Saturday, May 9, 2009
On visual media
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of TV. In fact, one of the only fights I remember my parents having was about whether or not to reduce my television time. (There was also the occasional discussion of how much I played video games.) I was so enamored of TV that I created illustrated stories based on the Lassie series and taped myself reading them so that people could read along with the recording. (I had a number of books that worked that way; that is, they came with tapes you could listen to as you followed along in the text.) I also imagined myself as the hero of not one but two television programs. The first, called N.E.S. (my initials, and also those of the Nintendo Entertainment System, by sheer coincidence), was an action show modeled after The A-Team. Neal, on the other hand, was a drama in the My So-Called Life vein, even though I wasn't yet a teenager when I cooked it up in my media-addled little brain.
I mention all of this because a girlfriend once told me I wanted life to be like a movie -- swelling music, perfect edits, happy ending -- and life just isn't that way. She was frustrated, and I got defensive, and that was that. In the years since then, I've realized she's right, to an extent. All the romantic comedies I've watched -- and there have been many -- probably have reinforced my desire for, and belief in, True Love in true Hollywood style. (That's why I'm excited about the upcoming flurry of romcoms that seek to reboot the genre, inasmuch as they try to make a more realistic, less "happily ever after" presentation of romance palatable to audiences. Good luck, plucky, offbeat little movies!) Anyway, even now, I find myself feeling cooler when a song I love comes on the radio while I'm driving, but specifically cooler in the way movies are cooler than life -- the right song in the right moment makes that moment feel a bit more scripted than most, a bit more audience-friendly, as it were. Except of course that there is no audience.
When I read Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, it was a revelation, because it presented not a shrill battle cry against TV (like the "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker) but a calm yet passionate thesis: technology takes us further from nature, and TV is perhaps the most insidious case of this phenomenon. I still remember the part of the book where Mander reminds us that cars distort our idea of distance, whereas walking gives us an authentic sense of what a mile actually means. (Or five, or ten.) This could be why people who walk to work feel a greater unity of experience, and why runners are not just healthier physically by also psychologically. Getting into a weird little room on wheels and zooming around at dozens of miles per hour seems perfectly normal to most of us, but Mander seeks to make it strange by pointing out how different it is from the transportation that characterized most of human history. I try to be choosy about the movies and TV shows I watch, not because I think visual media are evil (I find bumper-sticker logic unimpressive) but because there's so much I want to do more of -- exercise, creative writing, managing my finances, working towards grad school -- that I want to make sure my time in front of a screen is well spent.
As I begin to pick out SIFF films, and as I get more and more DVDs from the library, I think about the time in high school when I was on an Objectivist kick (The Fountainhead hit me like a ton of bricks) and decided to eschew TV and movies for a while. I remember sitting in the study, working on a paper for school, and hearing the sound of the television in the living room, where my parents were watching some prime-time drama. I crept out, opened the hall door a crack, and peeked through, watching a little of what they were seeing. It was hard, in short, to resist the temptation, but I tried to stay strong. When I think about Mander's book, I'm grateful to him for reminding me to examine my default settings, because they may or may not be what's best for me.
My default in the past was to absorb a lot of television and film without worrying much about it. Now I realize that my long-postponed goal of making creative writing a regular part of my day-to-day life means pushing myself to produce narrative instead of just absorbing it. I want to both enjoy and study stories, written and filmed, but I think it's important for my self-esteem and long-term sanity to make sure I'm being an active creator as well as a (more) passive absorber. In the end, that's what Mander is trying to say: watching Into the Wild and going on a hike are radically different experiences, and if you're going to do the former, you might consider giving the latter a try, too.