Back before he started marrying his daughters, Woody Allen used to make funny films. In one of the better of them, 1977’s critically acclaimed Annie Hall, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is standing in line for a film while the guy behind him pontificates loudly on various things, among them influential scholar Marshall McLuhan. Singer challenges him, and the man pompously reveals that he teaches a class on media at Columbia University. So Allen replies, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here,” and retrieves him from behind a lobby card. McLuhan retorts, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”
While the hobby of home theater may seem benign, it’s not without danger. How much danger? Experts tend to peg its level of potential hazard as being somewhere between that of stamp collecting—in which nothing whatsoever happens at any time and so the risk is quite low—and emu farming, where the chance of having your carotid artery flayed open by a razor-sharp spur is ever present. With home theater, the risks are somewhat more hidden but no less dangerous. If there are individuals who have somehow managed to flay open their carotid arteries in their home theaters, it probably went unreported. I know if it were me, I’d want my family to buy an emu and blame it on him to spare them the shame. To help you avoid the pitfalls, I’ve compiled this list of common home theater ailments.
You probably believe, like I used to, that there is literally nothing more boring than listening to someone describe his dream. An understandable belief, but completely false. The truth is, there’s literally nothing more boring than my actual dreams. If through some unfortunate series of events you were in the area while I described one of them, you would die. No matter how artfully told, a description of my typical dream would grip you in iron pincers of tedium and slowly crush the last spark of life from your helpless body. If you somehow managed to live, you would wish for death rather than having to endure the haunting memory of its supernatural torpidity. Let me give you an example.
There’s much to admire about Larry King, not the least of which is his longevity—he began broadcasting his show via Pony Express during the Buchanan administration. There’s also the fact that he has achieved so much despite his strong resemblance to a large, partially shaved rodent. He’s also to be commended for his ability to shift rapidly between subjects (almost as quickly as he shifts between wives), both in his TV show (“Tonight, I’ll be talking about radical Islam with author and former member of the Dutch Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’ll then be cooking a delicious and healthful egg-white omelet with funnyman Carrot Top”) and in his late, lamented column for USA Today (“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing beats a nice, cold glass of pineapple juice... Went to see Legs Diamond on Broadway, accompanied by former Match Game host Gene Rayburn: Man, Peter Allen looks great in a tux!”). And so, Larry, I dedicate this wide-ranging column to you.
Something huge has recently transpired, something world changing. It happened almost without notice while we were all distracted by other things, but it represents a profound cultural shift. When purchasing a piece of electronic gear, it is now nearly impossible to avoid reading the damned manual.
Sometimes, despite taking great pains to avoid it, one finds oneself having to go to the Internet for information. An inconvenience, to be sure, especially if one is trying to limit one’s exposure to ads for home mortgages that feature photos of hideously ugly deformed men, the kind you expect to see under freeway overpasses sitting in a shopping cart filled with rags and using a Ralphs Rewards card to eat generic franks and beans from a dented can. But if it’s trivia about Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf you’re after (and I assume that represents more than 80 percent of Internet traffic), then you can be on and off in relatively short order and with a minimum of bother. (Oh, and I’ll spare you the searching. Yes, it’s drug inspired. And no, the Magic Flute was not killed in action in Vietnam.)
A few columns ago, I mused on what it must be like for an expert to have to face the staggering amount of misinformation floating around in his or her area of expertise. And yes, all I can do is muse, as the few times I’ve been in the company of experts, the mistake was discovered and I was soon escorted from the premises. Sure, I was acquainted with a woman who made a conscious decision to become the foremost expert on the origin and history of the Cornish pasty (true story). Sadly, throughout my life, this connection has not opened as many doors as you might imagine.
After being a stable homeowner for many years, the last three years have seen me moving more often than an aging knuckleball pitcher. This may seem like a negative—after all, moving is an event that many people view with as much enthusiasm as getting hit by a garbage truck or accidentally light-ing one’s hair on fire. But I prefer to look at the positives. Chief among them, I have become something of an expert at dismantling and reassembling a complex home theater system. Allow me to pass on my wisdom.
The ancient Greek ruler Phalaris wasn’t an easy man to work for. He was known as Phalaris the Tyrant of Agrigentum (and no one ever says of people with Tyrant in their name, “Great guy! I’m always better off for having seen him.”). He wasn’t content with the state of the art of torture and execution, e.g., boiling, flaying, burning, sawing in half—you know, the classics. It was good technology that got the job done, but Phalaris was a man who pushed his employees, constantly asking the question, “What’s next?” Under his firm and visionary leadership, the brass worker Perilaus of Athens developed what would become the next big thing in execution—and entertainment—for a decade or more. Known as the Brazen Bull, it was a large, hollow brass chamber in the form of, as you might guess, a bull (think the Wall Street bull, only without the tourists posing next to its metal genitalia) with a lockable access door. Horrible to be trapped inside, of course. Even more horrible should someone light a fire underneath it, which, this being the rule of Phalaris the Tyrant, they did without fail.
The following shocking true story of how my old, forgotten stereo system saved my life contains themes of sex and violence. OK, not sex. And the violence is against birds, but once you get the whole story, I’m sure you’ll come to believe that they deserved even worse.
It used to be such a nice place to live, my house. A modest home in a neat, modest neighborhood with nice, quiet neighbors. And then they moved in. The crows.
For every technology that has outlived its usefulness, there remains a (usually) small but highly committed band of enthusiasts who advocate for, preserve, and curate it (primarily by going on Internet forums and comparing doubters to Hitler). For example, the LP has had its best year in a long time, selling more than 2 million units. Yes, that’s roughly 0.01 percent of the number of CDs and downloads Lady Gaga sells in any given week, but still, sales are on the rise. And just dare to tell a fan of old-fashioned mechanical watches that your old $13 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles digital keeps better time than his. He’ll likely threaten to gut you like a fish. If you go on a search for fans of AM radio, you’ll find vanishingly small numbers and a distinct lack of passion. While a large number of stations still broadcast AM, their programming is generally limited to the unglamorous world of sports talk radio, local coupon shows, and the lesser songs of Bobby Goldsboro.
The kids today, with their Jason Biebers and their unlaced tennis shoes and their sparkly vampire movies: What in the name of Sam Hill are they coming to? Specifically, when it comes to home theater, I mean? They have literally thousands of entertainment choices. (When I was a kid, we had exactly three: yo-yos, Gilligan’s Island reruns, and seven-year-old copies of National Geographic magazine.) Will they care enough to invest in a good system? Will the flame of home theater continue to burn in the next generation and beyond? Or will it die out and become a fringe hobby, embraced only by a small faction of cranks with hitched-up trousers who cut their grass with vintage reel mowers and still think there’s some value in their sizable collection of S&H Green Stamps?
A recent Internet meme featured a goofy song set to clips from an obscure mid-’70s wilderness “epic” called Buffalo Rider. I watched the whole film and can tell you the title is not a euphemism (thank the heavens); it’s a 19th century period piece about a guy who tames and rides a buffalo (technically the American bison, but American Bison Rider makes for a terrible title). Well, truth is, he kind of tames the buffalo—mostly the poor brute ambles about trying to scrape its rider off on low tree branches, angrily chases after bears, and generally goes about as he wishes and looks decidedly untamed, save for the fact that there’s a guy on his back.
Some people, after purchasing, say, a perfectly serviceable purebred Norfolk terrier feel that on its own, the animal is lacking and needs improvement. So they tinker with it, fashioning a topknot using colorful red bows, or strapping two pairs of elegant spats onto its legs. On Halloween they might wrap up the poor thing in a homemade pumpkin costume and take it out on the town. (The technical term for these people is, I believe, “my Aunt Wilma.”)
It’s a safe bet that all of us, at one time or another, have been tempted to indulge in a little chronological chauvinism, i.e., the belief that the age in which we live is the most advanced, the wisest, and clearly superior to all that came before. To thoroughly explode that notion with regard to the wisdom of our current age, one need only reflect for a second on the fact that Perez Hilton is allowed to roam free—at least for a while, until Congress takes up my Send Perez Hilton to the Moon initiative. Yet as far as technology is concerned, it’s almost inarguable. Advance after advance has bequeathed to our blessed generation many wonders: the crescent wrench, the George Foreman Grill, SmartWool socks, chewable vitamins, and of course, Pizzeria Pretzel Combos.