Culture of Unreality
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The whole reviewing system is broken. Or hopelessly corrupt. Movie
reviewers want you to think that they are functioning the same way as
music or art critics, but they’re actually just an extension of
the Hollywood PR machine. Film reviewers, even at tony places like The
New York Times and Time magazine, are publicity flacks for
the studios and the DVD releasing companies. I heard a media critic bemoaning
the fact that 80 percent of what appears in the daily newspaper is the
product of government and corporate press releases. Well, I have news
for him. When it comes to film coverage, forget about that twenty percent
of original research. Film coverage in The Times or Newsweek
or Time magazine is 100 percent the product of press releases!
What’s wrong with using press releases
as the basis for a story?
you could say that it means that you can buy your way into the paper.
The news becomes a form of advertising. The culture of salesmanship bleeds
out of the ads and into the stories. The newspaper is no longer a chronicle
of the most important events and opinions; it becomes a record of what
money and power, the corporate publicists and press officers with the
most cultural clout want you to know and believe.
But that’s not really an adequate description of the scope
of the problem. The situation we are in is actually much stranger and
more disturbing. “Fact” and “fiction” are no longer separate realms. We
live in a culture of unreality where the news – and much else – is part
of some third realm of synthetic reality. Fiction has become fact.
It’s why it’s so comical when journalists beat their breasts
over Jason Blair’s fabrications or Dan Rather’s reporting on Bush’s National
Guard service or Colin Powell’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction –
as if anything else in The Times or on “The Evening News” had a
different epistemological status.
It seems a bit late in the day for reporters to be wringing
their hands over there being no there there, particularly since they helped
create the situation they are bemoaning. For more than five decades the
news has consisted almost entirely of simulated facts, imitation events,
pseudo-drama – from the juvenile delinquency crisis and the Red menace
of the 1950s, to the missile gap and the Chinese threat in the 1960s,
to the Moral Majority, the Reagan revolution, Newt Gingrich’s Contract
with America, the Whitewater scandal, the Segway personal transportation
breakthrough, O.J.’s guilt, the war on terrorism, Janet Jackson’s breast,
and the liberation of Iraq. Every item in this list of so-called events,
crises, and confrontations – and a thousand others that get onto the pages
of our newspapers every day – is equally a fiction, part of the history
of style, something that belongs on the fashion pages. There’s no difference
between Terry Schiavo’s smile and the smile of the winner of American
Idol. We’ve woken up in Nabokov’s dream. Our “reality” has quotation
marks around it.
You know the postmodern transformation is a fait accompli
when the physicists have become part of it – fighting to get tenure with
versions of string theory – rival sets of equations whose only verifiable
result is their ability to get coverage on the front page of The Times.
Hollywood loves this confusion of realms, this
funhouse-mirror mix-up of events and unrealities, of course. It’s a publicist’s
meat and potatoes. It does their work for them. They spend a lot of money
trying to blur the distinction between facts and fictions for reporters,
readers, and viewers, so that the reverence and importance that attaches
to the Holocaust or D-Day or Christianity will be attached to the fictional
depictions in movies like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan,
and The Passion of the Christ.
What can be done?
don’t know. Maybe nothing. It has been going on for so long that it may
be too late to change it. America has sung and danced its way pretty
far down the yellow brick road to Oz by now. It just might come apart
at the seams in another decade or two. That might actually be a good thing.
For the rest of the world, I mean.
If you want to see films that deal with this confusion of facts
and fictions – and the fabricated nature even of our emotional realities
– look at Mark Rappaport’s movies. Maybe that’s why The Times doesn’t
do feature pieces on him. [Laughs] It would blow their cover. Though more
likely he’s shut out because he can’t afford to hire a publicist to issue
press releases that masquerade as news, or hold press conferences to redefine
his fictions as historical events, the way Spielberg does.