Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Reality check

I’m losing my grip on reality. (Not that my grip was that firm in the first place.) But, hey, it’s not just me. I think the whole culture is losing its grip on reality.

I attribute this to the fact that the general consumption of literature has outstripped the supply. Our collective need to constantly tell and hear stories has been tested not only by the growth in the world’s population but by the growth of the media and the technologies that make them work.

Many moons ago, when I worked for my hometown’s weekly newspaper, I used to impress visitors by explaining that the linotype machine that was still being used was significantly no different than what Johannes Gutenberg had invented in the middle of the 15th century and that the state of the art of printing was only then advancing in any significant way, with the onset of offset technology. Of course, the development of offset printing was only the beginning of a technical revolution that has not slowed down since—proceeding to “computer aided publishing” and then “desktop publishing” and then e-books to be followed no doubt by computer chip implants in our brains. This fast-forwarding of print publishing that began somewhere after the middle of the 20th century has been mirrored in all the media, which has potentially made everyone an author or publisher or broadcaster or movie producer. And that means there has been an explosion of content. And that means there has been an explosion of new stories being told.

Except that, as many of us know, there always have been and always will be only a small finite number of stories. It only seems as though there is an infinite number of stories because human beings keep finding infinite numbers of ways to retell the same stories over and over, while somehow making them seem (or sometimes not) new each time. The Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes a series of Italian stories which become Romeo and Juliet which becomes West Side Story and all kinds of other books and movies, including those Twilight ones, among many others. The ancient legend of Leir of Britain becomes various books and poems which become King Lear which becomes Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran which becomes Jocelyn Moorhouse’s novel A Thousand Acres which becomes the movie My Kingdom. And most literary lineages aren’t even as obvious as those ones are.

So how does our media-saturated age cope with so much technology-enabled literary creativity and consumption? How do we keep up the illusion that we are always coming up with new stories? Increasingly, it seems, we turn to reality. More and more, television schedules seem to be filling up with “reality TV,” which has the attraction of not requiring expensive actors or expensive writers. Put ordinary people in a situation and just start filming. The stories create themselves. As for movies, we are seeing more and more documentaries, which are becoming more and more entertaining. (Thank you, Errol Morris and Michael Moore.) And they are becoming more and more like reality TV.

But documentaries aren’t going to replace good old Hollywood movies. So how is Hollywood coping with this media explosion? Well, for one thing, we seem to be getting more and more remakes. That is, rather than even pretending that a lot of the movies they make are new, studios are relying on well-known titles to draw in a new generation. Over the past years, for example, it seems as though every horror movie made back in the 1970s or 1980s (or even further back) has been remade in the past few years: Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Wolfman, etc. etc. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t even get into all the remakes in other genres or of foreign films as well as movies based on old TV shows and Saturday Night Live skits.

If remakes and documentaries don’t provide enough work for Tinseltown toilers, then the other gambit that seems to be growing by leaps and bounds is the based-on-actual-events feature film. This approach really provides a non-stop source of screenplays. There are potentially as many new movies out there as there are newscasts, magazine articles and biographies. When I began writing this, the four top-earning movies in the U.S. included a documentary and two based-actual-events features: Jackass 3D, The Social Network and Secretariat. And listening to Aaron Sorkin being interviewed on various programs about his screenplay for The Social Network, I have been struck how many of the questions are about how faithful he was to the actual events he dramatized. And this doesn’t amount to some academic discussion of dusty old history. The subject of the movie is at this moment only 26 years old. (To put it another way, he was born a mere 113 days after the broadcast of the famous Apple “1984” television Super Bowl half-time commercial.) The end of the dramatized story takes place a mere three years ago. Is this the evolution of moviemaking, or is it a new form of journalism?

It is getting to the point where, when some major event occurs and captures the attention of the public and the cable news channels, some of the first thoughts that go through my mind are: I wonder who will direct the movie, I wonder who will be cast playing this one or that one. And I am clearly not alone in this. In the past fortnight or so, I have heard on BBC radio and read in The New York Times discussions of the media and commercial prospects ahead of the 33 miners who were recently rescued in Chile. A Times article the Sunday before last specifically evaluated the movie prospects and included comments from Nando Parrado who, as a young rugby player, was part of a group that survived a plane crash in the Andes and was eventually played by Ethan Hawke in the 1993 movie Alive! Parrado is described as, having watched the mine rescue live with all the resulting attention, “betraying a hint of rescue envy.” The article also includes quotes from Will Jimeno, who was played by Michael Peña in the 2006 Oliver Stone movie World Trade Center, which told how he and fellow Port Authority police officer John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) survived being buried on 9/11. The Times article is accompanied by a graphic that reads like a Hollywood high-concept pitch of the Chilean mine story: It’s Band of Brothers meets The Truman Show meets Ace in the Hole meets World Trade Center meets Titanic meets Miracle meets Apollo 13!

There was a time when the highlight of a person’s life might be to get mentioned in a major newspaper or magazine or maybe even to appear on television. Now the bar seems to have been raised to where one aspires to eventually being played by a major A-list actor on the big screen. To be sure, very few of us live through adventures as amazing as the Chilean miners, Nando Parrado, Will Jimeno or Mark Zuckerberg. But, they are merely the crème de la crème of reality stories. The bar is clearly getting lower for what constitutes entertainment or celebrity, as a quick survey of the cable channels and major networks demonstrates. Andy Warhol has pretty much been proved right. At the rate the media consume people’s lives for consumption by other people’s media appetites, it’s only a matter of time until we will all have had our fifteen minutes of fame.

-S.L., 28 October 2010

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