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Was It Reality-Based TV or TV-Based Reality?

March 09, 1997|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His most recent book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Cult of Celebrity" (Knopf)

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — What struck most of us watching the bloody aftermath of the botched bank robbery in North Hollywood two Fridays ago was the feeling we had seen it all before. For more than an hour, two masked gunmen held off a phalanx of policemen by spraying the air with bullets. At one point, a gunman commandeered a pickup. At another point, the second gunman eluded officers by scurrying from one cover to another. Meanwhile, newscopters buzzed overhead capturing all the action live for the transfixed TV audience. By the time the robbers were gunned down, viewers had been treated to mayhem, blood and death from a dozen different angles.

The truth, of course, is that we had seen it before--just not on the news. We had seen it in the movies. Immediately picking up on the parallels, reporters invoked Michael Mann's disturbing noir thriller, "Heat," about another botched bank robbery that ended in bloody chaos, though they could have invoked any number of similar policiers. Whether through the perpetrators' lack of imagination or the inherent momentum of these sorts of things, the heist and shootout followed all the old movie conventions, which is no doubt why the press felt so comfortable treating the event as if it were a movie and why viewers were so absorbed by it.

Yet, it wasn't only the media and the audience that seemed to regard this as a movie. The gunmen apparently did, too. Before he allegedly blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, accused bomber Timothy McVeigh reportedly rented a video of "Blown Away," a movie about a former IRA terrorist baiting an old colleague who is now on the bomb squad of the Boston police. It seems just as likely that the Hollywood robbers had rented "Heat." It was too coincidental: the black body armor, the automatic weapons, the daytime sally. But the most telling sign that they were in thrall to the movies was the way one gunman calmly strolled down the street to his fate, dying in a fusillade of bullets. It was a scene that could only have happened in the movies--or to someone whose faith in the movies was absolute.

It may be appropriate that a crime committed not far from the movie studios should become yet another testament to how thoroughly the movies dominate our consciousness. Though their heyday when more than 70 million Americans went to the movies each week is long gone, film remains the primary way we refract reality and attempt to understand it. Immanuel Kant had his categorical imperatives, which were a precondition to apprehending the world. We have the movies--setting our fashions, defining our behavior, shaping our identities, infiltrating our memories.

But, as the bank robbery graphically demonstrated, the influence of the movies goes beyond framing reality to helping create it. That is why the hoary cliche that life imitates art now seems so inadequate. Life doesn't really imitate art. Today, art is so deeply insinuated into life that life has become art, the two merging so completely that it is impossible to tell the difference between them. To paraphrase the old Memorex ad: Was it reality or was it "Heat"?

Everywhere one looks today there is a confusion between the confected and the real, between movies on screen and movies playing out in real life. In part, the confusion is the result of entertainment being our central frame of reference, and we instinctively filter nearly every experience through its scrim. And, in part, it is because television, which is how so much of reality reaches us, imposes its own frame and conventions on what it shows. But mostly--and perhaps most frighteningly--we are confused because life has come more and more to resemble entertainment.

Think of the couples endlessly bickering on "Jenny Jones" or "Jerry Springer" as if they were refugees from some made-for-TV movie on a dysfunctional marriage. Or think of any of those "reality-based" TV shows like "Cops," which look like outtakes from "NYPD Blue." Or think of the weekly high-speed chases on the news that seem lifted from some nameless action picture. Or just think of those bank robbers. All of these have appropriated the conventions of entertainment. All these people are actors--only the roles they are playing are in life not art.

Whether these people are "real" or not is difficult to assess. To say that something was real once meant it was genuine, free from artifice. But in a society where artifice is a cental part of our consciousness, where we are surrounded and inundated by movies, TV shows, songs, books, images and all the other detritus of popular culture, and where all these things are determinants of how we behave and how we relate, reality takes on a whole new meaning. It's not just that it's hard to distinguish entertainment from reality on TV. Metaphysically speaking, it's hard to distinguish entertainment from reality in life itself.

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