Like a lot of people, I re-subscribed to HBO several months back to catch the final season of The Sopranos. When the show cut to black and left me hanging on Steve Perry's operatic bluster at the climax of "Don't Stop Believin,'" I was too stunned to call the cable operator and cancel my service. And I'm glad I didn't. I'm now sucked into the slowly-simmering second season of Big Love, mightily enjoying the scruffy comic stylings of Flight Of The Conchords, and making a go of figuring out just what the fuck is happening on John From Cincinnati. HBO's current slate of original shows doesn't quite live up to the channel's reputation–if only because the supremely sucky Entourage, like Ebola and Winona Ryder, taints everything it touches–but it forms the core of my summer televised entertainment schedule, along with Brewers games and reality TV shows starring famous hair metal frontmen and small armies of stripper slutbots.
But I'm not here to talk about HBO's TV shows. I want to address the HBO programming nobody talks about and yet makes up the bulk of its schedule: movies. You would think a cable network called Home Box Office would put movies front and center in its promotional materials, and attempt to lure subscribers by promising to present the latest, greatest flicks in pristine form, uncut, in the privacy of your own home. True, in the age of DVDs and On Demand seeing movies on cable isn't quite the humdinger it was when I was a kid, when my dad let me watch Risky Business with him on HBO as long as I left the room during the sex scenes. (Which is why for many years I thought Tom Cruise's love interest in Risky Business was Curtis Armstrong, not Rebecca DeMornay.) But the fun of subscribing to a movie channel is serendipitously discovering those movies you don't know to rent or order until you stumble upon them late at night and get your mind blown. That's certainly the case with Turner Classic Movies, hands down the best movie channel around in terms of selection, presentation, and respect for the form. I'm also becoming a fan of Encore's MoviePlex channel, which balances out a fair amount of dreck with lost gems like Hal Ashby's wonderful 1970 directorial debut The Landlord (currently unavailable on DVD) and the 1973 Sergio Leone production My Name Is Nobody. HBO, though, is far more likely to put James Gandolfini or Larry David in a commercial than clips from its roster of upcoming movies.
The reason why is obvious to any HBO subscriber: The TV shows are typically good to great, while the movies are mediocre to incredibly shitty, and presented accordingly.
I have about a dozen HBO channels as part of my cable package, and I swear three of them play Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter Is Dead every single morning. Admittedly, the pop culture masochist in me doesn't mind this so much. Normally, I try to seek out movies, albums, and books I expect going in to be good, and more often than not I've done enough investigating beforehand to ensure my time won't be wasted. The upside to this approach is that you end up experiencing a lot of worthwhile entertainment. The downside is constant exposure to quality can make it seem average and run of the mill–you need some crappy contrast to make greatness truly stand out. The best thing I can say about HBO's movie programming is that it has given me a shit-ton of crappy contrast for movies I love. In the past few weeks alone I have watched all or part of the following: She's The Man, Date Movie, Rumor Has It, The Break Up, You, Me, And Dupree, The Devil Wears Prada, and Monster-In-Law, as well as "classic" crap like The Secret Of My Success, Great Expectations, Doctor Doolittle, and the aforementioned Christina Applegate vehicle about climbing the corporate ladder as a fashion-minded teenager with a conveniently deceased caregiver. After feeding myself a steady diet of movies I would normally never watch, I feel good about the fact that 99 percent of the movies I assumed were horrible based solely on the commercials were, in fact, horrible.
Based on the hoity-toity "It's Not TV" image HBO likes to promote for itself, shouldn't I expect more as a subscriber? I mean, I can accept that a box office hit like The Devil Wears Prada will get regular showings, even if Anne Hathaway's plucky earnestness made me and my girlfriend want to bash our brains out with a rolled-up copy of Cosmo. But it seems a tad jarring to go from the carefully crafted, nuanced storytelling of The Wire to the head-ache inducing hijinks of a nobody-gives-a-fuck turd like She's The Man. With its boutique of prestige shows on one side and gutter movie selection on the other, HBO programming seems counterproductive at best and schizophrenic at worst. As much as I love Big Love and Flight Of The Conchords, I can't be the only HBO subscriber wondering whether it's worth paying for daily access to every underwhelming romantic comedy Jennifer Aniston has ever made (so far, anyway).
And I haven't even mentioned yet how HBO doesn't letterbox its movies. Don't worry, I'm not going to launch into a diatribe about how pan-and-scan butchers important (and even unimportant) works of art. After all, I don't really need to. This is one of the rare arguments the nerds ended up winning in the marketplace, though the proliferation of widescreen TVs probably had something to do with that. But, really, I know it's an old complaint, but how can HBO still be favoring pan-and-scan versions over letterbox? HBO letterboxes its own TV shows, even though they still air mainly on boxy home screens, but not its movies, which originated in widescreen form. How the hell does that make any sense? If I'm going to see The Devil Wears Prada, at the very least show me all of The Devil Wears Prada.
The stupidity of HBO in this regard is best illustrated by Roger Ebert in one of his Answer Man columns, which I'll quote at length:
The network is one of the sponsors of the Grant Park Film Festival, the popular summer series of free outdoor screenings here in Chicago.
I went to introduce "An American in Paris" and found that although the movie was shot in the 1-to-1.33 ratio (as were all films before 1954), it was being projected in a widescreen ratio that had the effect of masking 20 percent of the image, and cutting off Gene Kelly's dancing feet. This was not merely a mistake -- it was HBO policy! An HBO exec in New York, I was told, ordered the films to be shown in widescreen, "so people won't think we're showing television."
This is one more pathetic example of the dumbing of America -- to show the films in the wrong aspect ratio to placate the stupid, instead of in the right aspect ratio to reward the knowledgeable. I am happy to say that my complaints bore fruit, and the series will now show all films in their proper ratio. Wish I could say the same for HBO itself.
This Ebert column is from six years ago, so clearly not much has changed since then. Until it does I suggest HBO change its slogan: "It's not TV, it's a fancier Lifetime Movie Network."