are we what we watch?

there are few things i enjoy more than engaging in someone’s story. one of the ways this happens for me is through documentary films which i go to see in the theater every chance i get.

last week, with a free evening before me, i checked what was playing in portland’s small, independent theaters. i found a film that was to screen only that evening, with the filmmakers on hand for a q and a afterward. four hours later i settled into my seat with nearly 50 other movie-goers to enjoy “arise,” a film made by women about women who are leading movements, small and large, to better the earth. what i noticed as i looked around the theater was plenty of grey hair, a significant lack of men, and far too many empty seats. when the final credits rolled, i found myself deeply moved by the stories i had just heard and the women i had just met.

following the question and answer session my husband and i ducked into the pizzaria next door for dinner. we sat at a counter which faced a window in which i watched the reflection of the television behind me. the images coming from the t.v. impacted me deeply as actresses and models showed photo after photo of themselves before and after using the skin care product line being advertised. for a full 40 minutes the infomercial flashed phone numbers, websites, and payment options among images of how terrible women look until they used said product. 

the stark contrast between the stories we’d just engaged could not be greater. in the documentary, women were exposed as being resourceful, smart, capable beings who, when they put their mind to something, change the world. in the infomercial, women were portrayed as being canvases, with confidence and happiness resulting from perfectly applied cosmetics.

to be fair, i have nothing against makeup (when it is ethically and fairly made and sold). i have fun with it myself and yet frequently leave the house without it. i have friends who sell it and friends who abhor it. my internal conflict that evening wasn’t related to makeup. it was, instead, related to the issue of how we spend our time.

while i was in the theater watching “arise,” thousands of others were spending the last weekend evening of spring break in other theaters taking in all manner of story. this particular week offered “spring breakers,” a film referred to as a victoria’s secret ad with violence and drugs targeted to the high school demographic. horror and action films were projected onto other screens. in homes, hours were being spent watching youtube and hulu, netflix, and all other manner of online video.

to be fair, i have nothing against mindless entertainment (when it is ethically and fairly made and sold). i need it sometimes. when life is too heavy and i’m too spent it is a gift to sit in a dark theater (or a darkened room with my computer) and be carried away into the land of a story on a screen.

what i wonder about, however, is how mindless our entertainment really is. are we truly unaffected by the images we passively observe? do the movies (or television shows or entire seasons) we watch make no impact on our internal worlds? our thought patterns? our beliefs? our values? or, instead, do the repetitive images (and language and emotion) that we subject ourselves to end up shaping us? is there merit to the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out?” 

one or two horror films are unlikely to create homicidal thoughts and tendencies. “spring breakers,” if viewed as a cautionary tale or a social commentary might even make a person think. youtube doesn’t necessarily make us stupid. the pattern of our viewing, however, and the accumulated amount of time we spend staring at images on screens does impact us. it just does. if it doesn’t, how can we claim that educational films are educational? if a daily dose of sesame street teaches, then so does a diet of “mindless” youtube and film.

it is not simple. in some instances the important messages of justice or redemption can be illuminated most effectively through stories including violence. historical reality exposes all manner of messy, horrific stories that deserve to be told. do we need, however, to take in huge quantities of sensationalist, evocative, sexual, violent, and demeaning images in order to be entertained? can these images ever truly be simply entertaining? or do they also inoculate us to feelings meant to be “message indicators” of sorts, intended to help us know when things are unjust, inhumane, or simply unfair. shouldn’t we want to look away from a rape or a murder or excessive bullying or a message being yelled at us that we can only be beautiful if we have perfect skin?

today i am asking myself how much time i give to that which entertains me. i am challenging myself to take in at least one quality, thought-enhancing screen based story for every one i take in that is either frivolous or indulgent. i am turning an analytic eye toward what i take in and wondering how the repeated habits of my entertainment choices shape who i am and what i think about. i would be honored to have you join me...and to hear your experiences as you do.

to check out the trailer and stories of arise, go to: http://www.arisethemovie.com
for a list of excellent films, documentaries, and television series', keep tabs on my professional facebook page (http://facebook.com/doreendodgenmageepsyd) where i'll be posting a list later this week. 

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