The scene carries on with the menacing stranger rolling his window down at the behest of the frail, fearful officer. What feels like an hour of anxiety and fear is actually communicated in a matter of seconds between two people - one bad, and one afraid - each looking at the other through a driver’s side window. The stranger calmly speaks paralysis into the officer, with a sure promise of death hanging on his every word. Then silence. Each second that the officer considers doing the “right” thing, or letting the terror drive away for fear of his own life is simply another eternity for the audience to wonder when the inevitable will come. (a description of a scene from the FX series Fargo - episode 101)
About a month ago I deleted the movie The Road, having never watched it, from my Netflix queue. Why? In short, because of websites like BuzzFeed. Because I’ve been simultaneously told how hard-to-watch it is, and, therefore, to watch it. Why are “movies-I-can-only-watch-once” lists even a thing? I see this all the time on sites like BuzzFeed: a list composed of films that are really amazing, and must-sees, but that are also so disturbing - or involve a scene so disturbing - that the viewer can only handle one outing with it. Why recommend something that you can only engage once in a blue-moon because of how bad/scared/bothered… or if we want to use the fancy word of this generation, how “real” it makes you feel? Today it appears that the popular venues of contemporary art (movies and television) have seemingly divorced the viewer from accountability - specifically an accountability within himself.
I’ve heard countless reasons to read “this book”, or watch “this t.v. show” that all seem to revolve around the common variable about how “real” it is. Ultimatley what’s being communicated in these reasons is that “there’s such heavy stuff in this, that it’s more real to life than those weak stories from last year.” That in turn implies that the more raw the story is, the better it is. Hmmmm…
I remeber exactly where I was when I first found out about Tarantino’s genre defining film Pulp Fiction. I was listening to its overtly-explicit soundtrack at a friends house, speechlessly thinking to myself, “wow…”, all the while my friend urgiung me to believe that this is naturally the next step in my film-appreciation’s evolution. What it really was was a chip taken out of my naivity, and an attempt to mute my conscience. I’m sure everyone has a similar experience with the schoking newness of boundaries pushed. Herein lies a serious commentary on our culture’s aesthetic value. There is a serious problem when we find ourselves so desensitized by shock/hatred/darkness/gore/nudity/“realness” that a scene of the unknown, like the one described above, no longer moves us.
It seems as if this “grow up or shut up” is being enforced everywhere. This faux-cultivation that calls the audience to leave behind the “Cosby Show” idealism, and watch the “mature” rated show has ensared many people’s rationale to ignore the conscience that begs them - on ethical grounds - to pass by the given “mature” series or episode. I get that the Christian life here on this earth is not as much sitting in sunshine, as it’s more sitting in a dark room and having your eyes adjusted, slowly making out the forms around you. The art of Hitchockian, psychological suspense, has been replaced by the kitsch, impersonal Eli Roths. Or in other words, because of the “McDonalds” of this industry - who just keep throwing strong ingredient after strong ingredient into their quick, mass-produced hamburgers - we’re forgetting how to slow down and savor each bite of our steak.
Isn’t there more than being able to talk about the latest flash in the pan boundary-pusher? Don’t get me wrong, I love this medium… I’m a binge-rewatching LOST fanboy. On a more “mature” level, I still can’t get over Cranston’s work in Breaking Bad, love rereading McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and am super excited about Season 2 of Fargo. However, the issue behind all of this for me is 1) does it spur me to be more whole and pure, and 2) is what I’m watching gratuitous? (And yes… Breaking Bad has some episodes that are too gratuitous for me.)
While the fascination to be in the latest fiction circles can appear to offer a full bolstering of the imagination, there still seems to be a simultaneous lack of introspection associated with it. I only say this to equalize qualities; imagination and creativity should take no higher place within art, nor in the appreciation of art, than qualities like control and proportion. This re-evaluation and subsequent elevation of such qualities largely began during Romanticism, however, it’s most popularly dug its heels in the dirt recently over the past century in the wakes of ideas such as poststructuralism - coincidentally which both were reactionary movements against the mundane and “uninspiring”. Boring stuff aside, the point is this, I love aesthetics. I have for a long time. I love it so much that I dedicated an entire postgrad degree to researching it… however, not for the art, but for the beauty behind the art.
We need to first understand what beauty is… and to that I say that it is not being shaken to our core by something shockingly wanton. Beauty is God’s brilliant transcendence; it is that which nurtures our conscience to desire more, not shudder away from it. Think of it this way, Aristotle said that the most beautiful art was the tragedy, not because of how “real” it is, but because it leaves us wanting. To him, the tragedy stripped away what we cling to, and leaves us bare - very similar to what this current culture is appraising art by - yet, only to then urge us to look outside of ourselves for something more pure. That’s just not the ethos that I hear in today’s appraisal.
Sadly, we live in a post-pragmatic, post Puritanical America, and though we have slipped out from those deceptions of legalism, we are now slipping into a new deception: our need to be “cultivated” and “liberated”. I’m not asking “Can we watch this?” That supposes that we are looking for validation to watch the show at hand… or rather, watch what we want. Understanding that subjectivity is real, and that introspection does not happen on the computer screen, what I am asking is “Should we watch that?”