Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist

Acshenglut asks about:

Being entertained as an artist:

I’ve often wondered if it is possible for a writer or other artist to look at work in their medium or a related medium (film and plays are still storytelling, for instance) as mere entertainment.

Is there such a thing as entertainment for an artist, or is picking apart the technique or artistic choices of another artist, even while being entertained?

Does “seeing the strings” another artist is pulling detract from or enhance your appreciation for another artwork or artist?

In my particular case, this covers a lot of ground, since I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction in several formats, have worked on film and TV projects, been involved with video games, and, heck, even released an album of music. Also, I’ve been a professional critic — mostly with film and music, but in other formats as well. So there’s that extra added layer of professional interest in how entertainment works.

And the answer is: Yes, absolutely I can appreciate a piece of entertainment just as entertainment, because sometimes — heck, a lot of the time — I don’t want to have to work when I seek to amuse myself, I just want to stuff my sensory organs full of input and then let my brain sort it out. When I’m off the clock, I am off the clock.

Moreover, I think this is a good thing to do: Being on the clock 24/7 as a creator would be exhausting, and always having to look at entertainment as a residue of process rather than an end result would likewise be dispiriting. Like anyone else, creators deserve their down time.

But I would also say that knowing all the tricks of the trade, as it were, doesn’t necessarily detract from the entertainment value. Knowing how movies get made, either in the technical or the business sense, doesn’t mean it knocks me out of being entertained — and indeed on more than one occasion I chose to see a film at least in part because of a technical process (see: my review of Gemini Man). To the extent I choose to engage with it, it can be an add on, not a distraction.

It’s also the case that being a writer myself gives me a grounding to appreciate when someone is doing some aspect of writing well, even as I’m reading without my “writer brain” engaged. Writing well is a skill, and it’s okay to be cognizant of that skill even if you’re engaging with it primarily or exclusively as a reader. That’s not the writer “showing off,” that’s the writer doing their job admirably.

Also, and independently, and with full cognizance it probably wasn’t meant it this way but even so, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “mere” entertainment. Entertainment as entertainment has immense value for people. Even in its most base state — a passing amusement — it has the potential to make someone’s existence better than it was, and that, as they say, is not chicken feed. A good book or movie or music album can make the difference between a good day and a crappy one. Beyond its base state, for example, people can and do find communities through their entertainment choices; they make friends, meet partners and can even occasionally find purpose. Again, not chicken feed.

(I mean, I’m a writer, after all — I came to it because I was a reader first. “Mere” entertainment became my life’s work, and has brought to me all sorts of benefits, not the least of which was meeting my wife. There’s no way our paths would have crossed had I not been a writer. None. So three cheers, and then some, for mere entertainment.)

In any event: Being a writer and creator generally doesn’t get in my way of being entertained. I can turn off my writer brain and enjoy entertainment for its own sake. But even when my writer brain is on, it’s a plus, not a minus, to the entertainment experience. The only time I’m really taken out of the entertainment experience is if the entertainment is bad. But that would happen whether or not I was writer. That’s what bad entertainment does, to everyone.

20 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist

  1. I, too, wondered about this. I am thinking of what Mark Twain said about his appreciation of the beauty of the great river after he had become a riverboat pilot, having learned the potential dangers along every foot of the river. “No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”

  2. @Bob Seevers – I’ve always found that knowing the science of the moon and planets and stars adds to their beauty for me.

    @John Scalzi – you wrote ” “Mere” entertainment became my life’s work, and has brought to me all sorts of benefits, not the least of which was meeting my wife. There’s no way our paths would have crossed had I not been a writer.” Will you ever tell us the story of how being a writer led to meeting your wife?

  3. @John Scalzi – could you please link to one of them? Trying to search for it on your site brings up so many posts that while I’ve been well entertained (loved the Marine dentist story), I still haven’t seen one on that topic.

  4. I like the famous but quite long Feynman quote, which goes against Twain and basically states that science/ knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower/ sunset/ body / turn in the river. “It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

    Ages ago I went out with a junior doctor, and a religious friend opined that knowing how the internals of the body worked must detract from her appreciation of the magic of beauty / love / existence, a bit like Twain. But she – who was fairly religious herself, and her father and ex-husband were both vicars – essentially took the Feynman line: it makes it better and deeper. Again, thinking of Twain, I bet my father’s appreciation for and interest in the magnificence and power of the weather – long into his retirement – had only been enhanced, not reduced, by being an airline pilot and having to fly through it on a professional basis.

    As for filmed entertainment: I have worked on a couple of movies and so am well aware that when a character in peril is stepping into a dangerous space on the screen, in the real world she is in fact only a few metres from 25 people with lights, cameras, clipboards, sewing boxes, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, scripts and doughnuts. Despite “knowing” that I still get creeped out by even trailers for horror films, and rarely watch the full things. (The Descent was a horror movie set in a bunch of claustrophobic caves and he walked out, well before the monsters showed up, even though 1) he had been a cave tourist guide and 2) we had already seen the production designer’s website with photos of how he made the artificial “caves” in a studio from wood and plaster and paint.)(We only went to see The Descent as my brother, a director, had considered using that designer, whom I had met, on one of his own productions.)

    The films I do watch I like to discuss and pull apart afterwards, and often I am aware of stumbles and clunky plot holes even while watching (as of course are loads of people who have never seen a film set). For me, talking about all that afterwards is a part of the enjoyment of a film. A friend of mine says, it’s only a film, there’s no need to dissect it, so seeing a film with her – or on my own – is fine but not the full experience!

  5. “The Descent was a horror movie set in a bunch of claustrophobic caves and he walked out” – oops, missed out that I went to see it with a friend – and he walked out.

  6. John, I met my wife through a Usenet group devoted to the fans of Dean Koontz, which would not have happened otherwise, so I also have a heightened appreciation of “mere entertainment.”

    Mr. Koontz has a couple of fans for life who buy basically everything he publishes. It seems like a fair trade to me, since I found the love of my life thanks to him.

  7. I don’t know from adding or subtracting, from a work of art/entertainment. I can appreciate craft and virtuosity, occasionally for its own sake, but usually, as an integral part of my overall appreciation of the book, film or music I am encountering. Sometimes, there are particular technical aspects that draw specific attention, like camera movement, lighting, framing in a film, or plotting, dialog or sequencing in a book, that makes me curious. But even in the case of a mystery, solving the puzzle is not primarily the point, so much as enjoying or being captivated by the experience. I certainly don’t need to have a technical understanding of the mechanics of production to enjoy something.

    I would think that a lot of writers/artists have favorites based on their finer (than the rest of us) appreciation of some particular aspect of the process (a writer’s writer, or musician’s musician — that sort of thing). But I don’t need to be published and paid to enjoy P.G. Wodehouse practicing his trade.

  8. I find it’s not the “I have worked in this medium” that’s the problem for me, but the “I know too much about the specialist field this person depicted without adequately researching” that ruins things for me, which I think is a totally different question; more related to whether you can maintain suspension of disbelief even when a really glaring error pops up.

    Separately, I can see Mark Twain’s point: if a set of forcefully-ingrained experiences has made you look at a specific phenomenon solely in light of its status as a hazard, then it would be harder to see it afterward and fully experience the other aspects of it, without that heavy overlay. Some people might do it; apparently not him.

  9. Another example: watching Teller do the cups and balls trick with clear cups. You can see “how the trick works”, but it’s still amazingly entertaining to see him control those balls in a way that doesn’t show on the rest of his hands. He has, as Robert Fripp would put it, “a relationship with his little finger”. Only in his case, both little fingers.

  10. @KC – “the specialist field this person depicted” – I think that depictions of film sets in movies sometimes looks a bit fake and self-conscious, which is odd as you’d think a film crew would be best placed to portray their own work environment. The director in the movie-within-the-movie is often a bit of an idiot, or arrogant, or incompetent or gauche as well. I suppose one issue is the people in the movie film crew are actors, and also the production doesn’t want to double up on fake catering/ fake crew/ authentic-looking expensive cameras and lighting rigs, but there are probably rules and practical issues in just turning the cameras on the real workers. Also, perhaps the urgency of telling whatever bit of the story they are involved in militates against the in-depth exploration of the accurate depiction of the slow but rushed, fast but long-winded nature of real film-making. Hurry up and wait.

  11. @narmitaj

    That’s a fascinating exception to the “they just didn’t know enough” assumption, and makes sense! I’ve never been on a professional film crew, so that’s something I’ve never noticed.

    Out of curiosity, does the movie “Singing in the Rain” hit this button for you, or are the recording depictions in that more reasonable?

    (but, yes, many disciplines suffer simply from movies requiring a more exciting way of representing slow and dull or invisible processes, as per https://xkcd.com/683/ – I *usually* get less peeved about things when the mistakes are for Dramatic Reasons instead of merely incidental.)

  12. I responded to your point about knowing the tricks not necessarily making the experience any less. I wrote professionally for several years (newspapers) and there are some writers whose work I enjoy more since I can appreciate not just the story but the technical virtuosity of their writing.

  13. I work on the production crew for our local theatre. I also enjoy watching live theatre done by other companies, particularly the big broadway touring companies. I find that when I watch a show, I watch on two levels. One is the person who is just enjoying the show and the story; the other is the person who knows how the tricks are done and appreciates when someone does them well. I can feel the magic that comes watching Glinda float across the stage on her flying bubble while also appreciating the clever way the choreography hides the person who snaps on the safety line that keeps the actress safe. And every so often, a show pulls of a moment where I forget that I know the tricks, and I am just a child seeing magic (the entry of the animals at the beginning of The Lion King was one of those moments).
    In general, I would say that understanding how the magic works (and how hard it can be pull of things that seem like they should be easy) enhances my appreciation of the production as a whole.

  14. As an amateur musician, I find it adds to my enjoyment when I can understand how much training and control go into something that sounds simple. And all those courses in music theory sometimes lead to noticing extra depth in a composition.

    And as a scientist, I completely agree with the Feynman quote. I’m with KC in finding that it’s depictions of specialists that can drive me nuts. I can suspend disbelief for minor gaffs, but there are some TV shows I absolutely cannot watch because they misuse bad psychology so dreadfully that I just want to scream.

  15. I have the six-o’clock -rule. After that time I can’t be bothered by whatever business anymore. To some hard-nosed people I have to explain that there are seldom issues that can’t wait till the next day. I’m not running some ER room where lives depend upon immediate action.

  16. @KC – I am not sure about Singin’ in the Rain (apparently its official title) as I haven’t seen it for a long time. The film was released in 1952 and depicts Hollywood studio film sets in the late 1920s, during the transition from silent movies to talkies, so they wouldn’t even have had the luxury of using their own anachronistic current equipment. I imagine big studio pictures of 1950s were fairly self-mythologising so would imagine their in-movie film sets would look somewhat unrealistic, especially given the penchant in Singin’ in the Rain for people to start dancing all over the place! Not that I know how a 20s (or even 50s) big studio film set operated.

    The BFI (British Film Institute) is currently sponsoring selected showings of Singin’ in the Rain in art cinemas around the UK, but in October I missed the chance to see it near me in Bristol due to ignorance of the fact at the time, as I would probably have gone (no empty boast – in the few weeks I have seen both Young Frankenstein and The Third Man in a cinema).

    Actually, in December there is a screening in Bristol of an expanded version the musical, with Gene Kelly’s (much younger) widow Patricia Ward Kelly in attendance. (At 60 or so she is even a smidge younger than me, and considerably younger than Gene Kelly, who would be 107 now). But it is £40, so a bit pricey (comes with food, though).

    https://christmasspiegeltent.co.uk/product/compass-presents-singin-in-the-rain-expanded-cinema-screening-bristol/

  17. The counter to Feynman’s quote might be Oppenheimer’s “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” upon seeing the first atomic blast, and the regrets he had later about the bomb.

    The equivalent to this for writers might be William Powell’s regret for “The Anarchists Cookbook”.

    But these, and Twains quote, are about learning something that has bigger repurcussions than the knowledge itself. Repurcussions that can get people killed. Nuclear arms races. Homemade bombs. And twain learning that under that rivers initial beauty is all manner of traps that can kill a boatsman.

    The original post seems more akin to “can a great magician enjoy watching someone else’s magic act if they know how all the tricks work?”

    Stories are a kind of magic. A kind of sleight of hand. But knowing how stories work doesnt expose one to previously unknown deadly dangers. Deux ex machina doesnt kill anyone, its just boring. However, it seems that knowing how stories are created is kind of like knowing how magic tricks are done. There are only so many places to hide that rabbit or saw a woman in half. There are certain expectations in good story writing. And knowing them means you know, for example, that by the the end of a whodunnit, that the audience has already met the killer in the cast. If the murderer turns out to be some character we never met before, most readers would be upset. So if one knows how stories are written, the ending can become: its either Colonel Mustard in the library or some bad writing.

    Knowing its Colonel Mustard before the story announces it can be frustrating sometimes. But then lots of people reread books and rewatch movies they like even knowing the ending. Usually those stories are more than just a surprise ending. They have good characters and dialogue and development and it can be satisfying to watch even if you know how it ends.

    Which is something a lot of creators dont seem to understand. Shyamalan had a huge hit with the twist ending in ‘Sixth Sense’ to the point that he decided a twist ending makes a story great. Sixth sense was a great story that happened to have a twist ending, not because of. Ot was icing on a delicious cake. He put twist endings in many of his movies after that and its like, here, here is a plate of icing. Why dont you like it.?

    The knuckleheads behind game of thrones seem to have made a similar mistake. They seemed intent on subverting reader expectations. If an outcome was being predicted by fans, they would go for a different ending to keep viewers on their toes. The problem though is that those predictions are basee on how good story telling works. A murder mystery presents a bunch of characters who could have been the murderer with hints and misdirection to keep the audience guessing. But some people will guesz the killer way ahead of time. That doesnt mean the writer should change the ending mid-story. If it was Colonel Mustard, then there should be hints nland clues leading to that conclusion, with misdirection and gossip and doubts to throw readers off the scent. If everything in the story is building up to Colonel Mustard, some readers will guess it. And some will guess every other character in the story. That doesnt mean the writer should in the last page reveal that the killer was the mailman, who was never mentioned and never introduced. Its just bad writing. Game of thrones seems to have done that the last couple seasons, rewriting stories to subvert expectations, story be damned.

    So seeing the wires that hold up a story doesnt have to ruin it. But there has to be more than wires, or it will be ruined.

  18. My husband really wants to write and has found that learning more about writing has decreased his enjoyment because he’s more sensitive to what he sees as bad writing and is more able to predict what’s going to happen, which makes him feel bored. But he’s very novelty-oriented in general, so this might be partly his personality as well.

    I’m on the other extreme, where I suspend disbelief pretty close to immediately and completely, fill in plot holes with the assumption that something happened behind the scenes, and figure the perspective character knows the situation better than I do. I will drag personal meaning out of anything I enjoy at all, whether the meaning is there or not. But it annoys me when spiders are referred to as insects.

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