THE TROUBLE WITH LOOKING BEHIND-THE-SCENES

We build reality one element at a time. Back in the 1950s, Superman leaped tall buildings in…a theatrical harness with a couple of stage hands pulling rope through a block and tackle off set. But what did we see?

"Truth, justice, and the American way!"

Superman flew. He had to: people watching television decades ago saw it with their own eyes.

But that's television; we all know it's just make-believe, even if we tune in to lose ourselves intentionally in the story. Movies are a whole lot more immersive, just by means of working within more expansive boundaries and defining different expectations. But things are changing all over the land of make-believe, from the Province of Television to the Domain of Movies. None of our electronic fictions are precisely what they once were, and it isn't just because computer generated effects have replaced ropes and harnesses for our heroes.

Movies still command a certain measure of cultural attention, but not like they did as recently as twenty years ago. Arena- filling rock and roll bands have taken on profoundly different roles in the culture, too, as have books and other cultural events to a lesser degree. Even television no longer acts as the soothing zone of cerebral down-shifting that it used to be. Twenty years ago NBC's "must-see-TV" line-up held much of the country in thrall, provoking Friday morning office conversations that must have sapped a measurable portion of the nation's productivity.

The change came slowly, methodically, creeping in on catspaws. An easy cause for the change, obviously, was the advent of millions of new web-based ways for people to spend their time, distracting them from large, more widely shared events. The web and its handheld, wireless offspring further fragmented attention. But I believe one of the greatest factors in a new cultural ennui is the corollary to infinite choice. Infinite choice demands an inevitable qualitative discount on well made work just to keep the endless pipes full. As a result, theatrical curtains that used to hide how everything in the world was made have suddenly parted.

Typically we enter into a partnership with performing arts, or any work of art, for that matter. Even if a rock star makes it look like they're just wildly gyrating, the reality is always so much more prosaic: hours of rehearsal, endless practice all alone to perfect complex riffs, preproduction planning, and on and on and on. The partnership with an audience is about suspension of disbelief. We dream about our media idols because the illusion of so much charisma and power and performance excellence is one of ease and effortlessness. We want our magicians to levitate, even as we know that gravity never takes a holiday. We want what they seem to have.

Ever watch a cooking show? Millions do. Cooking shows teach you everything, even if you never intend to cook what they're showing. Most people never try the stuff being made in state-of-the-art studio kitchens. But expectations rise by watching these things, nonetheless, and with those expectations puffing up like soufflés, so do the minimum requirements for general satisfaction. Is this bad? Probably not. An educated public, no matter what the subject, is a better social body. But when everything is ordinary, it's harder to hold an audience's attention.

Lower production costs and an effectively infinite number of media outlets means that humanity's innate curiosity can now be effectively sated for any subject at all. Behind-the-scenes programs, blogs, podcasts, photo galleries, magazine articles, and more can teach you the secrets of just about any subject or endeavor you may want to know. Curious about how to play a diminished C chord on a guitar? Check. Want to know about the manufacturing process of fast food french fries? Yep: that's available too.

It's a funny thing. I like having access to all sorts of information about how the world works. I like knowing how papayas grow just like I also want to be able to look up how to properly place a comma in a sentence.

But endless informational resources about endless subjects is not the same as going behind-the-scenes. Behind-the-scenes programming removes the necessary suspension of disbelief required for theater. Just like audiences still go to see magicians even though they know it's a trick, they go to the movies knowing that the stories they're watching are built by armies of people working for months in movie making businesses. The compact audiences metaphorically sign with creators not to see how it's done facilitates necessary disbelief. The fact is, Superman only makes sense if we believe he can fly. If we see the ropes, we all laugh; it ruins the magic. The moment we go back stage and see that there really isn't a bottomless pit into hell but instead just a wooden trapdoor, we lose a bit of the surprise and emotional connection with regard to the plight of the character and his our her narrative.

And it's a tough thing, steeped as we all are in infinite information. We all have access to trailers and magazine articles and web sites that reveal tons of details about how something gets made. But I suppose my thesis is this: treat behind-the-scenes information with respect, lest you no longer appreciate anything. It's one thing to learn all about a magician's life; it's another thing entirely to learn how he makes the tiger disappear. As soon as you know where that tiger goes, you'll not only stop caring, but you'll be more likely to click on something newer, something incrementally more scintillating, and your own attention will continue to fragment.

Fragment it too much, and then nothing matters at all.

-MS

PS -- Yes, yes, it's always the same old request here at the bottom of the blog. "Please share with your friends if you like it...yadda, yadda, yadda." There are even the little buttons around here where you can post it to Facebook, Tweet it far and wide, distribute it all sorts of ways. But you know what? You COULD! And you know what that would do? That would make us SMILE.

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