Friday, October 05, 2007


Film Fantasy

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on October 3, 2007 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

Since mid-September, each morning I eagerly rush to my post office box with a new sense of urgency, wondering whether an oversized red envelope with a new DVD will be waiting for me. I recently subscribed to Netflix, the mail-order DVD-rental company, to have access to titles that our fine local video-rental establishments don’t carry. The Netflix rental process starts online, where I create a long list of films and television shows that I would like to see—generally documentaries, independent films, and quality cable television series. I place them in priority order, and then I receive up to three movies at a time by mail. Each time I return a DVD in their postage-paid envelopes, they send me the next title in my queue. One can spend hours a day—I know this from experience—browsing their site looking for new titles to add to one’s queue and then re-ordering one’s ever-lengthening queue to make sure that the movie you most want to see next will arrive next. It’s the Internet mail-order process—and online procrastination—at its best.

Having been out of town Saturday, Sunday morning I knew I had missed my weekend window to collect the two DVD’s that most certainly were waiting for me in my little postal cubbyhole. The depth of my disappointment got me thinking about the role of film—and television—in my life.

I’ve seen a lot of movies, and that’s because film is one of the few diversions in my life where I can actually shift my overactive brain to neutral. Films, and good television, are an exquisite escape. They are occasions for me to try out new personas and experiment with exotic lifestyles that I may never have the chance to live. All artistic mediums have their place, but film at its best gives me image and emotion, word and sound. Like books, but with some of the imaginative work done for me, movies encompass me in a way that no other genre can match. In Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, internationally-respected author E. Annie Proulx described her experience at seeing her short story “Brokeback Mountain” on the big screen, “Here it was, the point that writers do not like to admit; film can be more powerful than the written word.”

More power means more responsibility. I love film, but I have a problem when film, especially in its most popular blockbuster form, corrupts how we engage with our world. Film is a tool, and like all tools can be used to construct strong foundations or destroy them. The dark side of film is that it can distort what it means to be in the world and especially what it is to relate to people.

It took me years to understand that romantic relationships do not—and should not!—follow the trajectory of Hollywood romance. On film, it’s much easier to depict the stormy highs and lows of a relationship than the gentle, long-term subtleties that make up a life together. Hollywood—in both its film and television incarnations—has given us a shorthand notion of how to be in love. Thanks to the entertainment industry, as a teenager I thought that getting put down flirtatiously was the beginning of true love. It’s been a long painful process for me to learn that being “in love” is not defined by a romantic apology over an elegant dinner after a string of disrespectful and vicious explosions. Hollywood’s shorthand can make us yearn for a glossy, but false, experience. It’s easy to forget that a two-hour, plot-focused timeframe is not conducive to depicting the true nature of love, let alone life.

At its best, the effort filmmakers put into their craft leads to works of art, collections of moments that celebrate and reflect on what it is to be human. More often, films are simply escapes with disorienting ideas of what it means to engage in society. At its worst—often seen in the more popular film genres—movies and TV distort our ability to live in the world. When film and its inaccuracy become models for how life should be rather than reflections of it, we are no longer able to live in our world authentically.

My most horrifying experience of film-influenced confusion between fantasy and reality occurred on 9/11 and the days following. I was living in Brooklyn, a short distance across the East River from the World Trade Center. Once I understood what had happened, I ran out to see the huge plumes of billowing smoke that rose like two ghost towers into the pristine blue sky. The only parallels my brain had for comprehending it were the special effects in action movies. I thought to myself, “Those special effects are cool, but not nearly realistic enough. The sky is too blue. The smoke is too thin. Where are the explosive fireworks?” It took me until I could walk amongst the rubble to conceive that it was real. My memories of film allowed me to think of it as fantasy as I waited for the inevitable savior to give me the happy ending I expected. “As soon as I leave the theater,” I thought, “everything will be back to normal.”

Film, its special effects, its quick transformations, its comfortable, happy-ending-oriented structure, helps us to forget that the best things in life take a very long time to build. Perhaps it would be better if we had to follow the film-makers over the years it took them to create a film before we got to see the glossy end product. Creation and development take time—a long, effortful time. A movie is not created in two hours. A song is not. A book is not. A life is not. We take time to create ourselves, our surroundings, our futures, our relationships. And this time does not render the results less valuable just because they extend past the lives of our short attention spans. In fact, it is the time it takes to make real relationships with people and places that make them matter so much.

There is a place for diversion and entertainment in our lives. There is also a place for difficult works of art that make us face our darker selves and the shadow aspects of our societies. And there is a time for getting whisked away into fantasy land. But, as I begin my relationship with Netflix and its seemingly endless collection of movies, it is important to remind myself that lives take time and don’t evolve at the speed of film. It took me six years to be able to understand and accept the events of 9/11 enough to go see the exhibit at Ground Zero. In movie time, that’s millennia. But in human time, that’s just right.

So, I promise I’ll try to remember that film is not reality, and that it’s important to take life slowly and not expect too much. But now I got to get to the post office. It’s almost time for them to open, and I think Season Two of Deadwood has arrived!

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