Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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Is Our Storytelling Too Dystopian?

Why are Movies so Dark? America’s video and film narratives are out of whack with the optimism that an individual needs in order to thrive.

There are obviously many cultural forces at work in shaping the movies and television series that capture our attention. But taking a long view, the national nervous system seems overwhelmed with accounts for climate catastrophes, political mean-spiritedness and personal despair brought on by a social structure that still leaves too many behind. Shooter games are a better signifier of what films have become rather than novels about relationships. And then there is an apparent and natural impulse in men and boys to master games of destruction.  Kids with every advantage are probably as enamored with games of domination and death as those who might justifiably use them as a kind of catharsis. Add in media that shows the worst of human behavior accessible on any time of the day, and we can be loaded down with dispair.

My impression is that too much of America’s video and film narratives are out of whack with the optimism that the individual needs in order to thrive. The case for this conclusion is incredibly easy to make. According to the data base, IMDb, the top grossing movies in the U.S. last year are notable for their dark subjects that range from cartoonish to vividly real. There is “Gorr the God Butcher” in Thor, versions of Dr. Strange who “threatens to wipe out millions,” Batman against a “sadistic serial killer,” and even a minion who wants to become “the world’s greatest supervillain.”  Most films with characters like these target young viewers. Their older counterparts are predictably in for even darker fair. Reading the brief summaries of top-grossing films in the U.S. is an exercise in trying to fathom a world gone mad.  Genre movies dominate. Even those produced under the Disney umbrella can be surprisingly grim. Do these films lift the spirits of those who are watching? For example should we have to look to a young actor’s script from 30 years ago to find a scene with real humans displaying pure and unalloyed joy?

A 60s band from Erie Pa. hears the first radio airplay of their only hit. (Writer: Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do!)

Narratives naturally thrive on some sort of conflict or human impasse. To be sure, no one expects the broad viewing public to demand more costume dramas inside old English manor houses.  And the kinds of rom coms that played to the mainstream in the 1960s are unlikely to return. Think of studio products that featured Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire, or Cary Grant. A few films still use their old Hollywood tropes. But most U.S. producers have ceded the idea of pressing for post-modern stories that could usefully explore the backstories of families or institutions, faltering or thriving. There is not enough Richard Linklaters or Wes Andersons able to find backers and willing to risk explorations into the inner lives and dense pluralities within ordinary souls. I suspect that the truth is that the hardest task for a film team is the creation of truly layered characters that can surprise us with their insights.

What seems to be missing in the mix of releases are films represented by master screenwriters like Neil Simon, David Mamet, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Aaron Sorkin, James Brooks, Larry Gelbart, William Goldman, Wes Anderson, Nora Ephron and many others. Their films are usually about the interpersonal dynamics that define their characters: words and non-verbal cues that others in a narrative must answer. Some work on the very human challenges of connecting or disconnecting with the significant others through comedy; others took a hard look at the harsh conversations that individuals must negotiate in lieu of filmic but inhuman action that typically drives a fantasy plot forward.

It is interesting to look at older films that are most frequently revisited. They include obvious choices like Citizen Kane (1941), All About Eve (1950), Casablanca (1942), Some Like it Hot (1959) and Singing in the Rain (1952). Some are dreams of a fertile imagination. But most take us to places without guns or magical powers. Some would be considered “talky” by modern standards. But all also had the virtue of relying on language written into scenes of intense feelings and heightened expression. This is in the realm of our human birthright to engage in discourse. It is what defines us as humans.

There is a curious twist here. The United States is not a routinely unruly society.  Most of its cities and towns are relatively peaceful. But many Americans seem to identify with con artists, crooks, and tax cheats. There are our standard cinematic romances with violence: from Bonnie and Clyde to Mad Max to Indiana Jones. And there is the even more obvious example of a presidential candidate whose obvious criminality is even acknowledged by his supporters. In our day, political chaos seems to be its own reward.

Would it be outrageous to suggest that Martin Scorsese’s most satisfying film is not Taxi Driver (1976), but Hugo (2011)? More than we do, we should want the latter film’s message of hope.

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Our Fragmented Consciousness

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How can we keep our focus when our informational world has paced almost everything at hyper speeds?

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and e-mails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.  For the record, the problem isn’t entirely new. The ballad “Over The Rainbow” (1939) was initially cut from the Wizard of Oz because some bright light in the studio’s front office thought that it slowed things down.

The Advantages of Linear Thinking

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.  And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or non-fiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  We’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

If previous generations were more focused, our Twitter world is more scattered.  The folks that track these things indicate that the average American checks his or her phone nearly 100 times a day. Much of American television is predicated on breaking for a range of short commercials: so many, in fact, that a viewer can momentarily forget what they were watching.  And the programs themselves are edited to the beat of a fast song, with shooting angles and cutaways coming every few seconds. Fast cutting, where camera changes may happen every two seconds, is in style.  The long single ‘take’ is relegated to a few auteur film directors who are willing to gamble that an unbroken shot can be interesting.

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Linear thinking is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker routinely does what many vacationers hope for: a chance to clear the decks of everyday clutter sufficiently to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power.  It may happen when we are walking, watching a sunset, or perhaps sitting alone on a boat dock with nothing else to distract.  These are the realms of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.

The Mistake of Pushing Complexity Out of Bounds 

This is the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and its good reasons—in a verbal closet of fewer than 500 words?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of a complete idea, and is easily matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots down to lengths of two or three seconds.  All of this means that there is no time for enlarge on the complexities of issues or attitudes.

We now think of a Ted Talk with a maximum running length of 18 minutes as an “in depth” discursive form. No wonder some of my students thought of a 70-minute lecture or a 40- page chapter as the functional equivalent of a long slog across a vast and empty space.  All of this makes our dawning recognition that reading levels are falling even more worrisome.  One of the great virtues of juvenile and adult literature is that the process is still mostly linear. Like the rest of us, kids are easily hooked on continuous and sequential narratives.

Sherlock Holmes wikimedia
           Sherlock Holmes

Interestingly, one of the features sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects on the spectrum are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities.  But the habit of extended attention can be a blessing.  Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  And it is surely the dominant psychological trait of the world’s favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel  ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a literally a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of many drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task that many aren’t mentally equipped to manage themselves.

One small suggestion for moving back to a state of extended consciousness on one thing is to pick a major orchestral work or favorite writer, making it a point to ‘swim’ in their waters for more than a few minutes.  The trick is to not take on another task for an alternate source of attention. You will hear or see more.  The hard truth is that thinking well about a subject needs effort and concentration.

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