I haven’t seen The Social Network yet. But the recent debate about the movie that, characteristical of a successful product, quickly transcended the original artifact and evolved into a broader cultural discourse (a “third meaning”), made me think about how dramatically my own movie experience has changed over the past 30 years. I’ve been fascinated with movies ever since I was a young boy. At the age of 10, I completely immersed myself into films such as Jungle Book, watched them again and again, learned the dialogues by heart, and accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of the characters. A couple of years later, I became obsessed with the Bond series (I still know the entire filmography in and out). Films were my reality, and my life took place in a parallel universe for the most part.
A few years later, after watching more and more films, and learning more about the arts at school, I began to appreciate films from a different perspective. I now watched them as a wanna-be expert, recognizing the craftsmanship and the many subtle narrative and cinematographic twists and tweaks that I had not noticed before. I began seeing films with the eyes of a filmmaker. I co-created them, re-enacted them, and even wrote screenplays myself that were more or less overtly inspired by the movies I had watched; some of which I turned into Super-8 movies (the most notable one was “Battle in the Universe,” in which my poor brother had to play a deranged alien; you may easily guess which blockbuster this one was based on…).
And then, as a student of cultural sciences at college, I finally saw movies in a whole different light, examining philosophical questions of authorship and identity, and reflecting on political and social issues that were part of the movie’s cultural fabric. Hitchcock’s films were emblematic of all three stages of my movie experience: Rear Window for example, was first a captivating whodunit thriller to me, then a brilliantly directed masterpiece playing with time and space, and then a thoughtful study on issues of privacy, identity, and gender. And so were the movies by my other great filmmaker hero, Francois Truffaut: charming and light initially and on the surface, highly (self-)referential and contextual for connoisseurs, and yet eye-opening, literally, as cultural commentary and timeless statement on the “human condition.”
Today, however, as I am writing this, I seem to have abandoned the ability to embrace even just one of these three dimensions, and I wonder if the innocence, naiveté, and passion with which I experienced movies when I was young, the adventurous spirit with which I adopted them into my own creative ventures later on, and the intellectual fervor with which I explored the cultural “big picture” are irretrievably lost. It seems as if I have regressed back into something even simpler than being the mere viewer I was at age 10. I now only consume movies – and do so mostly on planes (the absolute lowpoint was watching Avatar lately on a tiny little screen on a flight from Doha to Beijing). I feel entertained by movies, I sometimes blog about them, but I no longer co-opt them or consider the movie experience to be a portmanteau of things to be discovered, explored, and spun further. Movies have become less meaningful to me. They are no longer the disruptive, life-changing events that challenge my world view the way they did before. They are now neither escapism nor intellectual discourse. I don’t analyze them anymore, and I don’t discuss them with friends (I used to spend entire evenings arguing over certain scenes). They have just become flat to me, and it’s probably not because movies are not as good as they once were, but because I lack the ability to make as much sense of them as I could when I was younger.
I realize that’s a severe loss. Without your own imagination (your “Eyes Wide Shut”), there’s only so much to see. The creation of meaning is a two-way street, a creative act that involves both creator and viewer. But it needs stimulation. True masterpieces combine all possible viewpoints into one’s experience, all at once: the fully immersed literal view (me as young boy), the analytical “how did they do it”-view that spurs creative co-option (me as an adolescent), and the meta-view that understands and plays with the broader cultural connotations (me as a young adult). This applies not only to movies. Any meaningful art, pop culture, marketing, design, and branding always encapsulates all these three dimensions of meaning: the literal, the analytical, and the philosophical. They need to be effectively designed, staged, and communicated. We, the masterminds of meaning in business – the innovators, designers, and marketers – have the great responsibility to create brands, products, and services that engage the “audience formerly known as the audience” as consumers, co-creators, critics, and philosophers – anything else is just a B-movie, easily consumed and easily forgotten.