A Movie So Good It Ruins You, Would You Watch It?
It’s the question the late David Foster Wallace puts before every reader of his novel Infinite Jest, the Shakespearean book title that doubles as the name of a movie within the encyclopedic tale.
In the story, the movie Infinite Jest so captivates hearts and eyes that no other entertainment can compete — the McGuffin of the novel, the plot-trigger for bigger themes to center on. “A lot of the book is about an art film director who comes up with a film that’s so entertaining that anyone who watches it never wants to do anything else,” said Wallace in an interview. “Then the interesting question becomes: If such a thing exists, do you avail yourself of it or not?”
“If a movie were fatally good and lethally entertaining, would you see it?”
In the novel, even the U.S. government does its best to investigate the addictive movie and its consequences. Body strapped to chair, electrodes stuck to temple, a lab mouse of a man watches the movie, narrating to researchers in lab coats the opening scene, that is, “before the subject’s mental and spiritual energies abruptly decline to a point where even near-lethal voltages through the electrodes couldn’t divert his attention from the Entertainment.”
Having seen the film, and wanting nothing more than to watch it repeatedly, the “victims” are consigned to psychiatric wards. “The persons’ lives’ meanings had collapsed to such a narrow focus that no other activity or connection could hold their attention. Possessed of roughly the mental/spiritual energies of a moth.”
If a movie were fatally good and lethally entertaining, would you see it?
Death by Candy
In Wallace’s 1996 interview with Judith Strasser on Wisconsin Public Radio, he developed his personal anxieties over our amusement culture. The book is “a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s all that different.”
He was sounding an alarm.
In the novel, U.S. and Canadian relations are strained to the point that certain Canadian elements attempt to broadcast the movie into the U.S. as cinematic subterfuge — an attempt to get America to “choke itself to death on candy.”
Wallace has managed to create a metaphor for America’s entire entertainment industry in one seductive film — so seductive, that the great challenge for the U.S. government is determining how to warn people not to watch the film without causing everyone to rush out to see it immediately.
“I think a lot of this sort of hugger-mugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot. That our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports are very personal, so private that they’re sort of between us and our hearts,” he says. “In fact, there’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. These decisions are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.”
The novel is a pointed question to America’s citizens: Will they “have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death?”
Screens Better Than Life?
The novel was future looking, out a few years, but not too far. We’re living in his future, and he intended his alarm to ring loudest today. “The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then, in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible,” he said twenty-two years ago.
“At some point we’re going to have virtual reality pornography. I would just invite you to think about, given the level of people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to video peepshow stores now — what sort of resources we’re going to have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry,” all to not give ourselves over to this technology? “I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the stuff’s going to get better and better and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say yes and no to.”
“By indulging in the candy of entertainment, we are left with a weakened appetite for our daily devotions.”
Without being anti-entertainment or anti-TV, Wallace could sound the warning. “I think somehow, we as a culture have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure is dangerous, and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others, and that part of being a human being means deciding how much active participation we want to have in our own lives.”
“We have to reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.”
He was right. Media continues to get better and more vivid. CGI effects are becoming more moving. Movies more stunning. TV dramas more compelling. Actors more persuasive. “We’re going to have to come to some sort of understanding about how much we’re going to allow ourselves, because it’s probably going to get a lot more fun than real life.” He was speaking of TV, movies, gaming, and mass media, but even social media and the Internet, while democratizing voices, would not make our screens less addictive, and Wallace knew it.
Screens will become more fun than real life. “And the better the images get, the more tempting it’s going to be to interact with images rather than other people, and I think the emptier it’s going to get. That’s just a suspicion and just my own opinion.”
All of this was more than theory for Wallace, who ditched his TV. “I don’t have a TV because if I have a TV I will watch it all the time.” And that’s the simple self-awareness needed in the video age.
“I don’t own a TV, but that is not TV’s fault. It’s my fault,” he reiterated. “After an hour, I’m not even enjoying watching it because I’m feeling guilty at how nonproductive I’m being. Except the feeling guilty then makes me anxious, which I want to soothe by distracting myself, so I watch TV even more. And it just gets depressing. My own relationship to TV depresses me.”
Not all of our TVs should go in the garbage, but we should all cultivate media self-awareness.
That’s where media temperance begins. Not by asking: “Prove to me what I do is wrong”; or “Give me media diet intake restrictions”; or “Prove to me my gaming is wrong.” It starts with self-reflective awareness as we seek to preserve higher pleasures by saying no to lesser indulgences.
Endless Good of TV
The problem with video gaming is not that gaming is evil, but that it’s immersively good. Gaming franchises are getting bigger as gameplay becomes more lifelike. We live in an age when all the aesthetic manicurists of digital visual pleasure culture have reached staggering heights of power and influence. They’ve never been better. And they’re getting better.
The problem with TV is not that TV is evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our in-demand platforms continue to bulge with options, new releases and classic favorites from past generations. As the whole history of TV is offered to us, our new TV releases are getting more complex and textured, more graphically stunning, demanding more immersion and focus from viewers.
What it all means is that we, the viewers, are lured with ever more glittering bait to passive drift into an escapist dream from our boring lives with “whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more . . . well, lively than contemporary life.”
My real life will never compete with the tele-visual magicians of Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Hollywood, and HBO.
I’m not suggesting that indulging in entertainment will leave us with no time for our morning devotions. I’m suggesting that by indulging in the candy of entertainment we are left with a weakened appetite for the solid nourishment of our daily devotions. The greater danger. We are not meant to barely survive with the spiritual energies of a moth, but to flourish in the alertness of the Spirit’s presence.
“Not all of our TVs should go in the garbage, but we should all cultivate media self-awareness.”
If Wallace were still alive, he’d certainly still be calling for us to walk out such a thought experiment to challenge our entertainment diets. But Christians are equipped by Scripture to take up the conversation from this point. These are very personal decisions between us, our hearts, and our God, all for the sake of our soul and for the sake of our kids, protective convictions that will make it possible for us to truly live, and to give our hearts away — not to a flickering screen that cannot love us back — but to give ourselves away to the spiritual pleasures of a Savior who promises to love us back because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is senior writer for Desiring God and author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017),