Hollywood, despite (or perhaps because of) its never-ending Quest for Bucks, always manages to show us what's on our minds, however distortedly, clumsily, and even meretriciously. Right now, and for the past few years, Hollywood has been telling us that we're growing less sure about the distinction between appearance and reality--that as technology saturates more and more of our daily lives, we are worried that life may be a put-up job, a plot, a game, a show.
Don't tell me you don't think new technologies of communication haven't made life less real. E-mail does not directly convey the physical actions of its sender, as old-fashioned letters do. Likewise with faxes. So many screens bring us so much information so quickly that it is undigestable, intellectually and emotionally. We know more and understand less, we react more and reflect less, we do more and accomplish less, we hear more and listen less, we look more and see less, we go more places and travel less, we talk more and say less. We generalize more and specify less; at least I seem to.
This being one of those specious pop-crit propositions that will lose whatever impact it may have in the process of being closely argued, I won't argue it. I'll just line up the suspects and offer brief commentary.
- The Truman Show. Obviously Exhibit A, right down to the hero's name, which is, among other things, an updating of Everyman. The hero gets wise to the manipulated artifice of his life and breaks through--literally--to a real existence.
- The Game, especially in the scene in which Daniel Schorr, on television, in what looks like an ordinary newscast, addresses the hero directly. At the end, Michael Douglas breaks through the manipulated artifice that his life has become to a real existence. Or does he?
- The Matrix. This movie posits that we may all be more or less dreaming our lives while insectoid technobots feed off our essence, or something like that. It says that if we happen to be Keanu Reeves, we can take a pinch of martial arts hoodoo and a touch of Buddhist disdain for appearance and break on through the manipulative artifice of our lives to a real existence.
- Pleasantville. Two young people get stuck in a TV artifice of life and must break through it in order to get back to their real existences. Wrinkle: The girl likes the TV show life better, but only after it has been made "real" by her and her brother's um, reality.
- The Thirteenth Floor. Haven't seen it--one can waste only so much of one's time, after all--but I'm sure it fits right in.
- A recent episode of TheX-Files. Mulder and Scully are captured by a subterranean fungus that gives them chemically generated delusions of real life while feeding off their essences, or something like that. They have to "wake up" two or three times before they break back through to real existence. This show was stolen from TheMatrix, I am convinced. Also from the Gatorade commercials that are in black and white but use chartreuse and other nauseating colors to suggest sweat and blood; the fungus is a purulent treasury of liquid chartreuse.
- Bulworth. A man breaks through the artifice of his political and personal lives and finds, however briefly and tragically, a real existence.
I'm sure there have been many other recent subliminal articulations of this concern, and it's not a new one--The Stunt Man, FX, The Sting, The Third Man, Chinatown, Blowup, and dozens of other movies touch on it or tackle it directly. And I haven't even mentioned the great and greatly improbable existential hero of our age--Arnold Schwarzenegger, three of whose movies (True Lies, Total Recall, and LastAction Hero) are subliminal pop-cultural monuments to our appearance/reality crisis. I could, and often do, go on and on. And after all, as all poetry is always about poetry, all movies are about movies.
What may be new, however, is the role that technology and the media play in these productions as existential villains, depriving people of their "real lives." (All right, all right--the fungus isn't technological, and it isn't part of the media.) In Armageddon, to take an example that applies only partially, if at all, the fact that the bomb can be set off on the earth-imperiling asteroid only from a distance is the crux of the drama. Bruce Willis--who hails from the roughneck world of offshore rig oil wells, where everyone lives cheek by jowl, a maverick kid is shagging the boss's daughter, and rowdy in-person good times are had by all--has to override this outer-space technological chasm by taking control of the asteroid situation in person. He keeps telling Ground Control that he's up there, in person, and no one who isn't, who is separated from the danger by scores of thousands of miles and technological mediators like computers and satellites and remote controls, can possibly exercise any sort of good judgment about it. And when he sacrifices his life by staying behind on the hurtling foreign body soon to be nuked, his daughter, the oil-rig shagee now reconciled to her old-fashioned dad, puts her hand on his image on a TV monitor on earth, as if to try to break through it and find a real end of his existence. I would call this image of a silhouetted human hand up against a television screen--hijacked, perhaps from Poltergeist--a semiotician's dream come true, if I really knew what semiotics was.
In no particular order and more out of an urgency to break through this writing assignment to my real existence than in an effort to come to some grand structural conclusions, I'll now say a few things about last year's Academy Award winner and next year's. Yes, I know what's going to win, and I know why. Listen.
Shakespeare In Love kicked Saving Private Ryan's ass because the latter had no meta-showbusiness or technological dimension. Shakespeare In Love had a lot, in its pre-Edisonic way. I don't have the space here to go into it, but like a pale shadow of the works of Shakespeare himself--possibly the Onlie Begetter of dramatized existential anxiety--the movie addressed the relation between real existence and the productions that emulate it. Never mind. Whatever it is I'm talking about, I'm telling you that Saving Ryan's Privates had none of it.
Now, for next year's winner. This unconscious, postmodern appearance/reality anxiety showing no signs of easing but rather the opposite, the winner--barring the arrival of a supervening and superior film with the same deep agenda--has to be the first romantic comedy to grow out of it, Notting Hill. It's a pretty good movie, a monster hit, and it's directly about the subject that I'm trying to convince you is on our minds and in the mirror that Hollywood holds up to our minds. Movie star tries to break through her artificial life into a real existence. Can we talk? Man poses as a reporter to get next to her. Can we please talk? The film's treacly coda, in which Hugh and Julia idyll on a park bench, is meant to represent the triumph of reality, don't you think? I mean, look at even the poster for the movie--Hugh Grant posing in front of a (get ready for this) poster of Julia Roberts. If only you and I were there with them, in real life, we could just find a nearby park bench and sit down and talk.