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.
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.