Chasing Movies That Slip Through the Cracks
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Chasing Movies That Slip Through the Cracks

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 18, 2013 | Comments ()


Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of heat for invoking “unknown unknowns” when he was Secretary of Defense — understandable, given the way things were generally going for him — but it’s a legitimate philosophical idea. There are somethings you know: how many fingers you have. That’s a known known. There are some things you don’t know but understand that you could: how many players in Los Angeles Lakers history have stood 7’1”’ tall. That’s a known unknown. But there are those things that exist completely off your radar, outside your worldview, hidden from every map you have. They’re the cultural artifacts you don’t even know you don’t know.

I think about those things a lot when I’m trying to find new movies or TV series to watch, and by new, I mean new to me. A known unknown would be something like “There are Steven Spielberg films I haven’t seen, and I know they exist, and I’d like to watch them.” I’m aware of those things as objects even if I haven’t experienced them. But an unknown unknown means watching a film or series I hadn’t read about, heard of, or ever gone looking for. It means finding something I never knew existed.

Case in point: the 1986 buddy comedy Running Scared. I didn’t know it existed until The Dissolve talked to comedian Paul Scheer about it as part of their ongoing “Compulsory Viewing” series, in which guests talk about movies they feel people need to see. I watched the movie a few days ago, and it holds up surprisingly well for a buddy-cop flick that’s almost 30 years old, thanks to the chemistry between leads Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. But beyond the movie, I was aware of how easy it was for the title to have started to drift off into the fog of movie history. Every year, a few more titles like it just kind of fade from our memory, and each successive generation is handed down only a few titles as part of the ongoing canons we construct in different genres. If not for my decision to visit The Dissolve that day, I might’ve gone my whole life without knowing that movie existed.

Now, Running Scared is not a life-changing movie. I would likely have found the will to keep soldiering on with existence even if I hadn’t spent a couple hours watching a comic and a dancer chase bad guys and hit on women in epic montages. But my finding it was a reminder of how easy it can be to overlook hundreds — thousands — of movies.

The problem gets worse when you factor in things like Netflix. Their Watch Instantly service has exploded in the last five years, so much so that when people say a movie’s available on Netflix, they usually mean it’s available to stream, not rent on disc. On multiple occasions, I’ve seen friends lament that Netflix doesn’t carry a movie or TV series they want to see, but when I send them a link to the relevant Netflix page saying the disc is available, they clarify that they only have the streaming service and don’t pay for disc usage. So it’s not that the film isn’t available to see; it’s that it’s not available at that moment to stream on the device of their choosing. Scanning the streaming selections means going through a body of work that’s smaller than the total amount Netflix actually has to offer, which is in turn smaller than the amount of movies actually available on DVD or Blu-ray, which is itself still smaller than the amount of movies that have been issued on home video, which is — finally — smaller than the number of movies that have actually been released.

In other words, it becomes really easy to close yourself off to new or challenging or just plain different film experiences because you don’t even know they’re out there. You’re not passing on a movie after consideration, however brief; you’re skating right by without ever knowing it was available. Patton Oswalt joked a few years ago that digital access and mash-up culture would usher in the era of “Everything That Ever Was — Available Forever.” But “everything that ever was” is actually “everything we can remember at the moment, based on recommendation algorithms.” It’s a lot, but it’s not everything. And I don’t want to miss out on those other things.

I’m not sure how to solve this yet, either, or even if it can be solved. But I’ve started taking baby steps: I regularly solicit movie-watching advice from friends and fellow critics; I willingly tumble down the rabbit hole of “You Might Also Like” and “Related Titles” whenever I’m organizing my streaming queues; I try to watch new-to-me movies instead of rewatching ones I’ve seen before; I bookmark like crazy. It’s a start, and I know it’s more of a journey than any attempt to reach a destination. But I’m driven. Those unknown unknowns gnaw at me.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Caro

    I love Running Scared too! Sometimes instead of watching movies that are recommended or that I "should" watch, I see an actor or actress that captures my imagination and I watch a bunch of their movies.

    I love watching Gregory Hines and seeing his work is so worth it. Even if you don't watch the whole of "Tap" or "White Nights", check out some of the dancing on YouTube. So many actors are just heads on sticks. Gregory Hines is alive in every particle of his body.

  • e jerry powell

    I have the opposite Netflix problem. My basic laptop chokes often, so I dumped the streaming service after I tried to use it once. Lots of stuff I want is available on DVD, but not through Netflix except as streaming only (such as, for example,Janeane Garofalo: If You Will: Live in Seattle, which I eventually ended up seeing on HBO Comedy or something).

  • Running Scared is great! In addition to the lovely Gregory Hines (RIP) it also features a very young Jimmy Smits. Yes, I am old! Thanks!

  • pumpkin

    Gregory Hines was indeed lovely, a great actor and a great dancer.

    I also fondly remember White Knights.

    Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov (sigh).

  • sanity fair

    White Knights! I watched that when I was young and still loved ballet class, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty that was Baryshnikov. I so badly wanted to dance with him.

  • emmalita

    For a young Baryshnikov try The Turning Point (1977)

  • treatment_bound

    Biggest hurdle to buying into "Running Scared"? {but 1st you must throw all "believability" out the window for this sub-standard 80's buddy flick by getting past the fact that Billy Crystal's a cop, which we all know is a hard swallow. I mean, can you EVER picture him actually "muscling" any thugs and/or wise guys?}

    He's wearing a Cubs jersey in several scenes.

    I DON'T THINK SO! He's MR. Yankee, for God's sake!

  • kirbyjay

    KInda like Donnie Wahlberg rooting for the Jets on Blue Bloods.

  • Fartygirl

    The Michael MacDonald video for that movie is one of the best 80s videos ever.

  • Llp

    I cannot express how pleased I was with that header photo. I love Running Scared. Hines and Crystal are magic.

  • The Kitastrophe

    "Oh, no! Oh, I'm watching the new "Jeopardy!" and a man missed a Bible
    question because he did not know what Deuteronomy waaaas! Oh yeah, I'll
    help you. I want you to get Gonzales and show up Hughes and Costanzo,
    they don't pay me no mo' and I'm maaaddd! Oh, no! Ya dummy, the answer
    is ipswich clams"

  • JenVegas

    What do you mean you JUST found out about Running Scared? It's one of my FAVORITE MOVIES OF ALL TIME! Sheesh Carlson.

  • JH

    I'm disappointed that there hasn't been mention of the Michael McDonald theme song, "Sweet Freedom".

    EDIT: Oops, my apologies to PDamian for the oversight. I should have read all of the comments before I made that statement.

  • Torgotronic

    Just a fun movie, saw it years ago in a theater when it first came out (saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" the same week). BC & GH really did have great chemistry, and it absolutely does hold up rather well; good mindless fun entertainment, highly recommended.

  • Repo

    Really fun timing on this article. I'm a streaming only Netflix guy, and figuring how to manipulate it to find those gems is part of the fun.

    I had a similar experience yesterday after watching the Way Way Back and realizing I needed more Sam Rockwell in my life. Searching him on Netflix led me to a movie called Jerry and Tom I had never heard of which turned out to be a fantastic black comedy hitman film with Rockwell, Joe Mantengna and William Macy.

  • elsie

    If the youtube link doesn't work, the ad is by Qwest ( an telephone/Internet service provider) and the name of it is "Every Movie".

  • elsie

    This ad came out in 1999 and I don't know why, but it really stuck in my consciousness. I think about it every now and then at marvel at how prescient it seemed. This article made me think about it again, even though we're not quite there yet.

  • PDamian

    I see this every day as a professor at a small comprehensive university. My students refuse to use scholarly articles in print -- if it's not online, it's not available, even when the print article is an invaluable resource. It could be perfectly germane to the point they're trying to make, the answer to unresolved questions, the thing that makes their case ... and all I hear is, "Do I actually have to go to the library to make a copy? Why can't I just download it?"

    I dimly recall seeing Running Scared when it was in theatres, but all I really remember from the film is the accompanying Michael McDonald song, "Sweet Freedom." Not too bad. The video is available on YouTube; it's a painful reminder that we lost Gregory Hines way too soon.

  • Stephen Baltz

    thanks for the article, i really enjoyed it and feel very similar when it comes to new to me movies. Running Scared is a fav movie, watched countless times with my dad, so many quotes.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Ha, my experience perusing Red Box led to exactly the opposite conclusion: there are a whole lot of movies that look & sound terrible out there that I have never heard of.

    It's interesting to see this FOMO on an artistic level. Of course we can't watch all the great movies, and we can't read all the great books. We can't even know about them. What about all the foreign movies weren't by Fellini or Kurosawa, so we've never heard of them? (yeah, yeah, I know lowercase_ryan, you've got Korea covered).

    I do think the internet is great for alleviating this somewhat - we're no longer stuck with what is merely popular or known - we've got Spotify and Pandora to give us the music, and Amazon's "recommended for you" for books in addition to Netflix. And we've got fellow commenters. I've picked up quite a few books/cds at the suggestion of people here.

    But the universe is infinite, and human culture is too, for all practical purposes.

  • jptaylorsg

    "But my finding it was a reminder of how easy it can be to overlook hundreds — thousands — of movies." This is the root of the perceived problem. That you consider it even remotely a problem that there are good movies out there that have eluded your attention is a symptom of our commentary culture. Paul Scheer saw it and thought it was good, but that doesn't make you deficient for not having seen it. It used to be that we only talked with friends about pop culture, with the occasional stranger or outlier expanding that universe (my friends and I regularly re-watched and quoted "Running Scared"). Now, with the scope of blogs, chats and comment threads, that universe is infinite for everybody, no matter how few actual friends they have. It is impossible to keep up - not a failing or some sort of laziness or algorithm deficiency. The secret is to be able to forgive yourself for missing some of these "amazing, must-see (hear, read ...)" experiences that balloon every blog and podcast.

  • TK

    Welcome to the greatest curse inflicted on those who write about such things. Often, particularly when we publish lists, but also in reviews and other day-to-day pop culture ephemera, one of the immediate responses is frequently "how come you didn't include "X"?"

    Never once considering that maybe, well, we simply haven't seen it yet.

  • John W

    Underrated movie. Very funny. As you stated the chemistry between Hines and Crystal is great. And it had a decent supporting cast in Dan Hedaya, Jimmy Smits, Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries.

    Not to be confused with the Paul Walker movie of the same name.

  • Repo

    Although suprisingly given the fact that Walker is in it, that film is also pretty damn good.

  • Guest

    Man, I feel you. I've been doing Netflix discs since 2005 and there are still movies that are recommended to me that totally surprise me. I force myself once a week to go through my queue and recommendations, just so I keep in touch with what's available and what I might want to watch next. The discs are great for foreign films and TV shows that just aren't available otherwise.

    I try to write down movie recommendations in my phone, on scraps of paper, etc., but sometimes it feels overwhelming and I turn to Hulu+ or Netflix streaming and pick something that I know I will enjoy. There are too many options on streaming that aren't very good, and too many good options on disc that I'm not even aware of yet.

  • Legally Insignificant

    With this being the month of scary movies, I'd like to turn an unknown unknown into a known unknown. This movie, done in a documentary-style, is The Poughkeepsie Tapes. It has some truly terrifying scenes that will definitely stick with you. Theoretically, I don't think it's been released on DVD yet, but it should be available through other means.

  • John W

    Is it ever going to be released? I've been waiting for it ever since I heard about it but it's been sitting in the saved section of my queue forever. As far as I know it was one of the first found footage movies when the craze really started with Paranormal Activity, but by the time it's released the FF craze may be passe.

  • Legally Insignificant

    Not to my knowledge. I think you can find it on YouTube or you, theoretically, could download it if you can find a way to do it legally or trust that you won't 1. get a virus, 2. get caught, and/or 3. endanger your immortal Soul.

  • John W

    I just found it on youtube. I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend. Thanks for the heads up.

  • stella

    Theres also this weird movie called Yellow Brick Road. A year later I still dont know what to make of it, but its worth a watch.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I think I got a headache from that one. That fucking noise.

    There is similar movie called "A Field In England", I believe. I haven't dared to watch it yet.

  • lonolove

    Since the article is stating that the advent of Netflix has narrowed the scope of movies that the vast majority of Americans (those with Netflix streaming) can watch, I would say it is neither. ...But he mentioned a popular service by name in the context of an article, so let's lynch him.

  • Misomaniac

    Is this just a Netflix ad, or is it considered "product placement"?

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