escapism = valuable?

I have a guilty pleasure – Cougar Town. I know, I know. But it’s funny! And light, and entertaining, and it does the number-one thing I’ve been looking for in film/television lately – distract me. I remember when I was a grad student, one of my professors discussed the increasing consumer spending on going to the movies. While the economy was steadily declining – in England particularly, this was just a year before the Northern Rock sub-prime mortgage crisis – and people were losing their jobs, common sense dictated that they should be tightening their belts. But in fact the exact opposite was true. Showcasing the true influence of corporate marketing strategy, people were spending on things they didn’t need but desperately wanted, like movies. (To remind themselves of the good ‘ol days, perhaps? Or maybe they had just gotten used to living the life?)

While I don’t have any hard-and-fast stats, my professor offered an excellent argument for why people were spending more on films (and chocolate, a friend also told me): escapism. The leading authority in propaganda, and an expert in psychological warfare and public diplomacy, he drew a correlation between the popularity of science fiction and fantasy films, like the The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series, and the September 11th attacks in the United States. He suggested that, with the crushing reality of reality, people were seeking escape in the surreal, fantastical world of [science]fiction. (I wish I could say the same was true of fiction books, but I don’t have any idea whatsoever).

It makes sense when you think about it: when things are hard, the last thing (most) people want is to be reminded of how hard they are. Several years ago I put the kibosh on ‘horror/scary/ gory/occult’ films. I’ve never been a fan, but, y’know, I was in high school; I saw The Blair Witch Project and similar films because it was ‘the thing’ you did in high school. But shortly after graduation, I made a conscious decision to never see these types of films ever again. I realized that I go to the movies/watch television/read books for entertainment. And I’ve never enjoyed these types of films. So I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” and I didn’t have a good answer. So I quit. If I’m going to spend $12.50 on a flick I may as well expect to enjoy it. I know there are some of you out there that love a good blood-fest, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t get you people! No judgment here, we’re just fundamentally different.

This was one of those times where I have never, not once, had regrets. My friends, already being familiar with my less-than-enthusiastic outlook on ‘scary films’, learned quickly to not even bother asking me to join them. I’m happy to sit in on something else while they’re off screaming their lungs out, but truthfully, it’s never happened. We know what we enjoy in common and it’s always worked out. Personal taste is the most subjective thing in the world, and it can be surprisingly cutting when a friend/peer/ colleague/someone you know or respect scoffs at your taste in film/music/food. And some don’t just scoff, which is even worse. Your taste (or lack thereof, in their eyes) is an indicator of your character (or lack thereof).

I’m the first to wave the “I LOVE indie films/documentaries” flag, and am seldom happier than the 10 days during September-October when the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) brings unique and sometimes subversive films to my door. I adore foreign films, independent films and documentaries, but every now and then I cave and watch a plain old movie, big-budget or otherwise, and I enjoy it.

And so when I say that I’m currently a little bit of a (not-so-closeted anymore) fan of Cougar Town, I recognize that it’s a) a telling indicator of my sense of humor (or lack thereof), b) an omission with which naysayers can use to verbally slay me, and c) a tool I use to escape from my current reality. What I’m wondering is, is that necessarily a bad thing? If one lives their entire life escaping from reality – I recall an Adam Sandler film that I only caught bits of once, not knowing what it was, Reign Over Me, where Sandler’s character lives in a world of his own creation to escape a painful reality – then obviously there are certain risks/ implications/reasons for concern. But if I take 30 minutes once a week to escape from the realness of my reality, is it really so bad? Over the past few months, leading up to this little self project, I struggled with whether I was the problem or if things were really as bad as I felt they were. Was I destined to be discontented forever? Was I greedy? Could I just not accept my reality? Was I looking for contentment in all the wrong places? Or could I learn to grow happiness at my feet?

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer

I’m a proponent of escapism, in moderation. What’s that they say? “Everything in moderation?” Maybe not everything, but some things, sure. A little wine in moderation is not only relaxing but apparently has certain health benefits. My chiropractor asked me recently, when my back was so tight that I (very uncharacteristically) wouldn’t adjust, what I did to relax. It’s important to escape every now and then. One could make the argument that going to the island to sit on a beach for a week is not so different from taking in an occasional romantic comedy. Sure, one may be more restorative than the other, and certainly more expensive, but it’s an escape either way.

When I choose to sit for 10 or 20 minutes, I’m escaping from the thoughts/worry/stress/ frustration that can build up and swirl around my mind. So maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about giving up 30 minutes once a week, even for Cougar Town.

“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.”

— Dale Carnegie
**A note about this post: It’s not actually what I meant to write about when I opened with a reference to Cougar Town, but more on that next time.
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