There is much in life I thoroughly enjoy. But I honestly think I enjoy few things quite as much as food. Sure, we need to eat so we can stay alive. And in my thinking, since I have to eat, I might as well eat good food. But there’s more to food than just the basic survival. Food has a way of being a shared experience, a communal experience where we bond with other people. Eating is something we all share, so it only seems natural that eating together can provide great common ground with people we maybe hardly know or just met as an easy shared experience around which we can hang out, converse, and get to know each other. It seems to work on dates and in groups. And it continues to work. We just recently celebrated that oh most beloved holiday for all of us who just love an excuse to get together with people and eat lots of food: Thanksgiving. Sharing food brings families and old friends back together and continues to offer the opportunity for community and connection with new friends.
There’s another place where I think food is very important: on a film set. I find that how movies are made is just as important as how a movie turns out (is it well crafted and entertaining?) and what it offers viewers (it is engaging or insightful in some meaningful way?). Because of this, I have always tried my best to foster a kind of collaborative and warm environment on sets I’ve had any position of authority in (be it as producer or director). After all, every single person on the cast and crew of every project I have ever been a part of plays a vital part in brining the film together (bringing the story to life). Because of this, even when budgets are minuscule and time is short, I always feel it is important for everyone on set to be able to have good food to share, good coffee to drink, good snacks to get us through the long hours.
A few years ago I was on a particular set as a crew member (so I had little authority to do anything about the situation) where some simple things were neglected like having readily available bathrooms at the location we were shooting at, a warm place for the crew to wait between set-ups rather than having to stand out side in 10 degree weather in New England, or a total absence of coffee (or any hot drink for that matter) while we had to work for hours in 10 degree weather. I watched as my fellow crew members grew discouraged, restless, and ultimately disgruntled. There’s a kind of bonding that happens in a crew like that. Sure, we suffered through the cold, lack of bathrooms, and lack of coffee, finding creative ways to keep each other’s spirits up. We did bond! But we bonded in a way as people do against a common enemy. And to be frank, in this particular situation, the common enemy became the producers (the people who had the authority and ability to address our situation but chose not to both in the planning ahead to and in the moment). The result? I have worked with many of the people who were my fellow crew members on that project again and again over the years. But I have avoided those producers like the plague. Why? Am I bitter? Maybe, but I honestly try not to be. I think the bigger issue is that when producers (or really, anyone in authority over a team) don’t look out for the well-being of their crew (the whole crew) a message is communicated that crew members are not important, essentially just cogs in the machine. And cogs can be replaced. I don’t like being a cog. So … yeah … see you later.
That is the last thing I would ever want to communicate to anyone on project I’m producing. I am sure that, being human and incredibly fallible, I have dropped the ball at times too. However, I also feel that the fact that so many of the people I have called upon to crew projects I’ve produced (so often asking if they would be willing to volunteer their time to be part of the project) return time and again with great excitement and warmth and fresh ideas to new projects. There are many factors that play into all of this, I’m sure. But I think one key to this reality is that I sincerely value every crew member and I want to make sure they enjoy the process of filmmaking as much as I do. And a big part of that is that we all get to enjoy good food together.
For the films we’ve been making here at Stories by the River, the food has been bought, made, and delivered by all kinds of volunteers that have so willingly jumped into these projects lending their hands in this vital role. I’m sure many of these people do not feel they have tangibly helped make a movie, but you have! Thank you! You are each my heroes! And I also want to thank my fellow producer Kristina Stone Kaiser, as she too values food as a very important part of connecting with people and she coordinates the meals for our productions and works with the the volunteers to make sure we have what we need and even manage to address dietary concerns cast and crew may have.
I love the community that is formed on set. When approached with an attitude of sincere appreciation for every single person involved, I believe life on set can be amazing, leading to both creative breakthroughs that make for a better film in the end and to life-long friendships that may well outlast anything else we might ever create.
Today I had a very unusual experience. I spent a couple of hours in a busy waiting room at the Department of Children of Families so that the kids who recently joined our family could have a visit with their birth mom.
There were things about the visit that I felt nervous about – like all of the sugar I had seen laid out on the table at the start of the visit.
But there was another thing that I was extremely aware of: the human capacity to love people even in the midst of intense conflict, which reminded me of Stories by the River’s Film, Slippery Slope.
In Slippery Slope, we drop in on a huge fight that these two people are having. It’s easy to see that they’re a couple. But one might imagine that the relationship is nearly finished given the magnitude of the fight. And yet! By the end of that 18 minute interaction, they couldn’t be more together.
Isn’t that just the way? We (humanity) are a little dysfunctional aren’t we? We can be intensely angry at someone and simultaneously really love them, desire their company even. We can disappoint each other while simultaneously continuing to possess an intense hope and love for each other.
I witnessed a little bit of that today while I sat in that office. After all, this is an office that no one hopes to be in. If you are there, it means that things have gone wrong. There has been conflict! But even in the midst of that, there is still love.
Now…it’s also the Holidays right now which means that lots of people are going to get together for one or more days, probably with people with whom, at times, the relationships have gone wrong. And yet. Maybe there is hope for love to rear its’ head in the midst of it all.
And if you haven’t seen Slippery Slope, I’d totally recommend it. Who doesn’t need a little hope in humanity at the holidays?
It’s a busy world and we lead busy lives. As a result, it has become quite a normal part of our daily lives to try to do as much at the same time as possible. We’re in the age of multitasking, it would seem. I’m just as guilty as anyone! Most days I try to cram in as much as possible, often trying to do two or more things at the same time. But I have wondered at times if my constantly wandering mind is actually being helped or hurt by all this multitasking. For one thing, I’ve noticed how constant my need to reach for my smartphone is. The moment I don’t have my phone and I have a few idle minutes to myself, my hands don’t know what to do. Even worse, my brain doesn’t know what to do. It’s stuck wondering who has posted what to Facebook. As a result, I recently removed the Facebook app from my phone’s home screen (though not from the phone itself) and I’ve noticed I have started to hop on to Facebook less and less throughout the day or in idle moments (God forbid I be alone with my thoughts while standing in line at the bank).
Yesterday, I was reading more from a book I’ve been working through, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. In chapter ten of the book where she’s dealing with how readers process information in stories and how irrelevant information can derail a story as a reader’s mind becomes focused on trying to work out why the writer felt it important to include seemingly unconnected information into the narrative, Cron writes that “researchers at Stanford have proven, contrary to popular wisdom, effective mental multitasking is not actually possible–the brain, as it turns out, can’t process two strings of information at the same time (pg. 190).”
I looked up and read the article Cron sites at this point in the book. It’s rather interesting. You can read it here. It seems that the Stanford researches started with the assumption that multitaskers were doing something right, that they were in fact better at dealing with multiple strands of information bombarding their brains at the same time. Several tests, however, revealed the exact opposite. The key problem, it seems, is that people who multitask seem to train their brains to view every bit of information that comes its way as being of the utmost importance. But this never really works out as some information is quite important while other incoming information is most definitely not. At the very least, not all information can be of the same importance in the same moment.
This got me thinking about how we experience stories. Specifically, how we experience movies. Cron writes, “It’s not even a choice; it’s innate: the brain is wired to go offline–that is, ignore the real world and slip into a fictional one–only if it believes the story will be of benefit by providing info that’ll help it navigate this cockeyed world of ours (pg. 191).” Stories work their magic on us when become fully immersed in them. When our ability to become immersed in a movie is hampered, our experience of the story is fundamentally altered. I’ve experienced this from two perspectives: as movie viewer being distracted by people talking loudly or using their bright phones in a movie theater (though I haven’t called the cops on them like this guy did) and as a filmmaker becoming utterly devastated as I observe people pulling out their smartphones to text or scroll through their Facebook feed while “watching” a film I spent months investing my mind, heart, and energy in creating.
Why does multitasking hurt the movie watching experience? I can personally attest to the fact that when I’m busy watching a TV show or movie with my laptop open or my phone in hand I’m not processing the information in the story very well. I often find that I need to stop and rewind as I miss important lines of dialogue or visual information (wait, what did he just quickly pocket from her desk while her back was turned?) while I’m busy multitasking. But there’s an even more fundamental problem at issue here. I would argue that ultimate a story only truly exists in the mind. Until we engage a story, it is merely a composite of bits of data coming at us. It does not truly exist as a narrative until our brain engages in the process of perceiving the narrative by assembling the incoming information and making interpretive choices informed by the evolving larger context of assembled data. This is an on-going process as we watch a movie. As a result, a lack of immersion in the raw data that comprises the narrative I’m supposed be experiencing can dramatically alter my cognitive experience and understanding of a story.
What’s more, if my brain is not engaged in a story, neither is my heart. Something that is unique to motion picture storytelling (be it movies, TV shows, music videos, so forth) is the fact that this medium targets our emotions rather directly. But our brains have to be engaged in fully soaking in the emotive experience a movie is attempting to create in order for our hearts to be able to respond. This Stanford study indicates that our brains, distracted by multitasking, are likely to do a fairly lousy job at taking in and interpreting the raw data that forms a movie’s story. From this, I would argue that the net result is that we’ll walk away from a movie watching experience we multitasked our way through with a much different impression of the narrative and emotive experience offered to us by the movie.
This is why I would argue that when watching a movie it is best to set the phone or laptop aside and simply be open and fully available to the narrative experience being offered to us. But don’t do this because the movie deserves your undivided attention (because maybe it doesn’t; but how would you know until you really see it?). Rather, do this because you deserve it. Taking the time to be fully available to a movie you just shelled out your hard-earned money to see is simply the best way to make sure you get your money’s worth out of the experience. Plus, if you’re going to invest two hours of your busy day watching a movie, why not make those two hours really count? If, however, you really need time to send those e-mails, text those friends, and scroll through your Facebook newsfeed (and there are honestly very good reasons to do all of these things), than maybe your time would be better spent being fully available to these tasks without the distraction of a movie.
But there’s another interesting issue that comes to mind for me as I contemplate this whole multitasking while watching a movie business … subtitles. Could it be that the very reason subtitled foreign films get such a chilly reception by the majority of American audiences is that it’s just hard to lose yourself in the experience of watching a film when you have to read subtitles while trying to soak in visual information, music, tone of voice, and performance by the actors. And that’s not to mention the fact that lost in the translation may be all kinds of cultural points of reference, connotations, puns, and subtle emphasis on key words.
It’s easy to get on the bandwagon that claims American audiences are simply too American-pop-culture-centric to care about watching foreign films. But the reality is that American movies (the home-grown product of which we export the most) reflects this issue as well. Take it from me, a guy that’s gone to the American Film Market seeking funding for a character-driven dramady, American movies that are heavy on the dialogue don’t do as well overseas. That’s one reason why American action movies tend to be the big sellers overseas while dramas, comedies, and romance films tend to generally have more modest box office performances where subtitles are required. Whatever our primary language, we just don’t need to catch every line of Transformers to know what’s going on and to be sucked into the plight of battling robots and exploding buildings. However, it’s much harder to follow a Woody Allen film if you’re forced to rely on subtitles (and it’s hard to even imagine just how much is lost in translation).
However, I can attest to the fact that with practice I have gotten better at watching subtitled films and have even been profoundly lost in the narrative of foreign films and deeply moved by them. It is an investment, and I can only guess at what subtleties I am missing. And yet, the investment has paid off many times and slowly the experience has merged into less of a multitasking drain on my energies and closer to the native emotive experience I am able to have with movies in English (and Portuguese, as that is my first language).
But there is a key way in which the multitasking of watching a subtitled movie differs from the multitasking of scrolling through my Twitter feed while watching a movie. As indicated in the Stanford study, our brains are not able to actually process and deal with two separate bits of information coming at it at the same time. However, a subtitled movie has a wholeness or unity in that reading the subtitles helps me engage in the narrative experience. On the other hand, the information I’m reading on my Twitter feed while the movie plays is completely other and separate from the narrative experience of the film. In that moment, my brain has to make a choice: do I focus on the movie or do I focus on this tweet? At best, such multitasking results in a jumping back and forth between various bits of information coming at me. However, as the Stanford study would suggest, such multitasking ultimately detracts from my ability to fully experience and engage in any of the tasks I am attempting to juggle and my retention of the information presented to me is severely hurt.
Of course, I’m biased as I’m a lover of the cinematic experience. For this reason I refrain from speaking during most movies (Snakes on a Plane being a notable exception where we yelled at the movie screen and cheered and jeered). However, reflecting on this Stanford study definitely has me thinking about how I multitask in other areas of my life as well. I think I’d like to renew my efforts to avoid pulling out my smartphone while out to dinner with friends as a hopeful step in the right direction. Just as I’d like to be fully available to the narrative experience of a movie, I would like to also be fully available to the rich experience of friendship and bonding when eating out with others. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to ponder when multitasking may be helpful or necessary, and when I would be better served by simply engaging one thing at a time. Feel free to offer your reflections below about what works or doesn’t work in your multitasking efforts.