Lifecycles and Audiences —
I am terrified of planes. I don’t discuss it much because, well, what is anyone going to do about it?
I should also say I’m not terrified of the planes themselves, just being in them when they’re flying.
Flying is a complete torture to me, from the moment I board until it slowly taxis towards the gate after landing. I am literally in a state of pure fear for most of the time, until I reach some sort of anguish threshold and collapse onto myself, often into sleep. I wake up and I’m just messed up enough that I don’t really realize where I am, and then eventually we land, during which time I am back in terror.
Why do I fly? Because logically, it is the fastest way to get to places, and when doing my films or meeting people who I care about or respect, I don’t want “it’ll take too long to get there” to be a reason not to see them. I do it, one might say, for a form of love. Love of people, love of my work, wanting things to be done and not to hide away in a cocoon of intentions and rough sketches. So I take it, like a beating. I’m usually back to normal around an hour or two after landing.
Occasionally, very rarely, I can reach some sort of zen moment where I forget where I am and why I am here and everything that can go wrong and just look out over clouds. At that point, I consider the span of my life, the things I have done and the things not yet done. And inevitably, I always think about how I didn’t get down any of my Fundamental Truths.
One of life’s many little jokes is that we don’t start to get a real grip on stuff until it’s often too late to do anything about it. The worst part is that we get told by others who are later in their lives how they got a grip, but we often don’t listen. Or we sort of listen and then drop it. So, I’m going to write two things that have been getting on my mind a lot recently, and leave it at that. It’ll let me feel a little better that I put it down somewhere, the next time I board a plane (February 24th, actually).
Everything has a Lifecycle.
I’ll describe this truth within the context of the three obvious examples: Jackie Chan, Lloyd’s of London, and Slashdot.
Jackie Chan, international movie star, beloved kung-fu action hero, and worldwide beloved charity head/businessman, was born in 1950. As has now been documented countless times (including the excellent autobiography I am Jackie Chan), he had an extremely hard childhood: put into a Peking Opera training school where he was abused and subject to all manner of physical training/trials which, ultimately, had little use in the modern world upon his teenage years and graduation from the school. From this, he got involved in construction and odd jobs in Australia, before taking on stunt work in the Hong Kong film industry. He got small parts in films, and then got fashioned as a “New Bruce Lee” upon Lee’s untimely death. His talents, physical skills and self-reliance have resulted in many excellent films containing action sequences and stuntwork that he’s played a part in.
However, Jackie Chan has a life cycle. He is in his 50s now, entirely unable to do some of the work he was doing in his 20s, and risks he took in his early film career would now be past suicidal. He is obviously going to continue to make films, and add his mark to them, but to expect him to do some of his earlier work is both unrealistic and refusing to think of him as a person who is growing older and into different directions; he has tried romantic films, producing other films that simply have his name on it, and basically branching out. While I would love a world where Jackie created new films equivalent in approach to Police Story and Drunken Master, there is simply not the same Jackie Chan that made those films available to do them. His life has gone on.
Similarly, Lloyd’s of London, being hundreds of years older than Jackie Chan, has a more involved life cycle. There are also many recountings of its history (an excellent one is here) but here’s a short form.
Started as a coffee house by Edward Lloyd in the 17th century, located on the docks, had good business from sea traders and runners providing information on shipping, and facilitated this with writing supplies and desks. After Lloyd’s death, the swarm of illegitimate business in underwriting led a group to split off and call themselves “Lloyds” and do underwriting. Throughout the next two hundred years, Lloyds has had a number of ups and downs, both insuring unusual items and paying out/taking in enormous sums in celebrated cases, including the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and a variety of celebrity body parts.
The Lloyd’s of the 17th century was wildly different from the Lloyd’s of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But there is this “tradition” and “history” urge that people have to compare what it is to what it was, even though the very natures of the world Lloyds moves in have inherently changed. Fundamentally. While there will always be conceptual ideas (bad things happen, pay in against that in insurance, reap some reward in tragedy) that hold true, the nature of a life cycle means that the Lloyds you walk into today will be nothing at all like it was.
This is either really obvious or not so obvious. What I am saying here is that many people fall into the trap of pointing to the multi-hundred-year history of Lloyds as ongoing proof of its relevancy, or choices. While some of that might be true, nobody who works at Lloyds was alive when it started, or when it broke away from Coffee. Nobody there would have first-hand knowledge how it was functioning before World War I. Almost none would know how it functioned before World War II. There have been thousands, many thousands of meetings, arrangements and contracts that have shifted Lloyds in many directions since it was started. To point to how it was as indication of how it should be or lamenting how it has changed… that is denying this fundamental life cycle.
It is likely that 2050 will not see a Jackie Chan. But 2050 might see a Lloyds. But if it sees either, they simply will not be the same entities they once were, no matter what dollops of marketing, slow-moving montage films, or posters will proclaim.
It might be easier to then point to Slashdot, which will be celebrating 10 years of existence in 2007. Started by a couple college students, this discussion/news site has grown to enormous amounts of influence and power within online circles, guaranteeing not just a huge amount of hits to a site but lots of ancilliary attention and placement in minds outside obvious “geek” realms. Take it from me; I’ve been Slashdotted or caused Slashdottings a number of times and I’ve seen the effects. People call and contact you from amazing places when you’re Slashdotted.
The Slashdot of 1997 is nothing like the Slashdot of 2006. It has similar outward appearances, with the logo and color scheme being the same, but almost everything else is different: the staff, the underlying software engine, the hosting facility, the choices of stories and the nature of communication within it.
The founders are there to some degree, but they are simply not the same people; they are 9 years older. How co-founder Rob Malda is at 30 (which he will be in May) is a lot different than how he was at 21. To apply the same measurements of how he should act or play a part in the site, or draw on his statements when he was a recent college grad as indications of what he’s thinking today… it just makes no sense.
Slashdot was sold to an entity relatively early in its existence, which was sold to another entity. Slashdot is, primarily, a business, geared towards generating revenue for both itself and its related sites. It’s easy to forget this, and apply standards on it as if it was being run out of someone’s home, but that’s the fact. It’s also the fact that in some ways Slashdot itself will fall back on this, and not do the least bit of journalistic research or credible action, simply because there is no outward reason for them to do so; getting things fundamentally wrong has not affected readership, and the comments below each entry allow some amount of “wait, that’s wrong”, so little obvious effort shows up in the final, scrolling collection of new stories.
Pro or con, Slashdot has changed, and is changing ever onward, until it will disappear or be further unrecognizable from what it once was. As a historian, I am interested in the changes, and in the previous incarnations, but I try not to fall into the trap of acting like the Slashdot I load up on my browser is anything but an entity of the present day, subject to the pitfalls and triumphs of 2006.
So where the hell am I going with this?
History is not a template for the future. History is an explanation of why certain mistakes happened, why we got to where we are now, how we did it, and an excellent way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. There is an enormous of hand-wringing, online and off, comparing the world of the present to the world of the past, and attempting backflips and neck-stretches to somehow use these past worlds as templates for the present one. We live in a world where you can contact your loved ones from a field or in a moving car, where you can know within seconds what someone is thinking about you, and where you can turn a frozen block of meat into a dinner better than princes once knew.
To ignore lifecycles and to use the past as shackles holding back progress or, at the least, inevitable change, is a mistake. Don’t do it.
There’s Fundamental Truth number one. I will relax the next time I see the wings shake.
Hatred Often Springs From Uninterested Audiences
A shorter Fundamental Truth, but one that I care very deeply about. I’ve been reading an enormous amount of online material lately (this always happens when I’m working on a project like GET LAMP) and what I find, more often than not, are dismissive or highly-critical treatises about creative or commercial works from people representing audiences the work should never have been put in front of.
Let’s stick with just movies this time.
The absolutely best Kung-Fu movie is still an absolute wreck to someone who doesn’t want to watch Kung-Fu movies. A person who wants to see a romantic comedy will never enjoy a zombie flick, no matter what amount of effort was made into making it the best zombie flick ever.
The nature of marketing and publicity is to expose a product to as wide an audience as possible. The issue with that is that often the work, through no fault of its own, is not actually geared towards as wide an audience as possible.
On the flip side, there are films that are most certainly geared towards as wide an audience as possible. They make certain concessions in plot, casting and shooting so that they will appeal to everybody who walks in the door. It is unlikely, therefore, that it will treat any one of those groups with much respect or satisfy them fully, but on the other hand they won’t lock too many people out, either.
This may or may not seem obvious. But how much energy has been wasted avoiding it!
I am asked about putting my BBS documentary in front of as wide an audience as possible. But I’ve spent a lot of time watching reviews and responses to it; and there are people for whom this is the greatest movie ever. They absolutely love it, they love the length, the subject matter, the approach, the shooting.
But I get people who hate it too. I find, generally, that they were misled by others as to what the film was, or they came in with a different expectation. (“Should have been more like Wargames. Should have had less people talking. Shouldn’t have been so technical”)
This is why I’ve always worked to make the film and its contents known, to have lots of preview material and descriptions that show it’s a very technical documentary that features a lot of people talking. If someone comes along and shows it with the inherent lie “It’s as amazing as Star Wars” floating in peoples’ heads as they watch it, it will be horrible. It is absolutely the worst episode of Star Wars ever. (Episode XI: I Keep Getting a Busy Signal).
I’m just sticking to movies here, but this Fundamental Truth applies to a lot of stuff besides creative works. It applies to education (being told a subject will be a certain type of experience in learning and it is not), to tools (being told a tool can be used a certain way when it doesn’t do that very well), and to people (presenting someone as having skills they do not have). In all these cases, these subjects all have very good uses and skills and abilities, but only if they’re presented the right way or are upfront. The energy then spent defending or criticizing the entire misfit characterization, dilutes the equivalent of many human lives over the years.
There. Now they’re both out. Enjoy them. And the next time you see me somewhere where I flew, realize how much I truly wanted to be there.
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(BTW: Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy with zombies. In fact, I think the tagline on my DVD is exactly “A Romatic Comedy. With Zombies.”)
Without a doubt, there are romantic zombie movies, and techno-thriller porn films, and action hero documentaries…. this falls under the “general audience” classification I was speaking of. The un-needed hatred I speak of is if Shaun of the Dead was marketed as a film that appealed to hardcore zombie movie fans, or as a pure romantic comedy.
actually i think Shaun of the dead labels it a “Romantic Zomedie”