The latest issue of Harper's Magazine showed me that I hadn't been the only one to be fascinated and amused by the occult discipline of composing cable guide synopses of movies. The challenge consists of boiling down the plot and/or the essence of a feature-length film to one sentence, and the results often resemble a detailed description of the tip of an iceberg. Ranging from the superficial to the obtuse, they often seem to have been composed by people who haven't seen the films they must describe. All too often, cable guide just doesn't get it. One of my favorite examples, which I don't remember exactly, is the cable guide for Ben-Hur on Time Warner. It was something to the effect of: "A former galley slave encounters a Roman in a chariot race." Yes, this accurately describes an episode of the film, but cable guide's determined vagueness makes the event sound like an almost random incident. Characters are rarely named in cable guide, and motivations are irrelevant. In cable guide, for the most part, stuff just happens.
Imagine having never seen a film before and having only cable guide to work with. Some high-concept stories might be done justice, but many other movies are barely described at all by these accidental aphorisms. A poet named Brett Fletcher Lauer was obviously captivated by the mysteries of cable guide; the result is his publication in the literary magazine Jubiliat of a "found text" anthology of cable guide synopses. Harper's picked it up for its monthly "Readings" section, and since neither the magazine's editors nor Lauer can claim to have created this text, I feel entitled to offer some excerpts here. Take them as a kind of challenge to your movie knowledge. Some are easily recognizable. Some still baffle me -- and some of those probably describe movies I've seen. Whoever can identify them all (and Harper's saw no need for an answer key) is a better movie maven than I.
1. A former soldier tries to rescue a kidnapped nuclear physicist from a terrorist who wants her to create warheads.
2. A corporate climber, whose boss and others use his apartment for hanky-panky, aids a young woman.
3. The amateur sleuth has a killer, a gangster, and the police on his trail.
4. Evil partners experiment on an infant and send his twin to a reputable research nursery.
5. An insurance salesman joins would-be heirs and the butler in a mansion with a millionaire's corpse.
6. A dishonest lawyer must prove he is not a killer.
7. People hide in a house from carnivorous walking corpses revived by radioactive fallout.
8. Explosives ace helps woman get revenge in Miami.
9. David and Kathy spend half of their third date lying and the other half confessing.
10. A mystery writer and her friends are stalked by a faceless throat-ripper in a haunted house.
11. A doctor injects himself with ape fluid and turns hairy; he needs human fluid to turn back.
12. While blackmailing a corrupt police officer, a man becomes involved with two women.
13. No-frills policewoman is ordered to protect a pampered actress who has witnessed a murder.
14. From a sanitarium morgue slab, a corpse tells how she died and who was involved in her death.
15. A conspirator turns an arrogant ruler into a llama.
There's more where these came from, and infinitely more on your own TV. If we look, we might find some more baffling, and probably funnier, than these.