Once most people make up their mind, they’re unlikely to change it. That’s a strange thing when you think about it. When we’re children, we have a skewed and unrealistic view of the universe, and if you kept that as you grew older, you’d be very weird. You’d be the kind of adult who still believes Santa Claus is real (spoiler alert) and that girls / boys / whatever are gross. You’d still think Sesame Street is the height of intellectual stimulation and that Caprisun is a super awesome beverage. We change as we grow older until one day, we stop changing.
If you have the same opinions on everything that you had five years ago, you are not honestly assessing yourself. We all need to do that, now and again.
This is why so many of our conversations are pointless. At some moment, we decide we are conservative, liberal, a geek, a nerd, a sports fan, cool, uncool, or a thousand other labels that determine what we’re supposed to think about anything. The reason I find most political discourse empty is because we’re never really talking about ideas. We’re waging a war of identity and reflexive values. Love guns? Hate guns? Pro-choice? Pro-Life? It’s all just so much chatter aimed at reassuring ourselves that we are right rather than having an open discussion.
That’s not terribly surprising when it comes to politics. There is a lot at stake in that game. Passions run hot and deep, and we are bound to disagree on a lot of levels. It’s frustrating, but it’s understandable.
What bothers me more, strangely, is how media takes advantage of our absolute refusal to reassess our opinions. Hollywood has mastered this method by crafting carefully calculated nostalgia engines meant to thrill us for a few hours, leave us with a good impression, and then assume that we will never think about it on any other level. By creating an enjoyable experience that we will never think about, it satisfies that most basic aspect of human opinion: The First Impression.
I know that I have a tendency to overanalyze these things. But most people don’t seem to analyze at all, and I’ll admit that bugs me. It bugs me because great stories often have layers and those layers require one to reflect on the story to discover. If you don’t reflect, you miss out on a hell of a lot of great ideas, and while there is nothing wrong with shallow, pleasant entertainment, there is something wonderful about stories that grow with age.
I love Kung Fu Panda. I went in with trepidation, and I enjoyed the flick enough when I first saw it. But with each subsequent viewing, I found there was more going on here than I first realized. This is intentional. The film is a deliberate zen parable, and like all great zen stories, it requires reflection. There are scenes in Kung Fu Panda that only make sense in the context of later scenes. The characterization, plotting, and themes are rich and rewarding, and it remains one of my favorite movies. Yes, the movie about a chubby panda fanboy who becomes a kung fu master is nothing short of brilliant, and I have no problem saying that.
Not everyone agrees. Hell, even I didn’t agree at first. It’s easy to see the funny animal characters, Jack Black, and the slapstick moments (especially since those were the moments highlighted in the advertising) and miss the complex, wonderful film underneath. It doesn’t help either that the movie is actually fun. Nothing ruins people’s perception of nuance like actually having a good time, which is another weird thing to me.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Godzilla. I found the movie irritating but inoffensive at first. But the more I reflected upon it, the more empty it seemed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is the exact opposite phenomenon. Godzilla has serious actors, looking serious, in a serious movie. It goes out of its way to be unfun, and it is full of such empty melodrama that it’s easy to see it as something interesting on first impression. At least, emotionally resonate. It’s only upon reflection that one discovers the scenes don’t add up to anything and that there’s nothing below the surface. But that’s not a flaw. It’s a feature. It works because people won’t often think about it.
Granted, someone can enjoy the new movie, and it doesn’t mean they’re mindless followers. Sometimes, people just want a mindless experience, and while it’s not my thing, we’re all different folks looking for different things.
Godzilla is the ultimate blockbuster though. More than just about any other film, there’s nothing going on there. This works surprisingly well. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a hell of a thrill ride, but it’s full of plot holes. Godzilla eschews this problem by simply electing not to have a plot. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes with a few recurring characters, none of which actually add up to anything. But while they’re happening, they work fine. It’s the 2 Broke Girls of blockbusters. Not an actual film or story, but a harmless simulation of such. What’s great about simulations is that they aren’t offensive. They can’t offend because they have no substance to offend with.
(Yes, I’m aware some are offended by 2 Broke Girls, but that’s all surface too. Naughty words and childish sexual titillation. The only genuinely offensive thing about the show is how far back it sets back gender and racial stereotypes, and even that is so obvious and shallow as to be mind-boggling.)
The secret the media has figured out (perhaps even by accident) is that if you make a positive first impression there’s not a lot you need to do afterward. Just don’t screw it up. Release some really cool trailers. Build up hype. Get people invested in your story before they’ve read a single page, watched a single episode, or sat in the theater and you’ve done 95 percent of the work. Just don’t blow it, and the easiest way to not blow it is to just avoid having a story altogether.
Most films have not figured this out yet. Though I feel like we are living in a zombie culture at the moment, enslaved to our own focus grouped nostalgia, most media still attempts to tell a story. Into Darkness, Tron: Legacy, and Skyfall might be designed to tap into unearned fondness, but they do attempt stories. Terrible, poorly executed, contradictory, nonsensical stories, but stories nonetheless. Once the people in charge of such things realize how powerful first impression is (which they already know) and how much of a liability plot is (which they are on the verge of discovering), they’ll rely on the formula more than they already do.
None of this would matter if people attempted to move past first impressions, but we’re all busy. Thinking about these things is my job, but most people don’t have the time or inclination. Just like any profession, there are elements I care about that I don’t expect to concern most people. That’s fair, and I know I tend to take these things too seriously. I have a personal stake too because I work hard to create interesting stories with something to say (amid the space squids, humor, and moon monsters), and too often, I feel as if the first impression decides everything.
It’s more than that though. I worry that, as the hype machine continues to dominate everything we do, we’ll move less and less from thoughtful analysis and more toward impulsive, unshakable opinions. It’s hard to find a moment to think in the information age, and too often, it’s easy to borrow other people’s thoughts and use them as our own. It’s a dictatorship of multimedia, and our only defense is to step back and consider things for ourselves.
It doesn’t guarantee we’ll arrive at a better conclusion than anyone else, but at least it gives us a chance to form our own opinions rather than simply parroting thoughts taken from others. And it might just allow us to appreciate stories and ideas that we once dismissed and discard old ideas we no longer find valid. A little reflection is good for the soul now and then.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,