Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The cultural chalk circle

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Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity was the best movie I saw last year, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Gravity was pretty much the only movie I saw last year. Now, this isn’t entirely true—I caught Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and The Hobbit in theaters, and got around to watching a fair number of others at home—but it still marks a drastic drop from my old routine, in which I’d often see a new movie in theaters every week. I’ve noted before that having a baby daughter turned me overnight into a studio executive’s idea of the average moviegoer, who is only motivated to get out of the house for a sequel or a proven franchise, but I’m still shocked by how quickly the transformation took place. When you look at it in another light, though, it only brings my moviegoing habits, which were always something of an outlier, into line with the rest of my pop cultural life, which has long been growing more circumscribed. My house is crammed full of books, but I read embarrassingly little new fiction, and I buy maybe five or six new albums a year. And if I managed to stay a cinephile for comparatively longer, it only postponed the contraction of our cultural lives that takes place sooner or later for most of us, usually around the time that we start to have more things competing for our attention.

When you’re born, without knowing it, you’ve dropped a stake at a certain random point in a huge expanse of art and pop culture. The books you read, the music you hear, and the media you experience are all shaped by the tastes of your parents and the immediate community to which you belong, which enclose a subset of all the art available within an invisible chalk circle. Later, as you enter the wider world of works intended for people your age, you expand that circle outward into the books and movies that everyone around you seems to know, from Dr. Seuss to The Phantom Tollbooth. As time goes on, the circle continues to broaden, and to strike out into unexpected directions, and it’s in high school and college that it seems to reach its greatest circumference. It’s no mystery why: you’re young, unencumbered, but hungry for knowledge, and although you haven’t had a chance to differentiate your life significantly from those of your peers, you can treat art and literature as glimpses into other forms of human experience, or mirrors that reflect back some aspect of your own. It’s no accident that most people seem to spend more time listening to music in their late teens and early twenties than at any other point. You’ve got access to more influences than ever before—along with faster Internet connections, at least in my day—and you use the resources you have to start putting together a soundtrack for your own story.

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Later, though, the circle starts to contract. After graduating from college, many people stop reading books altogether, and the rest of us rarely have much time to explore beyond the table of new releases at Barnes & Noble. When you look at Pitchfork’s list of the top albums of the year, you’re lucky if you can recognize even a third of the names. If a new book or album gets sensational reviews, you’ll check it out, but for the most part, you stick to a handful of old stalwarts, which means that you always make a point of picking up the new Radiohead, even if you only play The King of Limbs a couple of times. Once again, the reasoning here isn’t hard to see. You’ve got a job; you’ve got social obligations; maybe you’ve started to raise a family; and the gaps in your life that you used to fill up with art are occupied by life itself. One by one, the babies get thrown out of the sleigh, and although you don’t miss some of them as much as you expected, you cling to others for as long as you can. For me, a movie house has always been a special place of magic, and I made pilgrimages to that temple on a weekly basis, so its not surprising that I only gave it up when my life had already changed in empathic ways of its own.

But as Harry Lime says in The Third Man, it’s not that awful. Television, for instance, has slowly expanded to become a larger part of my cultural awareness—as it was when I was growing up, before contracting in college and immediately thereafter—and although this isn’t a new pattern in American lives, I’ve been lucky enough to have it coincide with what everyone agrees is a golden age for the medium as a whole. I’m slowly working my way back around to music, in an indirect fashion, courtesy of my ukelele and a new record player, which allows me to rediscover albums that aren’t readily available anywhere else. Reading is still a problem, and while I still get through a vast amount of nonfiction, usually for one writing project or another, my personal consumption of fiction for the last year has been limited to a few John D. MacDonald novels, a smattering of short stories, and the first third of Infinite Jest. Still, I hold out hope that it gets better from here. My circle of culture is smaller than before, and it continues to be recentered, but for most of us, that’s just the way it works. And although the outer limits of that chalk circle grow fainter with time, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still there.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

Posted in Books, Movies

Tagged with , ,

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