Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The log line was not developed by shamans sitting around a campfire.

This piece by Dr. Helen on Pajamas Media regarding conservative culture is interesting (as is her conversation on PJTV with Bill Whittle on this topic) and strikes fairly close to the bone for what I hope to do with this blog.

… culture drives politics and not the other way around, at least in my opinion. Because of this, it is imperative that if conservative and libertarian ideas are to survive, we must educate people in ways that they can relate to — and this means popular culture in the form of books, music, television, movies, and social groups, starting with education.

I find this thought compelling, not entirely because I was just at a gathering where the call for story and specifically conservative story was made, but because it gets to a fundamental of not only culture but also society and about the human condition in general. It illustrates why story is important to the human race and why we are at a dangerous crossroads regarding story.

Getting conservative ideas into mass media is tricky on a good day and it’s either got to be done surreptitiously or, most likely through alternate means. But what is important in terms of this argument is not so much the lack of conservative ideals in mass media as what that lack reveals about the process by which stories in mass media migrate from creator to audience. Story has been of supreme importance to mankind since William Goldman’s ancestors squatted around campfires shaping myth and roasting brontosaurus burgers. There is no doubt that the campfire has certainly evolved over time but it is not the campfire we are concerned with, nor the storytellers. It is the fire starters themselves that concern us.

Everything we learn about who or what we are comes from story. We learn through example and what is an example but a story of something that happened to someone else. History is story, language is story, love, life and even science to great degree comes to us through story. The great and small myths of humanity are all stories that have endured because they pass along wisdom. Many of these stories not only bridge cultures but exist spontaneaously in cultures geographically, developmentally and philosophically divergent from each other. The hero’s quest (as I reveal my Joseph Campbell acolyte status) follows certain rules no matter the teller or his language. Theories abound as to why this is. It could be because of a common root for all myth; a creation story for all creation stories or it could be a set of common experiences in diverse areas distilled through biologically similar minds, or even, as some say, a single God speaking in many languages. But regardless, for countless generations, stories were passed down around campfires or in temples or the written word and the accumulated wisdom of the ages became available to those coming behind. We have not only a genetic link to our ancestors but a narrative one as well. Now however, there is a risk that link could be broken. As more and more people receive what they know about the world through mass media the link to the past, the link to our narrative past, to the accumulated wisdom of the ages, is in danger.

That storytelling itself has assumed a new form is obvious. The campfire is now burning bits and bites instead of wood, but whether told by a grandfather, celluloid or silicone, the process by which stories reach the campfire has changed and that's what's important. This is not a critique of storytelling per se, this is a critique of the bias inherent in the system of bringing these stories to the public. Political bias favoring the leftward side of the spectrum is only part of the problem.

The passing of stories has veered from the realm of myth designed to transfer a greater or even simpler wisdom to the realm of whatever inspires someone at a Hollywood talent agency or production company or studio or publishing house to see dollar signs. This is not only a tremendous loss for human kind but also a dangerous direction in the course of human events. We are no longer taught lessons that have filtered down from our great-great-grandparents because they are enduring truths or are illustrative of the human condition or because they impart knowledge or lessons or aspects of culture or belief, but hit with stories structured almost pathologically into three acts created in and by Hollywood and it’s affiliates because they sell, or more specifically because someone thinks they will sell. In this scenario, the new and easily exploited is valued far greater than any other consideration.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not an anti-capitalist screed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with selling your work. There is nothing wrong with capitalism in itself and there is nothing wrong with profit. The free market should be a marketplace of both dollars and ideas and ideas should be part of the currency as well as the commerce. But the problem is we are not talking about a free market where the seller’s ability to reach his buyer is dependent only on the laws of supply and demand. We are talking about a very controlled market where the whims and wishes and tastes of a very few determine what will and will not be sold. We are not selling to a wide audience we are selling to a very narrow one.

In Hollywood, for the storyteller, the audience – the market at large - is frequently a later consideration. Pick up any screenwriting or novel writing book or take any writing course and a significant part will be about reaching script readers and agents and development executives and producers. These are the people writers must appeal to in crafting stories and must appeal primarily to or they will never have the chance to appeal to anyone else. Of course there are exceptions to this. With the rise of the internet, YouTube, affordable cameras, editing technology and self publishing services there are markets and avenues opening that are not guarded by these middle-men. An alternate media is forming and it is taking shape quickly, but it is without question that the vast majority of human kind gets its information and entertainment through traditional mass media and mass media is inserting itself and co-opting more and more forcefully the alternate means.

While middle-men are common in many industries and they can and frequently do decide what to present for sale, most often they are ruled by what the market wants. They see a need and they fill it. It is rare in this world for personal, philosophical bias to rule the day, but in media it is almost universally the rule of the day.

Why is this important? It’s important because in a society where mass media takes on the role of storyteller or myth maker and where mass media permeates and informs so much of society even outside entertainment, it means that fewer and fewer of us are telling fewer and fewer stories. It also means that a startlingly small number of people are deciding which stories are worth telling at all. It becomes tremendously important therefore to understand how and why they make their choices.

The quality of storytelling is not at issue. Though and argument could be made that poor storytelling seems more and more to be the rule, especially in feature film, there are great stories that do make it to television or the silver screen or even the pages of books but they are in large measure stories that also meet the requirement of being first and foremost commercial and which fall into, or at least don’t contradict a certain political philosophy. There are countless “Erin Brockovich” stories but precious few “Horatio Alger” tales. Stepping from obscurity to achieve greatness is OK in Hollywood as long as you’re going after social injustice and engaged in pursuit of “the man"; a plot line so common, in fact, as to be formulaic. This is so common in fact that it can often overpower economic concerns. Witness, for example, the string of flops about Iraq or the decision to make a movie about a President who most of the country doesn’t particularly care (try to blow that past Louis B. Mayer) by a man who couldn’t be trusted to make an objective film about his own mother. In the real world, however, there isn’t always social injustice and many people aspire to be “the man” – or at least live in peace and harmony with him and their wives and three point two kids in a nice four bedroom house with a lawn out front and a decent retirement account. That, after all, is the American dream. That traditional life is what most of us aspire to and what those of us who lives find filled with conflict and drama. Those films are few and far between. Conflict and drama are largely ignored by Hollywood when it comes to traditional life, the odd Christmas/Holiday movie-of-the-week being the exception. Why? Because the former is clearly preferred, politically and economically by those who make the decisions.

The reason this is important to conservatives specifically and to humanity at large, should be as obvious as the bias that exists in Hollywood. If our stories are to be told, if ancient stories are to be told, they have to capture the minds of readers who approach their choices from an economic standpoint colored heavily by a specific socio-political bent – whether they realize it or not. Market forces do not drive decisions, but ideological forces do. What that means is that the broad swath of experience that needs to be handed from generation to generation is narrowing considerably and in many cases it is being choked off. But it’s important to tell all stories because this is how we learn. This is how children learn and how – most importantly – conflict resolution is learned. “The Three Little Pigs,” “Jack in the Beanstalk,” “The Ugly Duckling” are all stories that are told to children to teach them about dealing with the world and about dealing with conflict and resolution in a way that not only entertains them but captures their attention. But it’s not just about children. We don’t finish that learning as we age. Stories teach us until the day we die whether we're hearing them or telling them. And when we tell them, our audience’s reception of them is colored by how they have been taught, largely through consuming other media, to perceive the actions, events and motives in the story. If only “Jack in the Beanstalk” is told, and only from the viewpoint of Giant as oppressor, we might then begin to see the Wolf as a freedom fighter in “The Three Little Pigs.” The “Ugly Duckling” could be portrayed as a tale of triumph over adversity, but if we are not to hear that aspect of it because it conflicts with the zeitgeist in Bel Aire, then we lose a valuable piece of knowledge and a valuable piece to the puzzle of who and what we are. What's more if only "Jack in the Beanstalk" is told and is told as a tale of social injustice, then the conflict-resolution learned in the story is violence - the giant is, after all, killed by Jack in the end. That's important because the audience is learning that violence is justified in this situation. But social injustice is an amorphous concept. Children can easily see bullying or a teacher playing favorites as social injustice and if they are taught repeatedly to deal with it through violence, then we have a problem. Certainly a leftist philosophy would see this a vital message, and as part of a spectrum, that's fine, but the problem here is that other messages are not making it through. It is important that stories are told and it is important that a wide range of stories are told from a wide range of viewpoints. Right now, those who seek to tell stories that do not fall into the prevalent philosophy face a hostile environment and if past experiences are any judge that environment will only get tougher.

We learn, as Dr. Helen suggests, through culture and in our world culture is more and more presented through media. Currently our media and therefore our culture is overseen by people of an inflexible philosophy. That is not healthy. The internet and the availability of inexpensive production equipment may help change this, but it won't unless people take them up and do so. Moreover, it won’t unless we aggressively guard and protect these outlets. Concepts like the “Fairness Doctrine” and “Net Neutrality” are living dragons licking their chops in anticipation of biting the heads off dissenters. Mass media, for the moment, still has the vast majority of the audience and it's where the stories are told it is where opinions are made. Some have taken to hiding in plain site, hiding messages and ideas within shows that appeal to that narrow audience in Beverly Hills but this is clearly not enough. The system must be changed. The human race is in danger of not only losing a vital link to its past, but heading in a dangerous direction. We are halfway down a slippery slope and so far there are only moguls ahead.