Movies as Muzak
Years ago, when I was writing my first, unpublished novel, I would often play a movie or television show in the background as I wrote. (I also threw out my back from writing on my laptop while seated on my living room couch for hours, but that’s another story.) The novel I was writing was an epic adventure novel set in India, so the movies I chose to watch were usually ones whose spirit I was trying to recapture at various points in the story: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, the Indiana Jones trilogy. And while I don’t know for sure if the trick worked, I’d like to think that the resulting novel was at least somewhat influenced by the films I had playing while I wrote it, in much the same way that I’ll superstitiously read a few pages from an author I admire before starting work for the day, or play a song to set the tone for a scene.
Lately, however, not only have I turned off the television, but I’ve also stopped playing music when I write, at least for the first draft. My reasoning is similar to what the animator Richard Williams, in The Animator’s Survival Kit, says the great Milt Kahl told him, in response to the question of whether he listens to music while he animates: “I’m not smart enough to think of more than one thing at a time!” That’s true for me, too. Just as I no longer listen to music while I’m walking, I find that I work better, or at least more efficiently, in relative silence. I suspect that this puts me in the minority of writers, many of whom seem to have some kind of music playing all the time, but if you haven’t tried it, I recommend that you experiment with turning it off for a day or two to see if your productivity improves. I know that it definitely did for me.
That said, there are times when I’m doing other kinds of more routine work—revision, correspondence, blog maintenance—and want some sort of visual or auditory distraction. In the past, I used to play movies I’d seen before with subtitles on and the sound turned down, but more recently, somewhat to my surprise, I’ve started browsing the options on Netflix Streaming. Needless to say, not every movie or television series fits the bill. It can’t be a movie that I actually want to see, because I won’t be watching it with more than one eye, and it can’t be a show like Arrested Development or Community that demands fairly close viewing. Ideally, it should be something I can safely ignore for minutes on end, but still follow easily whenever I watch it for a second or two, and it should be reasonably soothing, ideally with pretty pictures and pretty people.
A movie like Meet Joe Black, for instance, which I watched last night with my wife while we both had our laptops out, is perfect visual Muzak: it’s gorgeously photographed, with an attractive cast standing around in beautiful sets, and dramatically, it’s delightfully inert. This may not be much of a rave for a three-hour movie that someone spent the equivalent of $130 million to make, but under the right circumstances, it hits the spot. And the ultimate background viewing, I’ve found, is something like The Hills: pretty pictures, pretty people, pretty music, and nothing happens for entire seasons. Viewed with full attention, the result would be maddening, but in the background, with the volume down, it’s oddly soothing, and it lets me get plenty of work done with no fear that I’m missing anything of interest. If that sounds like faint praise, well, it is. But I’ll keep watching it anyway—at least with one eye.