I just got home from a screening of All of Me, a documentary about anorexia and bulimia made by a local filmmaker. The depth of the movie really surprised me, and the lack of awareness that people have about these topics now. During the Q&A afterward I told the director about my first reaction on seeing the poster for the screening was “I haven’t seen that in a while.”
When I was younger and there was actually stuff worth watching on TV, anorexia and bulimia were common topics for TV movies. Think about what a different world that was. People had cable, but people got most of their programming that was worthwhile on the major networks (only four if you counted Fox, and most people didn’t). If there was a movie about bulimia with Meredith Baxter-Birney, everyone saw it and could talk about it on Monday, even kids in elementary school. People were aware; at least I was. But think about what’s on TV now: either horrible reality shows that simply showcase bizarre behavior, or home improvements, or shallow stories that glorify the worst in people. Whenever I get a chance to watch TV these days, I’m glad I stopped watching about eight years ago, because it’s just gotten worse. Everything is totally superficial.
My comment to the director of this film was that if you really want depth, you need to tell a story, and people just don’t do that anymore. Nobody’s going to talk about anorexia when they’re competing with Duck Dynasty and the Kardashians. If you want real depth, you have to watch a two-hour movie, or maybe even a miniseries (remember those? before “binge-watching?”), four to eight hours of someone’s entire life. It’s an event. My first guess is that the reason I haven’t seen anybody talking about anorexia in a while is that it just takes too much attention. It requires too much depth. It requires telling someone’s story.
It requires art.
And people seem to have no stomach for art these days. A few years ago my friend Meagan Chandler asked friends to contribute their stories of how art has influenced and enriched their lives and I didn’t contribute anything because I didn’t know where to start. Art teaches us so much about ourselves and others that I found it impossible to say what I hadn’t learned. And this is before I considered myself an artist. I considered myself a scientist, but I had to admit eventually that science only successfully teaches people anything of value when it manages to be artful. When it takes you to far-off worlds, or amazes you with things that really touch your heart. That’s when you remember the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.
Even with sciences that claim to be about people, you have to get into the extraordinary detail of seeing how a particular character behaves in a particular situation for it to really stick to you. You can study all the sociological or psychological theory you want to, or even philosophy if you enjoy flagellation and vagueness, but you will only get beyond vagueness and generalization if you can say this is what Bethany would really do when Tom walks out on her. She would get a gun, and she would march into Sarah’s office.
Stories are indispensable, even the tiniest “story-moments” told in visual art and poetry, because they reach inside us. They teach us the important parts of people. Even when it’s something as agenda-driven as a movie of the week, if it’s done right, we will learn something really valuable. That’s gone from TV. I’d love to see it come back in some other form, but I doubt it will happen in the YouTube world we live in. There’s simply no requirement to sit through something uncomfortable when you can just call up a video that will totally hide you from such ugly stuff. You’d never learn to tie a bow-tie in a pinch without YouTube, but its convenience is its very dark side. Very very dark.
Tell me what you think: is this aspect of art missing from your life? Are you acting like a “consumer” of movies and TV?