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December 30, 2004

Vacation and the Arts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm just back in the city after a week of vacation. I'd been planning on blogging while away. But after struggling with the place's rickety 56K AOL connection, I decided to abandon all online activities, email included, until I could get back to the trusty cablemodem. Hats off to all who manage to be active Web-presences via 56K modems. I wasn't man enough to put up with the frustration.

In any case, I did my usual amount of reading, listening, and watching while on vacation. And while I may get around to opinionating about some of it, what I found myself musing about more was the way that being on vacation affects my experience of artsgoing generally.

It's not as though I spend the working part of the year grimly plowing through encyclopedias and the vacation part of the year scarfing up the collected work of Jackie Collins. I'm as prone to read brainy stuff on vacation as I am during the workyear; one of the books I let myself luxuriate in during this recent holiday was Stephen Toulmin's brilliant intro-to-philosophy, "Knowing &
Like a lot of Toulmin, it's both a little pokey to read and utterly mind-blowing in what it says. And I certainly treat myself to lots of inconsequential delights and goodies during the working part of the year. I'm nothing if not self-indulgent.

Still, there's no question that I'm more whimsical in the ways I interact with the arts while on holiday than I am during the workyear. Tour a mansion? Can't imagine anything I'd rather do! Check out a Hollywood blockbuster? Well, why not? Though I've got only the remotest, anthropological interest in today's standard Hollywood fare, while on vacation I'm kinda curious about what the industry's been up to.

But, generally, the impact being-on-vacation has on my artgoing activities seems to be less about the kind of thing I read or watch (or listen to or visit ...) than it is about the spirit I do this artsgoing in. I might visit a museum; I might read some poetry or philosophy; I might dig out a blues CD I haven't listened to in years. The artsgoing becomes more forgiving -- more a matter of helping myself to treats than it usually is. Which isn't a surprise, vacation being the break-from-the-usual-thing that it is.

The entertainment industries know all about this, of course. The usual thing in book publishing, for example, is to treat summer as "summer-reading" season. The book publishers are selling a picture of careworn people with knotted-up brains being set free -- finally !! -- to sprawl on the beach and indulge in junk-food cultural pleasures: Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, James Patterson.

Do most people still view their summer weeks off as a time to indulge in junky reading pleasures? I know that booksellers still behave as though this is the case. But is it really? I wonder. Given how pervasive popular culture has become ... given how guiltless most people seem these days about helping themselves to heaps of popular culture ... given how unaware most young people are these days of anything that isn't popular culture ... Well, it seems odd to set aside a season especially for junk-culture indulgence, doesn't it?

In any case, summer-reading season can mean other things too, even serious things. I have some friends who treat their time off in breathtakingly disciplined ways. One book critic I know, for instance, sets aside all new books during his vacation weeks. I suspect that, if I were a professional book-reader-and-reviewer, I'd set aside all reading during my weeks off, if only to give my eyes a break. But this book-critic friend is majorly devoted to reading. And during his weeks off, he plows through the 19th century novels that he hasn't yet gotten around to. Year after year he ticks Trollopes and Turgenevs off his list.

I know some other people who decided years ago to devote their vacation reading time to "Remembrance of Things Past" and only "Remembrance of Things Past." 10 years later, they're still making their way through. Me, I read a volume and a half many years ago, back when I was fascinated by French lit. These days, I find myself wondering whether I'll ever get back to Proust, especially now that I seem to have burned up 3/4s of my interest in literary writing of any kind.

I envy these friends: their organization, their determination, their discipline. I'd like to be able to set myself extensive reading tasks. I'm in fact pretty good at dreaming up artsgoing projects; unfortunately, I'm almost incapable of following through on them. And on holiday I find that I'm even more prone to watching my plans fall to pieces than I am during the working part of the year. Perhaps because of this failing, I seem to happiest on holiday when I give over to the moment. I may bring along a stack of novels, but the book I'll wind up reading will usually come from the shelves of the people we're visiting.

FWIW -- and I've got no idea what this may mean, if anything -- I've noticed that I'm far more likely to read fiction when I'm on vacation than when I'm not. While in St. Barth's earlier this year, for example, I got through six noir crime novels in nine days. Noir crime seemed to be what I was in the mood for. Yet I probably don't manage to get through more than a dozen novels during the entire rest of the year.

As for movies ... Well, summer-vacation time is blockbuster season as far as the moviebiz is concerned. (Interesting context-setting moviebiz fact many youngsters aren't aware of: the whole "summer blockbuster" thing, which these days seems like such an inescapable fact of life, only began in the late 1970s.) Treating summer as blockbuster season makes sense if you're a kid, or if you're selling to kids. If you're free from school -- if you're dating, or hanging out, or simply restless -- blockbusters shown in Dolbyized, air-conditioned theaters can serve a function. Does summer-blockbuster season suit adults in anything like the same way? On superhot days, I sometimes buy a ticket to get out of the apartment and cool down. But otherwise I find summer blockbuster-season a pain: I hate the movies, and I find the teen crowds annoying. (Bless 'em, of course. But the hyper energy of teens isn't something I'm often in the mood for.) So, with only a few exceptions, I spend summers watching the same kinds of movies I generally watch.

But, if summers don't affect my moviewatching habits much, being on vacation does. Is this the case for many people? I have the impression that, in the past, adults on vacation didn't bother to watch movies. Why go to a movie theater when you've gone to the trouble and expense of getting some real place that's special? (Which would seem to suggest that one important reason we do generally go to movies is to "get someplace special" in a metaphorical sense.) The Wife and I once spent four weeks in New Zealand, for example. And, although by most sane standards we're devoted moviebuffs, we spent the entire time we were in New Zealand completely, and happily, moviefree. No movie could have competed with the splendors we were encountering everyday.

But, what with DVDs and hotel-room on-demand movies, the vacation movie-going equation seems different these days than it once did. After dinner's been eaten and the sun has gone down, why not dial up a movie?

But which one? On vacation, my brain tends to return this answer: Who cares? This vacation, for example, I checked out a number of movies I never would have bothered with otherwise: the Elmore Leonard adaptation "The Big Bounce"; one of the "Re-Animator" sequels; and "I, Robot." And, though none of these movies tickled me much, I have no regrets about sitting through them either.

So maybe it's fair to say that, on vacation, reasoned critical judgment goes out the window. Well, largely so. My reasoned-critical-judgment mind says of "The Big Bounce" that it was likable enough in an exploitation party-movie way, but that it was also too pleased with itself for its own good. Material like Elmore Leonard's seems to bloom into full shaggy-dog, deadpan, brutal-amusing glory only when it's acted and directed as though it's really meant. (And, good christ, whoever thought Owen Wilson has what it takes to be a star?) Still, the film was set in Hawaii; it was full of surf, palm trees, and bikinis; terrific actors kept showing up ... I've seen worse, though I hope no one will take this as a recommendation.

The "Re-Animator" sequel was no match for the classic original, but it delivered some over-the-top, blood-flinging, absurdist exploitation giggles anyway. "I, Robot"? A mystifying dud. I'd be interested to hear what other people have made of it. The film was amazing in a production sense: good god, people really knock themselves out making today's cyberspectacles, don't they? I can't imagine getting up in the morning looking forward to working on one of these films. And the director Alex Proyas is a talent; his vision of the future isn't the usual dank, "Blade-Runner"-y thing. It's a different kind of nightmare; visually, the film has some enjoyable originality. But that script ... Although nothing if not sleekly engineered, it was seriously soul-free and quirk-deficient. It might have been written by a robot.

Still, I sat through all these nothing-special movies in a perfectly happy -- and a largely screw-being-critical -- state. Which has less to do with the movies than with the cast of mind that vacation puts me in: whimsical, indulgent, curious (if in a mild way), tolerant, and sunny. When in vacation-brain, I simply seem to see no reason to bitch about movies, even the bad ones. Heck, I see no reason to bitch about life. Even the lousiest movie becomes nothing more than a pleasant and small part of the good life.

I'm tempted to write that, while on vacation, I'm more pleasure-centric than I usually am. But that's not quite right. I'm pretty damn pleasure-centric most days. And, after all, I get far deeper pleasure from hauling my work-tired ass to a Handel opera than I do from casually indulging in a twinkly bit of leisure-week Hollywood. So I guess maybe I'm simply more ... carefree and goofy in terms of choosing what to watch or see, and in terms of how I take what I do read or look at. Though, hmm: "choosing" may be the wrong word to use here; "choosing" what to watch or see seems like what I do during the work part of the year, when making an artgoing choice carries some weight.

But what kind of weight? Because of work, because of life in the city, I'm conscious of how limited my artgoing time is. So I'm determined to get something out of what artgoing I manage to do -- what I see or listen to better pay off, dammit. (Grim! And not a good mindset in which to interact with the arts either.) On vacation, by contrast, time seems to expand. For a week or two, I've got a Larger Perspective on life. Decisions don't seem crucial, let alone irrevocable. Making a mistake is nothing more than a goof, and something to be relished for its own sweet sake.

Yet, despite this easygoingness -- or maybe thanks to it -- I get at least as much out of vacation artsgoing as I do out of what I fight so determinely to treat myself to during the workyear. Individual experiences may hit harder during the workyear, but culturegoing generally pleases me more on vacation. I wonder why. Perhaps it's simply because Vacation Me is more relaxed and more open, and because I let myself stumble into culture-experiences I'd never bother with otherwise.

I think there's a lot to be said for that -- for "open" and "relaxed" -- as a general approach to the arts. Why agonize over climbing the highest peaks when there's hanging-out to be enjoyed? Climb if you want to -- but why not enjoy sleeping late too? Why agonize over what to do: let someone else decide what to do instead. See what happens. Let the fanatics torture themselves with their damn lists and achievement-goals. Me, I'd rather slice some bread and cheese, and uncork a bottle of wine. There's leisure to be enjoyed.

On vacation I sometimes find myself wondering: is this how people with money enough not to have to work spend their lives? How lovely. On the other hand: good god, how do they get themselves to accomplish anything constructive whatsoever? But maybe my difficulty imagining such a life is a reflection of how special time-off has always been to me. Leisure is one thing I've never been able to get used to. (If my parents achieved anything in raising me, it was preparing me for a life of work.) However lovely St. Barth's or New Zealand may be, time-and-space pressure is always just around the corner. Real-life will start up again, and very shortly. The idea that "real life" itself might consist of whimsically pleasing myself seems beyond imagining.

So it's easy enough to figure out why my artsgoing is more carefree when I'm on vacation than it is during the working part of the year. Being on vacation simply tends to put everyone in a relatively carefree state of mind. But what to make, then, of the relatively non-carefree-ness of my usual artsgoing? Most weeks, my reading/listening/etc is pretty directed. But directed towards what end? I seem to have the impression that, with my artsgoing, I'm getting somewhere, or maybe that I'm getting at something. But where? And at what?

I've long had a pet theory that the arts are a kind of "magic circle" wherein the imagination, freed from the usual constraints, can sport and play. That's one of the functions the arts -- like sex, and play itself -- can serve for all of us. Which would seem to imply that time spent on the arts is itself a bit of a holiday, at least relative to the time we spend on more mundane matters. Yet I interact differently with the arts -- with these little bits of holiday -- when I'm actually on holiday myself. Why shouldn't I be more carefree in my dealings with the arts during normal life? What do I have to lose?

How do you guys find being on vacation affects your artsgoing, and your arts-enjoyment?



posted by Michael at December 30, 2004


I tend to go for the thick, dust-covered classics I find at the local used book store when I have a few days of vacation. I love the idea of having all those unhurried hours to bury my nose in a long, complicated story. Every now and then I'll read a "popular" book like The Da Vinci Code in my free time, but then I regret it and wonder why I didn't spend that precious time re-reading War and Peace. Go figure. Welcome back, BTW.

Posted by: Waterfall on December 30, 2004 7:01 PM

I've got your next vacation all picked out, Michael. (And this is in the neighborhood.)

Posted by: Brian on December 30, 2004 8:36 PM

My media consumption doesn't really change - in terms of type - when I'm on vacation, except there's just more of it.

As for I, Robot, what you were noticing was stories (or more accurately, one story) that were originally quiet, contemplative behavior puzzles being wedged into the summer blockbuster movie format. The one cop that Asimov wrote about in his robot stories, Elijah Bailey, was a middle-aged, Colombo-like agoraphobic (for plot reasons), and not the bionic, hotbody attitude machine played by Will Smith. Susan Calvin was a matronly woman who didn't really like people, not a model in hiding waiting for her hero to come. So, in being retrofitted to get big explosions and a snotty character teenage boys would relate to, out go the adults with as many wrinkles on their souls as on their faces. Oh, and it contained the one scene Asimov said he'd never write, robots going on the attack. That's why it seemed so robotic.

What really made me chuckle, though, was the preposterous storeys-high structure with little catwalks out to the only access ports of the big robot brain. Hadn't these people seen Galaxy Quest? Any writer that does something like that after Sigourney's character forever dismisses chomping machines and miles-high chases as nothing but bad writing simply has no shame. (And Galaxy Quest will forever be required viewing for anyone who has the inkling to write a sci-fi movie script.) Oh well.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 3, 2005 3:20 PM

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