Sundays in the student room
This is the kind of thing I would normally put in a fictional story I’m writing as part of a character’s opinion. It’s like I’m protecting myself that way.
Because the thing is I have these thoughts, some of them are serious, but I’ve become afraid of saying them out loud, in case there’s someone much smarter than me who hears it and tears it apart. There’s thoughts I have about all kinds of things, society, politics, relationships, entertainment, education, psychology, and some of these thoughts, while I have them, appear to me profound and insightful, and I feel good about having them, but I don’t like to say any of these apparently profound and insightful thoughts out loud, in case someone casually points out a whole side of it I’m missing and makes me look silly.
So what I do is put this opinion, this thought, which is mine, in the mouth of a character in some story, like I’m hiding there, behind that wall of character, and so if anyone comes along and says ‘Hey, this is utter shit’, I can say ‘Hey, it’s the character, this isn’t me, I’m intentionally making the character look silly, which in turn makes me look extra smart’. But it’s false, obviously. It’s cowardly.
I guess it’s partly being afraid of made to look silly, and also it’s partly something else, there’s another bit to it, and that bit is about how we’re in an age where everyone’s opinions and thoughts are constantly being transmitted, and I feel like I don’t want to try and stand there in the room with everyone already screaming and try to compete, I’d rather stand back and be all quiet and cool and dignified and act like I don’t have anything to say, like I’m just observing with a wry smile. But the thing is is that’s just not true, I have stuff I want to say, I desperately want to be heard like everyone else. So there’s that side of it too.
Basically what I’m saying is I’m insecure, but you got that.
So what I’m doing here is I’m saying, you know what, I have a thought and I’m going to say it, and I’m going to say it like it’s coming from me, in my own voice, I’m not going to frame it as dialogue of some character in some story, I’m just going to say it, nakedly, ineloquently, simply, and, well, that’s that.
The thought I’ve had is about stories, stories and the telling of them, the tellers of them, the way that’s changed in recent times. I guess you could say I’m making an argument. Here it is.
Storytelling as everyone knows has been around for a long time, pretty much always, and the inherent evolutionary purposes and benefits have been discussed before. You know, a way of socialising, of making sense of experiences, of teaching moral lessons, of passing down messages to future generations. It’s definitely not just for entertainment, even cheap stories like dumb action movies or daytime soaps; if it was, it wouldn’t have stayed with humanity in every culture, every civilisation, always.
Obviously there was a time when people would just tell stories and people would just listen, they would sit around a fire or whatever, and someone would tell a story and they’d sit and listen in awe and discuss it the next day, wow, what a great story last night, and it was probably this way for most of human history, really, where what was important was simply the story itself. Sometimes the same stories would be told with slight variations in different places, and people knew the stories, they knew how they would end and everything, but they still liked hearing them. They didn’t need clever plotting techniques, social commentary, irony, a rightful message: all that mattered was enjoying the trajectory and topography of the story. That was enough. For a long, long time, that was enough, but it’s not anymore.
It's hard to put a date on exactly when shifts happen, but I guess you could say from the 1960s and 70s onward, when televisions became a part of every household, when films were played in big screens all over and became part of culture, part of the societal lexicon. Storytelling became much more widespread, away from small clusters to entire nations, whole parts of the world, stories became cultural events, with millions of people all watching or listening at the same time, more or less, the spreading of stories was not just wider but faster, much more immediate, with all the technological advances that made that possible. It was exciting, I imagine; I mean it’s not like I was alive, but I know all this (or I contend to) because of the very media I’m talking about. I know about film and television because of film and television. That is to say, I know about some of the histories of film and television because of film and television. I hope that makes sense.
Anyway, with this shift, this shift of storytelling becoming an immediate, societally significant thing, audiences became audiences, for the first real time. Stories weren’t just ways of passing the time, they were part of a currency, they became part of our identity, at least in developed countries where religion has pretty much gone and what we’re trying to replace that hole with is entertainment and our allegiances to it. How many times have you seen someone wearing a t-shirt of a band, or a comic book character, or a TV show? I’ve met people who’ve openly claimed they don’t trust and wont’ talk to anyone who doesn’t like Game of Thrones. A television show. A massive part of their life is based on that.
So, in case I get off track, the shift I’m trying to describe is from stories being good enough just because they’re stories, to stories being culturally significant, and being important to people not just because of what happens in the story, but, first, how the story is told, and second, how the story becomes a part of your identity.
It didn’t take long, after stories became instant widespread cultural events, for audiences to become wise to the mechanics of storytelling. Cliches of filmic storytelling: it was all a dream, the rogue cops who plays by his own rules but goddamnit he gets results and he’s only three days away from retirement, the horror movie mirrored bathroom cabinet door closing and the killer being just there behind the shoulder: it didn’t take long, historically speaking, for these to become trite and stale and predictable and to incite groans in evermore savvy audiences.
Oh, and by the way, the it-was-all-a-dream-ending is (I think) pretty much what happens in Inception, it just takes the most convoluted complex way of getting to it, and I guess you can marvel at that in itself.
And so the response to that acute growing awareness from audiences is irony, parody. It’s pretty much the whole engine of the glory days of The Simpsons, pointing out overused storytelling devices. And the response from story-consumers, is to laugh along with it, to not only enjoy the joke of the ironic parody, but to enjoy themselves enjoying it, to enjoy feeling savvy and wise to the mechanics of storytelling, of industry storytelling, by an industry which for the first time had become an industry.
There’s a noticeable pitch to the laughter of someone laughing at something they think not everyone else gets, or at least doesn’t get as closely as they do. The next time you’re in the cinema watching a satire or a parody, try and listen out for it.
Foster Wallace has talked about this, in a far more convincing and intelligent way than me (there I go, hiding behind self-deprecation if not hiding behind an imaginary character, I just can’t help myself, it’s the best trick I’ve got) in his essay on irony in American fiction and television. Storytellers (which, perhaps crudely, is extended to include advertisers, as even a 30 second advert of someone smiling as they apply makeup or whatever is a story) use irony not just to protect themselves, but to invite the consumer to be in on the joke, as it were, to feel wiser than everyone else, privately enjoying the subtle nod that only those who are well versed in the mechanics of storytelling could understand. And of course how this works is that just about everyone in this century is well versed on those mechanics, so you end up with everyone thinking they’re cleverer than everyone else and no one saying it because they want to keep their cleverness to themselves, because they’re all enjoying this secret insidership which doesn’t really exist, but works because no one says it doesn’t exist. It’s really quite clever, if you think about it.
And of course this goes further than just irony and parody as a way to make everyone feel good about themselves. Enjoying a story for the way it is told rather than just what it is has pushed more serious forms of storytelling too. Think of any film where you see the ending first and then it works back to show you how it gets to that point. Think of something like Memento, which if played out in simple chronological linear narrative form would be fairly forgettable, but which is hailed as wonderful because of the reverse way the pieces of story are told to you. Jason Mittell, a television academic, has talked about this too, describing such devices and techniques as “pyrotechnics.” The fireworks show. And I guess here this insidershipness, this feeling of being smart enough to really get it, is at play here too, because watching a film with a deliberately complex narrative structure can invite the same satisfied feeling as noticing a subtle ironical nod from a parodying storyteller. Have you ever sat and watched a film with some people, and some of them didn’t get it, and then at the end some of them explained it all to the ones who didn’t get it, slowly, patiently, but a little smugly? It’s subtle, but it’s there, a feeling of superiority, of being on the same level as the clever storyteller you’ve all just witnessed.
Maybe none of this makes sense, for which I apologise, but I’m trying.
Actually sometimes I think the real reason Marvel films are so popular is because they don’t rely on clever storytelling techniques, they just pummel you with visuals, and while everyone might feel they know how storytelling works, almost nobody knows how CGI works, not really, like they couldn’t sit you down and give you a clear depthful explanation of the process, and so you have an audience all sitting there watching something they don’t know about, they’re watching themselves be dumbstruck, they’re watching themselves by mystified in a way they haven’t been for a long time. It’s the same with nature documentaries, like that one that showed plants moving and growing and fighting for space but sped up a hundred times so it looks like real time motion before your eyes, but all on a camera that’s moving, so you have to think about how it’s possible for them to make something like that happen, to actually produce that moment on screen. It’s not marvelling at the pyrotechnics of storytelling, but the pyrotechnics of advanced technological production value. That’s what it takes these days.
But, okay, I guess that last paragraph was a bit of a sidestep, because I want to focus on storytelling itself here. I’ve said so far that stories used to satisfy just by being good stories, then it evolved to the point where how it was told and how it made you feel as part of society became more important. Well, I’m arguing here, and this is the main point of this essay, actually, is that there’s been another shift, a fairly recent shift, one that’s happened in my millennial lifespan.
Because now even the cleverest storytelling devices have all been used, found out. Audiences know how it all works, everyone’s aware and critical and post-modern and all innocence is lost, whatever. What moves an audience today is not the story, the way it’s told, (they do still care about the way being a fan of it makes them look), but the impact the story has, the message it spreads. And a story not only has to have a message, but that message needs to come from someone whose voice should be heard. Straight white privileged males have been spreading their messages through stories for centuries; audiences don’t want their messages anymore, they want someone with something else to say, they want someone who’s been through some hardship, seen some shit: audiences are less interested in the story than they are in the story of who’s telling it. The story of the storyteller. The more of a personal or national hardship they’ve been through, the more rightful and compelling their story will be. Or, even if it’s not about feeling that the storyteller has been through some shit, it’s at least about recognising the brand and identity of a storyteller and trusting that they’re worth committing your money and time to (and of these two, time is by far the more valuable thing.) It’s why films and television shows are advertised with “from the ______ who brought you ______.” They can’t say “this is a good story, come watch it” or “this story is told in a clever way” or “this story will make you feel good about yourself and your identity and your place in society” but they can say “the person who’s telling you this story is either trustworthy or has been through some shit, so come watch it.”
And then where I want to go with this is to talk about a real consequence of this, of this story being more about the storyteller than the story, and this consequence is that there are some storytellers who’ve done some bad things and now people don’t want their stories anymore. And here I guess I’m extending “stories” to mean more than just character + predicament + attempted solution, I’m not really just talking about filmmakers or novelists, I’m talking about all forms of entertainment, music and songs, too. I’m talking about artists. I’m using stories as a synechdochial term. And I’m talking about how the art is attached to the artist and people have a hard time separating the two.
It's a difficult thing. I guess people feel an attachment to the art, they feel a love for it, and they want to feel that the person who’s making the thing they love so much is not a bad person. It’s like: if they love something made by a bad person, does that mean they’re a bad person too? It’s this socially conscious, self-aware, vigilant age. It’s this way, like I said, that entertainment forms a person’s identity, and they want to feel that the entertainment they consume, or the entertainment they tell people that they consume, is not sending out the wrong message.
The strange thing for me is that separating the two comes easily. For me, I still like Woody Allen films, even if he’s been accused of some bad things (and there’s another story there about what’s the truth in that situation, but that’s beyond scope here). Actually, I can simplify it: even if Woody Allen came out with a statement and said, ‘Hey, yep, I did all of the bad things,’ I still wouldn’t have a problem with watching one of his films. I still watch Louis CK things, even though he did some bad things (and again there’s another story here, with the way that all people who do Bad Things are lumped together as equally guilty, when there’s definitely a hierarchal scale of Bad Things, and some are nowhere near are as bad as others, but again, beyond scope, so) and I don’t squirm or cringe. I wouldn’t walk around with a t-shirt with his face on and express my fandom as a key part of my identity, but I wouldn’t lie about being a fan. Maybe this is just because I am such a fan, and it would take something pretty big to shift that fandom. Maybe he’d have to molest me, personally. So maybe there’s a mathematical thing going on here: your denunciation of an artist is relevant to a) the badness of the Bad Thing they did, and b) how much you adored them before the Bad Thing. Michael Jackson seems to still be beloved everywhere, despite his Bad Thing being pretty high up there on the scale, but maybe that’s because the adoration for him was crazy high for decades. Also there’s the him being insane thing. But take someone like Ian Watkins, the Lost Prophets singer. His Bad Thing was so high up the scale it couldn’t be measured, and also no one really loved Lost Prophets that much. So he's gone. Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, R Kelly, Roman Polanski: they all fall the wrong side of the formula. Just for the sake of experiment, I’d like to test this theory and have the most beloved figure ever, someone like Attenborough, come out with some confession to some really Bad Thing, and see what the reaction was. It would have to take something really goddamned Bad to have him thrown into the darkness with the others.
I recently had a discussion with students about this. Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t even know we’d have the discussion. I didn’t know what they’d know; they’re Gen-Z, they’re zoomers, so as most podcast hosts would vehemently assure you, there’s no chance they’d be able to see the nuance in it, they’d all just start crying and trying to cancel people. But I was pleased to learn that this characterisation of young people today is much over-exaggerated, and as interested, aware and thoughtful people they fully grasped the murkiness of the situation, and entered into a meaningful, respectful debate. Of course we reached no consensus, but that wasn’t the point, the point was just to ask the question. If there was one thing the discussion proved, it was that the story and the storyteller are inexorably linked, and if there was another thing it proved, it was that if you don’t listen to Sam Harris all day, you’ll realise that young people are actually just as capable of handling subtlety and complexity as their older counterparts.
I don’t know, maybe I’m full of shit, but I’m glad I’ve said some things I wanted to say. I do genuinely believe this stuff. The way I’ve said it is a bit raw, inarticulate, and scrappy, but I’m going to keep it that way.
That’s my story.
This essay was was published in Adelaide Magazine, January 2023.