Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life: Why Broken is Compelling and Normal is Boring

The stereotypical disheveled man.
by Jonathan Harrison

Somewhere in an American suburb, a man shuffles up to a whitewashed house and awkwardly pushes the doorbell. After a few minutes, another man opens the door (he looks like he just got off work), he looks at the fellow and says:

"What do you want?"

They're not friends. The disheveled man blinks a moment at the owner of the house and says "Is [blank] home?" Eventually, the woman in question comes to the door and looks at the disheveled man. They talk. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, to never come back to that house. She says that they are over, that they were over a long time ago. 

The disheveled man turns around; he shuffles off. The plot of the movie we're watching goes with him, while the owners of the house continue on with their lives, unperturbed by our voyeurism.

It's a movie cliche that you've seen a hundred times: a ne'er-do-well returns to the woman he treated poorly only to find that she's with someone new who treats her much, much better. I've always hated this cliche. In every instance where this takes place, the sympathetic figure is always the perpetrator and not the victim. We kind of hate the owners of the house because they have it all figured out, while the broken protagonist is the person we identify with. Why is this?
Your normal-ness makes me sick!

The owners of the house will probably go back inside and have a mutually edifying conversation filled with lots of amazing insights about the nature of the woman's ex and how much better she is now than back then. It almost makes me sick just thinking about it. That same night, the homeowner will probably spend his time doing something useful like completing a project for work while she reads some piece of contemporary literature. It makes me nauseous. Day in. Day out. The same perfect-couple life. It sounds like something NBC would air now that 30 Rock is over and they've stopped being weird.

We love watching conflict. It's a general rule of screenwriting that every scene must have some sort of conflict or you risk boring the viewers. It's part of the reason that domestic bliss is hardly ever portrayed in any sort of drama. There might be some conflict as part of the day to day grind, but ultimately happy people are boring to watch.

Why do we love watching conflict, yet do our best to avoid it in our daily lives? Why are we so fascinated by people whose lives stand on the brink of catastrophe? 

I've often contemplated this, because, if anything, we're called to a life of healthy relationships, of service, of forgiveness. These are things that exist sparingly in our entertainment. If a couple spent the entire show forgiving each other, there wouldn't be much to watch. Yet which life would we rather live if we had the choice?

I also wonder about the precise amount of influence these media representations have on our lives. No one is going to say that we learn everything we need to know about marriage from Mad Men, but I also think some people are more prone to that influence than others. 

Jonathan, was this the conversation?
When I broke up with a girl in college, the entire conversation (verbatim) came from an episode of Dawson's Creek. I discovered this the next morning, because the show was on at work and I was shocked to overhear Pacey and Joey reenacting the same conversation I'd had the night before. Needless to say, my ex was an ardent fan of Dawson's Creek, and I (I soon discovered), was as woefully unprepared for relationship drama as former Mighty Ducks star Joshua Jackson.

Sometimes I wonder if we learn more about how to live life from entertainment than we do from each other, from our family, or our other relationships. Art is an imitation of life, but at the same time, life has to imitate art, otherwise we would claim that we are devoid of influence, which isn't true. Although we are incapable of measuring the influence art has on our lives, it must have some. 

Yet, art tends to portray extremely broken lives, lives that many of us live, but few openly claim to emulate. It's the fascination with this brokenness that has always, in turn, fascinated me. We don't love our brokenness, but we love to witness it in the lives of others (particularly if those others are fictional; or maybe not: sometimes we can't help but watch the brokenness on display in reality television in marathon fashion). Brokenness is the stuff of our entertainment; my question for you is, why?

Jonathan is a former aspiring librarian who has recently decided to take up farming because Paul Harvey's ghostly voice made it sound so wonderfully noble. He also feels compelled to buy a Dodge pickup. I'm sure the two are unrelated. You can follow him on Twitter @jonateharrison.

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