There's a poster on James' (Kyle Mooney) bedroom wall in his... captive home? It says:
CURIOSITY IS AN UNNATURAL EMOTION
If you could ever actually convince someone of this, you would certainly be able to imprison them and control them... And, yes, that was leaning into a rant about religion or politics, but instead I wanted to concern myself with something closer to the actual text (or at least its subtext) of the film today. James has been held captive since he was a kid, but he thinks his captors his real parents, he thinks the world full of toxic air so they cannot go outside without protection. He only knows the underground bunker in the desert where they have raised him, and the worlds of Brigsby Bear, the TV show his father has produced just for him over the years--25 volumes, 736 episodes. He has these on VHS and has watched them time and time again. They are, in many ways, more real to him than his own monotonous life inside the bunker--his Groundhog Day Effect, if you want to go to Hannam (2008).
Emily Yoshida, writing for Vulture argues that this film, "is asking much trickier questions than it would ever let on about the coddling effect of media and geek obsession, and the purging effect of storytelling." Regarding the first thing (the first part of it anyway)--the coddling effect of media--we've all likely been witness, in real life, or on TV, or in a movie, or parents who set their kids down in front of a television as a pseudo-babysitter, a stand-in parent. Even before we all had access to the Internet in our pockets, kids learned more about the world from television than from modern parents; the modern world forced parents into workspaces far from their children well before it really prepared a place for those children. Modern schools filled the gap. Television filled the gap. Not just "educational" shows but sitcoms, dramas, game shows... Oh how often game shows in the 70s and 80s delved into sexual innuendo. For me, of course, there were also movies. I've written before about our first VCR. And, I've spent the last few months in this blog rewatching movies I saw many times as a kid. (The venture will continue, of course. But, when I've got a 48-hour movie rental, I like to get 2 or 3 days' viewings out of it. Plus, there's a new Star Wars this week, and it's movie awards season, so the venture will have its interruptions.) We didn't have one of those classic dens with the shag carpet, but our living room was focused (on one side) on the television (and on the other a fireplace). At various times, there were couches, a loveseat or two, two rocking chairs, recliners, and they set up the room for watching the television. We had cable pretty early in my life. We had a VCR. We would rent videos often. So, it wasn't just movies on the big screen but movies at home... Actually, for a while, we had a projection screen thing, that used a TV in a box, with a big lens to project it onto a bigger screen, so we had a bigger screen at home, too.
I've written about the reality of my childhood before, too. The constant reminders that the world was coming to an end, and soon. It is no wonder that I loved movies so much, really. I mean, any kid does. But, for me--and maybe this is part of why I like Brigsby Bear so much--it was more than that. Movies offered a world that was bigger than my own. Movies offered entirely different worlds. But, they were not simply escape. Whenever any movie ended, I was back in the real world. And the real world wasn't so bad. Sometimes, it seemed wider than before.
And, I must return to that line from Emily Yoshida.
Because I don't like her equation of the "coddling effect of media" and "geek obsession". She later says that the film "walks all the way up to painting pop-cultural indoctrination as a form of emotional abuse, and geek obsession as trauma, before pulling back an turning it into an avenue for healing." But, I don't think that's what the film does at all. The show Brigsby Bear does, indeed, become an avenue for healing. But, from the opening sequence of James watching parts of an episode and then getting on his computer to talk to Brigsby Bear fans (that he doesn't know don't really exist), it is already a sort of healing. Ted Mitchum (Mark Hamill), James' abductor father, has been offering his abducted son a way to step out of the bunker on a regular basis. Like the "pier" they have above the bunker--a glass dome with fake animals outside that James thinks are real animals--it's a way to not be a prisoner even though it is used to keep him a prisoner. At the end of the film, we learn that it was April Mitchum (Jane Adams), Ted's wife, James' abductor mother who stole James when he was an infant. Ted went along with it, but it was not initially his doing. This does not necessarily make what he has done forgiveable, but it is notable that the film never allows April to explain herself, only Ted. Brigsby Bear was never a form of emotional abuse for James. It was the best thing he ever had in his life. It was how he learned to be. Yoshida describes it like this:
[T]he show comprises the vast majority of his life experience: How to speak, how to interpret events, and even his first and only crush, are all informed by what he watches on his TV every day. It would feel outlandish if it weren't a mere exaggeration of how almost all of us have grown up in front of a screen.
Not much of an exaggeration, really. Not in this country, anyway.
I'm going to go out on a limb, though, and say that television and movies raised me better than church and private school ever did. And, that was because of curiosity. That was because of geek obsession, because I was a nerdy kid well before I understand what it meant to be one. This film does not present geek obsession as as coddling, nor does it suggest that pop culture indoctrinates us. It may sound strange--well, maybe not from me, on this, day 1230 of this blog--but there is nothing wrong with obsession in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with following pop culture, nothing wrong with caring about celebrities or reality TV, or movies, or scripted TV shows, until there is. Obsession is just another natural thing until it isn't. There is a thin line between enjoying something, being a fan of something, and being obsessed. And, as long as it doesn't hinder the rest of your life, I say, be a fan, a fanatic. Be obsessed. Be a geek and a nerd for whatever it is that holds your interest because we all need something to lift us up from the mundanity of modernity from time to time. We need outlets beyond the real. Our minds our too complex to simply accept what we are told, what is put in front of us. We need to be curious. We need to look out into the world and see more than what is there. Or nothing great will ever happen.
And, I have no problem with Yoshida's notion about the "purging effect of storytelling." I am a writer. I am a regular purveyor of television and movies. I read comic books. I read novels. I play Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop games. I dressed up (partly, as I didn't have time to get a whole costume together) for Ren Faire this year. I dressed up as a pirate for the Pirate Invasion of Long Beach. I dressed up as Death for Halloween. Storytelling. Imagination. A world bigger than what's in our heads in in front of our eyes. These things are necessary. These things are good.
We all need some sort of Brigsby Bear in our lives. A video game. A TV show. A book. A comic. A board game. Role-playing. Acting. Movies. Religion.
I mean, is there anyone who doesn't look somewhere for something more?