On a recent flight back to New York I sat across the aisle from a man in his early twenties who was watching a movie on DVD on his laptop. Nothing remarkable in that, in and of itself, but I was surprised that he felt no shame watching a film with so much full frontal nudity on his eighteen-inch monitor. He was sitting next to a woman in her later forties, and whenever I glanced up from my anacrostics to check in and saw topless girls, I looked at this woman for a reaction. Usually she wasn’t looking at his screen, but sometimes she was, taking it in with an expressionless face that I interpreted as mutely disapproving. He never looked embarrassed, though; he was engrossed entirely by the film, whose plot seemed so entirely formulaic that I could deduce it from watching about forty-five silent seconds of it. It was a teen comedy in which a group of American friends travel to Europe together, offend some neanderthal old-world types with their ignorant exuberance, but ultimately triumph through the force of their good intentions, finding happiness and adventure and, for the main protagonist, true love. The appeal of such a film is obvious: It provides a vicarious travel experience in many ways superior to actual travel (no waiting in interminable lines with your shoes and belt off and your pants falling down to pass security checks; no annoying foreign languages you have to pretend don’t exist; no irritating journeys outside the parameters of your apartment, etc.). Simulated experience is always going to be easier than actual experience, and the entertainment industry is always going to urge us to ignore the difference between simulated and real, even as tourist industries insist the opposite (all while strenusously working to make real experiences more controlled, more like carefully calibrated, altogether predictable simulations). The unfortunate thing about real experiences is that are unpredictable — that’s their essential, definitive quality. The marketable thing about entertainment is that it affords a largely predictable satisfaction — which is why it is pointless to complain that a film in formulaic. Of course it is; that’s its purpose. That’s why it sells.
What I found strange about the man on the plane was that he was enjoying a vicarious experience of exotic travel in the midst of actually traveling. It seemed strange to me. Was he trying to learn what to expect from traveling, learn how to behave, what he should learn? Was he looking for boilerpaltes for how to reduce his own upcoming travel experience to safe formulas whose meanings resolve themselves for us instantaneously, so familiar are their implications from our repeatedly seeing them played out in TV shows and novels, and so comfortable are we with these culturally approved conclusions. Like late-eighteenth-century novels taught readers how to tread the path to companionate marriage, demonstrating why love marriages should be presumed to be superior than arranged ones — an extremely new idea to Western culture at the time (just read Clarissa or any Jane Austen novel), perhaps contemporary films of this sort are teaching kids what to get out of their modern-day equivelant of the European Grand Tour, available now to large swaths of people who were once content with Disneyland. If the custom now demands a trip to Europe, these films, then, at least help make the continent of Europe as user-friendly, as accessible and comprehensible as Disneyland. This is how an omnipresent culture industry has cannibalized the real; how it has inverted the real/contrived dichotomy. Now, our primary experiences are entertainment, and we expect our actual experiences to conform to the expectation entertainment has conditioned us for. So we take a European vacation to try to live up to the film, rather than expecting the film to live up to the vacation experience we know. The entertainment is primary, the lived experience parasitical of it, rather than vice versa, which common sense would lead you to expect if you thought about it. In other words, as Thomas de Zengotita argues elaborately in his upcoming book, all our experience is always already mediated. We know what to expect alrady of what were heretofore unimaginable experiences. No wonder we’re so often disappointed (but that’s all to the good, because that keeps us trying). The consequence is that the since the real lives up to the contrived, the contrived can be constructed to whatever stipulations one would want. And then, more and more actual experience is derived from or copies experiences invented to serve certain designed purposes, to communicate ideological precepts, and in this way the designed ideologies are more and more deeply imbedded in actuality, seem more and more inherent, like common sense rather than propaganda imposed from without. Of course Americans are good-natured innocents, of course they are doing old world countries a favor by visiting them, and the people over there need to let go of their retrograde traditions and their finicky protectiveness of their heritage. Travel becomes an inevitable clash of innocence with corrupted experience, and we all no that innocence always eventually triumphs, sweeps that rooted way of life away. And incidentally, this is just what capitalism needs, as “all that is solid melts into air” and the traditional inhibitions to unbridled consumption are quietly obliterated in the name of innocence and spontaneity.
When the man on the plane was finished watching the movie — I saw him watch the guy kiss the girl back safely on their home college campus — he proceeded to the DVD’s special features and started watching the blooper reel. I was astonished that anyone would want to linger a little longer with such a trite film, but it made a kind of sense to me after some unduly elaborate speculation. Blooper reels are presumably fun to watch because they purport to show us the making of something we had just taken to be real; and if we are in general supplanting reality with what we consume in movies, then blooper reels pull back the curtain to show us how reality itself is being assembled. That’s a pretty attractive, God-like perspective (but one that hinges on having bought into the movie initially). But what it suggests is that one’s one photos of one’s own travel experience are essentially blooper reels, too, outtakes from the seamless simulation of what was already known from media representations. Or, more darkly, one’s life experience is a kind of blooper reel, the moments you remember are the anomalies, the ones that give you pause and make you question whether in fact the representations are real. The media is out to replace our need for memory by permanently preserving and reiterating how everything is supposed to be and feel. In the perfectly mediated world, we wouldn’t remember a thing.