Friday, February 22, 2008

On Entertainment

In great part, this post comes as a response to a post on the Third World post by Brent Leavitt. I have thought a great deal about some of the issues he raised there and I would like to address them here. The bulk of this post might be classified as a manifesto, though I hope it is more considered a clarification on my world view which has everything to do with my doctrinal convictions and ideals. What follows comes from my personal experiences and should be treated only as one perspective, but one I hold to strongly.

I spent most of my adolescence watching TV. I remember at age 5 I spent several weeks in the hospital due to illness. One night my parents listened as I said my evening prayers: "Please, Heavenly Father, help me to stay sick so I can watch more movies." I even remember what those movies were.

But one side effect of watching so much was that I didn't do my homework, and I didn't ever read. The first book I ever read was my senior year in high school. That is a serious problem. Imagine how hard it was for me to start to read the scriptures.

But the biggest thing I remember from that time is that even when I would sit down to watch a little TV I ended up spending hours when I usually never found anything that I enjoyed watching. I always felt empty. I recently had the opportunity to meet the English theatre-director-turned-film-director Mike Figgis, a man of very different sensibilities than my own, but who compared watching TV to (forgive the crassness) masturbation. He said that it is never fulfilling and you always feel guilty afterward. I think the same can be said of all mass media. It isolates and weakens self worth. This is saying nothing of the messages being sent, but the format leaves you weak and empty. J Hoberman has written that TV is a post-modern medium: the concept of channels and the choice of changing, fracturing and mixing of high and low — to say nothing of the fracturing of commercials — erases all classical linearity. I believe that all "mass media," even leaving out the commercialism, fractures and leaves us weaker. We are drained by it and guilty because of it.

Though not the only one, my mission was the biggest 'healing' experience as far as the damage done by 'mass media.' Two years, no media that wasn't canonized or Conference, with the occasional first vision or priesthood restoration (both of which I prefer to the revisions). I emerged a new person. During that time I began to realize that the only thing these 19-year old boys who had given their lives to God had to talk about was the Simpsons. Almost every one could quote Bart Simpson, but I never once heard a passing comment made quoting Nephi, Moroni, John the Beloved, or Abraham. Maybe I only noticed this because I wasn't allowed to watch the Simpsons, but something about that still seems wrong to me. Pop culture was the only thing that governed our social interactions. With out them we didn't know how to be funny, sly, witty, or even kind. There was an awkwardness that came with the responsibility to face other people without a pop culture reference to mediate. And to face problems.

Before my mission, like most I believe, I turned to a movie, music, or TV when I was angry, frustrated, or depressed. But those things, if used for that purpose will numb, weaken, isolate, dumb-down, and fill with guilt — surprisingly similar effects to alcohol, sexual deviancy, and narcotics. This is how I define entertainment.

But on my mission I learned, for the first time in my life, that you could face your most challenging problems on your knees. I also learned that God doesn't make it easy for you and most times praying is hard. I went through those challenges, even though God helped me. But I went through very little before I learned those lessons. I just let the media help me forget until I went back in a weaker form to try and throw something together.

I grew up when Grunge was emerging and everyone was looking to Seattle. I think I saw the first ever broadcast of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Say what we will about the movement, but the biting refrain 'here we are now, entertain us,' still defines pop culture. To entertain is very much a verb with two sides and one of them is receiving the action. The English "F" word is vulgar because it linguistically changes an act which is reserved as a holy covenant between man and a woman (a 'communion' if we will) into a verb where one side is doing and the other is being done unto. Some of the worst crimes known to us are the abuse of this communal power and forcing to a one-way act. We believe that Adam and Eve were both "agents unto themselves." 2 Ne 2:14 says that God created "both things to act and things to be acted upon." Verse 16 reads: "Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself." Meaning that Adam and his children should not be acted upon. I think this is at least a partial reason for that guilt. When we say "here we are now, entertain us," we voluntarily shift from subject to direct object, from agent to beast, from a thing to act to a thing to be acted upon. Maybe we can understand the Nirvana song from their following album entitled "Rape Me," as a continuation of this same theme.

I hope that these descriptions are not overly graphic, but I believe that we do more harm to ourselves socially, spiritually, and morally than we may realize when we desire and/or allow ourselves to be 'entertained.'

Of course, we can't always watch Dreyer's films. And I'm not saying we should. But perhaps we should be more strict in our approach to viewing. Aristotle said "instruct and delight." That seems to be a helpful guideline. Tati doesn't entertain, because they require so very much of us. But there are few things more delightful than Parade for me.

I don't agree that film began as a medium of entertainment. After one of the first screenings that the brothers Lumiere had for their one minute films the audience was in awe. Indeed, what they saw must have been awe inspiring. But the filmmakers were surprised at the response. I think that the audience's reaction embodies what I feel most deeply about this medium, now 113 years later. They said: "The leaves. They're moving!"


Brent Leavitt said...


I didn't realize I had struck such a strong cord. I think I'm prepared to defend my vantage point, but I need sometime to craft the argument. Thank you for sharing.


Schmetterling said...

Hey, remember me? I've changed my avatar since I last commented, but I'm back.

This exchange is very exciting to me (though I should probably admit that I haven't read everything that you two said back and forth--felt a bit like eavesdropping to me--so if what I say is way off base--sorry). But this idea really intrigues me, and I've been thinking a lot about it in the past 24 hours, so this is, to me, a very timely post.

I am certainly no connoisseur of film--the closest thing to a credential I have is that I am currently taking a Philosophy of Film course at BYU, and that isn't much of a credential--but I like to think that I'm more than just a mindless American twenty-something who sits around shouting "I feel stupid and contagious; here we are now entertain us," so I'll go ahead and throw out my thoughts and see where they go.

My film teacher is not a fan of Hollywood; I'm no Hollywood groupie, but I don't hate Hollywood the way he does. Yesterday, we were talking about use of sound (specifically music) in movies, and he showed a clip from Glory as an example of dramatic musical scoring, but he did it apologetically, saying that this was one of those silly, "story-driven" American films, and he muttered something about how American movies miss the art of film making, focusing on plot and characters rather than trying to make a philosophical point.

I was shocked. Granted, modern Hollywood doesn't produce a whole lot of what might be fairly deemed "art," but I don't think it's because they're focusing too much on plot and characters; I think it's because (like you said) they're focusing on profitability. As a movie-goer, I really like interesting plot and believable characters, and I think that a good movie will never neglect those elements. In my mind, it's hard to have a point to make that's good enough to be worth sacrificing plot and characters.

That said, I'm totally surfeited with movies that tell cute little stories without making any sort of point at all--I swear if I see another movie like Dan in Real Life, I'm gonna break something. Too many movies these days are repulsively formulaic and lacking in anything remotely edifying (to hearken back to my last comment). What makes any story worth telling is the impact it has on those who see or hear it. The nice, fluffy, hollow stories we are so often given really are like masturbation--the comparison doesn't strike me as the least bit too brutal because it's so true!

I feel like I'm saying a lot of words and not making much of a point, so I'll wrap this up quickly to prevent myself from becoming a hypocrite. I guess what I'm getting at here is that I stand somewhere in the middle of this highly polarized argument: though I am a huge advocate of that Finding Forrester Principle, I don't like movies that are so heavy handed in the point they're trying to make that the plot and/or characters suffer, and I hate movies that use contrived stories to make a moral point (though not as much as I hate movies that just tell stories for the sake of telling stories). I think that the real challenge in any sort of literature--the art of story telling is to make a story both interesting (or, arguably, entertaining) AND meaningful (edifying) without one part getting in the way of the other.

Schmetterling said...

Oh. Just as a quick postscript: I don't think TV is an unavoidably depraved medium--it has a lot of potential to tell stories serially in ways that no previous medium has even come close to (except maybe comic books), and some fairly recent shows are making pretty good strides toward realizing that potential to make some very good points, I think. But, again, you're right: most are totally missing the mark.

Trevor said...


I first and foremost want to apologize that I framed the post as a response to you. I didn't intend it as an attack in any way, but an illustration of my 'vantage point.'

If you ever do get the chance to see any Kiarostami, I hope that you'll get to see '10 on Ten' released with the only copy of 'Ten' (the Kiarostami, not the Dudley Moore) in the states. He discusses this issue, and though he is the embodiment of what film should be, I think, he advocates a Hollywood cinema. Its a tragic moment, and it brings me to tears for all its implications. But he ends with on of the most poetic moments I've ever experienced in film. Up to that point, he's simply filmed himself driving while speaking on film, but at the end he takes the camera and films a tree outside the car while reciting a haiku that the tree reminds him of. Then he turns the camera to an ant hill directly at his feet and just watches them. It is truly divine and one of the many reasons I decided to learn Farsi a little more than two years ago. This Poland residency has sidetracked that, but I plan to return sometime.

Anyway, if this man, who is the definition of what is not Entertaining, advocates a hollywood model, then who am I to disagree? And yet I do.

So I have to be honest about my perspective, but I can't completely disregard the others.

I had hoped you wouldn't have to defend. for that I apologize.


Also, Schmetterling: No film credentials are needed I hope, just a thoughtful approach.

There's a lot you say about story that I'd like to discuss, but I've outdone myself for now. Thank you for your post.

Brent Leavitt said...

No, no, no. No offense taken Trevor. "Defend" was perhaps too strong a term in online discussion where it's fairly hard to emote online.

Schmetterling, a moderate perspective. Thanks for sharing, too.