The “Drive-in Classics” App and Some Thoughts on the Dying Aleatory Media Experience

Last fall, I purchased the Amazon Fire TV stick when they had a Prime deal for it primarily to stream video from my phone on my TV; I really can’t (and partially won’t let myself) watch video on my phone or on a laptop. It’s a free, obviously low-budget app that seems to primarily have public domain films from Millcreek’s box sets but at lesser quality (yes, that’s possible). However, they have an awesome selection of some lesser-known, not on DVD horror films (like Dark August), but I’ll return to that in a minute.

The Fire stick is, like many of the similar “smart TV” devices, a foreshadowing of the end of TV as we know it, and gives cord-cutters viable options to watch TV, or provides even more chance you’ll meet some pretentious hipster who doesn’t “watch TV” but still watches TV shows (cf. Wyatt Cenac’s stand-up routine about those people). I’ve mentioned before that I’m a dinosaur because I prefer to watch TV live. For me, a child of the golden age of cable (not cable TV shows, but cable TV as medium) in the early to mid-90’s, liveness is TV. In other words, I still watch TV and not just TV shows. It’s ambience, background noise-it’s company. But that broadcast experience it can also be something meaningful.

Aside from a media-anthropological level, I am holding onto live TV because of another type of experience that we are losing in several aspects of life: the aleatory experience. Aleatory experiences  are the random, chance experiences in our lives, and were held in high, nearly spiritual regard, by a number of artists and movements, particularly by the surrealists. Automatic writing and automatic drawing are perhaps the two more prominent examples of aleatoricism at work in art, though it has been employed in music and film. But how does aleatoricism relate to media?

Andre Mason "untitled (automatic)"

Andre Masson “untitled (automatic)”

The Fire stick, and other streaming devices, facilitate user directed content. The viewer decides on what movie they want to stream on Netflix, what episode of a TV show they want to watch on Hulu, or which cat video they want to see on YouTube. In the old model, before streaming, before DVR, and especially before interactive TV listings,  a viewer was at the mercy of the schedule. It dictated the programing to you. It was a broadcasting model in which the viewer was receiver not director. What this meant was that the viewer most likely would encounter programing they didn’t mean to watch or watched something without knowing what it was or not from the start of the show. TV then becomes a medium in which chance can operate. Aleatoricism is a state of being open, of being receptive (which takes on multiple meanings in the TV sense), to whatever stimulates you. It can be an approach to drawing, or a state of experiencing media.

The old, broadcast model of TV is what Raymond’ Williams called “flow,” and the choice or wording suggests the idea of getting lost in the the endless stream of television. That is being replaced by viewer selected content, suggesting perhaps a backyard pool or infinity pool approach to television. Instead of getting lost in the stream’s pools or finding interesting trash floating inside of it, the viewer now knows what they’re getting into.

By way of diversion, beyond aleatoricism, there is pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which a subject will interpret random images or occurrences as significant. This can manifest itself in numerous ways, in more extreme degrees, in traditional, broadcast TV experience. A supernatural element of this in TV technology is the famous TV scene from Poltergeist or the people who record and listen for EVP over white noise. A more extreme pareidoliac experience could be the idea, espoused by some schizophrenics, that the TV and/or radio are talking directly to them, but then again, we’ve all had that experience where a song comes on the radio or a rerun on your favorite show seems to perfectly mirror your own life. Related to the supernatural is time-travel.  The Twilight Zone episode “Static,” in which an old radio receives old radio broadcasts, or the film Frequency, have some basis in urban legends or anecdotal tales about broadcast technologies (TV/Radio) receiving broadcasts which were out of time, either from the future or the past. Note: for more on the spiritual histories of broadcast technologies see the work of Jeffrey Sconce.


But back to my original, stream of thoughts. In the old days, I would often end up watching or being exposed to a movie that I had no intention of watching that exposed me to something new. I first saw Citizen Kane this way. I was 13, and as has been the case with much of my life, had trouble sleeping so I turned on PBS to what I thought was some boring, black and white movie that would help put me to sleep. I had no idea what I was watching until it was over, but I was far too enthralled by it to go to sleep. I even watched it a few nights later when they re-aired it. We hopefully have all had these experiences. I remember rushing home to call the KRCL DJ to ask him what song I had heard when I heard The Delgado’s “No Danger,” or trying to record my favorite music video when it came on MTV again and seeing my new favorite video in the process. These are the experiences I fear are being lost in the move from stream to pool, as chance is overtaken by choice.

Or, so I thought…

The first movie I tried to watch on the Drive-in Classics app was Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive! perhaps Cohen’s most famous film and pretty much the only one of his movies I haven’t seen. But it turned out the description and the image were for the wrong movie. Instead, I watched the first 10 minutes of the 1969 TV Movie It’s Alive! The first five minutes were actually kind of awesome, in the strange way that 70’s schlock cinema can mirror the irrational and disjunctive formal qualities of avant-garde cinema…until it became unwatchable. But it was an interesting experience nonetheless. It mirrored another chance experience I’ve had with media; trying to download torrents for movies 10 years or so ago and realizing that someone had mislabeled the file or uploaded the wrong movie by a similar title (especially if you were looking for 70 horror films that go by multiple titles).

So, I decided to move to my second choice, prolific B-movie stalwart Albert Pyun’s 1985 film, Radioactive Dreams, a film I’ve been wanting to see but isn’t on DVD. Now, I think I’ve said in a few words that this is a sketchy app. So, it was readily apparent that this was a VHS rip of the movie. Not only that, but it included the copyright warning, the British board of censors note (I hadn’t seen that before), and trailers! So I was exposed to the amazing spectacles that were the trailers for obscure bargain video store genre films like Masterblaster, Neon Maniacs, and some sex comedy that I don’t remember the title for that starred a 4th string Patrick Dempsey rip-off. Radioactive Dreams, as a movie, despite it’s fascinating set-up, didn’t work enough to be the lost cult-classic that I had hoped. But the trailers, the one experience I didn’t plan on happening and only had by chance, made my night.

My Drive-in Classics app experience (and I need to address the irony of using an app that refers to a mostly extinct movie viewing practice and experience) reminded me of what used to be a far more common experience and media-related joy, and shows that the aleatory abides, at least for now, in sketchy TV apps. At least until someone “fixes” them.


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