In college I was once assigned a slim volume written by Plato called Gorgias. It is one of the Socratic dialogues, an ancient Greek genre in which the Socratic method is put to the test in a variety of ways, and in which Socrates himself is often a central character. In Gorgias, Socrates and a man named Polus, a rhetorician, discuss the moral implications and applications of rhetoric. Socrates concludes that rhetoric alone, without the backbone of genuine truth-seeking, is useless at best. He points out the fact that many rhetoricians apply their public speaking skills merely for their own gain, and that it often amounts to little more than flattery, with no attempt to get at the truth. While I do not agree with all of the Socratic ideas presented in Gorgias, I think in this case Plato was definitely onto something.
Not that I don’t think there is ever a place for flattery and puff pieces and the like. It’s just that I recognize the disastrous potential of telling people only what they want to hear. Brutal honesty may not always win you friends, but anyone who would shun you for telling him or her a painful but helpful truth is no real friend anyway; they’re only after a sycophant, someone to stroke their already outsized ego. Likewise, what do you think would be the effect of people being exposed only to views they agree with? Given the increasingly fragmented nature of media these days, we’re beginning to find out. Recently I posted a link to a study that demonstrated that politically we’re more polarized now than we have been in decades. I chalked it up to people digging in their heels when presented with challenging information. I could’ve added the fragmentation of media as a cause too, but I think that fragmentation is itself (at least in part) a product of the Backfire Effect caused by the explosion of information that occurred with the advent of the World Wide Web. There’s never a simple cause-and-effect explanation when it comes to human behavior.
And that leads me to the point of this article . . . sort of. One of my big gripes with criticism of books, films and television shows is the notion that it has to always be emotionally satisfying to the reader or viewer. In comparison to, say, Europe, far too often Americans seem either to forget or to not care that the telling of fictional stories is an art form as much as it is entertainment, or at least it should be, and that art is frequently most effective when it is challenging to us in some way. Having become a fan of foreign films early in my life, the accumulative effect of watching all those foreign films alongside Hollywood’s output over the last twenty-five years or so has made me realize that Americans are, on the whole, less sophisticated and mature film-goers than Europeans.
Let me put this into context. First, go to a website where media is frequently discussed by followers of the site and read the replies to any review of a film that challenges the viewer emotionally, either because it lacks a traditional resolution, or one or more of the characters do not behave as generally expected, and so on. You’ll usually get a pretty good idea of how Americans like their storytelling, and it mostly amounts to fairly simplistic ideas about what makes a good story and what doesn’t. Consequently, that’s mostly what we wind up getting from Hollywood. In comparison to the European films I’ve seen, American films tend to follow the same broad pattern: the good guys always get rewarded and the bad guys always get punished, major characters do not present beliefs or behaviors that challenge us to look at issues in a different way, the story structure follows what I call the Coitus Framework (I’ll explain that in just a bit), there are never any mysteries left by the end of the story and everything gets tied up in a nice little bow.
This is not to say there are never deviations from this design in American entertainment, and Americans may not mind a little deviation here and there, but on the whole they are intolerant of anything too different from this fairy tale method of storytelling. In short, Americans are basically still kids when it comes to media consumption. Think about it this way: candy tastes good to us, but who except children would ever want a steady diet of it? Adults usually prefer a variety of complex flavors, including some of what we call acquired tastes–that is, tastes which may at first be off-putting but with time become more interesting and enjoyable to us. Thus, the mark of a sophisticated adult palate is its tolerance for/enjoyment of more complex and challenging tastes, whereas small children tend to despise any foods which are even remotely unpalatable to them. I think the same applies to entertainment, and that being the case, America is in real trouble.
Now, you may be inclined to say so what; it’s just a novel or a movie after all. Yes, but I think our tastes in books, TV shows and movies say a lot about our society and our culture on the whole. In a country where media is becoming more and more compartmentalized, where our politics are increasingly polarized, and where health-threatening levels of obesity are the highest in the world, it seems apparent to me that the number of Americans prone to settling into their comfort zones is on the rise. We are becoming the emotional equivalent of the Eloi in the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine. Okay, maybe that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration, but the evidence for American social devolution is all around us.
I’ve already mentioned the upswing in political polarization, the escalation in media fragmentation and the high levels of extreme obesity in our nation, but there are others. For example, the percentage of violent crime in the US has gone up significantly in the last few years. Some of this is attributable to the poor economy, but not all of it. There are no obvious economic incentives for, say, attacking homeless people, and yet that too has increased at an alarming rate. Another indicator is the increasing disconnect between the American public and its government. The explosion of farfetched paranoia-driven conspiracies about what our government is up to reflects a breakdown in communication both ways, and the rising inability for people to find political middle ground suggests a disheartening narrowing of minds. In short, we have tons of proof that Americans have reached a new low in their emotional and intellectual maturity levels.
And so, when you think about what fiction you’re reading or what films you’re watching, remember that with every dollar you spend or don’t spend on entertainment, you’re influencing these overarching trends in media consumption, and that those in turn mirror the sociopolitical zeitgeist. With every exceedingly comforting piece of entertainment we consume and every morally, emotionally or intellectually challenging piece we ignore, we are both sanctioning and contributing to this cultural downturn, and we are sacrificing our capacity to empathize with and understand others who do not think as we do. That doesn’t just affect cultural integrity–it feeds into a society that imposes these simplistic fairy tale values onto the whole shebang.
So then, what exactly are the major problems with entertainment media? There are tons of them, but I think we can break them down into some broad categories.
1) Simplistic Moral Certainty – One of the biggest issues I have with most American entertainment is that it is largely overshadowed by a kind of totalitarian conception of moral values, which is rooted in our Judeo-Christian past. For a time–during the sixties and seventies–we managed to get away from this moral tyranny in books and films, but it has returned with a vengeance. When I say Judeo-Christian here, I am not talking about the beliefs and values unique to the Judeo-Christian faith; what I mean is the Judeo-Christian concept of moral absolutes, which do not exist in reality. Moral absolutism is a sign of simplistic thinking. Any truly sophisticated system of morality accounts for reality’s moral ambiguity and complexity, and so too does good entertainment. Characters who are drawn in broad moral strokes make for piss-poor drama (although they might make for excellent farce or satire). In real life there are few if any people who are all-good or all-bad, and even when we think someone is a total asshole through-and-through, we should understand that in their minds they don’t see it that way. But many people seem to take comfort in this simpleminded black-and-white view of humanity, and that is reflected in the media they consume. When exposed to enough of that kind of media, where there are distinct and unambiguous good guys and bad guys, we can start to develop unrealistic and bigoted notions about other people and their motivations.
2) Emotionally Comforting Resolutions – Americans, certainly more so than Europeans, have a high expectation for resolutions to their stories that are emotionally gratifying. That’s fine to an extent, but it has become by far the dominant paradigm in entertainment media. But again, real life doesn’t work that way. Some people argue that that’s precisely the point. Why would you want to pay to see real life on the big screen when you get it everyday for free already? Well, for starters there’s this thing called verisimilitude, which is just a fancy word for describing the believability factor of a work of fiction. Theoretically, the less verisimilitude a work has, the more difficulty a reader or viewer will have with suspension of disbelief. But I think one of the problems that can develop from overexposure to media that offers only emotional gratification is that it creates and reinforces an entire culture of unrealistic expectations as people give up critical thinking in order to be entertained, and that in turn causes them to disengage from the more challenging ideas or beliefs they’re exposed to. For example, I am a pretty solid liberal, but I cannot ignore the fact that even among liberals there is a disconcerting degree of intolerance and nastiness directed at anyone who doesn’t share their values. I expect that kind of thinking from religious extremists, racists and the like, but when it pops up among my fellow liberals, I am especially saddened.
So, there is verisimilitude, but there’s also the fact that choosing not to end a story in a satisfying way can be a valid and important artistic choice in its own right. Let me give you an example from foreign cinema, the beautiful and award-winning Italian film Il ladro di bambini (The Stolen Children). The story follows a policeman who is tasked with finding any living relatives for a pair of young siblings who have effectively become orphans after the arrest of their poor single mother, who had been pimping out one of the children in order to make ends meet. The policeman at first drags the children, who are naturally distraught over the loss of their mother as well as frightened over the big unknown that faces them (not to mention the additional emotional baggage the little girl faces from being forced into prostitution by her mom), across the country in his quest. Eventually, realizing there is no one to take the kids in, he plans to drop them off at an orphanage. Along the way the young cop bonds with the kids. The movie ends in medias res, with the policeman and the children sitting in a parking lot somewhere before arriving at their destination. But this isn’t a case of bad writing–there’s a reason it ends this way. We the viewers are left wondering whether the cop and his charges ever arrived at the orphanage, or whether perhaps he decided to take in these troubled youngsters himself instead. Will they have a home or won’t they? We’re haunted by that question long after the credits roll, and consequently, it forces us to think about the issues it presents, no matter how painful or uncomfortable they may be. And in the end, we’re better people for having been confronted with the fact that real life ain’t Hollywood.
3) The Coitus Framework – This is nothing new. Since at least the days of Aristotle critics have put forward models of what they think is the ideal narrative structure. Aristotle’s highly detailed ideas about what certain types of stories should look like have been extremely influential, and many of his views are still adhered to by critics and artists today. Later Gustav Freytag built upon Aristotle’s ideas and devised what he considered the perfect form of a dramatic work, which is as follows:
A. Exposition (Sets up the story; important and necessary details are provided before the story begins)
B. Rising Action (The story begins to builds anticipation and excitement)
C. Climax (The point at which the main conflict of the story is decided; the high point, as it were)
D. Falling Action (Directly after the conflict; the relaxation of events)
E. Resolution (The ending of the story)
Now, notice how much this structure mimics sex. First there is exposition, which is equivalent to seduction–important information is exchanged here, and we are tantalized into proceeding. Next comes rising action, which creates excitement and pleasure in the buildup; this is the act of fucking itself. Then there’s the climax, which is . . . well, the climax. I don’t think it’s accidental that the high point of sex has come to be called by the same word we have long used for a narrative high point. Then you have falling action, which is the release, and finally the resolution. This is why I call this idealized dramatic structure the Coitus Framework; it’s basically storytelling modeled after sex. And we’re still using it today as the basis for the narrative structural ideal. There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself, of course. But should it be the basis for every story we want to tell? It’s an inherently limited way to tell a story, and moreover, there’s something emotionally hedonistic about needing our stories to always fit this model. Not every activity we engage in is sex; that would make sex terribly boring after awhile, wouldn’t it? The same is true of narrative structure. We do not have to adhere to the artistic tyranny of Aristotle and Freytag!
4) The Lack of Mystery – Life is full of mysteries. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about being alive is the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know about our universe. Indeed, evidence suggests that it may be impossible to know everything; the more we dig into the nature of the universe, the more questions that arise from what we do learn. It seems that a lot of people find that idea threatening or disturbing. Why should it? We don’t need all the answers to enjoy life, and personally I enjoy a degree of mystery in my reality. I also think there is more maturity in accepting this fact of life than in pretending like we have it all figured out, or that we even can figure it all out. And that transfers to my entertainment. Sometimes, maintaining some of the mystery we are confronted with in a narrative work only serves to strengthen it.
I recently reviewed Peter Straub’s novel A Dark Matter. The book presents us with a group of characters who were all present during a single paranormal event, and their widely different experiences of that event. One of the things I liked about the novel is that Straub offers very little explanation about the phenomena his characters are exposed to; indeed, he suggests much of it is actually unknowable. This only strengthens the horror aspects of the novel in my opinion, because it suggests that such things cannot really be planned for or overcome. Pretty much any other writer but Straub would’ve been tempted to lay out some grand scheme for the supernatural, with rules that had to be adhered to and weaknesses that could be discovered and exploited, but Straub never goes for the easy out here, and the book is all the more unsettling for it. What I’m saying is, sometimes a story is better served when not every loose end is tied up neatly at the end. Sometimes a little mystery adds depth (and of course verisimilitude) to a story.
I’m sure I could think of many more with time, but those four are big enough issues that just addressing and correcting those would put a big dent in the problem. And maybe if readers and viewers started demanding more complexity and realism on these levels, we could perhaps turn back the tide of emotional regression infecting our society. Probably not, but at least, on average, we’d have way better fiction! :)