The Earnestness of Being Important

When a commercial starts with “To quote Whitman…” you know you’re being sold a world of bullshit. Or some computer device. I keep seeing a commercial for…something, spewing Whitman. Based on a conversation I had at a party the other night, the commercial actually conflates Whitman with Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society tossing off some insipid dialogue as if it were another leaf of grass. I chose not to research this fact, because I don’t want to know what the product is Walt Whitman’s corpse is trying to get me to buy.

I’m sick of importance. Commercials should be about sex, wit, or low, low prices. They shouldn’t tell me their philosophy about dreams. Aside from those spliced-together bits of people finishing each other’s sentences, the fake intensity of pseudo-philosophical importance is my least favorite advertising technique, and those people finishing each other’s sentences are usually getting all intense and pseudo-philosophical about it.

I’m a channel changer, though TV shows have gotten adept at timing their commercials, so I’m often flipping from one commercial to another. When some acolyte of Moby starts droning in the background and a wizened actor starts intoning, I’m going to the other ad. I can’t be alone. Do a study, marketers. Kill the importance.

I say we’re being sold a world of bullshit because that’s what happens when we don’t teach humanities and we get our wisdom from commercials and inspirational Twitter feeds. Great poetry is reduced to slogans, and bogus hallmark uplift is sold as art.

To this day, there are still people who believe The Force is an actual religion. Sure, the tenets of George Lucas’s made up religion got Michael Jackson, but he was a strung-out man-child; there shouldn’t be more Jedis than Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is what happens when all things become equal and nothing is important. We get sold schlock as the real thing. I know some will say that all religions are as silly as believing some science fiction writers zany vision, but those people don’t understand the silliness spectrum. If you’re going to believe in the supernatural, make it cave-man supernatural, not light saber supernatural.

It’s the same reason we have disposable cardboard furniture from Ikea. Nothing has value. We feel empty, and Hollywood screenwriters (why would they be so in tune to our emptiness?) sense that, and try to fill the void with pabulum.

Look at True Detective. Seriously, it’s become mandatory to watch the show or you’re culturally illiterate. It’s all right. Not The Wire, but nothing can be The Wire. It’s worth it for Matthew McConaughey’s performance (Woody’s good too), and we might be conned into buying its philosophical worldview, given some early scenes discussing nihilism in the car. Since it’s a typical cops-tracking-down-a-crazy-guy scenario, some rumination on being and nothingness, coupled with the Big Easy ambience, gives the show a hook, which McConaughey baits brilliantly, but the philosophy devolves into stoner ruminations and Lovecraftian teasers for the geekier geeks.

I’d say that what I’m about to write is the ultimate spoiler of the show, if it weren’t so ultimately unimportant: True Detective resolves all its metaphysics with a recounted vision of the afterlife. Hollywood cheats when it goes metaphysical, because the nature of film is such that whatever is revealed, unless it is revealed to be a lie, is taken as truth of narrative. Movies set up rules, and to enjoy them, the view must suspend disbelief and follow blindly, which creates the temptation for the filmmaker to play God, or to say, “Yes, there is a God, because I’m digitally adding this glowing light over here.” It’s false truth. When you ask big questions and pretend to resolve them with a plot point stolen from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s okay because no one cares, you’ve failed at taking on the big picture. Fortunately: sex, smoke, acting, police procedure, and of course, Sir Matthew McConaughey.

Books can take on philosophy better, because they handle ambiguity better. There’s more use of the reader’s collaborating mind, so things can go in more than one direction. A character has as many faces as there are readers, until someone makes a movie of the book. Questions about God or the lack of God or the nature of goodness can dangle as questions raised rather than plot points tidily wrapped up. The guy we’re calling Ishmael clings to a floating coffin in a sea that will never explain itself. Sancho Panza recounts a miraculous cave: Is he lying, or have Don Quixote’s delusions become real, or does that matter?

So should the visual arts stick to sex and violence and leave the heavy lifting to novelists? Probably. Still, the temptation to make art of importance is going to afflict most creative people. But hey, Creative People: At least wait until you’ve got a television show. Don’t sell me a doohickey with poetry. It elevates what doesn’t need elevation and demeans the sublime .

Because importance is important. We’ve got the “serious people” Paul Krugman is always railing against, anointed “ideas men” such as Paul Ryan, who are selling warmed-over Reaganomics as if they were new solutions to income inequality, when we need real solutions. Also, we’re burning the planet into a dystopian nightmare, and instead of looking at the science, we’re discussing the most recent snowfall.

When big-picture thoughts are thrown about to sell trinkets, we lose perspective. Without that perspective, weak ideas get treated as valid, and necessary truths get cast aside for the cheaper facsimile. We’re getting our minds made on the cheap at Walmart. It’s time to get the real thing, so we can be real people who will do the right thing. Or our kids are going to be living off jellyfish in Greenland, hiding from the great monsoon.

Stop making crappy artsy commercials, or the world will die.