Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who's it For?

I have a new hobby. More on this in a minute.

Isn’t the internet great? It’s great. It is probably the greatest media invention ever. Well, maybe not. It’s more like mortar. I mean bricks were a great invention. They were better than building with rocks, but they didn’t become way better than rocks until the invention of mortar. Hell, mortar was such a great invention it even made rocks better for people who couldn’t afford bricks. The internet is the mortar of media. It takes all the other bits we use to build our understanding of the world and not only connects them and holds them together, but forges them into a stronger cohesive whole. Damn I love the internet.

Which brings me to my new hobby; as soon as I finish watching a movie I head to the computer and look it up a wikipedia to learn more about it. I was looking up “The Hurt Locker” recently and the thing that stood out for me was the section detailing Iraq War veterans’ impressions of the film. Unsurprisingly they basically panned it. They also seemed to feel it was the best movie about the war to date. So there it is, it’s unrealistic to the point of being absurd, but it’s also the best one yet. What struck me about this perspective is how familiar it felt. It’s the exact same sentiment the rugby community had about “Invictus.” It’s roughly the same reaction people from Berkeley have towards NBC’s “Parenthood.”

This is when I had this month’s “aha” moment. These works aren’t made for “us” they are made for “them.” Who the “us” and “them” are depends on what who we are and what we do. Confused? I didn’t think so. For “The Hurt Locker” “us” is Iraq war veterans and embedded journalists. For “Invictus” “us” is the rugby community and South Africans. For “Parenthood” “us” is people from Berkeley. See where I’m going? It thought you would. The thing is, making movies and TV shows that resonate with the demographic depicted is almost impossible. The people who are the real people who are being fictionalized and depicted in popular media are too close to the subject matter to ever really be satisfied.

Even “reality” can leave a bad taste in the mouths of the “us.” In 1994 PBS spent a year at my high school filming a documentary about race relations called “School Colors.” Whiff. It was terrible. The filmmakers clearly had an agenda and ignored anything that didn’t fit the narrative they wanted before they arrived. The documentary depicted Berkeley High as completely racially segregated in every way resulting in a powder keg of race related tension and violence. I don’t know anyone who attended BHS at that time who had the experience depicted in “School Colors.” Yet everything in the film actually happened so I guess in a way it was real. It just wasn’t real enough for “us.” (For a much more resonant depiction of BHS in the mid-1990s check out “Yellow Jackets” by Itamar Moses.)

Here’s the truth that the “us” has to embrace, if these works were made with an eye towards resonating with “us” they wouldn’t appeal to “them” or anyone else. And there’s a lot more of “them” than there are of “us.” Media made for “us” is so specific and has so much potential to get caught up in little details while making assumptions about shared knowledge that the vast “them” would feel lost and left out. Besides, the “us” is already in. We’re already invested. We get it. The goal of the creators isn’t to draw us in, it’s to draw everyone else in. The goal is to provide a glimpse of our world to the masses. In doing so it’s going to change, sometimes to the point of seeming foreign to “us.” But if “Invictus” got a few people interested in rugby, or social justice then the film will have accomplished the goals of both the filmmakers and the rugby community. If “The Hurt Locker” helps people understand the stress and chaos of war then it’s served its purpose. Even “School Colors” was right in that Berkeley is not the race relations nirvana people dreamed it would become back in the 1960s. The point is that the “us” need to be satisfied with the details. The Bravermans from “Parenthood” are A’s fans, it’s a nice touch. The show is still pretty detached from the Berkeley I know, but they have drinks from Peet’s so I tolerate the inaccuracies. I think that’s the most we can hope for in service of the greater goal of bringing our passions exposure to a wider audience. So maybe it’s time for “us” to take a new tack and appreciate these works for what they are and what they bring to “them.”

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