THE REEL THING
My mother’s uncharacteristic grab at illusion was probably the outbreak of inheritance waiting in ambush, like the herpes virus that erupts as chicken pox or shingles. Her mother was an Olympic class movie fan, born shortly before her older brothers started owning nickelodeons. As a child—petulant and pampered-- my grandmother had free access to films. Then she married a man whose business gave her free entrée to any movie she wanted to see. So, still petulant and pampered, she spent her days in cinemas, entertaining herself, collecting reference points. She disparaged my every boyfriend for not looking like Cary Grant. And she never stopped blaming my father and me for my mother’s cancerous death, firm in the thought that with the right doctor—somebody like Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck-- there would have been a music swelling happy end, not that funeral she couldn’t forgive.
She did love my first job. I was a writer/editor for the sort of magazine today’s slick supermarket publications have become, a fan magazine. I churned out celebrity to force feed fantasy to people hungry for something other than reality. I interviewed movie stars: people who showed up in life 10 years older, 10 pounds lighter and 10 times less varnished than their screen persona. I spent hours carefully choosing photos so they would never reveal what would not be idolized, like being gay, alcoholic or aging. I am, I confess, that editor who purchased the first Ron Galella paparrazzi photos of Jackie Kennedy. I cropped all the cigarettes out of her hand so nobody would see that American idol had vices.
My grandmother died 17 years ago, but she would be so happy to know the world is now chockablock with people who prefer reel life to the real thing. Voters elected actors (Reagan, Thompson, Schwarzenegger) to actual public office. Teenagers try to be Fonz, a Power Ranger or deranged enough to try stunts from movies to shoot out headlines screaming: TV made me do it! Shoppers deplete the world's resources, desperately seeking the gotta have it product placed on screen or endorsed by some manufactured celebrity of the second. The Academy Awards get as much coverage as competition for the Presidency which itself is covered in a fan mag way.
Just as studio bosses changed ordinary telephone book names into John Wayne, Rock Hudson and Doris Day to perk up appeal, food salesmen tarted up the Patagonian toothfish into “Chilean seabass", the Chinese gooseberry into “kiwifruit.” Illusion is so where it's at, marketers re-mastered marquis brand magic by soundbyting IHOP and KFC. And now Hillary Rodham or Hillary Rodham Clinton or Hillary Clinton or Clapitol Hill or whoever she is this week is desperately seeking the same effect.
Restaurants serve the obsession with making life as photogenic as it appears on screen by becoming platter fantasylands and theme parks. I know from my days as a caterer, the demand for artificiality is so demanding, customers bitterly complain when grill lines on their sirloin aren’t as perfect as those painted on by stylists for magazines, movies and TV ads.
Who does not crave the razzle-dazzle effect of stories under total control and pictures constantly bright? Who has not Photoshopped to make reality look a lot better than it is, the way
Can you find in any newspaper or magazine a photo of anybody not in some wildly exaggerated happy pose instead of just being there as themselves? Just today, so help me Buddha, the cover of our Sunday paper magazine is an aging nun in her full regalia, gleefully wielding a yoyo and skipping high over the headline: What will become of the Sisters… ? My sister, as it happens, named her own kids the sort of perky names you get on cutsey sitcoms. An old friend prone to depression painted her entire house bright colors, as though this guarantees her an upbeat mood. I guess these equal the metastasizing of Smiley emoticons, or realtors snazzily “staging” property to move it fast.
This week, so many are so upset by the fade out of the Sopranos. People can’t let go. They need to know for sure what happened to that fictional family. We humans are inherently addicted to closure, some solid finale we can grab for ballast. This need to build life on bedrock certainty instead of shifting flow was probably once a trait selected for survival. But the silver screen has cemented us to it on such a need to know basis, today’s major news is not the real world mess in the Middle East or the Chinese destroying a new Buddhist statue in
Of course we know what really happened to Paris Hilton. How furious we are, denied the happy ending expected from someone so picture perfect, so souped up, so…American idle. When all you can bank on in our world is celebrity, people kill to be recognized, to not be that tree that falls in the forest unheralded in headlines. That's the magic of You Tube: life seems more snare drum than humdrum when you download yourself into the picture with Barack Obama or Brad Pitt. You can "broadcast yourself" --and be like Paris Hilton, famous for absolutely nothing but existing.
We should be careful what we wish for. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says in our hopes, we reveal our fears. Our obsession with the illusions of Hollywood indicate these have not much swerved from my grandmother’s. Ordinary life is not as good as it gets. Waking to the softness of a summer morning, biting into a homegrown tomato or holding a newborn baby is not all there is.
A definitive ending to the Sopranos would mean a clearcut finale could be engineered in our lives. Paris partying on would mean we could escape death and taxes, which is exactly what we want. Yet the more we want to escape the confines of life, to rise above it all, the more we fear we will not get there from here, and the more we suffer. Suffering is wanting things to be otherwise. That's why my grandmother was such a miserable person.
Anyway, truth, as they say, will out. The ending of the Sopranos and Paris Hilton came as close to reality as the screen can ever get. My mother’s life never did turn into a lot of laughs, and there hasn’t been much that’s happily funny about my sister’s either. She is two times divorced and sells real estate.
But then, it turns out Nancy Carroll's real life was not picture perfect itself. “How could you not love Nancy Carroll?” a recent internet account of her life begins. “She was absolutely adorable, and had a wonderful screen presence. At the dawn of the talkie era she was one of the biggest stars in
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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