I have infuriated Mrs. SLW on occasion with my television flipping habits. There are two reasons for this. First, I have memorized which channels are either blank, home shopping network crap, or otherwise pointless. These channels I flip through without pausing long enough for the signal to come up on the screen. To a non-channel-memorizer this seems like I’m just arbitrarily skipping swathes of channels.
The second reason is one that I never quite consciously registered. She likes old television and movies, and I hate them. I see black and white, I flip. And if you’ve noticed, there is a point at which television became crisp around 1990 (I don’t know if it was a sudden improvement in cameras, or the way the film is stored, but it’s certainly too early for it to be the digital switch). There’s a curious half-fuzziness to any television series from before that point. I see that, I flip. It only takes a frame or two. It took several remotes being embedded in my skull before I could even identify that this was the reason that I was flipping.
Here’s the thing though. It’s not that I consciously dislike older television or film. Hell, I would have argued the exact opposite and cited all manner of anecdotal examples of old series and movies to the contrary. But anecdotes aren’t evidence, and my unconcious optimization of flipping channels provides a bit of data. The unconscious drive to automatically skip anything I wouldn’t enjoy systematically evolved towards skipping anything old. I have therefore been forcing myself to watch old television and movies when they come up on the channel flipping, out of a masochistic desire to understand. And to avoid physical assault.
It became an internal argument with myself. I’d be watching Dr. No, with half my head grumbling that it wanted to change the channel, and the other half trying to insist that this was a Connery Bond film, that I was pretty sure that I actually did like this. Note that this is not the same as forcing myself to watch something I don’t enjoy because I am trying to consume something that other people tell me is great. I’m not that masochistic. No, this wasn’t me pretending to like brocolli because it’s good for me, this was me trying to figure out why I didn’t like oatmeal even though I like all the ingredients.
In some instances, it’s really just a genre disconnect. Ancient reruns of Perry Mason and various cop shows are unsurprisingly tedious, because that’s how I feel about the genre today for the most part. On the other hand, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek are fantastic, which could simply be explained by my love of the genre. But those are also old shows that I happened to watch in rerun as a child, so that I’m innoculated against their particular flaws of aging.
Late at night one of the random channels runs old episodes of “The Saint,” Roger Moore in all his dashing glory. And I hate them. Every part of them is painful to watch. And yet this is nothing more than a forty year old version of “Burn Notice” or a half dozen other similar and enjoyable shows. The show’s treatment of women is the most glaring, characters who whether friend or foe are fundamentally helpless and essentially exist in order to be shoved around (physically or not) by the male characters. But it’s not just the misogyny, watch a bit of “Rome” or “Deadwood” and you’re going to get plenty of misogynous characters. It goes with setting stories outside of the modern era.
But when the stories themselves are misogynistic, it breaks the suspension of disbelief for me. I don’t believe women are like that in reality, whether today or in the sixties. And so a story that portrays them as such breaks down. Nothing exists independentally of its historical context, and art is no exception. The artist sees the world through the lens of his own cultural baggage, no matter how introspective he might be. He sees through that lens darkly, oblivious to the spots and cracks in the lens because they’ve always been there. And someone from the same time and place, viewing the art through a similar lens doesn’t see most of them either, because he has matching spots and cracks. But at the remove of years, we look back through a different lens, with different context, and it’s hard to see the picture for the flaws. That’s not to say we see more clearly, it’s just that the flaws of our lenses don’t line up anymore.
A backwards view of women is an easy culprit to identify, because we’re very conscious of how such portrayals have changed, and because it’s also something that we attach moral significance to. But there are any number of other elements of context that break the suspension of disbelief in the same way.
Dust off Dante’s Inferno and what do you find? The bulk of the individuals he finds in the various levels of hell are politicians and public figures of the time, none of whose noteriety has survived the centuries. Most of them don’t even have Wikipedia pages other than a note mentioning that they show up in Dante. Even in a translation of modernized English, Dante is pointless to read without footnotes, because they’re needed to tell you who these people are because otherwise you cannot appreciate why they’re suffering where they are suffering. Ironically, it is the historical figures who we think that we don’t need footnotes for that suffer the most for this. Take the very center of hell, and what three men do you find in the jaws of Satan himself? Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. With a bit of history we know these guys. But their condemnation to the worst place in hell doesn’t resonate with us. It tells us a lot about Italy at the time, that the worst crimes in history were those that destroyed central power, but we can only understand the placement, we can’t feel it implicitly.
How much of the experience we commit to television and film is truly universal? Take series that we love to love around here like “Community,” with dense layers of cultural references. Give it twenty years and no one under thirty will know that there are references at all. Give it a century, and it will require an annotated script book for anyone to even understand that it’s supposed to be a comedy.
That’s not to say that it’s futile, or even to say that old stories have no meaning and resonance. The study of what a culture’s stories say about that culture is a fascinating field. But it’s rewarding on a meta-level, not on a direct level of entertainment. By being conscious of the story as a story, you cannot lose yourself in the story. You are watching the lens instead of the panorama.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.