Thursday, September 13, 2012
I got the idea for this comic—which was illustrated by D.J. Carlile (I don't know why my scanner makes everything look like blurry, digitized crap)—last December (yes, that's how far behind I am on follow through) after reading Roger Ebert's review of The Artist.
"Is it possible," Ebert wrote, "to forget that 'The Artist' is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening here, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film [Cries and Whispers]. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything we'd like to see."
The people who walked out of The Artist didn't have to watch the film in order to know they didn't like it—they already knew they didn't like it. They don't like silent films!1 It hardly matters that some of them had probably never even seen a silent film. (I've met people who are convinced they "don't like" subtitled films without ever having seen one.) This kind of reaction makes more sense if we understand that a real or hypothetical dislike of silent films isn't what prevented certain audience members from giving The Artist a chance. No. It was their preconceived identity—their view of who they are—that prevented them from watching the film. "They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing." After all, they thought they would like The Artist. They showed up to the theater. They saw the trailer, heard good things, saw it had been nominated for an Academy Award. Something got them there. But once they found out it was a silent film, some kind of alarm went off that told them they were wrong to have come. They weren't supposed to be there. It's not "I don't like silent films" as much as "I'm not the kind of person who likes silent films." (This can extend to something as banal as: I like action films and comedies, and people who like action films and comedies do not like—or watch—silent films.)
We are what we like, and we are what we consume. Or so marketing tells us. Am I a Walmart person or a Target person? A Coke person or a Pepsi person? A Republican or a Democrat? Do I like NASCAR, or do I like Woody Allen?
This last distinction might sound odd, but it's very real. If you like Woody Allen, you're supposed to be an urban liberal (and therefore you probably are). And if you like NASCAR, you're supposed to be a conservative who likes Larry the Cable Guy (and therefore you probably do—even if you don't2). When we buy into these preconceived identities—these versions of ourselves, these distinctions that we've been taught to hold in our heads—we box ourselves in. We don't give things a chance, we don't experience new things, and we don't discover who we truly are. We remain stagnant. We become a type. And we become very easy to market to. Which is the whole point.
1Of course the silliest assumption they're making is that all silent films are the same. No doubt they would (rightfully) think it absurd for someone to say, "I don't like sound films." Ironically, had they bothered to watch The Artist, they would have discovered that it isn't actually a silent film, at least not in the traditional sense. And yes, this post is highlighting only one or two pieces of what is a very complex puzzle. The comic is really what's supposed to do the talking here.
2Relax—I won't tell your friends. Besides, they're supposed to be illiterate.