Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"I can't believe Gilbert is dead!"

I grew up spending as much time with my nose in a book as with my friends; probably more. As an addiction, reading had some good side effects but some downsides too. My ability to make real-life friends was sometimes enhanced by the insights I gained from my imaginary friendships but also hampered by the limited amount of practice I gave myself with real people. It was often easier to retreat to re-reading a favorite book (where I could be sure that everyone would behave just as they had last time) than to get out there and learn the lessons of the playground. Even now, I sometimes struggle with frustration when others don't say the lines I've written for them and when scenes don't unfold according to script. Though I think that happens to non-readers, too.

These days many seem to find television and movies the more satisfying, engrossing medium. "Today, the TV set is a key member of the household, with virtually unlimited access to every person in the family," says the sociologist George Gerbner, who compares the power of television to the power of religion. "The more time people spend 'living' in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television."

I am not surprised to know people who feel more connected to characters on the screen than to neighbors, classmates, or coworkers, and maybe even family members. But when you add on the continued growth of celebrity culture, it has some funny effects, doesn't it? We start to feel as if musicians, athletes, and other celebrities are our real friends. And you can actually meet them. Follow them on Facebook. Write to them on Twitter. They are real people, even if their "brands" are carefully managed.

But what about actors? The job of these men and women, explicitly, is to present themselves as something other than they are... to portray the characters that, in a novel, would live only in one's imagination: Now they have flesh and blood.

A number of people I know were recently upset and saddened by the death of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie. He's best known for portraying the young love interest in the much-beloved 1985 movie Anne of Green Gables. He was still in his forties and died rather suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, so that ups the tragedy factor.

Yet why were the fans sad? Few, I suspect knew much about the actor or had followed his modest career these last 30 years, much less his health, family, or inner life. They were sad because Gilbert was dead. Of course Gilbert was a fictional character and had never been alive in the first place.

What do we make of this? A healthy sign that one's imagination, empathy, and sense of play are still working, or something more ominous and distorted? Is it different from children playing with dolls, animal-lovers attributing human motivations to their pets.... or me crying over a book? (which seems perfectly justified! Or.... okay, maybe it's the same thing.) Is it a matter of degree or effect, a question of whether they express a healthy creativity versus an obsessive, corrupting, or idolatrous one?

We live in a post-modern day and age where it's hopelessly old fashioned to defend the notion of a common "reality" or the importance of being connected to the "real world." Under such conditions, it would seem like nonsense to evaluate these behaviors in terms of how they reinforce or distort our sense of and taste for what is true, real, good, or best. Wouldn't it?

3 comments:

Paul Merrill said...

I'm in both worlds - Heather and I love our Netflix before shutting our eyes at night. And I love to read.

My father in law loves sports on TV (and the radio, when in the car). I just can't relate. He lives for the latest happenings in the sports he likes.

Marti said...

Recently listed to a broadcast from the Ted Radio Hour on the effect of "play" on our lives, and one of the speakers addressed the difference between those whose video-game behavior enhanced their lives v. caused problems in their lives. It seems to have something to do with whether you use it as a strategy for avoiding or procrastinating on things or as something you do for yourself, a reward or mood-enhancer.

Marti said...

"Different strokes for different folks?" I had a roommate who admitted to resenting the time Deb and I spent reading. Sometimes I find myself responding negatively, unfairly, to those who take pleasure in things I don't like or understand. Sometimes we just need to give things a try. I've learned to enjoy Chris's Netflix habit and enjoy a moderate diet of sports, though neither is on the top of my list.