Thursday, June 10, 2010

Not so fast

Andrea Harris has a favorite stop of mine in blogworld.  (You can see her off to the side there in the Pantheon.)  This post of hers, about tourists having mental meltdowns when their real trip abroad destroys their romantic notions of the destination, brought brought out a comment that is making me scratch my head a bit:
Pity they didn’t bother to read about Paris (especially material not put out by the travel industry) rather than rely on a medium intended and designed to transmit lies.
I object to this, and I will explain why.  (At length - lucky you!)  Movies are not a medium intended and designed to transmit lies, any more than television, or novels, or plays, or art, or video games. All these are media intended and designed to transmit IDEAS or STORIES. Some of those may well be outright lies; some of those are excellently-crafted. There are also truthful stories, and beautiful ideas, and nobility and kindness and grandeur.

Since images and feelings are more immediate, most art aims for those instead of thoughts. No argument on that point. I do think that to simply call the whole thing "lies" by design is to miss the point, however. One of the earliest moving pictures was in fact used to truthfully answer a question: does a horse pick all four feet off the ground at once while galloping? (Turns out that they do.)

Look - I'm a storyteller by nature, if not by profession.  (And there's a long post brewing about that conflict: stay tuned.)  This is my passion.  I would be willing to go on a limb and say that for most creative community, that passion is a primary motivation.  They have turned that passion into a job.

Once you turn a passion into a means of commerce, things change.  As long as I'm just writing, I can just write.  Once I am also selling, then the writing has to meet the demands of those to whom I wish to sell.  It's a dilution - not much of one, since an audience wants a compelling story above all, and storytellers are nothing if not compelled.  Still, they may have no taste for the story struggling to free itself from my mind.  At that point it's the old familiar choice: give 'em what they want or say what I need to say?

Here's the thing, though: that tension exists in EVERY business.  Some people's passion is food.  They become amazing chefs.  They also have to consider: will people pay money to eat this?  How much?  Again, the dilution is slight.  People want great food, chefs want to cook great food.  But people can scarcely afford $100 meals every night, not in great enough numbers to keep the chefs themselves fed.  So ingredients are swapped, flavors change, and viola - Chili's.  Or Wendy's.

I won't pretend that line cooks at a chain restaurant give two shakes of a rat's patoot about Great Food in the abstract, but they care at least about how the particular food they're actually cooking, that it should be done properly and please the customers.  And the people who develop the menus care much more about that abstract, the ideal of flavors.  Even Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's, cared a great deal about it, even if it was just burgers and fries.  He may not have been a chef on the par of a Gordon Ramsay or Julia Child, but he cared.  He had to.  Ultimately, if you make too many changes for commerce - too much dilution - then one loses both the passion and the commerce.

You will find the same tension in every walk of life: in education, in politics, in construction, in sports.  There is a perfect ideal, that drives everyone with a passion, and then there is the economic reality.  It would cost too much to make every teacher an Ivy League-quality professor (and not every one of them could be, anyway), though the children would benefit.  It costs money to campaign, money to run a government - too much to run unelectable candidates no matter how great they may be at governing.  Should my house get obliterated by meteorites or something, it would cost twice as much to construct the way it was originally built vs. using modern materials like sheetrock.  And the greatest players in the world command a great deal of money, more than any one franchise could pay (even the Yankees or Red Sox); so they make do with affordable players rather than pursue the perfect ideal of 162-0.

Yet those ideals exist.  Those passions are real.  Every teacher wants to teach as well as possible, every politician hopes to govern, every housebuilder (and homeowner!) wants the home to endure, and every team wants to win every game, or at least their league's chamionship.  Without those ideals, that passion, there would be no point in even starting.

That's why I say again that filmmaking is about ideas and stories, not lies.  Based on some of the loopier things that movie-folk say and do, it's easy to believe that Hollywood is full of narcissists who dictate What is Acceptable to the rest of us, when in fact they are full of crap.  There is some justice in the claim, perhaps, in certain examples.  Certainly Tim Robbins and Sean Penn have done more than their share of loopy lefty proselytizing.  But they didn't become actors to be able to dictate What is Acceptable, they did it because their passion is in the stories they tell.  Those who have lost that passion are usually the worst at their profession, and again, this holds across all walks of life.

Not surprisingly, when singers and athletes and kindergarten teachers also lose that passion, they become fairly useless in their fields as well.  That doesn't mean that music, sports, and knowledge itself is intended and designed only to convey lies, does it?

(Funny how this comes up when I'm working on a story that indirectly touches this idea - that of the storyteller as a professional liar.  Reality keeps anticipating me.  Bad reality!  No cookie!)

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