Tell me, when you go to a restaurant, are you overwhelmed by the menu? Do you have a sudden urge to order every single starter, main and dessert to make sure you know what everything the restaurant has to offer looks like, smells like and tastes like? Or do you sit down, consider what you’d like to eat and make a conscious decision?
You might wonder why I’ve opened with such a bizarre hypothetical, but I feel I need to get some things off my chest. In the last day or so, the Internet has got temporarily hotter than usual in the aftermath of the publication of a little think piece in Vulture. Now, I don’t necessarily want to pile onto the author who is perfectly entitled to his opinion on the matter of how he watches films and TV, but equally some things need to be said because both the article and the divided reaction towards it illustrate a worrying trend in our culture.
The gist of the article, which is very entertainingly put together and well written, revolves around the author making a personal confession to watching TV shows on Netflix on 1.25x speed (and some podcasts on 1.5x speed) and defending this choice by pointing to the seemingly never-ending and constantly expanding breadth of available stuff to watch. It’s hard not to agree with the assertion that one single streaming subscription offers enough movies, documentaries and TV shows to keep anyone occupied for years. And nobody has just one subscription. Now, judging by the tone of the piece, I don’t think the author is particularly adamant about championing this idea – even if it occasionally comes across as such – but it was incendiary enough to send a bunch of people on Twitter into a fit of righteous fury and forced a section of the readership vindicated by the author’s stance to stand in defence of the notion of watching everything sped up a touch.
In the interest of complete transparency, I can’t say I find my own views neutral on this matter as I don’t condone this practice at all. I think films should be watched ‘normally’ and I don’t buy into comparing this practice to playing video games on easy difficulty setting. It’s a false equivalency for a number of reasons, most important of which is that in contrast to video game developers who decided whether or not to include an easy setting for their game, the filmmakers are not consulted about having their work experienced sped up. Think about the editors teasing out the nuance of a scene by holding onto a shot before cutting away for just a second longer than expected because it informs the characters better and gives the viewer a chance to take in the scenery or pause to think about what’s happening; all gone unnoticed because some schmoe watched it on 1.25x speed. Granted, the author did point out he applied this mostly to schlocky TV shows that he felt would have been a waste of time to watch normally. I sincerely hope he would not watch Silence, 2001, Stalker or Shoah like that. And even though the filmography of Lav Diaz (who typically makes movies that go on for six or more hours) is completely impenetrable to anyone who simply doesn’t have the time to give these films the attention they deserve, it still is not a good enough reason to cheat your way out of it to log it on Letterboxd and brag to your peers about being into slow cinema.
But I am not here to lambast the man. I am rather here to ask those who agree with the idea of watching anything at 1.25x speed what the point of it all is. Because it sure as hell is not to experience these things the way they were intended to be experienced. This is only done to enable the viewer to consume more content, which is where I’d like to ask why would you even want to skim over something you are not interested in? Oh, is it to make sure if it’s worthy of your full attention when you give it a re-watch at a later date? Am I supposed to buy that you’d have the time to go back to that schlocky TV show which turned out to be quite alright when you speed-watched it? I am sure you’d rather speed-watch something else that just dropped on Netflix instead. After all, they add something new every day and you have finite amount of time in your life so you might as well consume something new, correct?
That’s what FOMO is, am I right? Fear of missing out. Though, I prefer the German word for this phenomenon, Torschlusspanik. Fear of time running out, or – verbatim – fear of the gate being closed. I don’t think I am remotely qualified to make informed judgments on the matter, but from what I gather, this notion has grown in prominence as the Internet matured. We have access to so much stuff that for many of us it has become paralyzingly overwhelming and depressing to realize that nobody will ever be able to see and experience everything the world has to offer. I suppose folks who identify themselves as FOMO sufferers don’t frequent their local libraries because the sheer amount of books they could take off the shelves and read would likely send them into a tailspin as well. But nobody has ever moaned about having fear of missing out on books! Nobody! I suppose we don’t treat books the same way we treat music, film and TV because they require active and prolonged involvement on behalf of the reader. Meanwhile you can watch the new episode of South Park start-to-finish while having a shit, which is impossible to accomplish with a book. And it doesn’t matter how constipated you are. Unless it’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which I know for a fact can be read on the can, it will happen in multiple sittings.
Nevertheless, here we are: in a world where the quality of our interaction with the culture at large is becoming secondary to the volume of that interaction. I don’t think this pertains as much to Gen-Xers and Boomers who haven’t organically matured surrounded by paralysis of choice and are more at home with the idea of making choices in life. Decisions. Look, as I am writing these words I am fully aware I could have watched The Army of the Dead or a bunch of Buster Keaton shorts I have on my shelf behind me. And some of you might say it would have been a better choice, but that’s the aspect of life we have almost completely forsaken. We do not accept the idea of making choices. We want everything. We want it easy. And we want it now. We want to be able to binge through all seasons of NCIS while listening to all the coolest podcasts and scrolling through our social media and desperately trying to stay connected to the world that doesn’t care about our existence one little bit. We are comfortable with the notion of putting multiple things on as background noise: a TV show on the screen in the periphery of our vision, an earphone with Joe Rogan bleating into the right ear, Bergman’s Persona on the laptop screen (because we can’t be seen without it logged on LB, right?) and our thumbs gliding over the phone screen, liking and retweeting memes. We are not multitasking. We are constantly, persistently and criminally distracted. That’s our existence in a nutshell. Over-stimulated and distracted.
We have successfully normalized FOMO as an identity and that Vulture article is a tacit acknowledgement that this is the world we live in, which is patently untrue. FOMO is not an identity, but a symptom of cultural bulimia. It’s a disorder that warps the way we perceive reality to the point where we accept it as axiomatic that we not only can but we should ingest as much as we can before we die.
No, we do not! We can make informed decisions as to what we watch, read and listen to. We don’t have to listen to all the podcasts in the world; there’s too many of them! It’s fine to find a handful that enrich our lives in some way. We don’t have to read all the books nor watch all the films, just as we don’t have to eat everything on the menu when we go to a restaurant. Life is about choices. Life is about connecting with something. How are you connecting with that episode of CSI that you speed-watched? How is Through a Glass Darkly even capable of enriching your life when you don’t want to think about what it means for half a second? Is moving on to the next thing that important? I assure you, it is not. Letting these anxieties go is liberating.
And to add insult to injury, it really shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that there are ramifications to our changing habits. Because we have fully embraced the idea of interacting with our culture by volume, the culture is adjusting to this as well. Why tell great stories or tackle difficult subjects if nobody has the time or the inclination to engage with them? Our culture-wide anxieties are partially driving what we often denounce – the idea of art becoming merely content to be consumed. Well, if all you do is devour it, why should anyone care about what your consuming being palatable, let alone nutritious? As a result, let’s not be surprised if we wake up five years from now in a world where art is well and truly driven into the underground while billions of braindead consumers are busy ingesting intellectually-bankrupt entertainment from four sources at a time. Cinema will not be decapitated by financial failures of studio tentpoles or the pandemic driving theatres into insolvency. Cinema will go quietly, akin to someone drowning. It will just go under and shall never resurface. And all that’ll be left will be ceaseless, roaring waves of content crashing against the shores of our withering cerebral capacity to ingest it.
Think about it: do you like to treat our culture like a gourmet restaurant where we have to make choices and chances are what we’ll experience will be worthwhile? Or do you prefer to treat it as an all-you-can-eat buffet where you are encouraged to put spring rolls, a steak, three types of pasta, chow mein and a chocolate cake on the same plate? If we let FOMO guide our lives, we will irreversibly change the culture into an all-you-can-eat experience. And if there’s anything certain coming from this comparison, it is that nobody has ever gone into such an establishment because the food was unequivocally great. Also, nobody ever felt great after leaving such an establishment. All you get from a night out of such variety is complete loss of dignity, stains on your shirt, meat sweats, and a massive bout of diarrhoea ninety minutes later when you get home.
I know where I stand. I don’t want for my interactions with movies and TV to give me the runs. Simples.