Photo courtesy of Tim Olson

Oscar night, 2015.

I’ve heard that Hollywood was once the beacon of cultural values and lifestyle best practice, disseminating important lessons to the masses that will, one way or another, shape the actions and behaviors of captivated audiences from San Francisco to Manhattan and beyond. This is undoubtedly still the case although, suffice it to say, things have changed quite a bit since the time before digital media.

The way I see it, Hollywood and the populous have had a relatively reciprocal relationship since the beginning, with one reflecting the other and vice-versa, over and over again ad infinitum. What I’m interested in is what happens in The Crossing – that point at which the reflective power of each are reaching a peak intensity, battling tooth-and-nail for the upper hand.

So, what is it? Is Hollywood a reflection of us, or are we a reflection of it?

With the biggest Hollywood event of the year taking place at present, it might be a good time to reflect a bit on the matter.

Captivated, indeed
Nielsen logged a whopping 43 million viewers for the 2014 Oscars, giving the event its highest rating in a decade, and adding 3.3 million over 2013’s iteration. Now, while that number is a global one, it is too perfect to not mention that the United States saw its weakest voter turnout since the Roosevelt administration in the midterm elections this past November. That’s Franky D., not Teddy, but still.

Once the ledgers were tallied and seats cemented, The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion article affirming that half or more of eligible voters in 43 states balked on participating in the election, leading to a national turnout of 36.3 percent. In the same year, more people watched the Oscars than any other time in the past 10 years, and fewer people voted in a national election than any other time in the past 72 years.

Bonus: Politico reported that the most recent State of the Union address garnered its lowest television viewership since 2000, with roughly 32 million tuning in.

One can only hope this is not an accurate indication of how the tides of social involvement and participation are shifting, but one can certainly make a strong argument for it being as such.

Why am I pointing to politics in this discussion, you may be asking? Well, there are three core types of control we tend to face around every corner – Media, Politics and Economics. I’m not one for thinking a sole entity or small group of people actually controls the world. Rather, I feel as though the control is far more subversive, and, somehow, at once chosen and involuntary.

Photo courtesy of Mattys Flicks.

Think of it this way, the vast majority of Americans do not necessarily have any chance of impacting decisions in Hollywood, at least as individuals, yet put such a large portion of their attention firmly in control of producers, writers, directors, etcetera. Then, you remember that we live in a ‘Democracy,’ in which the vast majority of Americans do indeed have the power to impact decisions in Washington, individually or otherwise, but there is no drive to do so.

Is it just easier to treat that beautiful, eloquent character as a surrogate, allowing actual realities to be drowned out by the trials and tribulations of fictional beings? Once the willful suspension of disbelief exceeds its traditional boundaries and moves more into the territory of cognitive and behavioral adjustment, matters will inherently become a bit trickier. To say the least, the fourth wall has been obliterated.

What happens next is an undeniable, subversive shift in values, choices, lifestyles, desires, purchasing decisions, thought processes and more. This is not to say kids who play violent video games are going to be violent themselves, nor that teenagers who watch questionable programming will themselves become questionable.

Rather, no matter how you slice it, the events on the silver screen do control viewers in one form or another, either today, tomorrow or weeks away. More likely than not, the viewer will not even notice. Perhaps you picked up a piece of verbiage or dialect, or maybe you are at the grocery store and make a change to your general diet. Maybe the shift is small or perhaps it is vast – the point is there will logically be some transformation.

There is no denying it is a chosen form of control, but what drives so many of us to be far more interested in what happened on Jay-Z’s yacht than which war crimes our representatives to the rest of the world might be committing right at this very moment?

The big day arrives
As I’m writing this, millions of individuals are bracing for impact by a television set or two, with their gadgets, snacks, alcoholic beverages and other traditional flare no more than an arm’s length away. Not a moment can be missed – not a trip, slip, hair flip or otherwise – as such an oversight can make one the laughing stock of the office or classroom come morning.

“Wait, you didn’t see when George Clooney winked at Jennifer Anniston?! Where. Were. You.”

Thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of bloggers, social media aficionados and talking heads in any other medium imaginable are waiting to be the first to point to a moment. The one to break the news to the Internet seconds after it occurred and a blink before competitors do the same.

Timing. Delivery. Speed. Execution. Get those ratings up. Rise the likes. ‘Kill it’ with the retweets. Capture the conversions. Go to sleep happy.

And we wonder why journalism has become decreasingly reliable or ‘important.’

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey.

Tens of thousands might even be playing drinking games that correlate with the event. All the way down to the bottom, 40 ounces ‘til transference of oneself into the image of a star.

All apologies for the digressions.

Ask the entire U.S. population which would be more desirable – standing 20 feet from the Red Carpet on Oscar night or experiencing a world in which police brutality is as rare as the Javan rhinoceros, and the Javan rhinoceros is no longer rare. Something tells me the lion’s share of the good people of this country would be a bit more interested in the flashing lights of the paparazzi than those of a police cruiser in Missouri, New Jersey, New York, or Indiana.

No, no, I’m not calling the majority of the U.S. population violent, heinous perpetuators of violence and oppression. Rather, I’m simply musing that these are the choices we make. We choose to be more engaged in the lifestyles of the rich and the famous than we do in the livelihood of our neighbors or even ourselves. If you now have a really annoying song from the early 2000s stuck in your head, I’m proud.

If you have not noticed yet, I’m not watching the Oscars. I do not even have a television to do so and, if I did, I’d probably be engaged in some comparable activity, just of a different hue. Maybe some good old-fashioned animal programming, hero fare or the like, but the outcome would essentially be the same – the willful suspension of disbelief that leads to the willful suspension of oneself from basic emotions, human struggle and adverse thought processes.

After all, when my own life is nothing but grey, barren boredom and flashy, engaging, exciting, provocative activities are taking place on a screen just a click away, why would I not quickly choose the latter?

Let’s get back to the question at hand, shall we?

Who is in charge here?
Rambling aside, is our interaction with Hollywood and its with us not worth pondering a bit? Sure, certain films are rightfully hailed as being perfect reflections of life in middle-America, or exceptional depictions of life during wartime in the Middle East.

On the other hand, there are certainly trend-setting films released on a monthly basis, many of which will be showcased in tonight’s annual awards show alongside dresses massive portions of the population will desire and bone structures vast majorities will envy and for which they will strive.

After all, where else would we learn how to be attractive or, even past that, what attractiveness actually entails?

Photo courtesy of Alosh Bennett.

Mooks and midriffs domesticated and matured just enough to capture the very heart of America.

There is no argument to be made that Hollywood is not an important, if not necessary component of our culture, nor that its productions have no positive impact on society or, more importantly, the individuals therein.

I once read a study that found watching underdog stories actually improved viewers’ own motivation to do better in their own lives. There’s a positive impact for you. Watch Rudy and see if you’re a bit more hopeful tomorrow.

What worries me is the degree to which we passively digest the lessons and teachings taking shape on an electric circuit board, broadcast from a very specific and unique part of the world. Sometimes, or perhaps most times, even good lessons do not evoke positive action when they are learned improperly, namely in a passive fashion free from real internal investigation.

Whether Hollywood is good or bad – or Washington for that matter – is entirely beside the point. The point is instead that we continue to become more uniform, apathetic, flippant, unconscious and detached beings with the passing of each day, floating through life like deafened orcas in a small, murky enclosure.

That isn’t Hollywood’s fault, as it can only be our fault given the fact that we willingly choose to engage in fanatic and fantastical endeavors of others more  the six inches in front of our faces.

At the end of the day, we are faced with a strange decision: Oblige the connection between the powers that be – including film and television – and our decisions and be able to operate as normal, safe and acceptable individuals of society, or shun the idea and be ostracized in some particular level of intensity.

Which aspect of humanity led to the ‘fear of missing out?’

My only hope is that the decision is made with some thought and individuality, rather than being completely passed off and surrendered in favor of ease, tranquility, anonymity and safety.

The People do have a say, after all.

Maybe if we really want more compelling script writing, we ought to live more compelling lives. If we want more colorful acting, we should ourselves start acting naturally rather than in socially prescribed manners. If we want more captivating cinematography, we will need to start seeing the world through more diverse and idiosyncratic lenses as individuals and together in communities.

On the flip side, maybe it is Hollywood that is in control after all. Maybe there is some super-connection between Hollywood, economics, politics, law and The Order of Things, with the few pulling the strings of the masses and, in doing so, making the population act in a predictable and orderly fashion. Howard Beale asserted “the individual was finished” when the movie Network was released just under 40 years ago, and maybe he was right.

The past two centuries have been heavily characterized by a battle of the wills – the war between individuality and society – and maybe we will never really see an end to it. However, my greatest fear is that we have already stopped battling in any sense of the word, choosing instead to succumb to the controls around us and forgetting how to act in any contrarian, natural manner at all. What defines ‘natural’ anyway?

A case can be made that television, computers, smartphones, tablets, wearables and whatever in god’s name comes next has made it more difficult than ever before to see the forest for the trees, desensitizing and blinding us continuously until nothing is left.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has never been more flawlessly and horrifically displayed than in the modern era. It has moved away from the allegory categorization and closer to prophecy at this point.

The controls in place are the controls we choose.

Someone in Dolby Theater has probably already evoked an uproar – of joy or anger or both – that will reverberate for weeks to come around the globe and back again. As such, I’ll call an end to this rambling soliloquy.

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