Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Movies for Escaping a Desert Island

I’m a little bit late with this topic, but I was offline for several days, so why don’t you give me a break?

It seems that Friday was Matt Zoller Seitz’s last column for before he became television critic for New York Magazine. As a finale slideshow, Seitz chose the topic “movies for a desert island,” and detailed his list of ten films, one short, and one series of television that he would keep as entertainment if he was stranded on a desert island with “an indestructible DVD player with a solar-recharging power source.”

Seitz prompted his readers to come up with their own lists, and I clicked into the comments section to see some of them. “Part of the fun of this exercise,” Seitz wrote, “is figuring out what you think you can watch over and over, and what you can live without.”

For me, though, the main part of the fun, and perhaps the frustration, of watching other people undertake the exercise was rediscovering how differently my mind approaches entertainment, as compared with most of the people around me. I can’t say that I took the time to dream up my list of twelve pieces of visual media, but I’m sure that mine wouldn’t have looked a thing like the others.

It may well be that I’m missing the entire point of the exercise, and applying a kind of logic to it that has no place in such purely academic challenges. But I can’t get past the fact that for me, the phrases “desert island films” and “current favorite films” do not mean the same thing. And that’s all that I seemed to be seeing in the author’s and the commenters’ lists. They were lists of a dozen items that each person thought he or she would find endlessly entertaining; a dozen things that would distract the person from the monotony and desperation of his surroundings. I simply can’t help extrapolating from the hypothetical and concluding that each person who participated in the exercise took it for granted that he was resigned to the fate of being trapped on a desert island for an indeterminate length of time, and possibly forever.

“Best to make the most of it, and see that I have some of my favorite entertainment on hand, so I can be as happy as possible while I’m here.”

Even in an utterly unrealistic hypothetical, I can’t take that attitude. It doesn’t reflect the way that I engage with media. I love film, but I hate escapism. I can’t think of a thing that I’ve watched on my own accord that I didn’t watch with an eye towards relating it to my own life and circumstances, or learning more about the world through it, and generally using it as a surface for reflection.

It would be no different on a desert island. So if I had access to a visual media there, I would damn well want it to be media that reminded me of my surroundings and circumstances, rather than distracting me from them, and that motivated me towards the goal of either getting the hell off of a desert island or building an idealized society on one. That’s not to say that the films I choose would have to have identical settings, but they would have to all possess themes that seemed personally significant, whether about freedom, or emotional fortitude, or encroaching insanity.

The closest thing that I saw to that line of thinking was that several commenters included The Matrix in their lists. I could see watching that in any circumstances wherein my freedom was constrained (i.e. the only circumstances I have known), because it’s explicitly about getting free by being in touch with reality when forces around you are compelling you to flee from it. But as far as Seitz’s challenge was concerned, I think that based on the content of the rest of their lists, those commenters chose The Matrix because it was an entertaining sci-fi action/adventure film that they had thoroughly enjoyed when they were younger.

Am I making unfair assumptions about the motivations of the respondents to the exercise? They could each find the content of their chosen films so personally poignant that they give them hope when things seem most hopeless. They might choose comedy and pure entertainment because they know they will function better towards some greater end if they can laugh and feel good amidst everything else. I don’t think that’s it, at least not on the whole. In response to one person placing Groundhog Day on his list, another commenter questioned the selection. “Don’t you think that would hit a little too close to home on a desert island?” he asked.

It’s still hard for me to accept, but apparently hitting close to home is not something that other people want in film and television. I, however, want little else. It sounds narcissistic, but if something isn’t in some sense about me, it isn’t worth watching.

I’m not sure what would qualify if I was on a desert island, though. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know what would speak to me. I’ll stick with The Matrix unless I come up with a better ten. I’d probably include some sort of nature documentary, likely Winged Migration, to put me more in touch with what beauty I would still have access to on my island. Perhaps I’d include Powaqqatsi as a way to remind myself both of the beauty that’s possible in the habitation of natural settings and of the beauty that I’d left behind in the rest of the world. Cast Away might make the list because even though it’s far from being one of my favorite films, it very well might become that when I’m in practically the exact same situation.

The only thing I can say with fair certainty, though, is what my television series would be. With its theme of resisting the circumstances in which one feels trapped, no matter how overwhelming they are, I think The Prisoner would be as poignant for me on an actual island as it is on the metaphorical island on which I now live.

Now, would you like to rethink the question for yourself? What films would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island, could watch movies, but still cared about the fact that you were stranded on a desert island?

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