My choice of media

I’d like to start out by saying that I am clear that I’m the weird one here. Everyone else SEEMS to be in line, and I’m the one who just doesn’t fit in.

That said, I simply DO NOT UNDERSTAND why people like depressing media. For example, through a miracle of babysitting, my husband and I got to go see “Where the Wild Things Are” on Friday night. (I would post a spoiler warning, but sheesh. If you haven’t read the book, which spoils the plot, then go get it right now!) The movie is sad and depressing, and does not cease to be sad and depressing. You have a lonely kid, an all-too-human and overstretched mom, a teenage sister in a loving but rather grim world. Then you get taken to a fantasy world where …. things are just as bad. In fact, bad enough to make the real world where people break your igloos and your sister ignores your pain and your mom is dating some guy seem much better than your fantasy world. So we conclude feeling just as crappy as we started. Actually crappier — I was in a good mood going in. But hey, it was visually lovely.

It’s a box office hit.

Why?

I get it: other people really like reading books and watching movies that make them feel horrid. I know I’m the weird one because I don’t. I just fail to fathom what about it feels good and makes you want more?

See, I understand WHY it is important to tell and hear stories about real things that are awful. I will sit down and read about the holocaust to understand how humans can be so brutal to each other and work to prevent it. I understand why it’s important that we know and see that humanity is capable of great evil. I listen to the news, even when I’d rather never heard again how some person strapped in a bomb-vest blew themselves up in a crowded marketplace full of sons and mothers and beloved uncles. But I turn on the news anyway and look at the world as it is, to the best of my abilities.

I do it with the same amount of joy and enjoyment that I have for dental hygiene, without the sparkly teeth afterwards. I do it because it is important and necessary and part of being a good citizen. I do not enjoy a minute of it.

So why on earth would I choose to watch movies that inspire the same sense of impossible despair? Why would I want to read books where people are horrible to each other and hurt each other and terrible things happen and at the end of the book, it’s still horrible and no one has learned and the sun will die someday? Why do people spend so much time imagining ways that we could be awful to each other that don’t really exist? What about this is satisfying? I read those books, and am usually glad I have, but I never desire to read them again.

It makes it very difficult for me to find media that suits. It’s hard to explain to friends. I often sum it up by saying that I don’t like violence. (I nearly vomited at the Serenity movie — I actually left shaking and crying.) But that’s not actually it. I’ll get through violence (as long as the folks writing it/showing it don’t seem to enjoy it too much) to get to redemption, learning and hope. I found Firefly generally fantastic. The body count in the Lord of the Rings is high, but so is the hope-count. One of my favorite books of the last decade, “The Curse of Chalion” by Bujold starts with a beaten, broken man who has experienced utter betrayal. But it ends up with redemption, healing, hope, love and victory. There are very bad things in it, but the people who ENJOY doing horrible things to other people are a minority, and they get theirs in the end.

I guess I feel that the world is sufficiently grim without imagining more worse things in it than actually exist. I choose to spend my imaginative time on seeing the world as, perhaps, a better place than it is, and humanity as generally loving and redeemable.

If you love those kind of movies or books I’m talking about — the dark depressing ones where it all seems futile — can you please explain to me why? What it does for you that makes you want to come back?

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10 thoughts on “My choice of media

  1. I think the reasons are twofold: one, it can be cathartic to go through a sad or distressing experience through an artistic medium, and because the action is at a remove from your own life, you can open up to it in a way that can be difficult in your own real life. Second, its often hard to find the meaning in real life tragedy, partly because we often don’t have the temporal or spatial perspective, or, let’s face it, because there is no inherent meaning. In the best art, the tragedy is infused with some meaning and significance, which gives a certain kind of satisfaction and can help us construct meaning in our own lives.

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    1. Yes, I really agree with Stefanie’s first point. When I think about tragic plots that are cathartic, the first example that comes to mind for me is opera. I know a lot of people who discount opera because it’s so full of melodramatic plots and terrible things happening to people (usually women). But I find it to be a release to engage with heartbreak that is writ large in Puccini arias. I feel like we all have personal tragedies that have caused us pain on an operatic scale, but we sweep them under the rug and don’t even admit the depth of our own emotion to ourselves lest we lay our souls too bare. Seeing our own emotions validated and expressed through sublime art can be a really profound thing.

      Admittedly, I’m not sure that this argument holds up quite as well for other forms of media. I haven’t seen (or read!!!) Where the Wild Things Are, but I doubt the movie necessarily counts as “sublime art.” Still, I think catharsis is one of the driving forces beyond the public’s consumption of dark entertainment.

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  2. One theory I’ve carried for quite some time is that people like depressing media because their own lives suddenly don’t seem so bad. It could be worse. But by getting this perspective from media, rather than the real world, you don’t have to feel guilty that someone else has it worse than you do, because it’s fiction.

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  3. I would account for a lot of the success of WtWTA by the fact that probably 99.999% of everyone we all know had that book as a child, has that book for their children, knew and loved that book their whole lives and went into the movie not necessarily expecting what we got, and on the strength of the previews. I went to see the movie because of that. I also do not enjoy violent or depressing entertainment. I did like the movie, but I also felt unsettled after, and I think that was the point. Not that I necessarily wanted that experience from it, mind you. I don’t think Spike Jonze set out to make a feel-good movie.

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    1. I completely respect artists’ right to choose to make art that is difficult and depressing. The bit that baffles me is why that art ends up being popular. I guess I’m saying that Mr. Jonze is fully in his rights to make a depressing movie. But I didn’t enjoy it. And I’m not sure why other people have enjoyed it — and I know they have!

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  4. Three cheers for the happy ending! You are a victim of bad genes or bad upbringing. I can’t see the joy in being depressed either. Sorry! I couldn’t sit through Cowboys with John Wayne getting shot in the back! Oh My!

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  5. As the producer of the Most Depressing Theatre in Austin I’ll chime in.

    1. Catharsis
    2. It makes the brain work in a very different way. You can be experiencing the SAME thing in real like and watching it on stage reconfigures it for you.
    3. Catharsis
    4. Broader examination of an issue or idea in a non-technical way
    5. Catharsis.

    In terms of popularity, there are very few SMART comedies currently. There are no Philadelphia Story’s or Sabrina’s in this climate. Given the choice between Transformaers, Couples Retreat or the flawed and convoluted (and largely sad) Synedoche, NY I’ll take the Kaufman every time. Having not yet seen the movie (Waiting for Megan to be available)doesn’t Max return from his (terrifying) fantasy-land to truly own his imperfect home and life as his and precious? Isn’t that a Good ending if not Happy?

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