We may say that we’re going to the media world for information—that’s the euphemism of choice—but I think it is strictly euphemistic. Mostly what we derive is not information but a certain kind of experience … [a] disposable experience. And I think it cheapens us. But also I think it has to be said we want that sort of lightness in order not to get stuck in anything, as a way of extricating ourselves from the demanding, the difficult, the absorbing and the profound. —Todd Gitlin, author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, in an interview for Mars Hill Audio Journal, vol. 59, November 2002.
When I was seven, or maybe eight, I used to wake up early on Saturday mornings and sneak down to our basement family room. I would switch on our giant, walnut-veneered RCA console TV and wait nervously, the tubes sizzling like frying bacon as they warmed up. I’d turn the volume down very low, not wanting to awaken my mother, and I’d sit on the cold, tile floor in my robe and slippers, my face just inches from the screen. Soon, I would be rewarded by chilling strains of eerie music and the baritone voice of the announcer: “Welcome to Science Fiction Theater.”
I entered another world, a world full of aliens and death rays, nuclear wars and genetic experiments gone horribly wrong. I shivered my way through Mothra, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Them, Godzilla, and a host of others whose titles I’ve forgotten. I sat there mesmerized, and terrorized—I would glance over my shoulder to be sure some inhuman denizen wasn’t sneaking up on me. At night, when the images came back again, I’d pull the covers over my head and hide. But I kept watching. Our TV was a portal into worlds so fantastic, so bizarre, that I felt compelled to watch.
It is tempting to just watch life go by, to settle for a vicarious experience instead of the real thing. Many things in life are better that way. Life is a contact sport, after all, and the rough and tumble of flesh on flesh and psyche on psyche is punishing. It’s risky. And it doesn’t have to be. In this age of the Internet and computer-generated entertainment, there is always someone, somewhere ready to let you participate vicariously in any experience your mind can imagine. And a great many more you’ve never even thought of.
Kill Bill is a movie about the revenge of a sword-wielding assassin on the gang who tried to murder her. On the way to payback, many heads and limbs are lopped off, every amputation followed by a high-pressure arterial spray that splatters, drips and pools. Millions the world over have paid to watch the mayhem. With a numbingly predictable plot and juvenile acting, one has to wonder what it is that has attracted an audience to this particular film and so many like it.
I think the answer is in the attraction of forbidden fruit. We have become a culture of watchers, of video voyeurs high on the thrill of watching forbidden things, lewd things, inhumane things. Breaking society’s moral laws, even vicariously, is exciting, and doing so while safely cocooned on the sofa is the best of all possibilities. Call this phenomenon Forbidden Fruit Lite—twice the thrill with less than half the guilt.
Movies like Kill Bill let us enjoy the thrill of the kill without the guilt of the sticky, warm blood on our hands. The Roman gladiatorial games served the same purpose. Nothing much has changed in 2,000 years.
When Islamic extremists recently sawed off the heads of their captives and posted the video online, millions downloaded those scenes and replayed them. Why? There were justifiable reasons to view those brutal murders—reporters and social commentators wanted to see the deeds for themselves. But I suspect the real power of those videos was in the allure of adding one more disposable experience to our mental catalog, to use Todd Gitlin’s useful phrase. It isn’t every day that you get to see someone remove the head of a living human being, after all. What the videos lacked in Tarantino’s stylishness they more than made up for in reality and shock value.
It isn’t only the grotesque that draws us, of course. Gitlin’s real point is that the rapid-fire delivery of the news channels, the high-speed pace of modern film and narrative, the snap download of images and audio from across the globe with a tap of the fingertip and a flick of the wrist gives us a sense that we are in touch with the global sufferings and yearnings of humanity. In 10 minutes or less, all that one needs to know about the human condition can be understood through snippets of video and bites of audio.
My, oh, my, did you see that? What a terrible shame. Someone really should do something! Wow, look at the clock! Time to pour that last cup of coffee and get to work.
We allow these disposable experiences to flood our visual cortexes because watchers always prefer sitting on the sidelines to playing in the game. No strings. No commitments. Our hands remain clean. We download, we store, we move on.
Large crowds followed Jesus as he came down the mountainside. Suddenly, a man with leprosy approached Jesus. He knelt before him, worshiping. “Lord,” the man said, “If you want to, you can make me well again.”
Jesus touched him. “I want to,” he said. “Be healed!” And instantly the leprosy disappeared. —Matthew 8:1-3, NLT
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it?” —Luke 15:1-4, The Message
Jesus wasn’t a watcher. He wasn’t out to protect his reputation, nor did he guard himself from the inherent risks of mingling with the sick and the deranged, or of challenging the religious notions of his audiences.
Jesus never settled for disposable experiences; he played life as a contact sport. He wasn’t aloof. He wasn’t condescending. He didn’t sit high on a mountain-top and wait for his followers to climb up. Instead, he waded into the crowds and touched them with his hands.
By his example, we, too, are challenged to swim in the floodtide of humanity. We are tempted to watch from the safety of the river bank. We are tempted to fill our minds with two-dimensional images, impressions, sound bites, theories, all the while keeping a safe distance from anything that might require commitment, sacrifice, pain. And as Gitlin rightly says, it cheapens us.
We connect and download, confusing data with reality, mistaking MPEGs for real life.
God is out on the field, playing the game, calling us to come down from the bleachers and join him. Life was never meant to be a spectator sport. Are you going to get in the game, or watch?
I don’t want to place myself in the awkward position of defending “Kill Bill,” but I think I understand some of its appeal. The different stories within it each parody a different genre of B-grade entertainment — martial arts films, action movies, anime/manga comics. Many of the folks I know who are serious afficionados of those things seemed to enjoy “Kill Bill” because of the way it played with the tropes of those genres.
That said, I don’t disagree with your central point that it’s easy to let watching replace the imperative to live and to act. The way I usually frame it for myself is, it’s easy to crave escapism when life gets overwhelming, and while there’s nothing wrong with withdrawing now and then, there’s a real danger of coming to prefer escape to being present in the world. Watching things on our assorted glowy boxes is an easy form of escapism, and while I’d argue there’s nothing wrong with escapism from time to time, it can definitely get in the way of spiritual focus…
Well I knew there was a good reason to disconnect that cable 3 yrs ago……and my life has been all the better for it.
I will be emailing copies of this excellent article to many friends and family.
Thanks again for challenging the brain cells – I hear it will help me ward off senility. WOO HOO!
Rachel – Your first sentence made me laugh. Sure, I agree. I think escapism has its place. You understand my point perfectly. I have some concerns that we might be isolating ourselves from each other more and more as home entertainment becomes more compelling and the world becomes more frightening? That’s my concern, anyway. Thanks for commenting, as always.
Joanne – Glad you dropped by. We all need to ward off senility – not quite sure if I’m succeeding. 🙂