April 17, 2011
It’s next time again.
In case you hadn’t noticed there are several alluring strangers at your doorstep and, so the story goes, they can’t cross your threshold unbidden, you have to invite them in. The technologies we’ve been dreaming about and waiting for are ripe and ready. The “cloud” beckons with virtually limitless collections of pastimes at your fingertips. Streaming instantaneous Netflix is the best example: on-demand, no late fees, 24/7, instant gratification. I have been thoroughly seduced and I’m starting to worry about the narcotic-like way these irresistible time vampires are eroding my attention span.
So what do you look for in entertainment? Oblivion? Escape? Thrills? Meaning? Goose bumps?
I’m starting to worry about how lazy I’m getting when it comes to leisure pursuits. Vegging out in front of gratuitous TV is easy and relaxing. Used to be there was never anything on I wanted to watch. Now, there is alwayssomething on I want to watch and, especially when you’re tired, it’s a vampire’s bargain that’s hard to resist.
David Foster Wallace, the amazing novelist and essayist probably says it best:
“I think a lot of people feel–not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete different things that come at them. And the number of small . . . that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some–in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.
Entertainment’s chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise.
So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just—we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. . . . And so TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than the real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food. . . . What has happened to us, that I’m now willing–and I do this too–that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people.
And that as the Internet grows . . . at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology’s just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re gonna die.
. . . this idea that pleasure and comfort are the, are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life. I think we’re starting to see a generation die . . . on the toxicity of that idea.”
– From “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” by David Lipsky in conversation with DFW
Maybe you think this is hyperbole. For David Foster Wallace it was deadly serious. I think David Foster Wallace was searching for an effective way to shut off his massive brain. I think he used TV so he didn’t have to think ahead. I think this concept was at the core of much of his art (consider the premise of his masterwork Infinite Jest) and unfortunately at the core of his addictive personality. I think these obsessions contributed to the inescapable depression which ultimately led to his heart-wrenching suicide.
The other factor I can’t help but consider is the national average on television consumption. If, as David Foster Wallace says, TV is candy, we have another major obesity epidemic on our hands. According to the the Nielson rating service, thanks to the Digital Video Recorder (DVR), TV viewing is at an all time high. They estimate the average American spends 135 hours a month in front of the TV. That comes out to 4 hours and 50 minutes every single day. When you think about this you realize it really is something pervasive and maybe a bit perverse. As a filmmaker, I’ve always said everyone is an expert when it comes watching TV. Imagine if we all spent 4 hours a day playing the piano and then you were invited to perform? The level of expectation is daunting.
This issue is not just about television. I should point out David Foster Wallace also said that reading is usually our first addiction.
So what is entertainment? We know certain things. It is not monolithic. This is my new word courtesy of curator Barbra Tannenbaum who was nice enough to point out China is not monolithic in a great comment to last month’s blog. This word works for almost anything but it is something we often forget. Entertainment certainly is different for everyone but what ties the concept together for all of us?
Part of it seems to be something that gets you out of yourself for a few minutes. So is it like sleep? Something absorbing from which you return refreshed and energized? There is more to it than that. I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks now and I’m going to need your help to make any sense out of this because the question gets really complicated – really quickly.
Let me give you a few examples. I love going to the Cleveland Orchestra except when I actually have to go. When I get home from work on concert night I am often crabby and usually just want to sit on the couch and veg out in front of the TV instead of having to make the effort to actually go. What is puzzling about this is that every time I do go, I adore it. I always have a great experience which is due to the quality of the performers. It is a world class concert every time. So why do I fight it? The easy answer is I’m just tired and stressed-out and don’t want to make the effort of paying attention. This is where it gets complicated.
I can remember a review I read of the classic move The Thomas Crown Affair. The reviewer called it “perfect, non-think entertainment.” I love that movie, and that phrase, and sometimes perfect non-think is just what the doctor ordered. But, there is much more to this issue than just “turn off the damn TV!”
Do we really want the candy of non-think entertainment to ravage our leisure time? If you are like me I guess the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. I think there is a big difference between the quality of the entertainment choices out there. Literature is different than trashy novels. Watching Kubrick is different than watching Wheel of Fortune. What are the differentiators? I’ve been trying to come up with a better word for high quality entertainment and all I’ve come up with is “enrichment”. What do I mean by that? I mean something that does more than pass the time. Something memorable. Something that is complex and layered. Something that holds your attention and does not reveal itself all at once. Something you can watch or read or enjoy over and over again and always find something new. Something which somehow changes you for the better.
Some would say it is a question of attention span. I’m not so sure. I think of how many of my friends, at one end of the age spectrum, adore Opera and how many adore video games at the other. I think it would be a hysterical short film to see what would happen if they switched places and tried to interest the uninitiated into their entertainment of choice. Both Tannhäuser and Call of Duty take a significant time investment to enjoy. Both have layers of complexity. Both genres have rabid fans. Both can offer a satisfying experience to their audiences but most Opera aficionados consider video games a complete waste of time and the reverse is equally true.
Here is the concept with which I am wrestling: Is there a connection between how much effort we put into an entertainment and the scale of the enjoyment we then derive from it? What is the nature of that equation? If there is a relationship, why do we so often take the easy way out when we know we’ll get more value out of the more challenging path? As the number of entertainment choices increases are there effective strategies for making better choices? To use David Foster Wallace’s metaphor of candy, maybe it’s about time we started to read the (nutrition) label.