I can remember attending the 1964 NY World’s Fair as an infant a child and marveling at General Electric’s Carousel of Progress (yes, there were even corporate sponsor tie-ins back then). The revolving display featured different sets of automated mannequins (think the end of “Stepford Wives”) using and promoting the gadgets of past, present and – most spectacularly the future – as they sang “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.”
I marveled that the phone of the future could have no cords, much less be push button. But I stared more wide-eyed than the most Spielbergian of heroes at the idea that these phones would also allow us to look at each other in full view on the screen as we talked. “What happens if you’re speaking from the bathroom or without clothes,” my very young self thought without ever considering the beneficial possibilities of the latter. “Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? I’m not sure I want my privacy invaded like that.”
Yes, that is truly what I wondered. Aside from the existential angst, you could say I had more than a few issues, even back then.
The idea of such a future felt not only strange but surreal to me. It wasn’t a world I could imagine because it felt light years from the reality I was then experiencing. Perhaps Steve Jobs, who was close to my age, imagined talking phones and push button existences back then (Perhaps? Uh, I think so). But I’ll bet he also didn’t write tortured poetry about the meanings of life and death or listen to endless hours of show music on his parents’ record player like I did either. The truth is we all create and live in the worlds of our choosing and the other Steve’s world of computers and touch tones was as surreal to me as the score of the Broadway musical “Mame” (the first musical my parents took me to for my 10th birthday) and my Sylvia Plath-like prose probably would be to him.
(And yes, I realize I am making a leap of assumption here about the other Steve’s tastes but just go with the metaphor for now).
The surreal surfaced more than a few times this week as I found myself wading through a series of silly, funny, moronic, infuriating, tragic, annoying and just plain loaded life and death and less-so events. So much so that it got to the point where I began to confuse the real with the surreal and wondered if anyone else was indeed as confused as I was.
1. Does anyone believe Mitt Romney doesn’t know where any of the mega million amounts of money in his blind trust is?
On the other hand —
2. Can even the most fervent Obama supporter believe that when asked this week what the biggest mistake of his first four years as president was that the Big O, off the cuff, came up with, “Uh, I should have communicated my policies better?”
In each case, the answers were certainly unspontaneous if not possibly inauthentic or canned. In short, they obviously don’t seem real yet are accepted as such and thus enter the sphere of the surreal.
I mean, if you have $250 million presumably you’d be smart enough to also come up with an indirect system to keep track of your money. The same way any sitting president is intelligent enough to be able to tick off a great many policy decisions he screwed up on aside from the somewhat new agey phrase of “communicating better.”
But somehow the surreal gets passed off as real and after enough time goes by the former will somehow become the latter and the true answer to the question (even though we all know that answer is really false) becomes something else – thus dropping the public discourse one more milli-notch in reality into surreal-ality.*
Audiences in the entertainment industry often smell this kind of surrealness many miles away too, though it doesn’t always matter. Clearly, “The Amazing Spiderman” was really just an excuse to make more money and “American Idol” continues mainly because, well, in both cases you can’t throw in the towel on a zillion dollar juggernaut.
It would be great if someone would admit the obvious and then allow us to enjoy the cheesiness of each event but instead we’re often met with hyperbole about new, wonderful storytelling and original artistic integrity on a level playing field. It’s tempting to buy into the myth and many of us do and thus, this kind of stuff continues to prosper in both dollars and popularity. (I actually watched the last part of this year’s Idol season, frustrated singer that I am). But that doesn’t mean what’s being presented is any more in line with the corporate hype of what we’re indulging in. Like an old lover, once we’re hooked we’ll often settle for crumbs until we wake up or are finally forced to move on when our object of desire takes the initiative and finally leaves us.
Do we instinctively know deep down in our souls when we’re being sold a
bull bill of surreal and continue to buy into it or are there levels to the amount of surreal any one of us will accept before we reach maximum trippiness? And for that matter, can what’s surreal (trippy) for one of us geese actually be what’s totally real for the rest of us ganders? Hmmm. I wonder.
The Kardashians (who I can’t help but pick on bi-weekly) are definitely surreal, as are the Duggar family, yet the Osmonds feel terribly real to me. Maybe it’s because the latter have talents for something other than being famous or having a large uterus and we actually witnessed those talents. Or, as my smart Significant Other mentioned to me offhandedly when I related this observation: “The difference is we saw them, The Osmonds, grow up before our eyes, they didn’t just drop out of the sky into our television sets fully formed.”
John Waters, who received the Outfest (LGBT Film Festival) 16th annual Career Achievement Award this week, is as real as you can get – though on the surface his construct might feel surreal. Yet when you look at a 50-year career of cult, cutting edge, and mainstream filmmaking there is actual evidence Waters was not a false idol but a true a pioneer in the depravity we proudly call our pop culture today. Love him or hate him, he’s anything but surreal.
Side Note: I can personally testify to this. Years ago I was late to a script meeting on the Disney lot (a lot I would always somehow get lost in because I couldn’t quite get past street names like Mickey Mouse Lane). Finally wandering into its maze-like animation building, desperately in search of the development executive to which I would be pitching a script idea that both she and I knew would probably never get sold but both choosing to indulge in the surreal idea that it could, I run smack into a very tall thin man with an attaché case one might have actually seen in the 1964 World’s Fair. I look up and am greeted with a pencil thin moustache smile of the real John Waters – yes, the same man who made a film where a drag queen ate dog poop called “Pink Flamingos” – a film that I found myself waiting in line for in a midnight show one lonely evening in Queens, NY. The fact I was now seeing him with his briefcase at the Walt Disney Studios (the same one famous for offering endless entertainment pleasure for “kids of all ages” for as long as I could remember), felt like the most surreal of moments to me but was actually as real as the harsh light of global warming is in summer 2012. Equally real but surreal to me to this day is the fact that the best I could do was mumble, “I’m sorry” to him as I fled to a meeting that was destined to matter only in the world of surreality.
Meanwhile, why does “Dancing with the Stars” feel more surreal than the already surreal “American Idol” while “The Voice” somehow feels much more real than both, even though the latter could hardly be considered real? Once again, I bow to the Significant Other, who explains:
Dancing is soooo fabricated in that people famous for something else are competing to do another thing that they clearly will have no real expertise in at all after a few months…
While Idol, despite its name, masquerades week to week as a singing/performance competition that really is most interested in a mainstream “star” (a mythical construct if there ever was one),
While The Voice is ultimately focused on what comes down to the vocal instrument/sound of the very person (nee voice) they are actually advertising for.
These definitions feel right, even though the explanation and my willingness to cede center stage to my S.I. is, trust me, truly surreal.
Ronald Reagan felt absolutely surreal, even when he wasn’t. (But perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part). Yet as surreal as Rick Santorum might appear to me or any of my beloved blog readers, I’ve concluded he’s anything but and is actually, truly and scarily real. Though Sarah Palin is still clearly a mixture of all of the above.
Pres. Obama feels sort of real, though his emergence has an air of surreality, even now. And as for Bill Clinton – well, he certainly was as surreal as it could get with any number of true reality moments in between. However, in the end, none of it even mattered so great was/is his power. The latter happens from time to time with special people or circumstances but these are rare exceptions.
Watching the opening night film at Outfest this week called “Vito” – an HBO documentary on Vito Russo, the gay activist/author of the seminal book about gays in the movies called “The Celluloid Closet” — I saw a 40 year history of the LGBT community that I lived through that felt both real and surreal, though intellectually I knew it did not have one moment of unreality in it. Living through the AIDS death plague of the eighties was surreal, as was the AIDS related passing of Russo, a sweet guy who I met a few times. Or at least I wanted it to be at that time because it somehow made real life less threatening. Which might explain a few things about why we will still go see “Spiderman” or watch “Idol” or vote for any politician who allows us to get away from reality and make us feel comfortable enough.
The antidote? Well, Jefferson Airplane probably said it best with its seminal album, “Surrealistic Pillow” – a record I discovered a mere several years after the 1964 New York World’s Fair in the tiny bedroom of a friend in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles when I was 14. As we sat back, I stared at the swirly pink album cover, which featured odd shapes and images of a group of cool hippie musicians led by a lone female singer with the cooler than coolest name of Grace Slick. The more they played and the more she sang, a sort of High Priestess of Reality or Unreality, depending on your point of view, I pondered about the pros and cons of a true life of surreal.
To this day, I can still hear the closing stanza to “White Rabbit,” their drug fueled fusion of “Alice in Wonderland” and late sixties social zeitgeist, pulsing through my veins as Ms. Slick gave me my first real piece of advice in how to deal with the ever-changing world.
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s “Off with her head!”
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head.
If you ignore the obvious drug references and take what they were singing to heart, the advice to “feed your head” still holds up today. And just might be the antidote to our surreal world almost a half century since she first sang it.
* Know that all references to the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie cable series of the aughts, “The Surreal Life,” was left out because the very notion of spending any intellectual time analyzing that is too surreal for even the Chair to endure.