Times are hard; not uniquely hard, maybe, but we’d like to think so. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, etc. It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of trying to assess the direness of the current moment. But nobody can argue in good faith that today isn’t Bad, by any objective measure.
Escapism is the order of the day in most popular media. Things that win the most praise, my ears tell me, are those that depict The Good Guys Kicking Ass. I get that, I do. It’s fun to see nuns with guns, or watch an immortal Charlize Theron heroine executing CGI-perfect spin-kicks in HD slow-motion into the faces of fascists. Most computer entertainments are exactly this, just moreso.
I feel like, as a character to emulate, these choices are completely unhelpful to me. Nothing I am going to do in the current crisis is going to work like, or even much feel like, Hollywood violence onscreen–or the equivalent carnage in recent spec-fiction works, which can afford to be even more bloodthirsty because there are no actual images accompanying them.
I worry that my son thinks that Fortnight melees are the normal mode of human interaction. I worry that Marvel Comics super spectacles with names like “Armageddon” and “Infinity War” are going to displace the mindshare occupied by movies about people doing things.
My wife and I watched a random movie last night, “The Sunlit Night”. It was a slightly romantic, occasionally funny post-breakup-woman-gets-her-act-together script, with some very predictable notes and a plucky PoV character who is not an action heroine.
The thing I really liked about the movie were the little inset segments where she, an artist, is working at her painting. In the very beginning of the movie, we see three prickly art professors, presumably, critiquing a piece of her work, a kind of ab-ex pastiche. They are ruthless in their comments about the art and the artist; at the end, she gratuitously thanks them and leaves. Later, we see her approaching a blank canvas, twiggling paint brushes in her hand, to convey that internal work is happening.
[Spoiler] she gets a new approach, finds a new subject, eeks out time from her other commitments (she’s painting a barn in most-northerly Norway, for another prickly artist) to work on her vision. The results are, to my eyes, modest, but the trio of critics back home are, eventually, impressed.
This bit of artistic growth, and the hard work that accompany it, is conveyed in just a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the film, but they felt like a hard rain in the desert for me. The next morning found me awake at 5:30 after a long absence, seeking a way back into writing an ambitious story I had put aside weeks earlier. Representation matters, and that’s not just for race or gender or orientation, but also for what you do. And if what you do, or want to do, is work steadily and non-flamboyantly on something you love (whether it’s a ‘job’ or not) you will find relatively little representation, especially right now, in this time of necessary escapism and revenge fantasies.
And this is not just about the arts. “American Factory” is another recent, excellent film that could be reasonably called competence porn. In this case it’s factory workers who find some redemption and a pinch of bliss in Doing What They Do.
I’m not dreaming of some capitalist fantasy where everyone is super obsessed with career and competition. I’m talking about doing the thing you do, a productive, not harmful, not impossible thing, and deriving some modest joy from doing it well, and from the effect it has on those around you. This is, for me, a trail of bread crumbs, an encouraging one, and one I hope will lead me, if I follow it, out of this dark forest, and back to some better place.
I don’t pretend competence porn is going to correct all the things that have gone wrong with our world lately–and, just saying it here, some things that have been wrong for a long time. Black Lives Matter. Love is Love. Science is Real. Families belong together. America was made by immigrants. Punch Nazis whenever you can.
I do think it’s almost always a better option than midnight doomscrolling–a word we’ll long regret having had the need to invent–and, not to belabor this, but a little more representation of competence, unrelated to revenge fantasies, would be good for all of our psyches at this point.