Usually on Good Friday evening, Anne and I will go to Metropolitan Church for a concert presented by their excellent choir and an orchestra. It may be St. John’s Passion or requiem or other music suited to Good Friday.
With Covid, the church presented a concert online. It was as always exceptional, moving music.
But of course, it’s not the same this year as any other year. Anne and I didn’t have to pay for the concert. We didn’t have to take time getting there on public transit, all the bother of getting organized to leave the house in time, walk in the cold, wait on a noisy street corner hoping a streetcar will come soon, sitting in the car, making our way up to the church; all that time and discomfort we avoided. We took in the concert without leaving home. We put our feet up and sank back into a feather cushioned couch. During the concert we could go out to the kitchen and get a bowl of the pear and apple crumble Anne had made that morning. We could talk during the concert. We’ve never been able to do that before. Nothing to prevent us now. We listened to the music but we also remarked who this and that person was, how this woman didn’t open her mouth so much when she sang, but what a voice came out, that of an angel. We talked about camera angles, how they could have been so much better.
On and on. We were looking at a screen. The screen isn’t anything. It doesn’t exist really, just a piece of furnishing for the room that is shiny and colourful and keeps changing its look so we keep looking. It’s a window into the world that makes us voyeurs: we get to watch and no one knows; our behaviour is not registered by the subject. In fact the subject has no idea we are watching or what we are saying or doing. Pure voyeurism. We see. They don’t.
A colleague who produced radio shows for a community radio station extended the reach of the show into cable TV. His show often was an interview or a speaker. The audience of the TV show would see the speaker as he spoke. The radio was the audio alone. The audience listened only. The nature of the audience feedback is revealing. People tuning in to the TV show would write to my colleague commenting on how the subject looked or other observations based on appearance. Quite different were the comments of the radio listeners. They wrote in about the speakers’ ideas.
At the end of the Good Friday concert that Anne and I watched, we were able to say it was a good concert. I guess we were impressed by the singing…or was it the singers? Did the sounds, along with the singers obvious concentration singing, and their mood matching dress, and the backdrop of the stained glass windows, and the close view of the organ in all its apparent complexity, all that impress us? Is that what we took from the experience, an impression? Did that impression reassure us? That is were we undisturbed in our comfort for watching it? Of course, always in the back of our mind was that we could turn the TV off or could go back out to the kitchen for more of the sweet comforting dessert sitting on the counter, or could, if we didn’t like what we saw, share that opinion with each other. If so moved, we could have laughed or complained or made slighting comments about the concert and the participants or even the whole church institution that sponsored it. No one in the seat beside us was there in our living room to let us know that kind of chatting and snorting and eating was inappropriate.
After all. We were voyeurs. No one even knew or could care that we were watching. We had this whole life experience while just inside our private little bubble.
Had we been physically at the concert, inside the church, ourself choosing to look at the stained glass, not being directed to it by a camera, or ourself wary how we sat, careful to cooperate with the rest of the public sharing the concert with us. Had we paid $20, expecting to do one thing that night, to listen to the music, being in the presence of the music as it was made, knowing we couldn’t get away, knowing at any moment something unpredictable could happen like the electricity to go off or a singer to stumble or someone to have a heart attack near me, with all that keeping me on the edge of the seat, needing to put all my attention to the one thing happening before me, committing to it, then and only then could the concert move me.
The concert is a live event, that is an event meant for live performance with an audience, that is instead being recorded by a camera. With a more sophisticated broadcast production, the viewing would be more interesting, but still the same, a distant viewing, mediated by the screen to be detached from my experience to it.
However, I can be viewing the screen, and I can be moved. There is a remarkable sophistication, a refining of skill that knows the camera and knows how to use the camera and light to get inside one, get one’s attention, move one with the imaging on the screen. But it’s a whole different relationship with the audience than the recording or an event made to be seen live.
It can help to be in a darkened theatre, but I have been equally moved when watching at home. With watching a production on TV, Anne and I have sat in our living room unable to speak, unwilling to speak, to break the spell. And we have been moved by what we had seen, felt it’s impact in our bodies, our imaginations stretched and challenged and inspired.
There was a designation for movies some time ago, that actually referred to the fact they weren’t that good. A movie might be described as made for TV. That is, not good enough for cinema release. Borrowing that term, I am suggesting that good communication, communication that makes a difference in the heart and minds, has a chance to move the audience has to be made for its medium. If a work is for the screen, then it uses the conditions of that medium to absorb the attendee. Good fictional stories or good documentaries understand the nature of the medium, that the viewer is looking, seeing appearances, not listening to ideas as words, not directly. It is a visual experience. No matter how many camera angles and boom shots and overhead shots and closeups one uses recording an event made for a live audience, the experience will be detached. It may be applauded, but the effect is ephemeral not psychic.
Our society is living with the screen, and living a detached life for it. Content consumed through the screen doesn’t hold our attention and move us, go inside us, stir us up. Content appeals to our peripheral vision, always trying to draw us away from where we are. If we’re in the streetcar or at our work cubicle, little pop-ups, catchy video, certain colours, little pings, all work on a random rewarding of us, so we become addicted to the screen, want to look at it more than what’s going on inside the streetcar or outside on the street.
Marketers and software designers understand their medium and are exceptional at using it to keep us preoccupied with their purposes. We become absorbed in it and our psyches moved by it, if only to make a purchase or cast a vote. They get us to like them or to subscribe so they get to ring the bell and have them to themselves, keep us from their competitor. The winners are really good at doing that. A step ahead.
I feel though, one characteristic that underlies the screen, no matter how good it manages to hold me and focus me, is that it is voyeuristic. Yes we know with certain clicks an actual package will physically show up on our doorstep, but mostly, even with a powerful and moving documentary or fictional story, we know we just walk away.
They might want a more real relationship with us, want us to be present more to them. Maybe they try to get us to go to a website, join in with them. They will try to get us through their social media arm to sign up so that they can count us, count the followers, and try to build a trend, a force of opinion to give them credibility and visibility. But for all that, we are not being a human being, not unless we show up at a rally or a launch. They might even get us to buy a product or a trip. But in the end, the relationship is commercial, a transaction completed, not a human relationship, not a being together in the same room, breathing each other’s air.
While brilliant film people and crafty marketers can give us an experience that moves us, I feel in the end it is never more than a screen, a stimulation. It’s seductive mind you. Our brains deceive us. The person sitting on the couch snacking and watching a game show or online watching someone else doing something, will see excited people, people jumping up and down, laughing, cheering, bubbling over, and that person while blankly staring at the screen will inside her or his own head think she or he is the one having all the fun. Brains are funny that way. And if what that person is watching is tragic, people losing their homes in a fire, a car accident, refugees living in horrid conditions, victims of war, tragedy with no end, well, that person staring blankly at the screen inside their brain, will think gladly it’s not them, easily change the channel, scroll away. We’re voyeurs taking from the screen what we want, thinking what we want, never really alive to anything, jus thinking we are.
People, nice people otherwise, type all kinds of terrible, insulting, threatening, abusive comments into their screens. Sensation extends no further than the screen. They type it in, see it, maybe see a response, but it’s just a screen, thems sitting in a room somewhere, nowhere physically with the subject of their insult. And unless one is the target of the insult or has some connection with the target, then the insulting rude abuse is entertaining. No one is shocked. No one responds with abhorrence, demands accounting. No. People just laugh at it. For four years people laughed at Trump, couldn’t believe him, couldn’t with for the next insult to laugh at or feel indignant, a toothless abhorrence.
It would be quite different if we could have people, say some of the people whipping off the rude rejoinders, get together in the same physical space, to be there together. I’m thinking on a trampoline together. Now it could be they still start yelling at each other because they’ll have this memory of doing it online. So I’d say, they’d have to bring their children with them so all of them now are on the trampoline. And the children will restrain the adults from swearing or insulting each other. And then since it is a trampoline, the children will quite naturally want to play. And they won’t be playing on their own each in a corner. No, they’ll start playing with each other. Now it is a trampoline so if a child or two starts jumping about, everyone else will have to adapt. And the safest thing to do actually would be to join in. So now the adults are going to have to think about how they bounce, and notice how the other adult bounces, and it won’t go all that well, at least to start, and stupid things will happen and the adults will start laughing because that’s what the kids have been doing for some time, and they’ll like all the laughing so they’ll want to do more together to keep the laughing going. Eventually after so much laughing and bouncing around, they’ll all collapse, out of breath and sweaty. And they’ll smell each other’s sweat and see each other’s tears of laughter and playfully high five each other, and they’ll have done the living, not see it on the screen, someone else living life. Now throwing away the screen, they have lived life, have been with another human being, with no interest to insult them or comment on their hair colour or skin colour or shape of their nose, as if it mattered at all what their hair colour or skin colour or sexual orientation is. And if one needed a ride home, the other would probably be happy to give them that.