How Today’s Students Can Engage and Enthrall Tomorrow’s Audience
Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either. - Marshall McLuhan
I’ve learned as a teacher and a parent for more than 30 years that it really doesn’t matter what you have to say or how well you say it (except perhaps to you) if it turns out that nobody’s listening. And it’s no different in the cinema than it is in the classroom. The days of the lecturing “sage on the stage” or the hectoring “lord of the lectern” are over. The one-way street called “I talk, you listen” has given way to a complex cloverleaf of conversation – everyone’s an expert; they’ve all got an opinion; and they expect to be heard and, more importantly, listened to.
Now I realize that - in certain groups and in certain parts of the country - the opposite of talking isn’t actually listening, it’s waiting to talk, but today, effective, two-way communication is more essential than ever to reaching the most important goal – learning and truly understanding whatever it is that’s the subject of the exchange. Because, at the end of the day, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and you can explain things to people over and over again, but you can’t understand for them.
So, unless you’re teaching just to hear yourself speak or making movies for your own enjoyment and the enlightenment of a few of your friends, you’re going to have to make some changes in your game. But here’s the good news: the more some things change (even today), the more the fundamental things remain the same. It’s always been about the story and the substance and it will always be about the story – it’s just the strategy that’s got to adjust and make room for a new kind of audience and the new and challenging environments that our abundance of new technologies are creating all around us. But, as I also like to say, all the technology in the world still won’t save a story that sucks.
And that’s why my suggestion to Robert Rosen (and to my other fellow TFF bloggers) and to those others in academia who are concerned about their students being just plain bored by the great old films (and by plenty of not-so-great new films as well) or whose students are so impatient with the pace and exposition of the classics that they miss the point of the pieces – “don’t worry, just get busy.” Because, whether we’re teachers, filmmakers, or anyone else with a story to tell, we’re all in a new kind of race and nobody’s going to wait for us to get with the program.
We’re competing for scarce attention and sadly-muddled mindshare in a media-drenched, frenzied and frantic world where everyone’s exposed to an ever-expanding mass of indiscriminate messages; where we’re surrounded by a shallow and sleazy celebrity-driven culture that thrives on garbage, gossip and cheap thrills; and where – amidst the constant stream of stimulation – it’s almost impossible to catch your breath, collect your thoughts, or just center yourself long enough so that you can do even one thing well.
So, is it really any wonder that filmmakers – in trying to grab an audience swimming in such a spectrum of constant stress, strain and spectacle – too often default to trying to serve up something new in their films every few minutes for better or for worse and the story be damned? A bad joke, an awful injury or death, an explosion, whatever. Anything to pin ‘em to their seats and hold their attention – if not their actual interest – for a little longer.
Or, in the classroom context, that a moron masquerading as a serious faculty member at Northwestern University would stoop to having a bunch of creeps come into the classroom and conduct live nude sex toy demonstrations for his students to presumably pep up the proceedings. Just how desperate was this idiot and just how much worse can things really get?
It’s trying to be “all things to all people” – if you don’t like what you’re seeing at the moment, just wait a bit and I’ll show you something else. It’s all shallow surface – a mile wide and an inch deep – no meat and no muscle. And it all proceeds from the very same place – a fear that the “new” audience is so over-stimulated, splintered, stressed-out and scattered that they can’t really sit still for a second. It’s as if they’re all sitting on seats strewn with tacks – it’s hard to concentrate in that position – especially if you never learned how to concentrate or focus in the first place. God forbid they’ll start texting instead of staring at the screen. Or fall asleep in class. How horrible that would be.
And many others are guilty as well of fomenting the biggest and most pernicious lie of all – the false and futile efficacy of multi-tasking – or, as I like to describe it, learning to do a lot of things lousily (if there’s such a word). Too many people teach our kids the cruel lie that you can do many important things simultaneously and do them all well. Have your cake, the frosting, the whole nine yards, and eat it too. The truth is that, in trying to multi-task, you essentially learn to do a lot of things poorly and, worst of all, you eventually get completely comfortable with the illusion that you’re doing something of importance or consequence. And soon thereafter, you just stop caring, you settle for the stream and not the substance and you go along for the distracting, but strangely comforting ride. Instead of submerging yourself in anything, you spend the time skimming over everything.
Because the most important thing that “multi-taskers” forget to do (and eventually lose the ability to do) is to focus and pay attention. To be in the moment and to enjoy being there. To be there now. To give themselves wholly to the experience and (in the words of the old cinema) to let the vehicle transport them for just a short time to a different and hopefully better place and maybe, in the very process itself, to actually teach them a thing or two. Or – even better yet – (and here’s the dirty little secret) to let them really discover and learn something themselves (or about themselves) as they progress.
See the difference?
Today, to engage, immerse and enthrall the new audiences, wherever they happen to reside, it’s not something that anyone will successfully be doing to them – the best and most successful practitioners of the new media arts will help the audiences learn and do things by and for themselves. Exploration rather than exposition will drive the films of the future. Active involvement and engagement rather than partial and passive participation will be the hallmarks of successful new offerings in the classroom and in the cinema.
Immersive, interactive, experiential, collaborative, cross-disciplinary, community- (or team-) based combinations of content and context are the only effective way forward. Vehicles of all manner that will let us construct our own experiences and learning; that create the enticing environments where such adventures can take place (rather than pinning us to our seats with constant explosions); films that proffer important questions, puzzles and challenges (instead of pummeling us with profanity and fart jokes); and projects that ultimately give us the wheel, stand back, and let us make our own way through the vagaries and the mysteries of discovery will define the new forms of entertainment and education.
Hands-on, all-in, heart-felt – sounds pretty good to me. But then I’m a guy who pays attention. How do we make this happen – how can these new approaches and vehicles be built?
You’ll have to tune in for Part Two of this post. Coming soon.