October 16, 2005

Ring Tone Sonata



Take one large sheet of tracing paper. Place it over top of the screen of your television set. If you do not personally own a television someone else’s will work equally well. As images flicker past, rapidly attempt to trace them onto the translucent surface of the tracing paper. If you follow these instructions carefully, a series of incoherent markings will unfold, gradually becoming more cluttered, until eventually you have achieved the figurative state we like to refer to as ‘a complete mess.’

When I began this sonata I had intended to strain towards an analogy between the ‘complete mess’ produced upon the tracing paper and the equally ‘complete mess’ watching television produces within the mind of the viewer. Such ill thought out, but nonetheless intuitively resonant, moral judgements are a common enough feature of my written output. I believe there is a kind of quick, cheap pleasure to them and we should never deprive ourselves of such pleasures. However, as the art critic Peter Schjeldahl writes: God knows most of us Americans [and Canadians] hate being alone. This may explain why our popular culture is the best in the universe. We keep pouring the cream of our genius and love into producing the antiloneliness serums that our movies, pop songs, and television shows. We take nothing more seriously than our fun. Well, all of this has been said many times before, often by pundits displaying that other familiar compulsion, to make people feel bad about what makes them human and sociable in whatever way their world allows. Loneliness is no sin. It is “an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” in need of infinite consolation.

People frequently tell me my writing has become too didactic, that they prefer my earlier, more poetic, more evocative style (like in Stardust Memories when they tell him: ‘we prefer your earlier movies, when you were funny.’) And it’s true, perhaps my thinking has become a bit dry, a bit too critical, or is it only critical in the wrong way, or is it in fact not critical enough.

About five years ago I stopped watching television. And I can’t help but wonder if this shift, this newfound dryness, isn’t a direct result of a very specific deprivation, of searching for some sort of purity of mind, trying to remove the clutter, to wipe away the ‘complete mess.’ Television, that perfect hybrid between furniture and propaganda, also compels us to take life just a little bit less seriously. You can always change the channel (and in less than an hour it will be a different program anyway.) While watching television you rarely feel trapped. But now I’m straining towards another analogy, still thinking about that tracing paper, how when you press too hard it so easily tears. About how the things we do to clear our minds have endless, unintended consequences. And purity is always an opening for poison.


1 comment:

Robin said...

I think the relation of that tracing exercise to your critique of the effects of that cross between "propaganda and furniture" is kooky lu-lu, but still I am symentalthetic to most of your points.

Exercising thus with paper, pencil, and screen is certainly much more interesting than watching almost any TV shows, I'll give you that! Still, I can't help but think that you picked an importune time to do away with television altogether. I think because of broader technical accessibility to video production and because of proliferation of global means of distribution to niche audiences, some TV makers are afforded a new ability to make and show things of much greater, ahem, emotional authenticity, comedic and dramatic power, and higher overall aesthetic quality than almost everything the boob tube served up prior to the late 90s. There are things I can relate to I have seen on certain recent shows that I have never seen, and never thought I would see, visually and narratively portrayed.

Take for example 'Six Feet Under.' It may often be like the best CanStage production you could possibly imagine without the boring walking on and offstage (laugh then please try to bear with me), it may too often be cutesy clever, it may be visually bland as all hell, it may throw in too many ridiculous instances of horrific violence to move the character development along, but still I have seen here and there portrayal of very particular and gripping emotional states and exchanges between these characters that have knocked me on my ass. Take for another (not coincidentally, HBO) example 'The Sopranos'. Granted, any drama that structures itself through portrayal of the mob has the constant crowd-pleasing tension of suspense/predictability and pathos all sewn up before it even begins, but try to find me any intelligent mainstream tragedy that is more brilliantly aesthetically unified in all respects. As for the BBC's 'The Office', I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more incisive, hilarious, and heartbreaking satire onscreen anywhere.

On the much bigger other hand, I well appreciate your disappointment with this medium.

Last week a dear friend came to visit whom I had not for reasons of physical distance been able to see in a very long time. I surprised myself by crying right before he arrived at my house. You know how sometimes you know you want something but you don't know just how very much until you've got it? That night was somewhat thrilling in that my world opened up through my friend's eyes, through hearing about some terrific adventures that have been had by him and by people he and I have in common since he and I last communicated. That night was also melancholy because he and I (for lack of arranging a different sort of circumstance in which to get together) fell into that somewhat dreary trap of catching each other up by making reference to pre-fab mental lists of interview questions. I cried again the next day once he was gone. Later on the same, too exhausted to imagine doing anything else, I flipped on the telly to sedate into somnolescence my gnawing sadness at the inevitable passage of time apart from one of my most beloveds. A show, the sappy stupidities of which have not before prevented me from watching it for fifteen minutes while eating some supper, was on. That fucking retarded, 'Lost', that night in my wrought-up state, made me yell and throw my converter across the room. Staring at the ceiling was much more satisfying!

My opinion parts from yours in your criticism that TV creates "a perfect mess". It seems to me just the opposite. The directly-lived world is a perfect mess. It is, in fact, the disjunction between life's confounding messiness and TV's too-often tiny tidy portrayal of it that makes me want to bash my set in.