Saturday, June 18, 2011

Analysis vs. Escapism

Almost exactly three years on from its original release date, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing Wall-E. It has still be quite low on my Netflix queue, but a friend of mine had it lent to her, and she offered that we watch it together. I knew to expect an excellent, critically acclaimed film, and I knew to expect a post-apocalyptic setting. My friend, however, was apparently completely free of any expectations. By the end of it, she was crying almost openly. The word “almost” is important there, because when the credits began to roll, she conspicuously avoided looking in my direction and said, “That was a stupid movie.”

I struggled to try to get her to elaborate. It was extraordinarily well animated, it was touching, it had moments of terrific suspense, and highly relevant themes. But when I asked her just what it was she didn’t like about it, the best response I was able to get from her was a synopsis of some of the plot points, which she gave while dabbing her eyes with a crumpled napkin.

The friendship that she and I share is of an odd sort. We have a scant few points of profound similarity, and apart from that we have virtually nothing in common. She is also not forthcoming with opinions or explanations of her beliefs or feelings, so gathering a better understanding of her takes a substantial bit of labor. One of the things that has long puzzled me about her is her taste in movies. That is, there seems to be no coherent pattern to what she chooses to watch and what she reports that she enjoys. She scoffs at some of the suggestions that I offer, but then speaks highly of films in the same genre, with similar styles or themes. She pretends not to like a particular class of film, but then eagerly embraces an individual film that is perfectly representative of it.

Eventually, after working to understand why she indicated that she didn’t like Wall-E in spite of clearly having been affected by it, I came to the conclusion that our distinct viewing habits were not exactly indicative of different tastes in film. Rather, they speak to differences in the very way that each of us consumes media. She felt shocked an uncomfortable after watching Wall-E because when viewing an animated film, she doesn’t expect an emotional rollercoaster or an overall challenge to the lifestyles of modern society. She only expects to be entertained.

I believe that that’s exactly the way that it is with her and virtually every move that she chooses to watch. She finds a film’s trailer appealing because it looks like the feature will be entertaining, and that it will provide good, non-threatening escapism. I have never been that way. I have never found appeal in pure escapism. Everything I watch, read, or listen to, I do so because I expect to get something out of it, something that speaks to the human conditions, or issues facing modern man, or at least the contemporary cultural aesthetic. Even if I find myself consuming a piece of media idly, I do not then merely let it wash over me. My mind’s tendency toward analysis never remains switched off for long, as so I’m eager to find emotional or intellectual content in even the simplest, most casual things, like television commercials.

It is always difficult to fully comprehend the notion that other people think differently than you do, and it is an essentially foreign concept to me that some people consume media as little more than a distraction. When I am challenged to think about it, however, I wonder whether fans of pop culture are more likely to do just that than they are to take my approach to the enjoyment of media. For me, real enjoyment only comes from the belief that something I am doing, whether actively or passively, is contributing to who I am as a person, what I understand, and how I think. Am I correct to surmise that this is something of a cultural divide within the population, and if so, am I in the minority of it? Am I an anomaly, and is there anything damning or self-injurious about over-thinking as I do, and striving to see that none of the themes of a work of art escape my attention, even if it’s a children’s movie?

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