This is a deliberately meandering post, but it has a common thread.
Roger Ebert recently updated his list of the greatest films of all time:
What’s striking, but not surprising, about his list is that most of the films on the list don’t seem to be very entertaining. Rather, these are generally “serious” films. Artistic films.
If he were asked to compile a list of his favorite films, rather than the greatest films, I suspect the list would be quite different. And that raises a question: should great art be dull and difficult? Is it wrong to judge a film by how enjoyable it is to watch?
If he was stranded on a desert island, would he rather have Apocalypse Now or That Man From Rio in his satchel?
Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with art that’s intellectually stimulating. That stretches us.
But at the end of the day, this is fiction. These aren’t real people. And even when it’s based on a “true story” (e.g. historical novel), these aren’t people who are a part of your life or mine.
Now, in fairness to art, one function of art is to vicariously broaden our experience. My life is just a sliver, a random sampling of human existence. Plays, movies, novels, and TV dramas give us a chance to imaginatively live many lives within a single lifetime. And that extends to things that don’t even happen in real life–like time-travel, or magical worlds, or your counterpart in an alternate universe.
And I think that’s a legitimate expression of the human imagination. But it’s still fictitious. So that limits how seriously we should take it.
Again, one theoretical justification is that fiction, even though it’s not real life, is about real life. Life-like. And so we can analogize to our own experience.
And I think that’s valid, too. But a vicarious experience is still vicarious. So that still limits how seriously we should take it.
Speaking for myself, my TV and movie viewing is basically recreational. A way to unwind after a long day. When I’m too tired to do anything more important, but not tired enough to go to bed. A way to slow the mind down.
For instance, I’ve seen a few episodes of The Killing (an AMC crime drama). But it’s not something I view regularly, and that’s because it’s just not very entertaining. What it does, it does well, but it’s like a rainy day that never ends.
Now that might strike some people as frivolous criticism. It’s not the sort of drama I’m supposed to enjoy.
But it’s not like I have a duty to watch it. I really don’t care if a fictitious character is murdered. I really don’t care if her fictitious murderer is apprehended. And why should I spend my time watching depressed imaginary characters in depressing imaginary situations? Is this remedial punishment for the viewer? Is it supposed to be virtuous to put yourself through all that?
Which is a build-up to The Walking Dead. Here’s a tribute to The Walking Dead:
Honestly, I find this a bit pretentious. Like an elaborate effort to justify a guilty pleasure. I don’t think it’s wrong to view The Walking Dead. I just don’t think that requires you to make it more important than it really is.
The zombie genre ranges along a continuum. Some are cheap spatter films. Some are black comedies. And some are serious explorations of the human condition.
The zombie genre also fudges on some practical issues. Do zombies eat their victims alive, or do they turn their victims into zombies? It can’t be both. Likewise, wouldn’t zombies starve to death after a few months?
I’ve seen some episodes of The Walking Dead, but I’m not a regular viewer. For one thing, it’s no pleasure to watch. Again, someone might object that that misses the point, but for me, that is the point. It’s not that significant.
In addition, you don’t have to view many episodes to get the moral of the story. So it’s fairly repetitious. Variations on a common theme.
But from a Christian standpoint, The Walking Dead raises some hypotheticals that are useful to reflect on.
i) Do you, or should you, keep on living when you have nothing left to live for? Does the survival instinct prevail, or does loss of hope result in losing the will to live?
What would happen if you suddenly lost everyone who made life worthwhile? What would happen if your future was utterly bleak?
Losing the will to live doesn’t mean you die. Short of suicide, the body may keep you alive for years, even if you’re just going through the motions.
ii) Speaking of suicide, that’s an issue in zombie drama. If it’s just a matter of time before the zombies get you, is it preferable to take your own life? It’s one narrow escape after another. Sooner or later your luck will run out.
iii) It’s also a study in how people cope, and disintegrate, under constant fear. You’re never safe. You can never let your guard down. The danger is unrelenting. You never again enjoy a good night’s sleep. You’re wakeful. You have nightmares.
Of course, human beings can’t maintain a state of heightened alertness. It wears you down.
iv) In addition, it’s a study in how the survivors get along. Total strangers are thrown together. Do they bond, or do they turn on each other from the unbearable strain?
This is fictitious, but there are real-world counterparts, like POW camps.
v) Finally, a zombie drama can also model those pragmatic dilemmas that ethicists like to toy with. Do you risk the few for the many, or do you risk the many for the few?