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The Revolution Will Be Handheld

My daughter’s world revolves around whatever small screen she happens to be holding in her hand. Until recently, this seemed to me a sign of the coming apocalypse.
 
 
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I proudly call myself a progressive but as a parent of school-aged kids, I’m often surprised by how culturally conservative I’ve become. I scoff at my thirteen-year-old’s full-body obsession with the British boy band, One Direction. And when she calls the recent movie Think Like a Man or any film starring Kate Hudson a “great film,” I lecture her for probably longer than the movie lasts on why the popular culture she claims to have been moved by -- in point of fact -- is absolute and total crap.

Did I mention that I’m a screenwriter?

Although I also write in other genres, writing for and about film and television has always been the focus of my writing career. Both socially and culturally, the movie theater has served as the climate-controlled center of my universe. My daughter’s world, on the other hand, revolves around whatever small screen she happens to be holding in her hand. Until recently, this seemed to me a sign of the coming apocalypse. But I’m beginning to realize that it might actually represent something more positive -- something big and revolutionary in the smallest possible package.

The road to this realization has been difficult and humbling, and is hardly complete. It's depressing to realize that a proudly middle-aged progressive is not immune to garden-variety, middle-aged malaise.

Nevertheless, as school ends and summer begins, nostalgia hits me hardest. I can’t help but reminisce about how for me summertime always meant gorging myself on two, maybe three movies per week.

The moment my friends and I were paid for mowing a lawn or washing a car, we’d hike a mile under and aggressive sun to the independent movie theater next to the duck pin bowling alley in the shopping plaza in our little town of Hamden, Connecticut. When everything went multiplex, this small theater simply cut the room in half lengthwise without adjusting the seats, so we were now aimed at the right or left corner, depending on which theater we were in.       

But still, it was dark, cold as hell, and magical.

We saw pretty much everything that came out all summer long. Then by late August, we’d started jonesing for TV Guide’s “Fall Preview,” as thick as a paperback. We’d study and debate the then three network’s offerings as seriously as any network execs.

I’m realizing that what we craved back then in the 70s was interaction. On some level we understood that culture came to us piped in on a few channels at home and a few films every week. We yammered at each other and even talked back at the screen because we were powerless to comment in other ways.

My thirteen-year-old daughter, despite her taste for British boy bands and forgettable rom-coms, is a much more active participant in the culture she consumes. I may complain about her disappearing into her room to watch a half-dozen episodes of Monk on her netbook, then Skyping her BFFN (Best Friend For Now), whom she saw all day at school, but she takes agency for what goes before her eyes in ways that when I was her age, I could only envy.

When I was a kid, wrestling for the remote was the closest I ever got to controlling media. Today, the device my daughter holds in her hand can control not just the TV but her entire known world.  She take a picture with her phone, and with Instagram or Camera + she can edit, frame, caption and send it. She can record herself singing Maroon 5 and then autotune it. I can’t call her a couch potato if while watching Design Star she’s designing a new couch on an app on her phone.

Yes, the major studios dump badly recycled garbage on us every summer (everyone involved in Adam Sandler’s recent That’s My Boy should be tried in The Hague). The difference now, though, is that this level of crappy disposable cultural production is where it deserves to have landed all along – where my daughter and I can take it or leave it. Buy the headphones on the plane or not. Watch the middle third months later on cable while we’re folding clothes or not. The choice is now wholly ours.

My daughter can personally regulate the culture she consumes from the electronic rock in her hand -- she can join the cultural conversation herself at a level frighteningly close to that of the professionals.

I’ve been writing films for years, and in the seven years since I started teaching filmmaking, I’ve seen the cost of indie film production reduce precipitously. Seven years ago it was common to see a student spend $30,000 on a twenty-minute film and not uncommon for them to spend $60,000. Today my teenager cuts a video for a school project on iMovie as casually as she texts her friends. I tell her how Lena Dunham began with YouTube shorts in college that blossomed into her micro-budget features, Dealing and Tiny Furniture, before her explosion onto HBO with Girls.

My daughter just nods. She’s not amazed. For her, that revolution has already been won. Why should she waste her time feeling nostalgic for success on the big screen when she’s got a brave new universe in the palm of her hand?

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
 
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