As someone who is millennial-adjacent, I’ve watched as friends and colleagues younger than I — and some older folks too — cut the proverbial cord on the musty cable monopolies that satisfied so much of my entertainment diet over the decades. Roku boxes and Fire sticks are the new satellite dishes and Xfinity consoles. It may boast more channels and on-demand opportunities than ever before, but for most people of a certain age, traditional cable is as much a relic as the VCR and appointment television.
Call me a Luddite, but I’m in no rush to jettison my DirecTV subscription, for the same reason I’ve always maintained this outdated, overpriced 20th-century anachronism: TCM. It was manna for cineastes when I was a budding film-studies major in college, cumbersomely setting VHS recordings for then-ultra-rare 2 a.m. airings of Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc or Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men. And it remains the most adventurous game in town on the cable movie circuit, a 24/7 repository of creatively programmed crowd-pleasers and art films, shorts and documentaries, film-historical benchmarks and niche-y esoterica.
The Watch TCM app has made exploring this priceless trove of cinephilia even easier, all but eliminating the need to set your DVRs. The rub, for you tech-forward cord cutters? You still need that pesky cable or satellite TV provider to enjoy its perks.
Accessible through smartphones, smart TVs and the tcm.com/watch website, and updated weekly based on the network’s on-air schedule, Watch TCM’s library includes 168 films at the time of this writing. This is a drop in the bucket compared with the feverish plenitude of Netflix or Amazon. Ah, but how much of those streamers’ content is actually worth watching? Quality trumps quantity here. Unlike Netflix, where I scrambled in last week’s column to find even a smattering of titles to build one’s cinematic literacy, Watch TCM is flush with vitality.
Start, most logically perhaps, with Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s silent Soviet masterwork of 1925, which wrote new rules for film grammar by breaking the ones heretofore established. There wouldn’t be music videos or YouTube mash-ups were it not for the groundbreaking associative montage deployed in this rousing classic.
Those interested in the origins of nonfiction film can experience a movie that’s just as foundational: Nanook of the North (1922), the first feature-length documentary, before we even had a term for it. Director Robert Flaherty filmed the everyday life of the titular Inuk man and his family in the Canadian Arctic, but it’s a slippery kind of ethnography: Just as in many documentaries today, Flaherty was accused of staging sequences for dramatic effect. Whether approached as docudrama or verite cinema, it’s a landmark either way.
Keeping things silent, 1924’s The Navigator is an essential document of the deadpan wit of creator and star Buster Keaton, and a marvel of physical comedy that has endured for nearly a century. Speaking of humor on the high seas, welcome the talkies with 1931’s Monkey Business, in which the Marx Brothers tussle with gangsters aboard an ocean liner. This comedy’s rapid-fire barrage of jokes set a standard of relentless mirth that sitcoms, sketch shows and improv troupes have endeavored for generations to replicate, few with this much success.
Then there is Citizen Kane (1941), for too many audiences a hoary, oft-parodied Introduction to Film class staple that’s unjustly perceived as more work than play. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Orson Welles’ pioneering, postmodern portrait of a media titan’s self-destructive life gets richer with each viewing, from the chiaroscuro lighting to the majesty of its deep-focus cinematography to its adventuresome moving camera to its increasingly relevant portrayal of a tycoon’s comeuppance.
With these roots of world cinema in place, feel free to spiral in countless directions, all of them important. There’s White Heat (1949), the classic, tragic gangster film par excellence, with a career-best James Cagney. There’s the original The Haunting, from 1963, whose impeccable command of bloodless horror showed everyone how it could be done. There’s Countdown (1968), an early space-race feature and an embryonic work from the great Robert Altman (in just his third film as director).
Night and the City is an immersive, atmospheric 1950 noir from Jules Dassin, and as a quintessential Western, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) manages to thread the genre’s needle between classic and revisionist, transforming John Wayne’s unimpeachable white-hat into an early example of a morally eroded antihero.
For some campy fun in the time of the coronavirus, there’s the sci-fi schlock of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) and the lo-fi charms of Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). For a mini-foreign film festival, there’s Ingmar Bergman’s somber, gripping Autumn Sonata (1978), Fellini’s lavish, fantastical Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s invasively intimate The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
There’s two from Kubrick (The Killing, Lolita) and three from Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Jamaica Inn and Dial M for Murder). There’s even a 1973 documentary about Jimi Hendrix, and a pinch of newer cinema — like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), all three hours and 19 minutes of it, which you finally have time to sit through.
So think twice about cutting that cord at a time when we need all the home entertainment we can get. It may still be considered basic cable, but Watch TCM is anything but.