Ennui on the Screen and New Perspectives

Finding new perspectives is what philosophy should, ideally, be about. It should be the case that we’re looking to explore different ideas, perhaps those that might appear superficially ideologically uncomfortable, to build a deeper-rooted understanding of our world. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the complex, emotion-influenced nature of living in the world, however, and the hefty challenge we face when seeking greater understanding with the simple urge to stick with what we know. Entertainment might be a valuable tool for confronting this, suggested by Roger Ebert’s famous statement that films are “machines for empathy”. On the big and small screen, then, how can creators help to impart lessons to us? And how can we be expected to even confront the ideas which seems antithetical to our view of the world?

Philosophy itself is often guilty of being too focused on existing ideas. Slavoj Žižek, a contemporary philosopher, makes clear how truth can often be found in what’s unquestioned and unsaid; implying that nothing should be taken at face value. This is a gentle line for a Marxist, a position that the likes of ideological opposite Jordan Peterson view as worthy of derision for being extreme and driven by ideology. Yet the likes of Jordan Peterson, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, and David Hume have certainties that make their work simultaneously and inextricably both comforting and conservative. They rail against particular ways of thinking, encouraging viewing philosophy as a defensive endeavour rather than one of discovery. If philosophers can’t even seem to look past the reductive binary of us versus them, then how can we be expected to seek out nuance?

The visual nature of film and TV can allow for a non-didactic approach, and their potential to spur individual thought seem to explain why philosopher Terence Malick was drawn to create for the screen. Much of the meaning in his work is unsaid, The Thin Red Line being perhaps the most powerful example in its mixture of often-conflicting worldviews within a warzone. We aren’t directly told who’s right or wrong, nor do we really dig into the motivations behind people’s expressions of thought: the camera acts as documentarian, exemplified in how it moves to capture nature alongside us. In a couple of hours we have weighty ideas juxtaposed in a way that actively encourages us to let ideas wash over them, and those who are so inclined can watch and watch again to gently trace different routes through the narrative.

A group of soldiers sit poised in the grass, looking anxiously alert, in this image from The Thin Red Line
Image courtesy of Fox 2000

However, whilst the work of someone like Malick might encourage a sensitive, empathetic viewing of the world – seeing us a part of nature – life itself can more forcefully push opinions at us in a way that instinctively throws our guards up. Action adventure films provide a template for moving away from automatic behaviours with how selfish anti-heroes commit to greater causes. Indiana Jones‘ eponymous character and Star Wars‘ Han Solo – both played by Harrison Ford – are perfect examples, both somewhat loners who antagonize others and are driven by the promise of riches; yet they begin to change their ways when confronted by other people who implicitly or openly challenged their ways of thinking. Community is essential for new perspectives and, they suggest, so is shame.

But might the happiness and excitement of new ideas be the real motivator and shame, at least in excess, be in opposition to real change? My previous looks at happiness and guilt seem to suggest so, with the former constructed from communal, empathetic, and forgiving action; reflections are the latter are often simply a way to wallow in self-protecting indulgence rather than to take genuine redressing action. Jia Tolentino’s thoughts in the New Yorker, largely a response to Kristin Dombek’s book The Selfishness of Others, suggest that even expecting negativity from others is a dangerous route: to reduce others to a simple, generic, often kneejerk label allows you to blind yourself to more complex realities. To find new perspectives we have to, then, look both for nuance and ways of satisfying ours and others’ needs that expect better without judgement.

Breaking Bad's Walt and Skyler sit at a restaurant table, looking uncomfortably formal in manner and dress as they avoid eye contact with each other
Image courtesy of AMC

Breaking Bad might perhaps be a testament to the idea that reflecting on negativity isn’t always productive analysis. The show is about Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an apparently nice and harmless science teacher who becomes a powerful, dangerous drug lord – and ostensibly the message that audiences are meant to take is one of the destruction caused to his life and those of others. However, there appears to be online a number of people who venerate him and, particularly, throw scorn on his long-suffering wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). It doesn’t simply suggest the series wasn’t strong enough in its messaging; the more important implication is that it was strong enough that people put up their defences when confronted by what it had to say. Valuable messages won’t be heard when not framed precisely for those not already primed to listen.

Fan culture might have made some uninformed perspectives more rampant, yet it also provides the route towards a deeper understanding of work – particularly in the age of social media. Fandoms themselves can often encourage fruitful and important discussions through the diverse array of people filling them; the public nature of this enthusiasm and insight encourages write ups and the permeating of ideas into wider culture. It’s not simply the case that everyone needs to be seeking out new perspectives but that existing perspectives need the space to be shared, and the somewhat-levelling nature of the internet allows for more marginalised voices – whether critics or passionate fans – to push them into the limelight.

But perhaps our current age most crucially highlights the holistic nature of how we engage with entertainment. Entertainment has been changed by the internet, our views of what we consume and what we should seek out shifted by what we see there, and this acts as a reminder of the myriad ways that our tastes and expectations of it can be at the mercy of outside influences. Everyone, then, has a responsibility to help broaden each other’s perspectives, as entertainment alone cannot be expected to provide those lessons. Most importantly it acts as a reminder of the great weight of social forces that work against our growth, and that we should use today’s tools to empathetically, enthusiastically, and proactively share and extend our collectively-deepening understanding of art and life.