I watched Serpico for the first time on Netflix last night. It’s one of Al Pacino’s early films (1973) and based on the real story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, a man whose dogged honesty and testimony to the Knapp Commission led to the cleansing of corruption in the city police force.
In reading about Frank Serpico I was blown away when I read about his response to Al Pacino when asked why he stayed honest and eventually stepped forward. Serpico tells Pacino:
Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because … if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?
Who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?
Isn’t this a beautiful way to speak about the simple things we spin into complexity? (By the way, I like that language… “a piece of music.” We don’t speak like this any longer.) Serpico’s response speaks to something I’ve been turning over in my mind lately, which is neither profound nor exclusive thinking. That is, I think we’re more profoundly connected than ever before, yet less engaged with that to which we’re connected.
Our capacity for consciousness has not been commensurate with our capacity for connectedness. We’re more connected but less conscious.
Applying this: How many watch Serpico or films like it without ever asking the question Pacino asked: What compels a man toward honesty? And how many watch a film and are stimulated but miss entire the universe of meaning that gives the film its motive power?
I’m thinking about it in terms of media that can have application in your life versus media as entertainment. Another way to put it: Our media and entertainment as a part of our universe versus media and entertainment contained within a universe of their own. Does our media enter into us?
We are entertained generally, but not engaged specifically. This is my working theory for contemporary entertainment. We have a much tougher time viewing it in a way that we can imagine being a part of the drama or confronting similar choices in our own experience. This is what I mean when I suggest our consciousness hasn’t kept pace with our connectedness.
I think our experience with entertainment used to contain an implicit aspirational/practical aspect. That is, I’d bet that when our parents or grandparents watched Fred Astaire dance with Rita Hayworth not a few men left that experience set to learn to dance like Fred Astaire. Or watched Gene Kelly sing in the rain—and then actually sang in the rain sometime!
Contrast that to our present time. Do you watch Iron Man thinking Wow, Tony Stark’s an amazing engineer and then actually pursue any type of engineering? In other words: imagine that any part of his talent could exist within us to be called into application?
We enter into what we experience and become part of it. Consciousness is the act of understanding that we’re doing it. If we experience something but don’t enter into it, are we really conscious to it? Are our media experiences phenomena that occasionally stimulate? Or are they experiences we can enter into and allow to shape and change us?
Are phenomena external to us, or do phenomena have implications for who we are? When we speak about consciousness and connectedness, this is the question to answer.
I love that I can stream Serpico instantly—that our communications have evolved to this speed and responsiveness. But if we’re not conscious of what we’re connecting to then the experience is for nothing. It’s just more white noise.
I’m writing this because I know I have a hard time entering into the stories I experience. I have a hard time remembering that the drama of the moment is genuinely the drama of this moment — the moment I’m experiencing. I have a hard time acknowledging media having concrete implications rather than existing as some flitting abstraction.
Who will we be when we listen to a piece of music?