, at the most, 22 times a year. (Except for “Law & Order,” of course, which has hundreds of reruns I’ve never seen.) With a lot of shows, it’s 13 weeks or less. So while there are 11 shows listed for Sunday, for example, there are only four or five of them airing on any particular Sunday. (Good thing, too.)
“Malcolm in the Middle”
“Six Feet Under”
“Curb Your Enthusiasm”
“Da Ali G Show”
I do other things on Mondays, like watch leftover Sunday shows.
“Law & Order: SVU”
“American Idol” (only the performance shows; I’ve never watched a “results” show)
“Angel” (until it got canceled)
“Law & Order”
“Will & Grace”
Home on a Friday?! Bah!
“Saturday Night Live”
LIMITED RUN/MISCELLANEOUS DAYS:
“Line of Fire”
“The Simple Life”
“My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance”
“Joe Schmo 2”
It would be foolish of me to compile a Top 10 list for the books I read this year, because I only read 17 of them. This is somewhat below the number of movies I watched (360), but you’ll admit, books take longer.
The links provided are to Amazon.com, where if you buy any of these books (or any product there, actually), I receive a very small kickback. These little proceeds help cover the costs of maintaining my Web site — the Web hosting service, the Laotian children who work in my sweatshop, etc. — so if you’re going to be buying stuff from Amazon ANYWAY, it would be super if you’d get to Amazon.com by clicking to it from a link on my site.
Anyway, here’s the list, in the order in which I read them. A couple of them appear to have been selections for Oprah’s book club, though I assure you that is entirely coincidental. Books that I particularly recommend are starred.
“The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown. Oh, you know, it’s fine. I read it because EVERYONE was reading it, and I like to be hip with the pop culture. It’s written on about a 10th-grade reading level, and the cliffhangers are shameless. (“I walked into the room, and there in front of me was the MEANING OF LIFE.” [End of chapter]) But it’s thick, pulpy fun, as long as you don’t make the mistake of believing you are reading great literature, and as long as you don’t go around telling people it’s the best book you ever read.
** “Mr. Timothy,” by Louis Bayard. Entertainment Weekly gave this high marks one week, and the premise intrigued me: Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” grown up and solving crimes! Specifically, he solves the mystery of dead girls he keeps finding around town! Oh, and he lives upstairs at a brothel. Oh, and he has a sea-captain friend named Gully who, rather than having a hook for a hand, has a wrench. Oh, and I could go on about the odd (but believable), wildly imaginative proceedings in this marvelous novel. Written in first-person in the dialect of 1860s London (did you know prostitutes were called “dollymops”? Well, they were), the book is astonishingly well-written, Bayard’s vocabulary and agility at assembling it being almost as good as anything I’ve ever seen. The story has a bit of whodunit skullduggery, along with emotional depth and a litany of fantastically memorable characters. It has been a while since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed reading a book as I did this one.
“Twisted,” by Jeffrey Deaver. Another recommendation from Entertainment Weekly, this is a compilation of short stories. I like short stories, because they’re, um, short. Also, they often have twist endings, and this collection of crime and/or horror-related tales is full of them. Some are better than others, but overall it’s a pretty entertaining read.
** “Peace Like a River,” by Leif Enger. My friend Luscious Malone recommended this book, which I kept thinking was called “Pees Like a River.” As always, Luscious did not steer me wrong. It’s a wistful, perfectly written novel set in rural Minnesota in the early 1960s, in which two young children accompany their godly father in search of their older brother, who is accused of murder. Dad seems to have his own special connection to God, able to perform miracles at times, a fact which unsettles those who witness it. The story is told from the point of view of the 11-year-old son, and Enger writes with a greater command of the English language than nearly anyone I’ve ever read. He turns every phrase brilliantly, writing poetically but not pretentiously, and every sentence is vibrant. Oh, and the story is great, too — sweet and funny and faith-affirming without being overtly religious.
** “The Pleasure of My Company,” by Steve Martin. I listened to this book — read by the author! — while driving to Portland, Ore., and back for a show I did up there in March. Now, if we cannot agree that Steve Martin is one of the most brilliant men of our day, then we have nothing to discuss. This novel, about an obsessive-compulsive, slightly crazy man trying to overcome himself and face the world, manages to be wonderfully, absurdly funny while also achieving raw emotional honesty. I found myself weeping over the story’s beautiful, sweet resolution, which was something of a driving hazard. It is one of my favorite books of the year.
“Special Circumstances,” by Sheldon Siegel. I happened to pick this one off the shelf at the library, and the first couple pages caught my interest. It seemed like a wry legal thriller, told from the point of view of a jaded defense attorney. That is what it is, but I had not reckoned how fast the jaded voice would become tiresome, and the legal aspects — the attorney’s best friend is accused of murdering one of their law partners — is not especially compelling. I finished the book only because I wanted to find out whodunit.
“Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh. This was one of my favorite books growing up. I think I identified with the main character, who wants to be a writer, has an active imagination, and often alienates her friends. I was between books one cold weekend this spring, and I wanted something familiar, the literary equivalent of comfort food. So I pulled this off the shelf, got in the bathtub (I filled it with water, too), and read away. A couple hours later, I was pruny and content.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. One of those books I was supposed to have read but never did until now. I don’t recall what prompted me to finally read it, but I’m glad I did. The book vividly does what all novels are supposed to do, which is transport you to a particular time and place. Atticus Finch is a great hero.
“Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison. I was assigned this book in my AP English class in high school and, as with most of the books I was assigned, did not read it. The Provo library finally obtained a copy not long ago — they apparently were unaware of the existence of Toni Morrison until recently — and I was among the first to check it out. The style of the book doesn’t exactly suit my tastes, but I can appreciate the poetic beauty of Morrison’s writing. Also, reading this back-to-back with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I got a distinct feel for black culture in the American South in the early 20th century, from two different perspectives.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” by Mark Haddon. A charming British novel about an autistic boy who sets out to discover who murdered his neighbor’s dog. In the process, he learns about the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and about his own life. The book is written from the point of view of the boy, which makes it endlessly fascinating. The author has worked with autistic children and seems to know how they think, how they see the world, how they reason. It is a sweet, entertaining little novel.
** “Mailman,” by J. Robert Lennon. This was another Entertainment Weekly recommendation some time ago, but I was unable to get a library copy until now. In the meantime, I’d read another of Lennon’s books, “The Funnies,” about a man who inherits his father’s “Family Circus”-style comic strip when the old man dies, and must come to terms with the fact that the strip in no way resembles his actual, thoroughly dysfunctional family. “The Funnies” was a hoot, and so is “Mailman,” as it turns out. “Mailman” is about a letter carrier in his 50s who occasionally keeps mail to read for himself, and whose life is a twisted mess of neuroses and bitterness. The book is darkly funny, vividly portraying small-town life as well as the life of one of its more dyspeptic citizens. Lennon’s mastery of the language is brilliant; I laughed out loud many times while reading, even as I sympathized with the protagonist.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The author is one of the most acclaimed South American writers in history, so I figured I ought to read something of his. This is his most famous novel, telling the 100-year history of a particular village somewhere in South America. It is written mostly as a history, with very little dialogue, and the characters are many. Yet I found it stayed with me long after I read it. It is one of those books that, when you have finished it, you feel like you’ve accomplished something meaningful.
“The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold. Another book that EVERYONE was reading. Better than “Da Vinci Code,” but not life-altering. It tells the story of a girl was was raped and murdered years ago, and the effect it had on her family, and is told from the perspective of the dead girl herself, now in heaven.
“Ragtime,” by E.L. Doctorow. I’d seen the stage musical based on this book a few times, and when I stumbled across the book at the library, I gave it a shot. Like “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” it is written historically and without much dialogue. I daresay I prefer the musical version, though the book is briskly and engagingly written, and paints a clear picture of American life at the turn of the last century, when everything was beginning to change forever.
“Summerland,” by Michael Chabon. Ah, how much do I love Michael Chabon? His “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” is one of my favorite books of all time, and “Summerland” is an honest delight, too. I listened to this during a drive to Portland and back, read by the author, having been delighted to discover it among the Salt Lake City Library’s few audiobooks. The story is distinctly American, telling of baseball, Indian legends and Western folklore like Paul Bunyan and Bigfoot, all wrapped into a tale of three children who are pulled into an alternate world of sprites, giants and elves in order to save the universe. Anyone who loves baseball will particularly enjoy the book, which is pegged as a children’s novel but which I think is probably too deep for them to fully appreciate.
“Vile Bodies,” by Evelyn Waugh. When I saw the film “Bright Young Things,” I thought, “I bet the book this was based on is really funny.” “Vile Bodies” is that book, and it turns out I was right. It’s a savage satire of the worthless, lazy, upper-class socialites of 1920s England. Waugh could turn a droll phrase like nobody’s business. I suppose you’d have to develop a pretty good sense of humor if your name were Evelyn and you were a man.
** “Wonder Boys,” by Michael Chabon. I saw this film upon its release in 2000, then promptly forgot who Michael Chabon was. Even reading two of his books later did not remind me. It wasn’t until I finished “Summerland” and went looking for more Chabon on the library shelf that I remembered he’d written “Wonder Boys,” too. This is a funny, pithy novel about a disheveled English professor whose long-awaited novel is more than 1,000 pages and shows no signs of being finished; whose mistress has announced she is pregnant; whose wife has left him; and whose pupil has just shot the mistress’ dog. It takes place over one eventful weekend and is brimming with colorful characters and Chabon’s brilliant, masterful use of the English language. I believe Chabon is one of the best writers currently living.
“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” by Michael Chabon. This is Chabon’s first novel and has been compared to “Catcher in the Rye,” more for its young-man-finding-himself theme than for its particular content or tone. (It is far sunnier than “Catcher,” to be sure.) It’s breezy and witty and highly literate, like all of Chabon’s work, though I think his best stuff was yet to come.
When I was reviewing theater for The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, I saw 100 shows a year. That number decreased significantly when my reviewing duties were curtailed at the paper (by an arts editor who, by her own admission, didn’t care much for theater), and it decreased even more when I lost the job altogether.
So I saw only 11 shows this year, five of them on behalf of Salt Lake City Weekly, for which I have freelanced some reviews. (Links are provided, if you’re curious.) This list is more pointless than all the others, of course, since they’re all local productions and none of them are still running and why should you care? But here’s the list anyway, in chronological order.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake City. Pioneer used to send us season tickets at the Herald each year, and when I got fired, I happened to be in possession of the coming season’s batch. I saw no reason to give them back to the Herald, since the Herald had stopped reviewing theater anyway. Plus, the tickets were at home, and even if I’d wanted to bring them back to the office at some point, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed in. At any rate, I went to a few of the shows with my free Herald tickets, including this zippy old Neil Simon play that served as the prototype for all his future plays (i.e., Jewish people yelling vaudeville-style punchlines and setups at each other).
“The Fantasticks,” Provo Theatre Company. My friend Chris was in this musical, despite possessing little prowess for singing and despite hating musicals. Nonetheless, he and the rest of the cast were excellent. This musical has a song about a rape, using “rape” in its secondary definition of “kidnapping.” The characters even complain that, while they understand the singer means it in its non-sexual sense, it’s still an uncomfortable word to keep hearing over and over again, 33,000 times in one song. It’s a rare case of a show admitting its flaws: “Hey, audience, we know this song is irritating, but the word ‘kidnapping’ wouldn’t have fit so nicely in the meter of the song, so we used ‘rape’ instead. Deal with it.”
“Urinetown: The Musical,” national tour, Salt Lake City. I’d seen this on Broadway and loved it, so I made sure to get tickets when the tour came to town. It was just as wonky, crazy and funny as I remembered it.
“Evita,” Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake City. Another freebie. This is probably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best show, in my estimation, and PTC did it justice.
“Moon Over Buffalo,” Provo Theatre Company. The aforementioned friend Chris, who appeared in “The Fantasticks,” directed this farce. A few of my friends acted in it, too, and were quite funny. It was written by the same man who wrote “Lend Me a Tenor,” another wacky backstage farce that I enjoy.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake City. This was the first of my City Weekly gigs. Because several other shows were opening the same week, though, I had only 300 words to review the show. It’s hard to write short! Plus, City Weekly pays by the word, so I felt like I kinda got gypped.
“Ten Little Indians,” Signature Productions, Las Vegas. I saw this community theater production because my friends Ken and Katie were starring in it. It was a singularly bad experience. The show had Ken’s rakish handsomeness and painted-on mustache and Katie’s radiant beauty, but it also had an octogenarian woman’s performance as a skittish doctor who seems to channel Don Knotts, as well as an 18-year-old jug-eared skank who combined physical unattractiveness with personal unlikability to an unprecedented degree. Such a terrible show. But man, did we ever laugh at it. (At it, not with it.)
“Popcorn,” Pygmalion Productions, Salt Lake City. Another City Weekly gig, though for some reason I can’t find it on their Web site. It’s a dark comedy about a Tarantino-esque director whose home is invaded one night by two spree-killers who blame his movies for their deeds. I like the idea well enough, but it’s executed like it thinks it’s the first play ever to deal with the issue of violence in the media.
“Madagascar,” Salt Lake Acting Company. Ah, now HERE’S a play, my friends! It has three characters, each staying in the same hotel room at different times: one five years ago, one five days ago, one today. The people are intertwined, and as they speak to us, we learn more and more about them, and about a mysterious disappearance that affected them all. One of the most enthralling shows I saw all year.
“Beauty and the Beast,” Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake City. I love the animated Disney version, but I’ve always felt the stage show is too huge and overdone. Pioneer — among the first regional theaters to do the show since rights to it became available; it’s still running on Broadway — did an adequate job, but got bogged down in the first act. My friend wanted me to use the term “moose knuckle” (the male equivalent of “camel toe”) to describe Lumiere the candlestick’s costume, but I could not justify such a thing, even in City Weekly.
“The Santaland Diaries,” Tooth & Nail Theatre, Salt Lake City. As with “Beauty and the Beast,” I am a fan of the source material, not so much of the stage show. If David Sedaris came and read his essay himself, then you’d have something.