Affection for the Medium

I spend so much of my time thinking about stories and storytelling. Most of my time in the car is spent listening to audiobooks, I read through every lunch break, I want to watch at least one episode of something at the end of every day, I listen to so many podcasts wherein filmmakers tell the stories of the ins and outs of the business of storytelling, at my job I’m always trying to take my assignments and tell at least some kind of interesting narrative in 700 words or a three-minute video, and then my hobby is about continuing this episodic evolving storyline we’ve been working on for five and a half years.

After thinking a lot about the different mediums of storytelling—oral, written, musical, and visual—I keep coming back to how film is just the best. Of course, this is only my opinion, but for me it’s the medium with the greatest ability to connect. It has the unfair advantage of incorporating all of the methods, the empathy of oral communication, the logic of a written form, the pathos of music, and the intrigue of visual communication, and combining them into a single device meant to manipulate and communicate. It’s gorgeous.

I wrote a short film a couple weeks ago with a storytelling theme, specifically about movies watched in a theater. I scrapped the short film script but the theme has stuck with me. Movies in a theater are a particular kind of magic. Stephen King calls books a uniquely portable magic, and there’s definite value in that. For me, he’s talking both about their ability to transport a reader as well as how easy it is to carry them around with you and fall into and out of a narrative at your leisure. Now, with people watching stuff on cell phones and tablets, visual entertainment has become quite portable as well, but this time it’s a disservice to storytelling. It’s a transference of power. It’s about our interaction with the medium. Ultimate accessibility breeds apathy. The movie theater has always been a destination. It’s a big, bright window into a world where people are motivated, there’s an understandable cause and effect underlying circumstances, and astounding things are guaranteed to happen. Roger Ebert called movies the greatest empathy machine there is. Okay, I looked it up, he said,

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.”

That’s awesome. And speaks of the truth of cinema to me. But when we had to travel to the big, bright window to observe these people I believe it was also aspirational. We looked up to these larger than life representations of the best of us and knew that we could face change and come out a better person for it. We could overcome spite and greed and violence and emerge as a better person just before the credits. We traveled to these stories to feel them and aspire to them. They dimmed the rest of the world to take up our field of vision and transport us. Now that they’re on our hip and can be interrupted by a Facebook status update letting us know that an acquaintance of ours doesn’t much feel like exercising today, it doesn’t carry the same weight, magic, or ability to mesmerize. The stories arrive at our beckon call and can be muted and paused so we can get off the train. The stories are now our prisoners, we are no longer their congregation.

All of this to say that I’m in love with movie theaters. And the largest benefit of living near Chicago is the ability to participate in the revival cinema screenings that rotate through a few of the old movie houses downtown. Watching Chinatown on the big screen, I finally saw why it was so good. I’d only ever seen it on VHS before. It’s a whole different world in that theater. It’s the pedestal on which all good stories belong.

Whoa. Got a little pretentious today. Thanks for reading.

–Jake

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