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Reality Debit

(Note: This essay originally appeared in Newsday.)

While America's favorite show about nothing seems destined to last forever via the cathode cryogenics of syndication, Seinfeld's disappearance from prime-time bodes ill for Cosmo Kramer's real-life prototype, Kenny Kramer, who for the last few years has been conducting a "Kramer Reality Tour" of the Manhattan neighborhoods the show made famous. These days, reality is compelling to us only to the degree that it references something fake: witness the breathless plot summary of the New York woman who upon escaping a watery fate in a flooded elevator exclaimed, "I told my husband I thought I was in the movie Titanic, standing on the lower level as the ship went down."

Overlooking the fact that the presence of real danger and the absence of James Cameron (every ludicrous near-catastrophe has its silver lining) made her experience more like the actual sinking of the Titanic than the movie it inspired, the woman perfectly articulates the degree to which artifice determines the tenor of our lives now. Without Titanic to give it meaning, her near-drowning would have been a far more mundane experience; without a steady stream of new Seinfeld episodes to give it meaning, the "Kramer Reality Tour" seems destined to sink into the same irrelevance as the pre-Titanic Titanic.

Ironically, the anti-sitcom sitcoms and the $200 million disaster imitations, along with Tamagotchis, online affairs, cloned sheep, genetically engineered uber-tomatoes and all the other instances of the mediated and the virtual that now distract us from reality have also left us with an increasing nostalgia for the real - or at least some exaggerated version of it. Indeed, while marketers and manufacturers have been merchandising "realness" for quite some time, the '90s have seen the emergence of what one might call the Real(tm): an aesthetic that advances authenticity as its central tenet, even as the products and personalities that it informs assert their essential artifice.

The Real(tm) counters over-mediation with more media - TV shows like The Real World and Real TV advertise themselves under the banner of "realness" and yet bear little resemblance to reality. The former is simply Beverly Hills 90210 produced by people too lazy to write a script and too cheap to hire professional actors; the latter replaces the emcee of Fox's World's shows with an anchorman, and passes off itself as "news" of sorts - but news for whom? The show is geographically vague and blithely untimely, airing clips as much as five years old, and it makes no effort to provide perspective or even context regarding the events it documents. Equally untethered to the reality they claim for themselves are law enforcement shows like COPS and World's Scariest Police Videos, Fox's new hour-long montage of point-blank shootings, picturesque riots, and renegade vehicle rampages that bills itself as "the real thing." With crime rates dropping dramatically over the last six years, one might expect these shows to include a few token scenes of cops killing time at the station or maybe hassling jaywalkers; instead, they're more violent than ever.

For these shows and others like them, the "real" label serves as shorthand for a carefully manufactured blend of confrontation, unpredictability, and most importantly, death. The latter, of course, is the ultimate signifier of reality: indeed, wasn't Princess Diana's demise so affecting primarily because it seemed impossible a presence as mediated as her could actually cease to be? As if to remind ourselves that death is not just the signal to purchase a new Tamagotchi, we demand the post-bloopers snuff of World's Scariest Police Videos and Real TV. In its less severe moments, the Real(tm) takes the form of exaggerated physicality: the incessant bathroom humor of South Park and Ally McBeal has been decried as a sign of the widespread immaturity now afflicting our culture, but another interpretation is that the execratory preoccupations of these shows arise from our diminishing sense of corporeality: we need proof that we're still flesh and, uh, poop.

Of course, South Park and Ally McBeal are rather ironic standard bearers for reality - the former is crudely rendered even by cartoon standards, the latter specializes in thuddingly broad fantasy sequences - but that's what the Real(tm) is all about. A recent issue of GQ featured a profile of an anachronistic frontiersman named Eustace Conway whom the magazine's editors labelled "the last real man in America" because he hunts his own food, makes his own clothes, forsakes toilet paper, TV, and email, and essentially lives a Davy Crockett lifestyle in the Appalachian wilderness of North Carolina. Ultimately, however, Conway seems remarkably unreal, however, and also fairly insignificant, a quaint throwback who might inspire a TV producer to craft a generic fish-out-of-water tale to help round out next fall's movie-of-the-week calendar, but not someone who in any way reflects contemporary fears or desires. A far more telling symbol of our times is an oxymoronic product sold on the Internet called the RealDoll: life-sized, eerily detailed, the RealDoll is a $5000 silicone sex surrogate that is essentially a model of the sort of woman - Pamela Lee, say - who has modelled herself after Barbie. As such, it perfectly embodies the Real(tm), which is fast becoming the real: there's only one Eustace Conway, after all, but hundreds of people have already purchased a RealDoll of their very own, and thousands more carry on similarly virtual relationships that seem more real to them than anything else in their lives.

Indeed, mediation of one kind or another has become a proof of realness - if it's not mediated, it doesn't exist. Taking surveillance camera chic to its ultimate extension, Al Gore recently announced his desire to broadcast continuous images of the earth taken from space. Resembling the famous vacation snapshots that Apollo 17 astronauts took 26 years ago, Earth-Span, as Gore has dubbed the nascent network, would cost between $20 and $50 million and essentially show us the same photo over and over. (Occasional large-scale phenomena, like hurricanes and huge fires, would also appear.) Critics have questioned the value of such a project, especially since much of the sort of information it will provide is already available from sources that scientists, if not the general public, already have access to. But Earth-Span, should it come to pass, would have not just scientific applications, Gore has suggested, but also an "an inspirational value that's hard to describe." To anyone who's ever been mesmerized by videotape depictions of high-impact car crashes or self-absorbed twentysomethings arguing with each other about dishwashing responsibilities, Earth-Span's value actually seems fairly easy to articulate, however: it will serve as constant reassuring proof that were not just characters in God's sitcom, but are, in fact, as Real(tm) as World's Scariest Police Videos and The Real World. If you don't believe me, just ask Kenny Kramer.

-- G. Beato




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