As a child I was fond of movies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Fantasia,” “The Time Machine” and “Planet of the Apes” -- films that whisked me away to a fantastic, alien landscape and entertained me greatly. I also enjoyed television programs such as “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone” -- shows that were smart, literate and told interesting tales of the human condition in bizarre surroundings.
However, unlike hundreds of millions of people around the world who love movies and television shows, I squarely reminded myself that these creations were works of fiction and meant purely for entertainment -- I didn’t become so engrossed in these productions as to be swallowed up by them.
Sadly, for far too many people, they cannot separate reality from fantasy and instead enter into their own delusionary existences whereby they pretend they are part of the fictitious universes they have witnessed on the silver (or small) screen.
I have also spent countless hours listening to the fabulous, inspiring music of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Elvis Presley and far too many other great artists to count -- but never did I think that I was on stage with them.
This is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of the oppressive, omnipresent force of broadcast media in our lives -- television, film and now the Internet have invaded our consciences to such a massive extent that this virtual reality has become a permanent and immovable part of our psyche.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends a little more than five hours each day watching television.
Moreover, the average American will spend the equivalent of nine years of his or her life watching television. (This figure, of course, does not include the untold hours we spend watching movies -- either at the cinema or online -- or the inordinate amount of time spent surfing the Web.)
It is, thus, reasonable to assume that the public expends an enormous amount of time engaged with mass media instead of with real-life interactions and experiences.
But at what cost?
Given that the overwhelming majority of Hollywood movies, television shows (and pop songs) are basically garbage designed to appeal to the broadest swath of society in order to maximize corporate profits -- the impact of such exposure is extremely corrosive and perhaps incalculable. We are addicted to our TVs, iPads, iTunes, Blackberries, iPhones and the Internet the same way we cannot shed our embrace of drugs, tobacco, alcohol, gambling and other forms of instant gratification.
Almost 30 years ago, a brilliant educator and author named Neil Postman wrote an engrossing book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Covering a broad array of subjects, Postman proposed the idea that addiction to mass media is essentially tantamount to oppression and slavery, as was once predicted decades before by George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World.”
Thus, mass media serves as a kind of voluntary medication for the masses -- people who are either bored or dissatisfied by their real lives seek to escape into the unreal universe of images on a screen or sounds on a music player, which, in turn, often dictate what they think, how they talk, how they dress and even what they say.
Fantasy and science fiction have become a cold, hard, stark reality.
I am reminded of two former friends of mine who epitomize how mass media has usurped our personal lives and consciousness. One fellow, whom I will call Matt, is obsessed with rock 'n' roll. Now approaching middle age, Matt still wears what’s left of his hair long and frequently dons T-shirts and blue jeans (the standard rock 'n' roll uniform).
Born to a wealthy but broken home to two unloving parents, Matt was a homely and awkward child who grew into a desperately unhappy and lonely adolescent. He sought solace in the world of rock music -- he bought hundreds of records (his collection now runs into the thousands), attended innumerable concerts, devoured all the music magazines and (like too many of his peers who sought to imitate their idols) took drugs, smoked and drank excessively.
This same depressing narrative has been replicated millions of times around the planet by similarly bored and alienated teenagers. But Matt took his obsession several steps beyond.
Despite a definite lack of musical talent, Matt dove so deep into the realm of rock 'n' roll that he has deluded himself into thinking that he, too, is part of the rock music industry. He speaks of famous musicians by the first names (Mick, Jimi, Bob, Bruce, etc.) and acts like they are personal friends of his. When he would attend a concert, he did not simply go as a fan -- rather, he pretended he was actually part of the show (as if he participated in its very production).
And these delusions have only deepened over the past 30-plus years.
Clearly, Matt desperately needed to fill the emptiness in his soul and heart with the accouterments of the pop music industry -- a universe he has no real connection to whatsoever.
For another old friend of mine, whom I will call Dan, the attachment to mass media has taken even more bizarre and pathetic turns.
Dan, who, like Matt, grew up in an affluent, suburban family and developed into a lonely, awkward, sullen teenager, dove headlong into the spheres of television and movies. Nothing unusual about that, but to Dan, the nonexistent lives and worlds of fictitious TV and film characters became real to him -- more real, in fact, than the flesh-and-blood creatures around him.
Unable to formulate his own jokes or monologs, Dan repeatedly plagiarized the words he heard uttered by people on the screen -- he even pretended that they were real people that he knew personally (much like how Matt adopted rock stars as his own friends and peers).
Thus, the plot lines of TV shows became an inseparable part of Dan’s otherwise humdrum real life.
Matt and Dan may serve as extreme cases, but I believe tens of millions of people share this same terrible affliction -- the total immersion and subjugation of one’s ego and individuality into the fantasy lives of people they do not know, have never met, are unlikely to ever meet and may not really even exist.
Ironically, Western democracies purport to celebrate individuality -- yet mass media has completely undermined that noble concept by turning the masses into a mindless herd who blindly follow the activities of an exalted few, who themselves are manufactured by a tiny elite of media lords.
Is this freedom? Is this democracy? Is this healthy?
George Orwell was indeed prescient.
Living vicariously through media-created images also expands to sports. Whenever I see men and women wearing memorabilia of their favorite sports clubs -- whether it be the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys or Notre Dame football or Manchester United -- I wonder: Are they honoring the team and its players? Or are they vainly glorifying themselves -- that is, deluding themselves into believing they are part of the roster? A combination of both, I suspect.
This phenomenon is particularly acute in the field of science fiction/horror/fantasy films. It seems as though every other year, a new sensation arrives (manufactured and heavily marketed by movie studios) that suddenly attracts millions of movie-goers, turning an otherwise mediocre piece of celluloid into an instant classic while concurrently creating a battalion of fans who dress up like characters in the film.
When I was a boy, a little movie by the name of “Star Wars” was released. I went to see it, liked it and thought it was a reasonably enjoyable adventure story. But I was completely taken aback by the fanaticism it inspired -- indeed, I was puzzled as to why so many fans returned to the theater repeatedly to watch it. (I knew one fellow who watched the film more than 100 times and knew the entire dialog by heart, this being years before the availability of home videos).
George Lucas not only built an enormous empire out of "Star Wars" (and several subsequent sequels and prequels of varying quality), but also a religion of sorts. The film became a kind of Bible to legions of followers -- people of all ages recited bits of dialog like scripture and dressed up like Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Darth Vader (with, of course, light sabers that didn’t really do anything).
The obsession with "Star Wars" has only intensified after 35 years -- grown adults dress up like characters from the film at various functions. Lucas, who has made more money than he could spend in a millennium, is likely appalled by what he has inadvertently wrought.
Indeed, more than any other film, the huge success of "Star Wars" permanently damaged the integrity and artistry of filmmaking.
Consider Trekkies -- the most pathetic folks on Earth. I liked the original "Star Trek" TV series from the 1960s, having watched it on reruns (though I disliked the subsequent movies and the myriad sterile television series it spawned).
Part of the charm of the 1966-69 series lies with its ham acting, primitive special effects and hokey dialog. As much as I enjoyed the program, I never fantasized that I was a crew member of the Starship Enterprise and never wanted pointed ears. Dressing up like Mr. Spock or a Klingon on Halloween is a fine diversion, but donning such costumes several times a year (and speaking the fake Klingonese language) borders on insanity.
"Star Wars" and "Star Trek" have each become billion-dollar corporate empires that apparently will never disappear (new converts are recruited each year to keep the franchise going).
And they have a lot of company -- in recent decades, "Harry Potter," "Game of Thrones," "Batman" and various others have seized the souls of untold millions of obsessives who spend ungodly amounts of time (and money) on these pointless entertainments.
I have never read a "Harry Potter" book, nor have I ever seen any of the films, but I realize they’re massively popular, particularly with children. While I admire J.K. Rowling for inspiring millions of kids around the world to read books -- I would rather they read "Treasure Island," "Jane Eyre" or "Sherlock Holmes" (rather than a book whose popularity depends upon films, massive marketing/promotion and huge merchandising).
The latest (though by no means the greatest) of such celluloid "masterpieces" is the new "Hobbit" film, part of director Peter Jackson’s efforts to bring to life the classic fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
In a recent op-ed in the Daily Telegraph, conservative columnist and historian Tim Stanley wrote: “Wellington in New Zealand was occupied by an army of wizards, elves and hobbits. An estimated 100,000 geeks showed up in fancy dress to celebrate the premiere of 'The Hobbit' -- the latest addition to the never-ending cycle of Tolkien movies that threatens to run on to Doomsday.”
Stanley, who famously does not pull any punches, went on: “If popular culture holds a mirror up to society, the success of these films can only reflect a retreat from reality.”
Then, he gets to the crux of the matter: “At the root of all of this virtual reality is real greed. ‘The Hobbit’ is a great example of how Hollywood has franchised fantasy and encouraged its fans to run away from real life. ... The goal is to get the audience hooked on the studio’s product -- and some literally become addicted. ... But what is worrying is the cult-like following that the Tolkien films have encouraged. Many of the acolytes seem victims of arrested development -- detaching themselves from the real world with its real people and its real challenges. In the same way that superhero movies actually emasculate the audience by convincing them that their problems are so big that only a man in a cape can solve them, so the fantasy racket returns us to the emotional paralysis of early childhood. ... The true horror comes when someone can no longer tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not and they end up living their lives as dwarves or wizards.”
Amen, Mr. Stanley!
One must also wonder what Tolkien himself would have thought of this monstrous corporate machine he unwittingly created from beyond the grave.
Tolkien’s tales of elves and wizards were largely inspired by the ancient Celtic and Norse legends he was immersed in as a child -- he celebrated the simple, rustic values of a pastoral lifestyle. Indeed, Tolkien was appalled by the modern mechanized world of unrelenting commerce and sought to retreat from such corrosive vulgarities in his own private shire.
Yes, Tolkien sought escape as well, but he created his own dazzling, highly detailed fantasy world; he did not appropriate someone else’s dreams and move into them.
All these 24-7 diversions cannot be good for our society or our souls. To combat this paralyzing disease, we must declare: “May the force be with you.”