Obsession: Television as Art and Passion
Let’s discuss why I did not have a life in high school. There was the living pretty far from my friends. There were the large amounts of homework. There was the speech team, spending many Saturdays wearing suits and sitting through hours of performances and award ceremonies simply for the ego-filling net 30 minutes I would get to spend speaking to handfuls of people who were not really listening. There was the practicing after school for those Saturdays. Let’s not forget ineptitude where flirtatious activity is concerned (a real exchange I had with a friend: “Elizabeth, do you not date on principle?” “I do not date due to ineptitude.” “You just come off as not interested.” “That would be the ineptitude”). I was a loner in high school for all of these reasons, but primarily because of television.
Don’t tell the film department (I haven’t even declared yet), but my favorite moving-image medium is TV. Network sitcoms, cable dramas, late night talk-shows (really just Craig Ferguson’s late night talk show), British series I discovered on Netflix (like my very favorite show, The IT Crowd), and the best program Disney Channel has had in a while, Phineas and Ferb, have all been major distractions from my social interactions. My television obsessions never prevented me from getting my homework done. In fact, my social life was in a sort of double jeopardy (my TV love does not favor game shows, so I might be using that incorrectly) that arose from a combination of my diligent homework completion and my need to be on top of the tube’s many offerings. I used to come home straight after school and sit down to do work with the deadline of primetime. I even worked during lunch breaks and free periods and subway rides for days in advance of season premieres and finales. I did not have a Facebook then; Hulu was my Internet existence.
During high school, I talked a lot about TV and was thus asked fairly often about how I managed to watch so much of it. I did not fit TV in by letting productivity fall by the wayside, and though I can joke for paragraphs that it completely replaced a social life, that would actually be an exaggeration. The simple answer was that I made watching TV shows a priority. I freed up time for them, studied during commercial breaks, woke up early to check if they had been posted on Hulu. I half-joked, but truly believed, that the time I spent watching was an investment in my future.
Anyone who has seen me watching a TV show knows that my viewing is not vegging out. My housemates can attest that I kick, roll back on my chair, slam my hands on the table, widen my eyes, and go, “Oh my god. What. No. I hate you. I hate you so much. You are the worst. WHAT,” while catching up on some Breaking Bad. (Do you watch that? It took me a long time to watch it. But now I watch it. And you should watch it). My boyfriend, (character development!), has recorded me watching an episode of Lost. Since I was fully-clothed as I watched the show, I am fairly sure he was just interested in capturing my reaction.
I do not see the time I spend in front of TV and laptop screens as unproductive. Viewing is a way of learning technique. My film education is giving me the vocabulary to describe what I have long been observing, as well as helping me notice what I had not before. In school, I learn how an artist can affect an audience with the moving-image medium through theory as well as example. Then I think back to all of the TV I have seen and watch more: what was once primarily recreational is more and more solidly an experience in education.
Lest this turn too much into an endorsement of the film department, allow me to suggest that this idea applies to many fields. This summer, a four-year-old announced to me that he wants to be a writer when he grows up. First, this was extremely cute because four-year-olds are cute. Second, only time could tell—how could the kid know he could make a living as a writer if he could hardly read and write little more than his name? No one can just be a writer. And it is not a matter of learning by doing, either: writers have to read extensively. Read great books to learn by example, notice what does not work to learn from mistakes. Maybe take a class that teaches you what the techniques at work are called and how else they can be used. Likewise, filmmakers need to watch extensively. Aspiring TV-makers such as myself need to spend fair amounts of time glued to the boob tube, (totally a real term; I’ve heard it used on TV).
The class part is a question mark. Paul Thomas Anderson argues that a formal education in film is actually entirely replaceable by viewership and reading technical journals. I am going for a film degree and believe that the courses I take here are giving me an eye and a vocabulary for the craft of film that I could not have arrived at independently. Paul Thomas Anderson, in addition to being a brilliant and successful moviemaker, is in a long-term relationship with Maya Rudolph, so he has a leg up on me there, but this is my column, gosh darn it, and I do not refute his point about watching film/TV for hours upon hours anyway. In fact I endorse it, so…yeah.
Take that, Paul Thomas Anderson. Who is the master (The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, in theaters now!) now?