Sunday, November 18, 2007


Harper's ran an interesting story last month on the filmmaker Michael Haneke. (I actually posted about him recently too.)

The Harper's article had three interesting insights, only two of which were related, but each of them stirred my interest in film, and pointed out, in some ways, why I find it so rewarding.

The first quotation is from the author of the article, who discusses the uses of television.
My father, who would regularly read five or six novels a week, spent the last six weeks of his life in a hospital, watching the miniature television set that dangled from a crane beside his bed. He couldn't concentrate enough to read, he would say, with the surprise of somebody who was used to having a mind that did what he told it to do. Watching television allowed him to stay on the surface of things; without it, his thoughts would invariably turn inward, to what was happening to him, to what the doctors said was going to happen to him. Television was company and comfort; its distraction was welcome.
Anybody who knows me knows how I feel about television. I don't watch it, and I feel, for the most part, it's a colossal time waster. I especially hate the ads--they are getting so brazen and foul. I would be willing to bet kids get exposure to worse content on ads than they do on the shows.

But this quotation interested me not because it took a commonplace stance against TV. Instead, I realized why I am attracted to TV, because I am attracted, very much. I tell my students the reason I don't have cable is not because I can't find anything good to watch--if I had cable and a Tivo, I am so interested in so many things that I would find much too much to watch and I'd never get anything done.

When I do watch TV, after I'm finished a sense of (for lack of the ability to think of a better word) disorientation takes over. I snap off the TV and think "where did the time go?" Not in the sense of "time flies when you're having fun." That type of timebend allows you to look back and remember all the fun things you just did, and to realize that fully living life, for a short time, defies the tyranny of time. (It's almost like, for that time, you are deathless because you are living.)

Reading a great book or watching a great movie has a similar effect. It's effect, though, is on the future. When you surface from a great work of art, the world looks different. You are changed. A great work of art sticks with you--you have taken it in and assimilated it into yourself. You can't undo it--it has become part of you forever.

TV is the opposite. (I play video games too, and the effect is the same as in TV.) The time flies because life is denied. I cannot look back after playing a video game and remember much of anything, nor can I say the experience was enriching for my future. The action, as the quotation above said, is entirely on the surface. Time flies not because you are living life; time flies because your are killing time, not living at all.

The act of "vegging out" in front of a screen is common to all of us. I am not denying the exquisite pleasure of plugging myself in and losing myself. But it's pleasure is more akin to a drug. Drugs are not necessarily moderation. The problem arises when, as a nation, we watch 145 hours a month. For perspective, a full-time worker puts in 160 hours a month.

I'm rambling, as I usually do, and I've strayed from my point. Let me bring it back. The pleasures of film can be much richer than the pleasures of network TV. For instance, could you imagine any TV producer from any major network saying the following, as Haneke did?
I consider myself a realist. That doesn't mean I'm a pessimist. The pessimists are those who make purely escapist films, because they believe people are so stupid that it's useless to make a film about anything serious. But someone who points to wounds in society is also trying to change things, even just a bit.
Non-escapist films ask us to think, something we spend 145 hours a month of leisure time trying to avoid. Non-escapist films treat us like we're NOT stupid. Today, though, even many of the critically-acclaimed movies we watch are designed to tell us what we already know to be true.
With many other films we are bludgeoned with the "truth": the images and the narrative are so overburdened by what the filmmaker wants to tell us that any emotion is pushed to the surface, hardening into a thick crust of sentiment. Even those movies that are supposed to be smarter than the usual Hollywood fare get mired in this condescension. In The Constant Gardener, for instance, which is based on Jon Le Carre's novel about greedy pharmaceutical companies and their malfeasance in Africa, the villains kill, Ralph Fiennes cries, the music swells, and we feel sorry for him and disgusted with the evildoers. A. O. Scott of the New York Times, one of many critics who praised the film for its intelligence, declared that The Constant Gardener was "likely to linger in your mind and may even trouble your conscience." I suspect that the only people who left the theater with their consciences genuinely troubled by what they had just seen were executives a Pfizer or Roche. If, like most of the critics, you had even a trace of antipathy toward the pharmaceutical industry going into the film, you left it feeling that your suspicions had been confirmed: angry at the world, perhaps, but reassured of your assumptions about that world.
Looking back over this post, I'm looking for a thread, and the thread seems to be this: as many of my posts have done, I realize now that this one is simply a plea for people to stop seeing media simply as a commodity, as a pastime, as an entertainment, but also to see it as a way to possibly elevate ourselves, to teach ourselves, to emerge from our interaction with it changed people, ones who can then take the questions raised (for great art rarely gives answers) and use them to live our lives more fully, more deeply. That doesn't mean turn off the TV (though that's not a bad idea). It means put something good on your TV. You'll know it's good because it makes you feel more, not less, alive.

1 comment:

MC said...

I really agree with your sentiment here, that media can be challenging and thought provoking-especially film. I know that sometimes I want to be entertained like anyone else, but I have always been drawn to films that challenge you and make you think. The same can be said for the kinds of books and magazines that I’m drawn to. I found that this article has inspired me to seek out more Michael Handeke films, which is a bit of a problem where I am unless I want to buy them.