Note to my friends: Sled dogs are unique in the canine world as they are not expected to be obedient, but engage, insofar as dogs are able, in critical thinking. They can often know better than their handlers where the ice is thin and when it is best to veer off the beaten trail. This short piece reflects on a growing discomfort with how the entertainment industry may be dulling our own best instincts.
I recently asked a young friend of mine why she liked reality TV. This for me was an honest question. I could see no appeal whatsoever in watching rich people move into their mansions and say vapid things about their kitchens. Sure these people were good looking and some of them even contributed to the entertainment world, but there was nothing at all interesting about their private lives. I was aware of being completely disconnected from a phenom. So I did what I always do when I don't get it. I asked.
And my friend said, “Watching this stuff allows me to vicariously experience the kind of lifestyle I’ll never get in real life.”
I said, “Private jets and big energy inefficient houses make you feel fabulous?”
She said, “Yes.” And I fell silent, because more than ever, I needed to think.
I found myself remembering all this when I went to see the new Harry Potter movie on Friday the 13th. I arrived at the theater early. Used to be when I was early I would be treated to film trivia, background music and ads from local merchants. This time, the pre movie world was almost as slick as the film.
First I watched men swim with sharks. The men wore chain mail because as one said, “If you make a mistake in this business, you’re not likely to get a chance to make a second.” The element of danger was viscerally present, the same fight or flight mechanism that fuels our culture of stress now transformed into entertainment and thrill. Then I watched ads for video games featuring inhuman robots and impossibly leggy girls being pursued by dinosaurs. These were clearly rated “Teen.” After that I watched the most bizarre ad for Scion in which deviants rose up from the sewers and turned sheep people into talking heads before driving away in their boxy car. Nothing is as it seems. The world is dark and fearsome. Be glad this is only fantasy. Any further explanations would be most welcome.
Now that I was suitably mesmerized, it was time for the hard sell. First, I got a very brief behind the scenes look at the film The Bourne Ultimatum which involved an assassin, a human who is both not himself and who is “very hard to kill.” The clip, quite short, teased me like a travel poster with the aerial views of Italy, Paris and Tangiers. It seemed like the teaser for the next feature, which was clearly the "main event," a break from fantasy for the greatest reality of them all, the United States National Guard. Like the pledge of allegiance at a ballgame, everything came to a halt as we were treated to the first hand experiences of the real men and women who sacrifice so much that our country might be great. Flags waved. Helicopters buzzed. Petroleum was used in abundance. The rescue of a pregnant woman from a flood was meant to warm our hearts toward these unsung heroes, ordinary doctors, teachers and other professionals risking their lives for “the most important job a person can do.” Soldiers as saviors. I suppose there had to be some truth in advertising, for there was a small note that “we might even be called to defend our country overseas,” but this happened very quickly and was overlayed upon a scene of a helicopter landing in a lush, green clearing dotted with oak trees that bore no resemblance at all to Iraq. As I watched this, I was suddenly reminded of Roman legionnaires who did hard military duty in return for little plots of real estate in the provinces which they had conquered from the indigenous people. The military was the way a poor boy might achieve social mobility. To fly in those helicopters and rescue pregnant women from floods was the way an ordinary Joe or Josephine could participate in the fabled world of the movies.
Then we were back to The Bourne Ultimatum. The second behind the scenes film was far more detailed than the first. Universal Pictures wanted me to know that no expense was being spared so that I might have a world class entertainment experience. Everything was shot on location, they said, showing cameras on tracks following chase scenes down the streets of Rome, the souks of Tangiers, the boulevards of Paris. It was important for those who would never actually get there, to have the opportunity to see real places in the movies. (And for all the rich people who actually jet all over the place, Universal couldn’t fool them.) This clip assumed that the movies were doing me a public service, by broadening my limited experience. Now I felt like a farm kid during the depression, being cheered up by being allowed to peek at other people’s ideas of glamor, to be lifted, for a moment, out of my tawdry and narrow existence, into the world of those who are so rich that all the consequences of their actions are borne by others.
It couldn’t get worse, but it did. Now I was subjected to dancing cats with frightening humanoid faces. Tom Kat goes to the movies. A pretty Kitty takes his money, serves him popcorn and a soda and rematerializes again on the screen wearing a black ball gown. She stretches her arms out toward Tom, who is also transformed into a tuxedoed dancer and they twirl about in each other’s arms, themselves the stars, until they are once again restored to their seats in the audience.
The appeal to my self importance could not have been more disturbing. The idea that my personal fulfillment needed the blessing of the film industry and the U.S. Military was even more disturbing. And still more disturbing than this was the idea that my loyalty to this world was being both assumed and encouraged. Entertainment in return for compliance. I was very aware that people were working to manipulate me in ways that felt very propagandistic.
After that came the official preview of The Bourne Ultimatum, which, since I had been behind the scenes, felt like an intimate insider conversation, despite exploding buildings and desperate assignations on cell phones. At last, after other incomprehensible film previews, I finally watched what I had come for, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The dark side of their elite life in the wizarding world made this ordinary muggle shiver just a little bit.
Who's in charge here? I ask you. What am I being asked to live for? What am I being asked to die for? Dolores Umbridge denied that Voldemort had returned and punished anyone who said otherwise. I wonder, dear ones, I wonder. . .