Recently I heard that the Bushmen of the Kalahari spend a mere fifteen hours a week gathering food. The rest of the time they tell stories and interact. That sounds like fun—a kind of early retirement for the whole tribe. More to the point, I wondered how a people could spend so much time telling stories. Then it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time, especially in the winter, watching movies, reading books and watching TV like many people in our culture. We all spend vast amounts of time being engaged with stories—stories about other people and their lives and mishaps and loves. Why are we so absorbed in mysteries and science fiction, murder and natural disasters and the twists and turns of soap opera lives? Is it …?
Compensation for the dullness of our own lives. When there is nothing exciting happening in our daily humdrum, do we latch onto the emotional comets of other people’s existence? In the story, Zorba the Greek, Zorba asks his boss about the content of his library. ‘Boss’ replies, “The anguish of men’s lives.” Zorba snarls, “I spit on your anguish, live your own life” (or words to that effect). But maybe we lead uneventful lives where the most exciting thing is a once in a generation blizzard or tornado. Which might explain the draw of disaster movies for some folks not to mention the panic to leave work early when it threatens to snow more than three inches.
White noise: Maybe TV soaps, sitcoms and specials are just ‘white noise’—a systematic way to calm down and order life into thirty minute segments. For some people, the schedule of television programs provides time frames for life the way monastic bells did for European peasants—matins, lauds, vespers—marking the progress of otherwise boring days. Think of Raymond the Rainman and his obsession with watching Judge Wapner at 3:00.
In television, solutions to predictable problems are provided in 30 second, 30 minute and 60 minute capsules. Everyone knows the grammar of screen writing where the prevailing mores of society that are invariably reinforced: good guys win, bad guys lose and if we miss a joke, there’s a laugh track to cue a response. What we are looking at is a dose of fiber—filler for our emotional digestive tract. For many of us, watching TV or movies or reading fiction is the equivalent of playing solitaire or working a crossword puzzle or saying a rosary or mumbling a mantra—repetitive, predictable downtime in our lives.
Distraction: I wonder why folks with fragile, troubled lives are so addicted to other people’s stories in soap operas. Aren’t their own lives soap opera enough? But perhaps I’m missing the point. Maybe the soaps are an excuse to avoid thinking about the oppressive realities of real life. Maybe soaps are a way to hide in the twists and turns of other’s lives, if not a chance to commiserate with another’s impossible problems. Are they looking to extract some wisdom, some empathy? Or perhaps, they are looking for someone in a worse predicament than theirs. It may feel good to turn the TV off to end troubles with a flick of the switch. Not so easy to do in real life.
Art: Sometimes good fiction and good movies reach the level of art. Maybe we are chickens in the yard pecking at anything round in the hope that once in a while we will find a kernel of truth or beauty which justifies the search with insight into ourselves, into others, and even at times transporting us beyond ourselves.
Mystery/mastery: Why are we fascinated by mystery stories? Because we can be? Because the left side of our brain likes to search out cause and effect—the same kind of ‘drive to know’ that compels scientists to unravel life’s natural mysteries? Or maybe we like mysteries because the right side of our brain is engaged in searching for connections between small and disparate, sensual and instinctive observations. Maybe we like mysteries because we want to see justice done, to see wrong being righted, criminals held to account. It doesn’t always happen in real life. But at least the story can fulfill wishful thinking.
Maybe mysteries as controlled, contrived, resolved conundra are practice for solving the mystery of our own existence, the twists and turns of fate in our own lives. Some of us, attuned to our past, spend a fair amount of time connecting with our personal history—maintaining traditions, telling family stories, collating photo albums. We are looking for continuity, patterns, explanations for how we are, why we do what we do. Looking for a thread of meaning in our past for predictors of our future?
Historians, archivists and librarians do this cosseting of our past in a formal way. Fiction writers, movie makers and journalists help us at the pop culture level sort through our collective history and tell us stories about who we are and how we got here and where we may be heading in the future.
Mirror: Perhaps we watch movies the way teenagers look in mirrors. In times of rapid change, we spend a lot of time reflecting on where we are, have been, will be going. Movies act as a reflection on our culture. In times of social upheaval, cinema can go beyond distraction and illusion, like the musicals in the Great Depression did, to offer us a mirror as large as life.
Finally, why do we read? Why do we tell ourselves stories in books and movies? Because there isn’t a big enough campfire for all of us to sit around, we need to multiply the storytellers.