I'm not a fan of basketball. (Trust me; this will turn macabre in a bit, but I'm going to digress some beforehand. Just follow along.) March Madness leaves me pretty much cold, with a great deal of time on my hands because I'm not an avid follower of all the hours television spends on the sport.
Nevertheless, I recognize that there are many people who enjoy basketball a great deal; who approach it as obsessively as genre fans discuss the latest Stephen King novel or George Romero film. That's all well and good; if we all liked the same thing, it would be an amazingly boring existence. Further, I recognize that, in the sport of basketball, and great deal of skill, grace and athletic daring is required, so I consider a worthy enterprise for any fan's attention.
Do we make the distinction here? I don't care for the sport myself, but I can still see the worthiness in it, and don't begrudge anyone their pleasures or passions in pursuit of it. I'm able to still appreciate it and what it is about it that engenders such devotion, even though I don't partake of it myself. I don't have any issues with people who seem to enjoy different forms of entertainment, films, books, music or any other endeavor, and though I have my own opinion, and will certainly share it in private conversation with my choice companions, in the end it affects me not in the least how someone else shares their leisure time.
But today, in many cases, it seems endemic that when someone proclaims that they don't care for a particular form of pastime, it's no longer simply a difference of opinion or choice, but a judgment call on the validity of the entertainment itself.
I've said this before in many forums and at many times: the very best thing about the Internet is that everyone is complete free to offer their opinion on anything at all anytime. The very worst thing about the Internet is that everyone is complete free to offer their opinion on anything at all anytime.
Let's take a few modest examples…
I enjoy books, and I am particularly devoted to the Dark Fantastic. But I am able to step outside the genre and appreciate a well-written work that I might not otherwise have shown interest in. I quick glance at the bookshelf in my crypt will reveal a collection of what could be call “mainstream” book that I've found fascinating, involving and completely rewarding. And there isn't a vampire or zombie in any of them.
Among the non-fiction are titles such as Thomas Wolfe's “The Right Stuff”, Woodward & Bernstein's “All The President's Men”, William Goldman's “The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway”, Carl Sagan's “Cosmos”, several of Jacques Cousteau's reference books, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World's Stolen Treasures” by Robert Wittman, and “Travels” by Michael Crichton. I have Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, William Buckley's Blackford Oakes series, two books of stories of The Thinking Machine (one edited by Harlan Ellison) and several of Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books. I have biographies of Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Campbell, William Castle, Roger Corman, Edward Gorey and Ray Bradbury. I have Dickens and Shakespeare, a coffee table book about carousel horses, “Making of…” books on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, STAR TREK and Sid & Marty Croft productions, a couple of books on philosophy and several Bibles.
I would consider this a fairly well-rounded collection for anyone who enjoys reading. Yet time and again I've attended events and festivals and met more than a few human companions who've stated boldly, “If it isn't Horror (or Science Fiction or Fantasy or what-have-you) I don't like it, and I'm not interested.” And I feel a sense of regret about that. They'll never know the pleasures of delving into a masterpiece like “The Killer Angels” (one of the finest books of modern times, fact that reads like brilliant fiction), “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “How Green Was My Valley” or “Shogun”. They view the world and their experiences tunnelvisioned and are poorer for it.
(And I should state right now that certainly not all fans are as regimented in their thinking, and many if not most have extremely diverse reading habits. But it's happened more times than I'd care to consider.)
Then there are those that, simply because they didn't enjoy the experience of reading a certain book or viewing a certain movie, that it's not worth anybody's time. This is far more egregious, but infinitely more common. Author Robert Dunbar wrote a blog some time ago about those that go onto Amazon.com and review some undisputed classics; although he used a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor for his essay, there is an unmistakable sense of frustration, not with how he himself has been treated, but by the simply, dim thought processes of many individuals who have appointed themselves literary critics. You can take a moment and read his opinions HERE.
I can't begin to add anything to Mr. Dunbar's concise and amusing observations. But I do want to stress a few things that still stand out for me in the piece. His opening paragraph, discussing music, sums it up perfectly.
“Most subsist entirely on a musical diet of whatever pop songs are being aggressively marketed, and a substantial subset are fanatically devoted to particular performers or types of music – from bubblegum to thrash metal – and loathe everything else. Brought into contact with the unfamiliar, these folks are not merely uninterested. They're furious.
Classical music is pretentious. Jazz is boring. Modern opera? Electronica? Are you kidding? It's an outrage such things even exist.
This is not encouraging for artists of any sort.”
Bear that last sentence in mind.
“In the literary world, professional standards have largely ceased to exist. The proliferation of self-published novels, unblemished by grammar or punctuation, the popularity of Write Your Novel in Thirty Minutes events, the various supposed organizations for writers (which exist merely to encourage readers that they too should be published), all contribute to this decline. Even ancillary fields like literary criticism have largely been obliterated. What passes for book reviews these days reminds me of the sort of customer comments that used to appear on the Sears website about headphones or oven mitts.”
And most importantly, this:
“Real literary criticism – once an art form in its own right – celebrated erudition and interpretation. Does the current crop of crude remarks truly represent the contemporary reading public? They are to scholarship what Fox News is to journalism, achieving a level of mythic stupidity.”
(Incidentally, my favorite examples from his selection of comments are these two:
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo
Not at all like the Disney movie.
LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!
Favorite, in this instance, being akin to stating my favorite natural disaster was Pompeii . But that wasn't like the movie either…)
"Why, this isn't like SURVIVOR at all?!"
“Once an art form in its own right.” That's it right there. At one point people devoted their lives to genuine analysis of Art, even so-called Commercial Art that had few pretensions but was as entertaining as anything offered. Now you don't need scholarship or experience, devotion to the study of the subject or reputation and prestige from years of experience. All you require is a computer and a mouse, and any individuals opinion is accepted to be on the same level as that of Judith Crist, Richard Schiekal, Brooks Atkinson, Roger Ebert or Harlan Ellison, five critics that I feel were or are exemplary in what they do, and post the high standard that all others should attempt to meet.
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The subject for the month is being a good audience. Not simply turning your cell phone off and keeping silent so others can enjoy the film (although Heaven knows that doesn't happen hear enough these days in itself) but opening yourselves to enjoying a work of Art on its own terms , rather than your own personal bias.
That might seem like I'm making the argument for keeping quiet in the face of bad or boring entertainment; quite the contrary. If you are disappointed in a film, or television series, or book, or comic strip or piece of music, by all means voice your opinion; warn others away and demand the best work that any artist is capable of. But too often individuals are not following the most basic rule of being an audience: you have to be receptive to what's being presented. If you have a preconceived attitude about the Art, the battle is already mostly lost.
I've entertained at many events and in many venues: amusement parks, medieval faires, SF and Horror conventions, libraries, legitimate theaters, hotel lobbies and street corners. Ideally you would like to have a venue where the distractions are kept to a minimum so that your audience can immerse themselves in whatever story you'd like to tell, setting a sustained mood and painting in details for their enjoyment.
All well and good in theory. But in many places that I've performed, there are a myriad of conflicting activities going on around me. Roller coasters thundering by while the riders shriek in delight, carnival booths and games making loud electronic whoops and sirens to announce a winner, jousting knights on horseback battling while crowds cheer them on…well, you get the idea. A great deal of sound and fury swirling about, with Yours Truly at the eye of the storm.
I've very proud to say that, despite all the possible interruptions and disruptions that could be imagined, I've developed a following among my human companions, and have managed to hold their attention and interest in the most cacophonous of locations. I actually enjoy the challenge of taking control of their senses despite any attempt to pull them away, and for the most part I'm pleased to be successful.
But there are times when I've looked into the eyes of an audience member and realized that it's all futility. Not only are they not involved, they couldn't care less about being involved. This is always disheartening, but at those times I simply shrug my ectoplasmic shoulders and concentrate on those listeners who are enjoying my tales.
The late Victor Borges, a marvelous entertainer, once remarked, “There are no such things as bad audiences, only bad performances.” I agree with that wholeheartedly. Many is the time I've heard a performer complain about not getting the reactions they desired from their audience, and my first question is usually, “Were you doing the absolute best that you're capable of?”
But there is that one exception. There is that individual that sits there, eyes completely vacant and vacuous, staring with that dreaded Make me laugh. I dare you! expression. They do exist, and there's little a performer can do, even in a hermetically sealed auditorium with letter-perfect acoustics. They simply don't want to be entertained, and will fight any urge to succumb with every fiber of their stamina.
Why? Who can conjecture? Perhaps they're having a bad day, under some enormous pressure or stress, going through an emotional personal crisis. Or perhaps they're simply jerks, and determined to be as difficult as possible for their own perverse pleasure. I don't understand that in the least; why subject yourself to something if you really, really don't want to, unless you're attempting to win a wager?
Once at Six Flags America, I was wandering the midway when I was approached by a group of twentysomethings who requested a story. I enjoy that sort of environment a great deal, and began (what I thought) was one of my best tales. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it…except for one young lady in front, directly before me, who simply stared grimly. After a few minutes, arms crossed, she spoke matter-of-factly. “You're boring me.”
Whereupon I stopped the story, apologized, and told her I wouldn't subject her to any further discomfort. I wished her a good evening and moved along, leaving her with a shocked expression on her face and catcalls from her companions who were enjoying the story and didn't appreciate her comments. (Sometimes it's best to let the group police themselves.)
Why did I stop? Not to be ungracious or overly sensitive, (not entirely anyway) but for the reason given; I saw no purpose in forcing her to listen to a performer that wasn't pleasing her, not with so many other forms of entertainment around her available for her sampling. I didn't want to subject her to an unpleasant experience. But, more than that, I suspected then (and still do now) that she wasn't really bored; she simply felt she had to express and assume that attitude for her own personal reasons.
And I see that a great deal in some audiences, much as I see them in the comments left for the classic books above. There is a need for some individuals to prove themselves better than any situation, more sophisticated, knowledgeable and worldly. Perhaps its feeling of deep inadequacy, but they are simply incapable of enjoying anything and must place themselves above it, emotionally and socially.
I refer to this as “the MST3K Syndrome”. As much as I enjoyed the classic television series MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, it's birth a disturbing reaction in more than a few audiences: that any work of entertainment is not presented to be enjoyed, but to be mocked, ridiculed and commented on.
Sadly, most viewers are not aware that the writers and producers of that series worked tirelessly, viewing each film over and over and selecting only the very best quips for broadcast. Because the actors made it look so easy and effortless, many audience members believe it so, and think that anything that they can come up with to shout out at the spur of the moment must be equally clever, scintillating and hilarious. They're wrong.
Because of this, audience aren't coming to films (and books and television) prepared to appreciate them as works on their own, but as an extension of the audiences sense of irony and self-amusement. Which has caused a distinct drop in many theaters today; despite the fact of many Hollywood blockbusters dominating the scene, movie audiences are diminishing, and the most offered reason is that people tire of the constant inane chatter, commentary, cell phone use and overall rudeness of the people around them.
(And I want to offer here and now a huge THANK YOU! and a tip of the proverbial hat to the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters, who have recognized this problem and are almost single-handedly attempting to address it and raise the best behavior of their audiences. They are not permitting distractions or misbehavior in their theaters, and loyal audience members are extremely appreciative of their efforts. You might want to Goggle “Alamo Drafthouse Phone Message” and see how they're doing in their efforts; be aware that the video is for mature audiences only because of the language involved.)
Another factor that goes hand-in-hand with the above behavior are audience members arriving at a performance in, shall we say, less than salutatory condition. This probably occurs more often at a live performance at, say, a medieval faire, a haunted attraction or an outdoor festival than a film or with a book, but it does happen and does affect a performance. I've witnessed people arrive at these venues staggering and clearly heavily under the influence, wondering how they were able to find the show let alone arrive, and fearing for their safety when they attempt to depart.
This baffles me to no end; why in the world would you want to come to an event in a condition that almost assures you won't receive the greatest possible experience, viewing it instead through an alcoholic or drug-induced fog? How much are you really going to remember? I remember my astonishment in learning that a group of people had dropped acid before attending a Bruce Springsteen concert. Really? Bruce Springsteen? I suppose I can make the case for doing so at a Grateful Dead or Progressive Jazz event where ambiance is the main attraction, but for an artist whose enjoyment depends on clearly and consciously listening to well-chosen and soul-searching lyrics and ideas?
I'm not taking a stand for abstinence (although that certainly isn't a bad suggestion for some individuals I've encountered) but I say with all sincerity that if your enjoyment of any pleasure depends heavily on placing yourself in an altered state of consciousness to participate, you may want to seriously rethink your lifestyle choices and examine while artificial stimulation is so necessary. The drawback, after a while, is that becomes an automatic response worthy of Pavlov. “Hey, let's all go to the All Hallows Faire! And let's get hammered! ”
I cringe just a bit every time a venue that I'm attending offers alcoholic beverages. It suspends the critical faculties and dulls the self-censorship needed in a civilized society. It heightens the participant's opinion of their own wittiness and sense of fun and clouds their judgments. They begin catcalling the performances, sharing their almost Oscar Wildean cleverness with the crowd around them, often annoying not only the performers but the audience members that genuinely wanted to see the show without disruption, and because their self-control is inhibited, they don't tend to calmly acquiesce when the management or others in the crowd take exception with their behavior and ask them to control themselves.
Now, I know from experience that many of these individuals, seeing their behavior listed here, will become offended at my suggestions that they refrain from partaking before venturing out in public, saying that I'm a stick-in-the-mud and protesting that this is a free country, that it's their God-given right to enjoy an event any way they see fit. After all, they paid good money for their admission. And sadly, I shake my head because these people won't grasp the simple truth that others also paid good money, and the performers have rights as well, with the expectation of good audience behavior being a primary one.
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Perhaps the biggest downfall in not being a good receptive audience is Mr. Dunbar's honest and accurate position that it can actually hurt the Art being presented. As he stated, “ This is not encouraging for artists of any sort.”
And that is the bottom line for any artist; they must be free to explore any and all aspects of their work and style in order to be the best artists possible, always stretching and challenging themselves. Sometimes this will result in failure, but sometimes this will allow the artist to sing far above his or her range and actually expand the parameters of the art in question. But for a true determination of the worthiness, an audience must come to it with open minds and hearts, and only when it fails to meet their expectations must they critique it to find it wanting.
Too often today, far too often, audiences approach a work with preconceived expectations, and those expectations are most often failure. And this is instant death, for there's no possible way that, with the opinion firmly locked already in place, that the work offered is going to satisfy.
You see this a great deal online with television shows, particularly the season or series finales. Recently the series HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER ended its very successful run with its final episode; I was never a fan of the show, but I tuned in to see what might be done with its conclusion, and with an entirely objective mindset I found it funny and touching, quite well done. But online the next day I was clearly in the minority, with many decrying its quality and declaring that the series should have ended years ago.
Clearly many of those commenting were long-time viewers who were genuinely disappointed with the decisions made to conclude the show. And that's certainly fair. But it was equally clear that many were lying in wait, claws and teeth already bared, prepared to dislike anything that the creators presented to the audience, and nothing short of the Second Coming would have satisfied them. (And even then they would have complained about the lack of smoke machines and laser effects.) You can see this attitude with new episodes of THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY and series finales ranging from DEXTER to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.
Am I free from these prejudices myself? Hardly; I am, to coin a phrase, only human (even though I'm spectral). I haven't watch the series HANNIBAL, BATES MOTEL or DRACULA because I doubt the quality of these productions, being that the creators of he original works have little-to-nothing to do with the productions. It's possible I'm missing the most powerful and emotionally satisfying hours on television, but I'm willing to take that chance, and if I encounter them someday and find them wonderful, so much the better. But what I won't do is come to them as a bad audience, with preconceived notions and a innate determination to see them fail, and then voice my opinion haphazardly in any forum available. The producers, writers and actors deserve more respect than that.
If an artist wishes to produce the best possible art, he must follow his muse wherever it leads, exploring avenues that he's never taken before, and not concerning himself with possible audience reaction. (Although I don't believe he should try to deliberately alienate or ignore his audience; those individuals aren't artists to be but provocateurs, and you see enough of them in the Art world as it is.) The audience, in turn, must come to each work objectively and receive it honestly, even if it's something their unfamiliar with. (Especially so, in my opinion.)
In our genre, artists that try to explore other aspects of their Art are often attacked for attempting to break the chains of creative confinement. David Cronenberg is celebrated for his visceral visions of human metamorphosis in THE FLY, SCANNERS, THE BROOD and DEAD RINGERS, but when he wants to explore other aspects of psychological metamorphosis and pathology in SPIDER, CRASH, M. BUTTERFLY or A DANGEROUS METHOD, he's greeted with hostility and cries of dismay, “We don't want COSMOPOLIS; we want more VIDEODROME and Body Horror!” But Mr. Cronenberg has always had a fascination for humanity outside of the milieu of straight Horror, and wants to explore as many aspects of it as possible.
George Romero is hailed as the father of the modern Zombie film with his work in NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD. But when he tries to deviate from that work with MONKEYSHINES, THE DARK HALF or BRUISER, the calls for another Zombie film are loud and strident. When he obliges with DIARY OF THE DEAD or SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the audiences shrugs collectively and mutters about Mr. Romero losing his talent and abilities.
They ignore the fact that he has never been interested in just doing a straight gory piece of cinema; he's always used Horror as a large canvas to explore and examine modern society. In fact it's reported that he doesn't enjoy filming the gruesome segments of his films, and finds them upsetting, especially when the actors and extras ignore his calls to cut and continue their rampaging. And his filmic interests have always been diverse; note KNIGHRIDERS and MARTIN and CREEPSHOW.
I won't argue that BRUISER and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD are films on par with MARTIN or DAWN OF THE DEAD. That is honest critical evaluation. But both of those efforts are worthy films of respectful viewing and contain solid elements of writing, acting and filmmaking that equal anything else Mr. Romero has done; if they're not his best work, they're certainly good works for those who can look beyond the simple mayhem they crave from his more visceral efforts.
(And sometimes film requires distance to attain objectivity and determine value; his third DEAD film DAY OF THE DEAD is now considered a classic to be placed beside NIGHT and DAWN, but on its initially release the reception was far from universal acclaim, with many genre fans and critic feeling that he stumbled and fumbled the Trilogy.)
This sort of pigeonholing has stifled other (in my opinion) lesser talents as well. John Carpenter tried to display a more intimate side to his nature with STARMAN, and the fans clamored for more Michael Myers and THE THING. Wes Craven tried to explore the mainstream drama with MUSIC OF THE HEART, and his fan base ignored the film en masse and demanded more Freddy Krueger, SCREAM and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. (And for my money, few of Mr. Craven's feature work compares to the skill and humanity he displayed in his episodes of the 1980s revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, including “Wordplay”, “Shatterday”, and especially “Her Pilgrim Soul”.)
But Carpathian, you cry, I know what I like and what I want! That's fair enough, I suppose, though sadly limiting, and you're free to ignore what you will. But if you do choose to approach a new work, you must come with an objective view; disagree with the work all you wish, but it must be for honest critical reasoning and not simply because it wasn't like what came before. And it must be consistent with the work being offered , not because it isn't what you're used to or what you usually enjoy. Otherwise, please stay home.
You simply cannot approach all art with the same critical criteria; it makes no sense. You can't judge “Hamlet” with the same standards applied to Mickey Spillaine's “I, The Jury” or Arthur Conan Doyle's “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”. This is not in any way a critical evaluation of the work as Art; it's simply common sense. It ludicrous to suggest otherwise; these are three distinct and dramatic pieces that have little in common with themes and methods of attack. To disparage “Hamlet” over “I, The Jury” because the people in it all talk funny, wear funny clothes and act in ways Mike Hammer never would (“Why doesn't Hamlet just kill his uncle? That's what Mike would do!”) is ignorance of the lowest sort.
Martin Scorsese is a master of the urban street drama, with his classic films MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS. But he also created a marvelous period drama THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and the beautiful family film HUGO, because these are aspects of his Art that he wanted to explore and spoke to him just as deeply. To dismiss HUGO because it isn't as violent as TAXI DRIVER or belittle AGE because it lacks the grittiness of RAGING BULL is foolishness, and speaks more of the straitjacketing of the audience's intelligence and critical faculties than it does of Mr. Scorsese's success or failure. Success or failure cannot even be weighed in this instance because the audience didn't approach the work with anything resembling critical intuitiveness.
I've spoken before of sitting in a movie theater with the local college crowd during films such as ZARDOZ, DESTINATION MOON, QUATERMASS & THE PIT and other movies from previous eras. I've heard the laughter and catcalls about the clothes design and the fashions, the special effects efforts and the performances. I've heard the same criticism imparted about works as diverse as the original STAR TREK (with its “Styrofoam rocks” and Mr. Shatner's acting style) and DOCTOR WHO (with the cardboard sets and monster designs). And I simply shrug my shoulders and sigh deeply.
Many of these films represented artistic risks on the part of their creators. Many of the special effects at the time were state of the art, of the best possible under the budgetary restrictions. Some of the performances were carefully chosen and the style of acting at the time. Some of these were filmed on sets because the budgets did not allow for location filming. And even though modern audiences have become accustomed to more explicit and realized special effects and artistic renderings, much of this earlier work is still a triumph of creative imaginative extrapolation of future sensibilities.
Would these same individuals attend a production of “A Midsummer Nights Dream” and heckle the costume designs of the faeries? (On the other hand, perhaps they would.) Would they experience a historical reenactment at Gettysburg and laugh at the language used and the outfits and artillery painstakingly recreated. (On the other hand…) This is the very core of what I consider being a good audience; as stated before, being able to accept a work on its own terms and judge it objectively and accordingly, not with an arbitrary or ill-considered set of critical attributes.
I've told this story before, and I think it bears repeating; it's probably apocryphal, but if it isn't true, it should be. A gentleman was visiting an art museum, looking at the various paintings, and was not particularly impressed by what he saw. He stopped in front of one piece and a guard was nearby, watching. After a moment, the gentleman turned to the guard and motioning to the painting, said, “I don't think this is particularly great.”
The guard shook his head and said, “I'm sorry, sir, but history has already passed judgment on the worthiness of this painting. Now what is being judge is each individual's reaction to it.”
Which brings me to this particularly depressing news item, and my final thoughts.
The Search Engine Yahoo! Wanted to find out if the original John Carpenter film of HALLOWEEN was still considered scary for modern audiences, so they conducted an experiment and invited ten young people, all college age, to watch the film. Devin Faraci of the website “Badass Digest” wrote an essay on the results, and, as he most succinctly stated, far from proving if HALLOWEEN is still effective, “…and along the way they proved that maybe movie watching is dead.”
You can read the entire article HERE; please be warned that the language is very strong and recommended for mature audiences only.
Mr. Faraci's language aside, I couldn't possibly agree with him more, and would be tempted to be as equally blunt and impolitic. And whenever someone writes in film or book comment sections or on Facebook about how the powers-that-be aren't creating wonderful new works of originality and imagination, ask yourself why they should bother when the audience isn't really going to pay attention anyway.
For myself, I'll be telling my tales to those who genuinely wish to hear them. I know they're there, because I gladly engage them on a regular basis, and am eternally grateful for each and every one of them. I can only hope that my fellow artists find themselves equally as fortunate.