Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Listening for the whispers

The season of lavish extravaganzas, known as the Hollywood awards, is upon us. I am not a big movie goer, partly because I find most films and television shows shallow, sensationalist, and boring. But then, I'm not the intended demographic.

I do, however, like to stay informed about the Academy Awards and will try to watch the films Hollywood has deemed the best of the best. As a writer, I think it's important to stay abreast of contemporary culture and to see what grabs our collective interest and heart. Sometimes I come across a gem that was worth the quest, often among the foreign film nominees. So this month I am trying to see as many of the best film nominees as I can, along with a few of the others with multiple nominations.

I will likely have more rants as the month progresses, but one is already building up steam. I have not yet seen the frontrunner 12 Years a Slave, which may calm my outrage, but here goes. Why do so many stories have to be told at a fever pitch of shock and exaggeration? What ever happened to the power of subtlety, intelligence, and real human characters? Have we become so desensitized to nuance, or so used to clamour and distraction, that more and more noise and hyperbole are needed to get our attention? After watching American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, my senses - my ears and eyes - literally ached. I was given barely a moment during either movie to reflect on what I was watching or to be touched on a deeper, more human level. No time to reflect on character or the human condition. Even Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, which was chronicling one of the most powerful human stories of our time, skipped over sixty years while barely dipping more than toe deep into any of them.

By comparison, the best film I saw this past month did not turn up on a single Academy Award list. The Book Thief. It was set in Nazi Germany, one of the blackest and most violent periods of recent history, but it was not about powerful men or oodles of money or grand acts of heroism. It was about a young girl's bewildered search for humanity. Subtle, nuanced, and understated, it touching the soul in a way that is almost lost today amid the cacophony of hype.

And this race towards excess is not just in the movies. It's reflected in today's popular television shows, many of which are filled with car chases, explosions, frantic races against time, but not much in the way of character or significance. Today's news reporting and political dialogue is also a triumph of hyperbole over substance. Of gut over thought. But that's a rant in itself.

The race to excess is reflected in TV reality shows and contests, where the reactions of both contestants and judges are often so extreme as to be laughable. Does everybody really hop up and down, flailing their arms, screaming, crying and saying Thank you thank you so much I love you so much!" to an audience of complete strangers? And on social media. Does anyone say "that was good"? No. It was SO GREAT!!!!! AWESOME!!! EPIC!!!! Epic. Seriously? As in "celebrating the feats of a heroic or legendary character"? Good is bland and generic, I grant you, but there are many more distinctive and powerful words which could be used without the need for a sledgehammer. And which would hone our powers of appreciation and understanding beyond a primitive adrenaline surge.

And sad to say, it's reflected in today's books, where seat-of-your-pants thrillers rule the best seller lists, and the characters are all pretty much interchangeable. Handsome, tough-guy men. Beautiful, spirited but vulnerable women...  As a writer, this is where it affects me personally. Good books of yesterday would probably never be picked up today, either by a publisher who is looking for big sales or by the reader, who (publishers argue) would toss it aside in boredom if there weren't a serious crisis on the first page. I understand the need to engage the reader, and I am not advocating thirty pages of suffocating tripe before introducing the first hint of drama. I am lamenting the fact that many times the initial hook is no longer an intriguing character, or a hint of mystery, or a subtle question. It's a ticking bomb, a violent attack, a stalking predator in the dead of night. And off we go on the roller coaster, never given time to see the emptiness of the character or the meaninglessness of the story.

A harsh judgment, possibly. Excessive, even? Certainly there are profound, thought-provoking thrillers and other meaningful books still being written and published. But I wonder where we will end up on this cultural rush to excess. Scream at us long enough and we will no longer be able to hear the whisper of softer, more reasoned voices. Or the all-important silence of our own thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Well said. As a predominately literary fiction writer, I worry about it, too.

Anonymous said...

Insightful analysis, Barbara. I dare say adrenaline junkies will be miffed. I want to feel something when I see a movie or read a book. Sometimes it's fear or loathing. Some time it's despair or redemption. I have a place in my life for Big and Loud, which movies tend to feature more often than books by virture of their medium. I have also enjoyed quiet, gentle, slowly spun films. Rarely are they North American in origin. Susan

Barbara Fradkin said...

Susan, there's BIG and Loud, which we all love now and then - gets the blood racing - and then there's The Wolf of Wall Street Loud.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, I couldn't agree more.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, I couldn't agree more.