My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Just Relax and Watch/Read It (Mailbox)

Image description: Brain in a mailbox.
Can you ever just watch and enjoy a show anymore?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I don't often redo questions once they're in the FAQ, but this one goes well with yesterday's post.]   

Janessa asks:

Do you ever have issues with watching a movie or tv show, or even just reading a new book, where you find yourself critiquing/criticizing it (either internally or aloud) as you go over it the first time?

Like... no matter how much you wish you could just sit back and (almost mindlessly at times) enjoy it like everyone else, you can't seem to shut off the part of your mind that wants to analyze?

My reply:

Oh dear.

You might not like this answer. But to do it properly, I'm going to need some accoutrement. Lemmie get my lab coat.....

Nothing like glasses, a lab coat, pencils and pens in the pockets and my favorite Beymax T-shirt to set the mood.
Image description: Me in all that stuff I just mentioned looking thoughtful.
Here's the thing, Janessa, and it's probably time I admitted it: I'm a big, huge nerd.

I know. I know. I've hidden it well all these years, but if you scroll carefully and mine this blog for its most surreptitious data, you'll find that the clues were there. And being a big, huge nerd, there are actually a couple of answers to your question, and they're just a little different than you were probably expecting.

Can I mindlessly watch things? I can. And I often do. Just the other night I watched a movie with my roommate called JeruZalem. Now I don't want to spoil this cinematic masterpiece for anyone who hasn't yet had the pleasure, but let's just say that it didn't take a spectacular amount of conscious attention or thought away from Cookie Clicker.

Nephilim vs. army. That's cool.
Image description: Cookie Clicker game with 39.838 septillion cookies.

Here's where it gets a little weird though. Do I find that analysis ruins things or gives me issues? No, I don't really. When I start comparing post-colonial and science fiction fiction tropes, tell you that Carrie Bradshaw's friends represent freudian personality aspects, or want to talk about why zombies are such an American monster because they play so hard on anxieties about individualism vs. shambling assimilation, people often say something like, "Can't you just ENJOY the show."

My reaction is usually "I am!"

Image description: More of me in my lab coat.
See...if I'm enjoying something, I'm engaged by it. It isn't just playing across my eyeballs as my brain runs through desultory groupie threesome scenarios or reminds me that I need to change my address with Covered California. If I like something, I'm actually thinking about it. I'm cross checking it with literary theories and seeing if I can find symbolism or metaphors. I'm watching the character arcs to see how they play out. I'm appreciating how the tension is building or paying close attention to the technical aspects that create the mood. I get really into it. One of the neatest experiences is thinking you're just looking at popcorn entertainment, and discovering that there's actually something pretty interesting going on subtextually. When I really get into things, whether I'm necessarily having fun or not, it's almost always because it's crunchy enough to engage me on an intellectual level. So if I'm really digging a movie, I'm usually doing some level of analysis. And if I'm "just enjoying" it, I'm probably not actually enjoying it that much–or at least it will be forgotten pretty quickly.

Of course, once in a while, I know to keep my mouth shut about all my sweetmeat love for media. At home on Facebook might be the time to point out the white savior trope in John Carter was actually jaw-on-the-floor offensive, but my friend who likes campy old sci fi and thinks E.R. Burroughs should be "read" as a product of his time probably probably won't want to go to the movies with me again if I unpack everything right there. And the less said about the Christmas Movie Christmas Party where, right about at the bar scene, I realized the AAVE speaking, fried chicken hoovering, urban invading Gremlins were racist as all fuck the better.....

But let's not just talk about me. I think artists and to some degree intellectuals have to deal with a lot of shame because they like engaging popular culture at a different level. [I originally wrote "deeper" but I think there's some value judgement in that.]

And it's bullshit.

It's its own form of elitism to have people laughing at you because you can't "just watch" something. ("How could you sit there and think about something? Why can't you watch it exactly the way I do?") I mean...if you're doing deep post structural analysis on Three's Company, maybe you need to get out more, but there's no reason that we can't appreciate that George Burditt essentially reinvented the farcical trope of misunderstanding into the modern era by introducing his own take – having a character only hear part of the conversation, which becomes a double entendre, thereby sneaking some incredibly libidinous ideas into the living rooms of repressed, censor-laden seventies television....

Oh...sorry. I just got carried away there.

"This is all so terribly interesting."
More lab coat.
Sure, if you were being an asshole about your analysis, that would be one thing. It is technically possible from time to time for intellectuals to be kind of elitist a little bit. Maybe. "Oh come on. How could you not see that Spider Man (from the 90's) is a total feminist nightmare. All Mary Jane does is get admired and rescued. God. You're so shallow. Can't you just analyze a film instead of just sitting there and watching it like an insipid lump?" But we're not doing that. (I hope.) And people should let folks enjoy their books and movies and shows however they like. If I want to compare House of Leaves moral center with Gilgamesh, who does that hurt? And if you want to read it and say "That was some creepy ass shit," who does that hurt?

It's worth pointing out, though, that one of the places you most often hear, "Can't you just enjoy it?" is when you notice something about media is problematic and fandoms can be the worst about this. People don't like you to shit in their sandcastles even when sometimes those suckers need a fat steaming deuce pinched off right in their courtyards. Often there is a conflation of the kind of analysis and criticism that calls media to account and a need to defend enjoying something that is in any way imperfect as some kind of lack of moral terpitude. The more folks like something, the less they want you making them uncomfortable for thinking it's great. Like, if you thought Fargo was a pretty good movie, and I point out it's got a problematic lack of non-white characters and portrayal of those who are there and barely passes the Bechdel test as well as having no real representation of LGBTQIA+, it doesn't mean I think you're a bad person for liking it, and you will probably understand that and nod and say, "Yeah, I guess you're right. Good movie with problems."

But holy shit, if I say basically the same thing about Harry Potter, the MCU, or the original Star Wars trilogy, someone's going to fucking get shivved.

Of course, in that case, I wouldn't want to "just enjoy." Representation is vital, nuanced portrayals matter, and we're only going to get better examples of either by continuing to hold worse examples and their creators accountable. Homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism: these are things we shouldn't calmly accept, and it is doing so that has been the problem for so long. They should enrage us and cause us to demand our artists do better or become irrelevant. I've done a lot of work to be able to step out of the status quo and see that most media has problems and some of it has a LOT of problems. We're not talking about being too good for a fart joke here.

So basically shutting off my brain and enjoying something are usually actually mutually exclusive. If I'm enjoying something, I'm almost certainly thinking about it. And I hope if you're having trouble not analyzing something, Janessa, that you just relax and go with it. Leave your brain on. You might just have more fun that way.


  1. I relate to this on an almost spiritual level.

  2. Your form of analysis seems fun. I often find that I can't stop internally criticizing a novel, movie, etc. Like I can never enjoy it for what it is and instead focus on the narrative flaws, even if they are relatively minor.

    Also, I don't think there is a problem with any individual movie not passing the Bechdel test. It is a systemic problem that movies with male leads are easier to get made in Hollywood and often have more promotional support. This probably applies to other forms of representation as well.

  3. Even Bechdel admitted the test was reductive to drive a point home, and shouldn't be used to dismiss stories whole-cloth. a movie with a female lead will rarely portray two men talking to each other in a way that isn't about the female protagonist, because stories focus on protagonists and not secondary character arcs, ESPECIALLY in movie format where time was limited.

    [off topic] i would have given a hand to see two female heroes bantering in the mcu the same way the male ones get to do, but we aren't there yet. valkyrie was the closest we got; black widow and scarlet witch might as well not know the other exists, and for as important a chatacter as she was maria hill was conspicuously absent from a lot of important conversations. [/off topic]