Have You Noticed This Film Trend?
TV and Cinema are Getting Gaudier
Advertising and entertainment have always played to the senses. And no form of media plays to the senses better than television. A fast food chain’s commercial can make you instantly hungry. Incessant canned laughter in sitcoms will get you laughing after a while, even if you don’t really know what you’re laughing at. It effects our senses so much that the philosopher Marshall McLuhan described electronic media as “an extension of our nerves”.
Lately our senses have been getting overloaded.
Maybe you’ve noticed, especially if you’re like me and don’t watch a lot of TV. Or, like slowly boiled frog, maybe you’ve been so incrementally introduced to the gaudification of TV and cinema that you haven’t quite registered this as a trend.
What am I talking about?
For instance, here’s a frame from the original Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan.
And here’s a frame from a similar scene in the recent Space Jam featuring LeBron James.
Again, the original.
The new version.
Sure, they’re all busy scenes, but I know which ones give me a headache.
I’m singling out Space Jam to make a point, but this migraine inducing technique has been oozing into film more and more. See the trailers to Ready Player One, or the new Chip and Dale, to name a few. 1
As another example, consider the number of cuts in this scene from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Do you have whiplash yet?
Maybe the whole movie isn’t like this, but would you ever see something like this in a movie from the 60’s or 70’s? Compare the pacing of recent films to older classics.
Another thing I’ve noticed more and more is the use of the strobe effect. I guess this is usually added to make a scene feel uneasy. In which case, well done, it’s certainly effective on me. For some people, this effect can trigger epilepsy and not all videos come with a warning. Even for myself, I can’t stomach to look at it. Even the flicker from the screen on a wall is nauseating.
So What’s the Big Deal?
Of course, TV isn’t the only culprit here. It probably isn’t even the main culprit as cell phones and the internet increasingly occupy our mental real estate. But there is an overlap with all the video watched online on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. With so much content competing for your attention, it’s getting flashier and flashier to grab it.
All of this flashiness tends to have the opposite effect on me. I’m the "sensitive type” who had to turn the family TV off as a kid - often just left on as background noise - to get some peace. Something I’ve long wondered is if all this hyper-stimulation actually deadens the senses. The more someone emerges themselves in overstimulation, the more they adjust to it. It becomes their norm, and so (like having a heavy dopamine baseline level) they need even more stimulation to feel anything at all. Whereas if you have little external stimulation, the simple ordinary things are enough to satisfy you. The sounds of birds chirping or the sight of birds feeding is full of fancy. Not boring at all.
We can compare this to how, when deprived of one sense (de-stimulated), our other sensed will become heightened to compensate. Oftentimes someone who loses their eyesight will report an increased hearing ability over time.
An acclimation to overstimulation fits the basic principle of addiction, too. The more often you do it, the more you need to achieve the effect. The difference with screen addiction is it doesn’t even necessarily make you dysfunctional in this society. Nearly everyone is over-exposed to screens to some degree these days.
An Experiment You Can Try at Home
Pull up the Space Jam trailer or something like it. Don’t get attached to the characters. Don’t get tied up in the narrative, the dialogue, the jokes, any of it. Stay as detached as possible. Just observe it like you would observe nature instead of a story.
What do you see? Do you like looking at it? How does your body feel?
Of course this exercise may prove nothing. Someone’s who’s so accustomed to seeing this type of sensory overload may be numb to it. Or, who knows, maybe they just really enjoy the visuals? But still, even then, they might notice something different about the medium by observing it this way.
Often it’s our attachment to the characters and the story that gets us emotionally involved and hence “glued” to the television. The pacing can effect us too, the faster the cuts, the more something changes or the faster the story moves along, the less you’ll be inclined to look away, even for a moment, for fear of missing something crucial to the story.
Is Overstimulation Making Us Pathological?
One of the hallmarks of the psychopath is a constant need for stimulation.
This isn’t to say television is remolding the entire population into psychopaths. But that it is engineering more psychopathic traits within society.
This is a danger regardless of the content in the medium. It’s a danger with the nature of and the prevalence of the medium itself. Still, as the content itself gets more overloaded with visual and auditory information it further weaponizes the medium of film.
Our Inside’s Out
What does the comedian Bo Burnham have in common with Marshall McLuhan?
In Welcome to the Internet, from Burnham’s Netflix special Inside, he addresses the younger internet-native generation, “Your time is now / Your inside's out.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into Burnham’s Inside but perhaps he’s suggesting, as McLuhan did, that the age of electronic media has inverted the way humans socialize. In other words, we now go outside to get reconnect with our personal, inner worlds. If you want peace and quiet and space to think, you’re less likely to stay at home and more likely to go for a walk, or go camping, etc. We go outside to get away from each other. We go inside to be socialized by TV and the internet.
And this really gets to how pervasive electronic media is, that we feel the only way to escape it is to isolate in nature. Even if you’re going out with friends for the night, good luck finding a bar or restaurant that doesn’t have a TV screen directly in your field of vision. It takes up space. Makes up our environment. We can hardly escape all this stimulation.
Remembering to Unplug
We’ve all heard it ad nauseam but there really is tremendous value in limiting screen time. And it seems like more people are catching onto this.
Recently there’s been a surge in dumb phone sales. I have a smart phone after resisting them for years but I’ve done all I can recently to make it really, really stupid.
As for the TV, I try to be deliberate with what I watch. And if I am watching entertainment, I never let myself get so invested in it that I can’t observe at least some of its subtle influence on me. Or make time and space to analyze what influence it may have.
On that note, I’d like to leave you with this pithy bit from John Prine’s song Spanish Pipedream.
Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country
Build you a home
Plant a little garden
Eat a lot of peaches
Try an' find Jesus on your own
Also coincidentally all movies that have had huge franchise multiverse references in the films.