on the Oscars and Being Liked

If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or the Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.

Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year had climactic scenes in which characters confronted the importance of ‘being liked.’  

Coincidence? Or important cultural phenomenon, captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives, and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star, now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is…  God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.

Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters, or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.

The theme repeats in the film, as Sam and Edward Furlong’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated, but more to the point discussion about the same thing.

Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.

When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.

In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would ever ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:

Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.

Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. ‘They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,’ she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing a electronic computer.

Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without the Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.

Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.

The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from Boyhood to manhood, the scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and Imitation Game.

So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked, and the struggle to escape from it. Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”

The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t need really need to.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde

on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

– The End of Absence