May 20, 2009

The story of my life

We were talking about the nature of consciousness and the possibility that God exists in the ways that we communicate our unique experiences. And just about the time I expected your eyes to glaze over and roll back in your head, bewildered by the absurdity of my deeply held beliefs, you said, I understand, and I started to regret the years I had spent doubting the truth of my own vision. Stoopid!

But you get it. You must. We wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation if it weren’t for our ability to agree on the meanings of some words, because when we start using the same word to describe a thing, we can move forward to the processing of information, recognizing that, yes, the experience of dodging a rapidly approaching baseball involves a sequencing of events that represents the basic building blocks of story, and that the process of developing a message, expressing it as accurately as possible and trying to get a sense of whether it has been heard as intended is, in itself, a story told a thousand-billion times each day, we get to the point where we must necessarily agree that story is the basis for all communication, truth and the possibility of the divine. Otherwise, we’re all damned to isolation and misery.

It made me think about how my father once described his love of movies. Typically reserved in expressing his emotions, my dad explained that he could identify with the feelings of other people by associating their stories to movies that he had seen. It was a strange, roundabout approach to empathy, but, while my dad doesn’t express his emotions often, he is surprisingly sensitive to the needs and concerns of other people. And he seems to understand, instinctively, that our souls are defined by the ways we react to our experiences and how we tell our stories.

Is it any wonder that I have spent 90 percent of my life watching movies, listening to the poetry and emotion in pop music, and analyzing the effectiveness of story and art in comics, hoping against hope that I would find a friend (or community) who saw these things as holy in the same way?

And then it all started to fall apart. Big business started to muscle in on the bottom line. That dramatic structure we were taught in school started to reveal itself as nothing more than a tool for manipulating the behavior of entertainment consumers. That sense of drama and conflict, followed by the improbably satisfying (but somehow expected) resolution, revealed itself to be an empty exercise. Endings, happy or not, might give us the sense that everything could be right in the world, but that feeling wouldn’t even last until we got to the parking lot, because in the real world everything just keeps going all the time.

But you get that. I’m ashamed to admit I thought I was alone in this. But you get it. And we can still enjoy an obviously manipulative popular narrative (“Lost”) and evaluate it for its internal logic and emotional value. We can still engage the occasional big budget popcorn feature (“Star Trek”) and share in the experience of revisiting our joy for simple fantasy. We can even engage the bewilderingly complex narrative concepts in overlooked masterpieces of graphic fiction (Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s “Promethea,” and Seth’s “It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken”) and watch as these shared experiences expand the potential for what we can share with one another. And best of all, we can skip that Sandra Bullock crap; I don’t even know the title of that garbage, but nobody who saw it is ever gonna be reading this anyway. So, at least in a small way, everything is all right. And will continue to be.

For further consideration: “La Jetee” (1962), a short film by Chris Mark, is recognized as the source for a large part of the plot of Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” but it deserves much greater scrutiny for the way it is told, using still images almost exclusively. Mark’s point is, apparently, to draw our attention to the fact that motion pictures are really no more than an optical illusion, a series of still images switching in such a way as to make us believe we are seeing something move. It’s a good bit of ammunition for your pop culture arsenal.