Take a pause to let your mind work

Why the culture that destroyed attention spans is now turning to podcasts.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: I'm feeling like a lot of people are feeling helpless lately with nonstop bad news. And even ADD has reduced our resistance not our resistance, but our capacity for nuance and for empathy. You know, if you are moving from moment to moment and avoiding a pause, consider that neurologists tell you that the pause is where the memory becomes entrenched. And it's where emotion is synthesized, after the event, in the pause. If you don't go down you can't feel the going up again. So in this era where every pause is filled with checking your phone, when porn, when you skip to the cum shot, you know? From cum shot, to cum shot, to cum shot. You know, and if there's no pause, the orgasm feels like nothing. And the same with joy, the same with sadness. If you never stop you can never feel, fully.

So my goal at times is to create pauses more than create the actual thing between the pauses, which some would call things, or events, or words, or just sounds, in this case with the podcast. I was very careful of, like, this needs to be 24 more frames of pause; I use the film term because there's 24 frames per second. I said, the audience is not feeling it because they don't have enough time to pause. So the art of the pause is what I'm encouraging now.

Anthem is the name of our series. Every season will be a different musical, in probably 10 episodes. And our first season is called Homunculus. My character, Ceann, is a down and out failed writer in a trailer park in the Midwest who's run out of insurance, and he's got a brain tumor. And the tumor, one of the names of the kind of tumor he has is homunculus, which is Latin for little man. And the tumor becomes a character. But my character's online, he's doing an app-based telethon to crowd-fund his treatment.

This piece is really more about me. It's really more of an alternative autobiography. The characters became really me; If I never left my small town, what would I be like? So I wrote it as a TV series. It was too weird for Hollywood, you know? The resting pitch faces at desks across LA were saying no. And a company called Topic Studios said yes, in New York, as a podcast. It was an old form that is being rebooted for today. You know, audio theater has always been a traditional part of radio, and it's sort of been forgotten, and except for some comedy, let's say but this, I really wanted something more like cinema of the mind. Obviously, it's much cheaper. Though, we may be one of the more expensive podcasts ever made because of the density of it. And it's really something that we want to push the podcast form into a more complex, nuance, dense, fictional place. I'm used to theater. I'm used to novels. You know, the words and the music evoke images. You know, sometimes a thousand words is better than a picture, too. Otherwise we wouldn't have Dostoevsky and Nabokov, you know, lasting so long. I'm a word person. You know, I'm a music person. But I love words. You know, when people say films shouldn't be too wordy, and, you know? It's like, why not? You know, Eric Rohmer, so many great filmmakers, they're word based. So in our case, when there is an image that's important to see, for our listeners to envision, we have characters that describe them in a poetic way, which is, of course, the ancient form of prose poetry, that evokes images, and evokes other feelings, and other senses.

I think that one of the reasons podcasts are very popular right now, because it's a bit counter intuitive in this day and age of peak sensory overload, is that people are finding one sense is just fine, thank you very much. We're overloaded. I wrote it all as a theater piece first, and then wrote it all as a television series, and then adapted it for podcast. So I've had a lot of time to parse it, to do readings, to edit the hell out of it. And it's that kind of time is really needed for something this dense.

I think one of the reasons you don't get as many wunderkinds on YouTube in a narrative way is because it requires a lot of skills. It's not just music, or just visuals, or just acting, or just comedy. It's all of those things, including the talents of production, which is, oh, my god, how do you get it onto screen or onto a camera. And that requires patience. It's an ADD world. A lot of young people, patience is not always the strong suit. In fact, the spontaneous, you know, 'shoot myself for Instagram', is the main format of the moment. And that doesn't always allow for the complexity of real narrative storytelling. It can make for something fun, and exciting, and funny. But the kind of stuff, the literary kind of stuff that I like, requires a lot of time and patience. And patience is not really something that's honored anymore, I find, in pop culture. And certainly not in politics lately. So I'm a tortoise as opposed to a hare. And I like to think it through, and gather my thoughts, and hammer away, and sculpt it, which is what I've been doing for the last year and a half.

  • Taking a pause after consuming a piece of art or media is essential to our memory, emotions, and intellectual digestion, says writer, director and podcaster John Cameron Mitchell.
  • We live in an age full of influencers and YouTube personalities, but fewer narrative powerhouses. Storytelling takes time, skill, and requires us to make space to gather our thoughts.
  • Podcasts are a storytelling rebellion against so-called ADHD culture. If the internet ruined our attention spans, can the single-sense format of podcasts bring it back?

John Cameron Mitchell's latest work is the epic radio-cinema podcast Anthem: Homunculus.

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