So I’m hungover this morning, and the reasons why are really quite irrelevant at this point, as it’s nearly three in the afternoon and I’m back into my pajamas for the second time today. In my drug-addled lethargy, I opened my laptop to try to get some work done, and decided to put a movie on in “the background.” Most people I know do this fairly regularly. For some reason it makes you feel like less of an oxygen-waster to have DVD plugged in rather than just turning on the television. It’s nice. It really helps me balance my day. It’s a distraction from whatever tedium you’re trying to work through. You can tell yourself: “I’m going to plug in Braveheart and work/study/clean throughout the whole thing.” Bam. Two VHS cassette tapes later and you’ve spent a good three hours getting shit done. So what characterizes a good background film?
You need a film that you can not pay attention to for a good ten, fifteen minutes at a time, and then tune into again and know exactly what’s what and who’s who and why the hell they’re doing whatever they’re doing. This familiarity is essential: whether it be because you’ve seen the film a million times; it’s full of familiar tropes and cliches and conventions; or, it’s so slow-paced that a single event takes a good ten, fifteen minutes to occur. So, these are my top ten background films… please tell me yours in the comments!
10. Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone’s pinnacle western pits black hat Henry Fonda against white hat Charles Bronson. While to call this a simple film does not do it justice, but as long as you know Fonda = bad, Bronson = good, you could probably jump in at any point and enjoy the movie. While brimming deliciously with tension, the film still crawls at the pace of a geriatric snail, so the odds are, if you’ve seen it at least once before, you’re golden.
Best background for: Writing your master’s dissertation on the notions of traditionally masculine archetypes in Italian/American cinema.
Worst background for: Reading The Grapes of Wrath.
9. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
If following any kind of plot is important to you, it’s really quite essential that you be familiar with Hitchhiker’s – whether through the books, the radio shows, the original BBC sitcom, or at least own a towel – before you attempt to tune out for half of it. If plot doesn’t matter, that’s great because this is so ridiculous it’s actually kind of the point.
Best background for: Drawing that graphic novel about a OCD space alien stranded on a post-apocalyptic, disease-infested planet Earth you’ve been working on for the last seven years.
Worst background for: Studying for a physics exam.
8. The Goonies
The Goonies succeeds as a great background movie because it is such a familiar story with such a simple structure. What plot points do you need to know? The kids are after treasure. Bad guys are after them. The fat kid is funny. Done.
Best background for: Making a scrapbook for an old childhood friend (aw).
Worst background for: Canvassing donations for the Special Olympics.
7. any Harry Potter movie
Again, even if you’re a newly arrived visitor to this planet, it’s pretty easy to get emotionally involved in each scene, because it’s pretty clear who Harry’s enemies are. Hint: if someone in one of these movies looks evil, they probably are.
Best background for: Playing some kind of RPG.
Worst background for: Writing next Sunday’s sermon.
6. Underworld Trilogy
Before we got the Stephanie Meyers’ Vampires vs Werewolf debacle, there was Underworld, which did the whole thing so much better. They’re not good movies per say, and the declining quality was sadly predictable, but they were fun and just oh-so-campy.
Best background for: Trolling Twilight message boards and giving your two cents on the bestiality vs necrophilia debate.
Worst background for: Actively contributing to Twilight message boards and lobbying hard for Team Jacob / Edward.
This hugely underrated fairy tale is so absurdly adorable that it might just be too distracting if you’re trying to get anything important done. The parade of great performances and famous faces keeps pulling your attention and the fantastical mise en scenes and endearing characters keep it. As a disclaimer, you do need to see it many times before you can start tuning things out.
Best background for: Sewing that Halloween costume that will, like, totally win you the Prettiest-Princess-at-the-Ball prize.
Worst background for: Blogging about how Robert DeNiro is the biggest, baddest mofo out there.
4. Some Like it Hot
A comedy of errors and mistaken identities to do Shakespeare proud, Some Like it Hot is arguably one of the best comedies ever made, plus it has Marilyn Monroe. It’s a pretty easy premise. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are disguising themselves as women to stay on the run from some Chicago gangsters, but then they meet Marilyn Monroe and both want to get in her pants. Who wouldn’t? Let the laughs ensue. Any moment that you might look up from your book will be a good one.
Best background for: Giving your sexuality a long, concentrated pondering.
Worst background for: Working on your comedic gender-bending screenplay. You will never beat this. Ever. And that realization will crush your soul.
3. Hot Fuzz
Hot Fuzz is so extremely engrossing that, repeated viewings later, I am still enthralled and give it my full attention. There’s just so much delicious stuff there. But, on that same token, I could leave it playing on repeat and just get it. Where other films make good background flicks because they contain so many familiar conventions, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s film does that, just consciously.
Best background for: Practicing your deadly martial arts.
Worst background for: Measuring your penis.
2. Pride and Prejudice (or really anything Jane Austen)
There is really only one question at stake: Will she get the guy? And it’s Jane Austen, so you know she will, it’s just a matter of giggling incessantly and/or hiding your glee every time you see Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy on screen together.
Best background for: Catching up on your domestic responsibilities, such as ironing and embroidering cushions and shit.
Worst background for: Practicing that Sex Pistols cover with your band.
1. The Lord of the Rings
The best part of The Lord of the Rings as a background movie is, if you have the extended edition DVDs, it is perfectly customizable to however long you want to spend doing whatever it is you need to do. If you want to dedicate an entire Saturday plug in the whole trilogy. Just have a few hours, last disc of Return of the King. Easy. And it has everything that makes a great background film: familiar archetypes and story structures, extensively referenced in pop culture, long-drawn out scenes and storylines, and epic battle sequences for when you want to be distracted for ten or twenty minutes. Perfect.
Best background for: Almost anything.
Worst background for: Maintaining consciousness after that concussion.