Sad Future: Reel Celebrity Over Real Story

The Place: Mojave Desert
The Time: the not-too-distant future

I’m entering this report via wrist-recorder, for direct transmit to Ops, in case I don’t make it back. I’ve been alone in the desert for two weeks now, nearing the end of my Tube-O-Rations, and it’s only this morning that I finally made contact with the subject.

He lives alone in a cave below a jagged overhang, which provides some shade, as well as excellent view-screen reception. I have this on the subject’s own authority, as he related to me with some excitement his favorite plays of last night’s Lakers game from Jack Nicholson Stadium.

The subject–named Harry, or Barry, or something–invited me to stay for dinner. He said he’d just “cooked” something, which must explain the unusual smells emanating from what he called the “kitchen.” Given his advanced age, I humored him whenever possible.

The most salient fact to report, in my judgment, is that he confessed immediately to being a “writer.” (I had him spell the word for me, just to make sure I was quoting him accurately.) He says he used to write “stories,” which were something that apparently existed before the End of Western Civilization.

(I must digress: The only heated exchange between the two of us involved that age-old debate as to when exactly the End of Western Civilization occurred. I reminded him that most historians place it at the moment the Fox network broadcast “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” but I did admit that a number of prominent scholars disagree. Some insist it was the first week’s episodes of “Survivor,” while others maintain that the interactive series “Big Brother” is a far likelier candidate. Regis Philbin’s two terms in office as president also get a mention from academics, though Oprah’s elevation to sainthood by Pope Sinead O’Connor has its vocal supporters as well. Needless to say, Harry–or Barry–and I never did resolve our argument on this subject.)

The point is, regardless of when it officially occurred, the End of Western Civilization also marked the beginning of the end of something called “storytelling,” as practiced by men and women called “writers.” As I understand it, these “stories” were about fictional people called “characters,” and, depending upon the skill and imagination of the writer, what happened to these characters was experienced as moving, funny, entertaining and/or enlightening by the audience.

(Harry mentioned something about “readers,” involving the “printed word” and “books,” but I didn’t pursue it. This mythological material has been overly analyzed by the Post-Literates, and lies outside the guidelines of this report.)

To embody these stories for the screen, the creators of these projects hired “actors,” people who literally portrayed imaginary people for money! Of course, today such delusional activity would warrant two months in a Jenny Craig Reprogramming Spa. But Harry insists these “actors,” speaking the words prepared for them by the above-mentioned “writers,” were actually cherished by the audience, and that the characters they portrayed, in these artfully crafted stories were considered relevant and meaningful.

Again, this must strain credibility to those seeing this report, since the idea of “entertainment” that does not involve the voyeuristic and vicarious enjoyment of the activities of histrionic, soul-deadened, media-spawned Real People in Real Situations must seem bizarre, and certainly ethically suspect. But the subject, despite his occasional ramblings about ageism, free rewrites and something called residuals, made a convincing case for the veracity of his memories. Which is what makes his interview with me of such lasting historical importance.

As we finished our conversation, Harry confided in me that he was actually “writing” something at the moment. “The usual boy-meets-girl thing, but with a nice twist.” He raised a crooked forefinger for emphasis. “Trust me–forget special effects. You can’t go wrong with a nice romantic comedy.”

Of course, by now he was speaking total gibberish, though I’ve done my best to transcribe the above words as accurately as I can.

I must say, as I take leave of my subject, that I’m touched by Harry’s quaint notions of the transformative power of art, and his conviction that storytelling serves an important function in our human lives. That stories help “explain us to ourselves,” in his words. And that, when done well, they offer solace, perspective, encouragement and wisdom.

Of course, we know now the audience receives these same gifts from watching a Real Person eating a Real Rat on a Real Island. But, like most people from a bygone era, he clings to his memories, and to the belief that his ways were better. He deserves our pity, not our scorn.

End transmission.

Reprinted by permission of the L.A.Times, July 31, 2000, page F-3.

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