ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, you either went to see a movie or you didn’t.

Now there are four want-to-see levels with a film: 1) Can’t wait; 2) Wait for homevideo; 3) Wait until it hits cable; 4) Willing to see the film if you come home slightly drunk after a party and the only alternatives on TV are “Psychic Friends Hotline” or Tony Robbins infomercials.

Before, you committed to watching a movie. Now, movies and TV shows are like background music, something to glance at as you read the newspaper, talk on the phone or balance your checkbook.

You tape “The Bridge on the River Kwai” off cable, because you’ve never seen it. But after work, it’s too late to watch a 2 1/2-hour movie, and you wonder if films are like magazines, to be digested in 20-minute increments. But, no, you hear “Kwai” is great and you want to see it in one sitting. So you start zapping.

“Aah, come on, you’ll soon forget the wench!”

Zap.

“You also receive two special bonus guides: ‘How to …’ “

Zap.

“Kill the wabbit, Kill the wabbit …”

Zap.

“Three fouls on Dingle!”

Zap.

“All of the sudden it dawned on me that my thighs were not rubbing together, this is the truth, and …”

Zap.

“But the Bible teaches us that …”

Zap.

“Bobo, the Walking Panda Bear retails for $ 34.99, but your QVC price is …”

Zap.

Hitchcock films, James Bond movies and musicals are ideal for zapping, because you can enjoy one setpiece after another, without wondering how it fits into the story. That’s why newer filmmakers don’t worry about logic or consistency or even a plot; it’s just one effect, one scene, one moment after another.

After an hour of zapping, you realize two things: Cindy Crawford has replaced Pat Riley as the most omnipresent person on television, and you could have seen almost half of “River Kwai” in that time.

WITH ALL THIS GRAZING, you will come across two phenomena previously described in Reel Life: cable deja vu (this entails seeing one scene from a movie over and over, but never seeing any other scenes from that film) and sitcom deja vu (you’ve only seen one episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” in your life; after years of resistance, you watch the series again, but it’s the same episode you’ve seen).

You’ll also come across a third phenomenon: Fragmented watching.

This means you watch 10 minutes of “Final Analysis,” the sequence where the guy snatches the dumbbell from Kim Basinger and she goes after him. Then a week later, you see the scene where Eric Roberts gets killed, which explains why everybody wants the dumbbell. A month later, you watch the first 15 minutes of the film, then you see the end, and pretty soon you’ve seen most of it and a lot of it doesn’t make sense, but friends who’ve seen it all the way through say it never made a lot of sense anyway.

Watching movies has become a cubist experience.

A year later, you realize that, thanks to cubist viewing, you’ve seen dozens of films including “Point Break,””Death Spa” and “Blame It On the Bellboy,” but still haven’t seen “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

And two years later, you want to record something and wonder whether to tape over “Kwai,” since if you really want to see it, it’s only a couple of bucks to rent the video at Odyssey, or you could wait until it screens at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. But you hear it’s such a great film, you can’t quite bring yourself to erase it, so you open a new blank video.

AND ON YOUR SHELVES are all the films you’ve taped but haven’t watched, and probably never will. But you feel better having them there. Because in case of an earthquake or nuclear war or something, you might have the only video copy of “Don’t Look Now.” Or you want them because in case you get sick, it’d be good to have them. But then you look at the dozens of titles and hope you never get that sick.

Vidcassettes, TV, cable and remote control buttons have changed the way you watch things. At one time, you committed to a program; now you watch in increments, and flip through the channels as if turning pages in a family album, watching familiar scenes, or sampling new movie and TV offerings; it’s fun, but you feel something’s missing.

Maybe it’s because you suddenly realize how many such moments you’ve seen in your life and, and how many images and lines from films and TV shows are floating in your head. You are, as columnist Tom Shales once wrote, part of the most overentertained underentertained civilization in the history of the world, where the average TV is on seven hours a day, seven days a week, and where movies have become talking wallpaper.

Or maybe you feel something’s missing because you can recite lines from “Rosemary’s Baby” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” you can name all of Mary Richards’ co-workers, you can sing the “Brady Bunch” theme and Jack-in-the-Box jingles, and during those film-clip montages during the Oscars, you can identify a movie from only two seconds of footage, and you realize that there’s no way to make a living with this amazing talent of yours.

Or maybe you feel something is missing because you still haven’t seen “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

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