Peeling back the media layers

When I consume fiction, I try to dive in with enthusiasm. I suspend my disbelief and let the story itself carry me. I try hard to not worry about meta-narrative, or technique, or politics get in the way. I try to let the story itself stand on its own. For “good” media, this often works. I readily enjoy the experience, be it book or film or tv or game. Often the first sign of problems is when the media can’t stand on its own, and I end up being forced into analytical mode.

Almost inevitably, the first layer I pull back is technical: with a literature degree by way of a few years of film studies and a perverse need to watch all the extra features, I think a lot about how stories are told. I worry about why that particularly manipulative camera-pan, or upwards-to-the-right angle, or why mention a missile at all, because now I know it’s going to come back later in the book. In the score, was that overbearing timpani in that one scene really necessary? (pro tip: no, it never is). Again, things split here. When I re-watch a really good movie, looking at it through this technical lens only adds to why I love it (My favourite movie is probably I am Cuba, which I like perhaps more for the technical elements of the film than the film itself).

Beyond technical, I start to think about meta-narrative: when you know an author’s work, you tend to see recurring themes, images, etc -both in print and screen, and I start to wonder how the decisions made this time tie into the overarching œuvre. And in film, you not only have the writer’s meta-narrative, but also the director’s. And the cinematographer’s. And sometimes the actors’. When you get to “corporate” film, you also have the producers’ (see: Pixar, Disney, Marvel, etc). Watch a bunch of Scorsese films back-to-back, or binge-watch a tv show under the same show-runner, and see how quickly you can start to identify which episodes were directed by which person – there’s all sorts of little tells that keep popping up.

And then, finally, likely to my own discredit, I often think about the socio-politics of the media (Hi! I’m a Canadian, straight, white male who has the luxury of not having to think about this all the time!). Why this casting choice? why that gender/race for that character? who directed? How is that reflective of the audience’s experience? the creators? the funders? This, most often than not, is where films that have survived all the previous examinations start to fall apart.  Just passing the Bechdel test is hard. Add in “positive/lead/speaking” roles for non-white-men as a layer and it gets worse. I have this immense luxury of approaching virtually any media knowing that I am the target audience for it. I had a small sense of perhaps what it might be like to not be recently reading “Between the world an me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is definitely not aimed at middle-class white Gen-X… and it was fascinating to start to look at the assumed terms of reference in the book that were not at all common to me (aside: this is a reason I like to read foreign novels, particularly from non judeo-christian-heritage authors, because that means I need to work more to figure out the common terms of reference).

(all of this bubbled to mind after binge-watching the 100, and why i thought it was inevitable that Clark and Lexa would kiss. And then wondering why it made me squeamish that the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters was, also, the only non-scientists (indeed, she seems to be the “street-smart” character), and why, while it makes sense to cast a non-white actor in a new Harry Potter play, or as James Bond, it is still hugely problematic that Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone).


Also published on Medium.