By Donald Dewey
A friend asked recently if I had seen such-and-such a movie. I said no, and wasn’t really in that much of a hurry to see it. He looked at me wide-eyed and asked why not; it had received intriguing enough reviews, hadn’t it? I said it was because I had seen something else the day before and was still savoring that one. The eyes went from wide to the lidless black puddles of those aliens that walk off mother ships in Steven Spielberg productions. Well, that was hardly a reason not to see the movie he was talking about, was it? I said yes, it was. If I sat down in a restaurant and chose a meal that filled me satisfactorily, I wouldn’t immediately grab the menu and order another meal, would I? Same thing in going to the movies. Let the taste of the one I’d seen linger for awhile. Why blot it out immediately with something else?
I could tell from my friend’s expression that I had violated the prime directive about being entertained; to wit, never stop going from movie to play to TV program to ballgame and then back again to the ballet, the opera, and the new reading series at the library before starting the cycle all over again. Or if you’re a specialist in the field, as he was, exploit the multi part of the local multiplex as swiftly as possible, preferably between the openings on one Friday and those the following Friday. Don’t let the impact of any particular film interrupt the routine. Did I truly have to be reminded that the 9-to-5 portion of our lives is no more important than the 7:30-to-10:30 part?
There are, of course, slews of rationalizations for the mania to be continually entertained, some of them sounding almost practical. One favorite is that this is the only way of keeping up — whether that mean keeping up with some new social dynamic, some new artistic genius, some new line in cocktail party chatter, or all of the above. Kill a few hours? Have a buffer with a new date? Mount a front for somebody? Feel less lonely? All handy motives for patronizing screens, stages, and orchestras.
But over and above the reason for a given entertainment is the arc — the notion, long elevated to cultural assumption, that any single entertainment is only as good as its place in an ongoing series of attractions, that every pleasure (and irritation) is mere prelude. One of the more obvious examples of this is the soap opera, which allows us to order our daily lives by the grotesque disorder of other lives. Then there’s the arc of the prime time series that permits us to watch typical Jacks and Jills with Magnums and smart repartee morph over months into demons, extraterrestrials, or other entities that turn out never to have actually existed outside nightmares in the first place. And let’s not forget the arc of the evening weatherman as he traces for us the birth of a breeze named Walter off Bali, its growth through hurricane stages off coasts we never heard of, its menacing of North Carolina ships lighter than two tons, and, finally, its evaporation into the mist off Newfoundland. Ah, well, on to the breeze named Xanadu. Every good story needs a beginning, a middle, an end — and another beginning.
Compared to our need for the ever-lengthening arc, Noah personified modesty in selecting only two of every mortal species for insuring survival. On the other hand, there is the striking similarity that the starting point in both cases is catastrophe — in Noah’s case the flood, in ours boredom. Neither clocks nor calendars can be entrusted with the relief task; they are reminders of the problem, not solutions to it. We need our distracting stories, and the most important of these is the one about avoiding the banalities around us. Do you really prefer talking about some neighbor or co-worker to the latest adventures of George Clooney or of one of the Kates? The law is the order, even in reruns. How else are we ever going to get into forensic labs, whether operated by the police, the Navy, or a top-secret government agency? Did we really ever believe that the cachet of the serial killer plot was the killer part?
The issue here is not the rush for gratification; lions exhibit that every time they see a gazelle bound across the plain. It’s not even the societal thrust of that rush; that could have been discerned back when a drummer was taking the edge off another hard day for his fellow cavemen. Where our addiction for gratification distinguishes itself is in the reliability and predictability of the resources for meeting it. The medium is us. About the Author:Donald Dewey has published some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals, and had some 30 plays staged in the United States and Europe.