In recent weeks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hosts the Oscars, has come under fire for its perennial dearth of diversity, only the latest installment of which came in the form of an all-white spread of nominees for this year’s awards ceremony. For myself, this controversy has made me examine the relationship between viewing and being, and raised a frightening question: Is it movies that imitate life, or life that imitates movies?
In an essay titled “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” the late novelist David Foster Wallace argues that forms of mass entertainment like movies and television have “imposed themselves on our generation’s psyches for so long and with such power that they have entered into complicated relations with our very ideas of the world and the self.”
“Think, for instance,” he writes, “about the way prolonged exposure to broadcast drama makes each one of us at once more self-conscious and less reflective. A culture more and more about seeing eventually perverts the relation of seer and seen. Seldom do we think about the fact that the single deep feature the characters share, with each other and with the actors who portray them, is that they are watched . . . . We, the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant feature of persons is watchableness.”
If only Wallace had lived to see the explosion of Instagram, Snapchat and Vine that created, like a second Big Bang, an alternate universe of virtual interaction governed only by the laws of what he coined “watchableness.”
Social media platforms have taken the messy notions of self created by decades of movie and TV narratives and given everyone and anyone with access to a smartphone a stage on which to enact the story of their lives.
I don’t believe I’m being hyperbolic in claiming that for much of my generation, being plays second fiddle to being seen.
Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District is overrun on weekends by teenagers and young adults who drive hours to snap pictures of themselves up against the area’s murals and tastefully defaced walls, only to jump back in the car again at photoshoot’s end.
I would suspect that for many attendees at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, the prospect of dancing to live music in the Sonoran Desert for a weekend is less tantalizing than the prospect of being seen dancing to live music on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, complete with the coveted Coachella Valley geotag and a caption roughly derivative of either “Coachillin,” “Young, Wild and Free” or “So-chella.”
L.A.’s newest art museum, the Broad, has witnessed explosive popularity since it opened in September, no doubt thanks to its Instagram and Facebook-friendly installations. Unlike more traditional art museums that forbid photo taking, the Broad expressly encourages visitors to whip out their iPhones in such selfie-conducive exhibits as the museum’s “infinity room.”
This preoccupation with being seen doing trendy, sophisticated things in trendy, sophisticated environments is nothing new.
Operagoers in the 18th and 19th centuries were notorious for their disinterest in opera and interest in being seen at the opera. Socialites have always frequented certain clubs, restaurants and sports venues with the specific intention of being photographed there.
But social media complicates this age-old phenomenon. It’s created an alternate space within which appearing cannot be differentiated from being — within which appearing is being.
Cinema and television, like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, blur the line between appearing and being. But sometimes, mass entertainment (which I would argue now includes Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, alongside television and cinema) steps over that line, into the realm of the real; we, as human beings, direct movies and TV shows, but movies and TV shows have a curious ability to direct the lives of human beings, too.
Movies and TV shows create well-worn narratives that, like gullies directing runaway water, we are only too eager to fall into. How many teenagers (or adults, for that matter) gave up on a relationship because it wasn’t quite “Notebook”/“The Fault in Our Stars” level?
Furthermore, we tend to see our lives as one great drama being performed for an invisible audience. We live out the fantasies taken from our favorite movies and TV shows hoping our invisible audience is as awed and impressed as we were when we first saw the scene played out onscreen.
As such, we are not happy in the act itself, but rather in being observed in the act.
Think, for a moment, about something as simple and primeval as fashion. When you look in the mirror and decide you rather like what you’re wearing, are you looking at yourself from your own perspective, or from an imaginary panel of judges external from your own person?
The pride and confidence we feel when we’re dressed up — is that anything more than the anticipation of approval, praise and envy in the eyes of others? Imagine the rest of Earth’s population was wiped out overnight in some catastrophe, yet you, and only you, survived somehow. Would you bother dressing up? Would you care how you looked? I wouldn’t, which tells me that something like fashion offers no happiness intrinsic in the act itself.
It’s my belief that mass entertainment encourages us to take a third-person, rather than first-person, perspective toward our lives.
It’s as if we’re watching ourselves go through our daily routines from a cinematic, external vantage point, rather than experiencing it first hand.
We seek to entertain, move and awe our imaginary audience, but when we manage to do it by re-enacting bits and pieces of the movies dearest to our hearts, the happiness doesn’t last — it was never there in the first place, because it was never our own.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.