"The Mechanics of Desire" by Kelly J. Cooper
18 October 1999
For me, I think it started with Moonlighting (1985-1989). A pretty memorable TV show, it launched Bruce Willis' career and revitalized Cybill Shepard's for the, uh, second time? Maybe third. The show was creative in a number of ways - for one, it violated the fourth wall, sometimes with an obvious sort of glee that was irresistable. For another, it had an incredibly antagonistic and sexually charged relationship.
Or maybe it was that other sex-n-wits detective TV series, Remington Steele (1982-1987) that made me notice. Or maybe it was the news of a modified ending (after the pre-screen) for the movie Pretty in Pink (1986) which started me thinking.
Whichever one it was, I realized something about myself. I wanted... no I CRAVED the happy ending, the relationship consumation. I really did.
But sometimes, when I got that joyous romantic denouement, it felt as though I'd filled my mouth with cotton candy. As soon as that stuff touches my tongue, it vanishes and leaves nothing behind but a bit of sugar and a vaguely sweet taste. Not the best metaphor, cuz I still like the stuff on occasion, but there you are. In the context of these shows - as soon as the two stars kissed, the magical tension between them disappeared and the rest of the show went stale.
It happens over and over on television and sometimes in life. We THINK what we want is for those two stars to just get it over with and KISS for goodness' sake. You just want to screw up the courage to ask that cute cow-orker out and get it over with. They want bells and whistles on their software. I want the satisfaction of what HE'S got. We want to be invited to their parties. You know you'll be happy if you could have what SHE'S got.
Then comes the face-lift/abs-of-steel tape/party-invite/big kiss/blinking feature or whatever the hell and it's NOT ENOUGH! Happiness did not follow! The joy is fleeting.
And speaking of fleeting, someone put the Smoking Man's speech about life on the net at www.pennpals.org/audio.html (about 3/4ths of the way down the page). Ignore the written out paragraph beneath it - I've listened to it a few times and corrected for both spelling errors and words spoken half under his breath here:
(CSM's adventures in publishing being tangential to what I'm talking about, but falling more under the heading of "be careful what you ask for"...)
Anyway, maybe it's the writers who run out of creative juice, or the stars who lose their chemisty... but fleeting tangents flee. I'd like to note that the movies that have stayed with me, haunted me, affected me deeply often have someone die at the climax or at the end. Or some desire left unfufilled. Or some portion of the conflict unresolved.
That movie or play or story STICKS and we keep playing it back in our heads, or letting the story continue on in our imaginations. The characters are somehow more real. We didn't want that character to die or get beat up, but it was right, it was real, it was in the moment and it worked.
There's a tight balance between bringing a movie to its natural romantic conclusion and deciding to tack a romantic ending onto the end of a piece that tested badly when shown to preview audiences. Same with appearing to kill off a character only to pull him or her out like a rabbit out of a hat at the end. Sometimes it's logical, maybe remotely possible, other times it's just bullshit. And audiences respond to that - they don't necessarily KNOW that they are responding to that, but it annoys them on some level. It doesn't work.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a great one for enjoying mild, distracting fluff, whether it be movies, books, TV, people. I LIKE mind-candy. And I don't actually mean to hammer on TV/film so much, but they are among the best and most obvious genres where we see this behavior.
Every couple of years the movie industry gets caught completely off-guard by something new, creative, or re-worked in an interesting fashion. That's because the industry does not know every single friggin' nuance of what we want.
WE don't even know what _we_ want. We have some ideas, some guidelines (for good or for bad). We tend towards being amused by particular stereotypes. We enjoy rooting for certain archetypical folks - the kick-butt hero, the black-clad anti-hero, the woman surviving against all odds, the man recovering from certain devastation, the innocent child taking care of the lost soul, etc.
But they can't predict every permutation that's going to tickle our fancy (though goodness knows they try). So when something new comes out, they try and replicate the formula - copy cats and sequels being some of the worst results. Sometimes they're goofy good fun and they move forward, like Jackie Chan's supercop getting older and creakier, or the Danny Glover/Mel Gibson pairing getting to be more intense friends (and also older & creakier). Other times they're just bad bad BAD movies (ala Meatballs 2, 3 and 4).
Software companies blame feeping creaturisms on their customers' demands even though market research shows that consumers find bells and whistles really annoying. I'm sure that both things are true. Companies want all-in-one solutions from software vendors and are unwilling to coordinate across multiple platforms or products.
I suspect there is (or will be) big business in making applications work together on particular operationg systems or at least coordinating data across multiple products into a single log or data crunching tool. (In fact, I think that the business of facilitation and knowledge management are going to be big fields both professionally and personally.)
But try applying this to any industry, particularly service related ones. We ask for certain things and then the providers complain that no one ever takes advantage of all the services that they've provided, not realizing that it isn't what we wanted, or there are too many things to figure out, or there's something that they thought would be convenient but which just makes us crazy. Everybody's got a satisfaction survey now, and they're extra annoying but there's never any place to write down how bothersome the survey itself is.
Or try applying this mentally, to an attractive suitor or interesting member of the community and try to see whether the patterns that you are drawn toward are healthy ones (that make you laugh, facilitate communication, allow for equality), unhealthy ones (reminiscent of someone who abused or dominated your life, play into your codependency needs, disrespect you) or irrelevant ones (calling up physical imprints - tall, short, stocky, skinny).
This ties in with some ideas I've explored before about the art of appreciation. We can't force people to go without instant gratification, but consideration is important. Courting, getting to know someone before dating and moving slowly toward intimacy, is treated as obselete as job loyalty and actual craftsmanship (versus marketing lip). These things are still around, but they aren't given much respect. (Although, if they get enough grassroots support, someone buys them out and mass-markets their product as the latest trend, sacrificing quality for a production line.)
My point is that we don't always want what we think we want.
And that's the hardest thing in the world - difficult to resist, hard to explain, and damn near impossible to predict.
Kelly J. Cooper
October 11-18th, 1999
p.s. If the title of this piece made you think of service mechanics in greasy pink overalls with little cupids on 'em (the person or the clothing) and pockets full of tools for adjusting libido-levels and fixing hearts, then I am SO sorry. Really.
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