If you love someone, set them free,” is the advice Sting offers. He goes on to add, “Free, free, set them free,” about 300 times, but it does little to alter his basic message. Der Stingle can be forgiven for a lack of subject/pronoun agreement because he was probably doing something tantric at the time he wrote it. But even if we do him the favor of correcting it to, “If you love someone, set him or her free,” I’m not entirely sure I’d buy it. I’d counter with, “If you love someone, keep working on her, correcting her tiniest faults, and nudge her toward perfection at all times until she is exactly how you want her to be.”
Despite the best efforts of our crack staff here at Home Theater, there’s a lot of confusion, many misconceptions, and often deep shame out there that puts a barrier between a lot of people and the full enjoyment of their home theater. Sometimes it’s best to take your questions straight to an expert. Or you can ask me. Here, I tackle a number of fascinating questions (submitted via my Twitter account).
Ah, the heady days of the early ’90s. Maury Povich strode the globe like a conquering god-king, and all fell at his feet in awestruck worship. Cropped sweaters and high-waisted jeans were all the rage, and, sometimes, even women got in on the action. In pop, C+C Music Factory was up and running three shifts a day, their forges and foundries cranking out unit after unit of high-quality, low-cost dance hits for the grateful masses. (Yes, on occasion the factory line did shut down, as in the famous incident in which workers went on strike when it was discovered that there were some people defying the order that “Everybody dance now!” After some tense negotiations, the union agreed to compromise on its insistence that everybody dance now, allowing the sick and infirm to be given a waiver, provided they promised to dance at some time in the future. With passage of the bipartisan Dance Act, the workers returned and the factory line was soon up and humming again.)
The purchase of even a seemingly trivial home theater product is fraught with complications: Is this the right length cord? Did I buy the right adapter? Why does the guy at RadioShack smell vaguely of Hormel corned beef hash? The purchase of a new television, the centerpiece of a home theater, is that much more complicated. Understandably, people often view it with the same amount of trepidation as they do their own public caning. (I know I was nervous before mine, yet as it turns out, my caner was thorough, yet gentle.) Fortunately, this magazine gives you everything you need to help you choose the right TV. But there’s still the matter of actually buying your TV.
Not long ago, a Northern Irish filmmaker caused a sensation when he posted a video of a “time traveler”: a woman captured on film at the 1928 premiere of the Chaplin silent movie The Circus walking past the Chinese Theater apparently yammering into a cell phone. Now, on one level, this is entirely plausible, as what sane person among us wouldn’t take the opportunity to travel through time in order to get out of a contract with AT&T? But then again, is this a likely mission for a time traveler? “Hmm, I have the ability to project myself into the past and change the course of history. What should I do, take out Hitler? Poison Stalin’s borscht? Prevent the formation of sports talk radio? Or, even though it’s on DVD—I own it, in fact—should I check out that old Chaplin film while speaking into my cell phone, which will be rendered useless because of the lack of cell phone towers in 1928? Why, the choice practically makes itself—1928 Hollywood, here I come!”
When it comes to their equipment, there are two kinds of people. There are those who want to squeeze every last bit of performance out of it by modifying, tweaking, and “working under the hood,” so to speak. Then there are those whose attitude is, “Hey, I took it out of the box. What the hell else do you want from me? Now I’m gonna go lie down.” These are the kind of people represented in a recent poll, an alarmingly huge number of whom have HDTVs but don’t have any HD sources to play on them. I can only imagine that more than a few of these people also own Lamborghini Gallardos, which they use exclusively to tow their lawn mulchers. (There was also a sizable slice of the populace who had never even heard of high def! Do we have a vastly larger number of cave-dwelling cloistered monks in our country than I have been led to believe?)
Although I’ve lived a fairly mundane existence, there are several points of mild interest: I was once nearly killed by wasps. I have met Jesse “The Body” Ventura on a number of occasions (I preferred the wasps, for what it’s worth). And I once ate nothing but bacon for 29 straight days. No, I didn’t eat much bacon—didn’t eat much of anything at all—but yes, everything I did eat was bacon. Still, despite these moderately fascinating midlights (highlights is too strong a word), people seem inordinately intrigued by what I consider a biographical detail of little to no importance, something I’ve mentioned in this column before: that is my having had no source of regular TV (i.e., cable, satellite, or over-the-air) for more than a decade. “Why? What happened?!” they say, with the same pitying tone they might ask, “Are you ill? Have you had some sort of brain trauma?” (For the record, I can’t account for every hour I’ve been alive, but no, none that I can remember.)
It’s happened to all of us at one time or another: You’ve just popped an action movie into the player, settled back on the couch with a cold one (meaning of course a cold slab of yesterday’s meat loaf) all prepared to crank the sound as high as possible until the subwoofer causes all the closet doors to rattle and buzz, when you suddenly realize, dang it—it’s 3:00 in the morning. Your two-week-old quintuplets just got to sleep after an epic struggle, your great-grandfather who lives in the attic has gout and any noise over a whisper causes him to cry out in agony, and the world-record house of cards you have set up on your dining-room table is scheduled to be examined by the certifying team from the Guinness Book the very next day. You have little choice but to either abandon your movie or go to plan B: headphones.
In 1943, when Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the plans for Operation Overlord from Lieutenant-General Frederick E. Morgan, one thing about this massive, audacious, and immensely complicated scheme must have needled him more than any other. “Damn it, Fred, this thing’s not cordless?!” Alas, no. The invading army of D-Day depended upon tremendous quantities of fuel, and with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, they couldn’t risk shipping it over. Knowing this, the Allies concocted a brilliant solution: an 81-mile cord, or rather a pipeline under the ocean (it was code-named Pluto).
A few times, I’ve used this column to pay homage to those once beloved and bleeding-edge technologies that serve us well for years but when, once supplanted by newer and superior technology, are quickly cast aside and forgotten. (Today’s chunky hipster glasses are tomorrow’s zebra-print Zubaz, I guess.) I have criminally neglected one technology that probably more than any other deserves credit for creating the idea of home theater in the first place. Let us now sing the praises of Laserdisc.
Several months back, I wrote about the shock and shame of encountering a new piece of home theater gear so complex that I was for the first time forced to remove the manual from its plastic bag and, worse, actually read it. Now, in a twist perhaps more ironic than that of Alanis Morissette discovering a black fly in her chardonnay, I find I must actually write a manual.
Being a home theater enthusiast can be a richly rewarding pursuit, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Nearly electrocuting yourself while you try to install surround speakers in bare feet on what turns out to be a damp basement floor is the most common—but let’s not dwell on my past. Another less-talked-about danger is that of becoming too insular as a group, of only speaking to those who already share our passions and opinions, either in person or more likely on Internet forums while wearing a bathrobe. That’s why every so often, I like to go out into the wider world and hold informal focus groups in order to take the pulse of the average Joe or Josephine and see what they think about this hobby of ours.
In the classic 1957 film Old Yeller, a young man faces a terrible choice when his beloved and faithful dog tangles with a rabid wolf and contracts hydrophobia. Of course, you know how it ends: with a bullet to the head and lots of tears. (Yes, I know, “Where’s the spoiler alert, man?!” You’ve had 52 years to watch it. I refuse to enable your procrastination.) Tragically, I’m smack dab in the middle of my own Old Yeller moment. A recent move gave my wife the perfect cover to do something she has long wanted: order the death of my beloved and faithful 55-inch CRT rear-projection TV. At my work, I have access to the latest LCDs, plasmas, and LED sets, yet at the end of the day, it’s the CRT that sits curled up at my feet and keeps me company.
Mistaking my confidence for actual knowledge, many of my friends have inundated me with home theater questions lately. I don’t know why this is happening more now. Perhaps waves of unemployed people finally have the time to do that installation they’ve put off. Or maybe they’re preparing for the Blu-ray release of Twilight: New Moon (sexy shirtless werewolves are a powerful motivator). I thought I’d answer these questions in a feature called A Socratic Dialogue with an Imaginary Amalgam of All the People Who Have Been Asking Me Home Theater Questions as of Late.
Buy a new McLaren F1, and you’re not going to want to leave it parked in the garage next to the fertilizer spreader. No, you’ll take it out for many unnecessary 220-MPH trips to buy cilantro. Or if you’re lucky enough to acquire a vintage Perazzi shotgun, you won’t just stow it, you’ll pull it out regularly, especially when anyone gets near your McLaren. Similarly, if you’ve gone to the trouble of acquiring and assembling a top-notch home theater, you’ll want to put it through its paces, show it off, open up the throttle if you will. Of course, to do that, you’ll need the right fuel, which is the software in this case. I thought I’d bring together some of the best-looking and -sounding Blu-rays I’ve seen, stuff that should really impress your friends. A warning though: Some of these films are stupid enough to liquefy your brain, so be sure to program your material correctly to avoid death.