04 November 2012

My Day at the Movies: The Man with the Iron Fists

8 hours, a full work day, at the cinema seeing the same mediocre film again and again. The crowd for each showing is slightly larger than the last. It's the same 1 hour 36 minute spectacle again and again, preceded by the same 20 minutes of spectacular movie marketing, again and again. And in-between an endless loop of commercials. The long-standing tradition of the no-talking announcement has become no talking/texting/chatting/social networking, and is, in fact, a commercial for a cell phone carrier that wants you to do all of those things. Just not during the film. Ostensibly. Even some of the commercials have been crowd-sourced, sweepstaked, contest-won, as if to say: "Social media isn't replacing film. YOU can be a part of the cinema experience. Or, at least the Sprite commercial before the trailers."

Thousands of cubic feet of unused heterotopic space dwarf the human occupants, who are there to be entertained out of their lives. The trailers begin, lights dimming only slightly.

Movie 43A Haunted HouseGangster SquadCarrieMama. Markie Mark. Tarantino. DiCaprio.

The similarity in duration and appearance to a workday is no coincidence. Four screenings of The Man with the Iron Fists, two coffee breaks, and an hour lunch. A waste of time? Perhaps, if we determine the value of time based on its conventional use as a measure of labor, as the dollar's alter ego. But a day, a whole workday's worth of time, thrown to the pursuit of leisure... could that really be a waste?

The better question is: "Is it really leisure to which we devote our salaried time when we immerse ourselves in the mediated experience?"

Cinematic leisure time does not come without its cost. We replace hours that could be spent "earning a living" by paying for hours of entertainment. The current value of human life in the U.S., determined by its value to labor, is, at minimum, $7.50 an hour. The human body at leisure, then, is worth negative $7.50 an hour. Rest begins with an economic deficit: were we working, we would at least break even. Then there is the monetary cost of the entertainment. First showing: $6.50. Second showing: $8.50. Third and fourth showings: $10.50. The hourly cost for eight hours of cinematic entertainment averages $4.50. The experience, then, costs us $12.00 an hour, at minimum. I manage to abstain from concessions during the films, but the bottled waters, dried apple chips, tubs of soda, Sno-caps, fried chicken strips, and popcorn raise the cost exponentially. Lunch and coffee are not provided, so those costs might also be included.

And what do I get for my $12+ an hour? An experience much like that of watching someone else play a kung-fu videogame for an hour and a half while you wait your turn. A turn that never comes. Fights that showcase unique weapons and special moves, punctuated by a series of cutscenes that barely attempt to string the fights together. Am I really at leisure, sitting and allowing the mediated experience to work on me? Were I watching this film at a drive-in, I would say that a bandit slowly siphons time from my tank while I sit, unmoving at the wheel. The mediated experience is a simulacrum, an imposter of authentic experience, a time bandit.

My roommate, Freddy, has joined me for the first showing: an unwitting co-worker in this labor. Our shared social experience consists of sitting quietly in the dark next to one another for almost two hours. An occasional chuckle can be heard by the other. We wait until the credits end and the lights come up to speak and then only to concur that it's lunchtime. At lunch, we discuss the film only cursorily (shoptalk) before moving on to friends, current events in our lives, and projects on which we are working. Lunch runs long, but I don't care about being late getting back to work, midway through the second screening. It's the one little consolation for many of us-- to steal an extra 15 minutes of leisure time from the workday.  Others of us, though, must clock in and out, time being rigidly supervised and rationed. We risk our means of making a living if we steal or misplace the time that belongs to labor. The time that labor has seized from us.

Will this workday never end? Caffeine consumed during the two brief breaks spent at a nearby Starbucks makes me antsy to leave. I've lost all productivity. By the fourth showing, I'm checking the time every ten minutes or so, disregarding the-no-cell-phone-use announcement. This draws the attention and silent disapproval of other isolated workers in the theater as they notice the glow of time-checking. Or perhaps the disapproval is because the glow provides enough light for them to see the yellow legal pad in my lap. It's clear to them that I've been disregarding my work responsibility-- to allow myself to be absorbed into the story-- and wasting company time. I've been playing when I should have been hard at work. On my leisure time.

My Day at the Movies truly was an attempt at play, masquerading as leisure, which is nothing more than labor in camouflage. Yet, don't think me terribly enlightened or free from the effects of this repressive system. Most of the day I was worried about what I should be doing instead: grading papers, working at my "serious" academic writing, designing a logo for a conference, researching curriculum for a new program at school. In this case, spectacular time did not do its work; it did not wield enough power to distract me from my own work. To delude me into believing that I am not at work even while at leisure.

But, as Lucy Liu's Madame Blossom in the film tells her prostitutes: "The thing about power is that it belongs to no one... until it is seized... seized by sex, or violence, or gold." 

The film had plenty of all three, yet, in the face of repetition, its power was reduced further with each iteration. "No wonder the mediated experience loses the power to delude," one might argue, "when you sit through the same film four times in a row. It's boredom that brings back thoughts of work."  I would argue that playing the same game but with four different mainstream films would have the same effect. Even costumed as four different films, they would rehash the same mediocre mediated experience again and again. One need only look at the trailers for films mentioned above to see this: a parody of the Paranormal Activity films, the fourth of which is currently in theaters; a remake of the film adaptation of a Stephen King novel; Tarantino's homage to the spaghetti western, with a dash of plantation slavery, oddly reminiscent of the origin story of The Man with the Iron Fists, which, in itself, is an ode to classic kung fu films.

Why do we continue to settle for the same mediated experience? How do we escape the economy of leisure? Is time ever truly our own?

Herbert Marcuse wrote in Eros and Civilization: "Play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure; it 'just plays' with reality" (195). 

True play, disregarding time as the measure of anything, could be the antidote to labor. And to the simulacra of leisure.


Ryan McNeely said...

Interesting, did you dream about the movie that night?

Matt Bennett said...

:D I didn't, amazingly enough. I dreamt that my niece gave my nephew a bad haircut with my clippers. And I enjoyed that more than the film.

Matt Bennett said...

My friend, Betsy, asks a very good question: "What is true play?"

I'm not sure, but I intend to devote the rest of my life to finding out.

Matt Bennett said...

My Day at the Movies was inspired, in part, by the video work of my friend and mentor, H. Michael Sanders. His piece, "My Day of Television," is witty and revelatory of the mediated experience. Thanks for everything you've done, Mike.