hearts of darkness
June 10, 2009
This is a video of me stepping on a bee when I was five years old, the only time I’ve ever been stung by a bee, an experience which instilled in me for many years an unbelievable fear of being stung by a bee, as is probably quite apparent in the video. This is one of my family’s favorite home videos and for this reason it’s been aired in our various homes many times for many different audiences on VHS and DVD and now on the Internet and I have almost always avoided watching it, either by leaving the room or just by closing my eyes and putting my fingers in my ears, really mature, I know, and this is because I hate watching old videos of myself for reasons previously discussed and also because I just hated this video in particular, this theater of cruelty, you know? Watching it just now, though, is the first time that I’ve been able to understand how really it’s a pretty funny video, maybe not America’s Funniest Home Video funny or even weird viral funny, it meets no rubrics, but there are just certain things about it (my mother’s tired sigh, the way my brother laughs at me and then is distracted by first juice and then an inflatable ball, the part when I stop crying just long enough to say “I can’t stop crying” and then start crying again) that I find funny in a way that I never did or could before, when I was younger. I can now watch myself suffer and I can enjoy it; it makes me laugh, even.
I bring this all up because I got stung by a jellyfish today when I was swimming and the sting, which left white welts all over my left hand, really only hurt for about ten minutes and then mostly the experience was great. One reason it was great is that it’s nice to find out that something you feared in childhood really wasn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be, and so getting stung by a jellyfish made me think that maybe I should try other things I’ve avoided since adolescence, like eating sweet potatoes or playing tackle football or petting cats. Another reason it was great is that it gave me an excuse to quit swimming instead of pushing myself through the other half mile that I was supposed to do, which despite the niceness of the day today was not exactly a fun prospect for me. The third and most important reason getting stung by a jellyfish was great is because it was a surprising event in my daily narrative, it was news, a twist, a talking point, something for me to tell people about, and even better, it was something which I could connect in my brain to the other thing I’ve been thinking about today, which is the Heidi Montag illness narrative on last night’s episode of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I know I said last week that I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here was horrible and I told you not to watch it anymore, but then I watched it last night anyway, I know, what can I say, it was a relapse. On the show last night, as you might have heard through any of the various media pipelines, Heidi Montag “came down” with a horrible stomach ailment and was “rushed” to a hospital, after which point she and Spencer “left the show,” although of course they’re still in Costa Rica and will probably be back on the air by Thursday. The way Heidi played the illness was actually pretty convincing, I have to say, both for her fellow contestants and for us at home, it was some of her most naturalistic performance in years, realistic hysteria instead of hysterical realism, and it was so good that it made me wonder if she had gone all Method, that maybe she had actually made herself sick by fasting and not drinking water, that, in order to authentically “play” sick, she had really become sick.
Near the end of Alessandra Stanley’s review of the new Showtime medical drama Nurse Jackie, a show which Alessandra seemed to like even after describing in detail its myriad glaring flaws, she wrote, “Hospital shows are almost always watchable; deadly diseases and flat-lining patients have a way of enlivening the most formulaic scripts,” and you know, I had been kind of skimming through the review up to that point and lazily going along with her points, blah blah Edie Falco, blah blah trends in television, but I got to that sentence and I thought of a couple things. One thing is that, no, hospital shows are not almost always watchable, I felt very strongly that this was a stupid, glib generalization, but then the problem is that I wasn’t really able to attack or even analyze the stupid, glib generalization with any real authority because I never ever watch hospital shows because I’m a total hypochondriac and watching TV shows or movies about people having serious illnesses, especially cancer and/or heart problems, completely freaks me out. When I was a teenager, I saw this minor teenage character getting cancer on an episode of the first season of Boston Public and after that I lived in complete fear for weeks that I was getting cancer, too, and when I was in college, a contestant on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge was diagnosed with a hernia but continued to compete in strenuous physical challenges against doctor’s orders, putting me in a state of absolute virtual agony, and more recently, the steroid-driven heart attacks in The Wrestler had me awake late into the night, holding my hand against my bare chest and feeling my own heartbeat just to make sure it was still there. I’ve never watched an episode of ER, Grey’s Anatomy, or House; even General Hospital is probably too much for me.
The other thing I thought about, though, with regard to the watchability of illness, is that if I was on a reality show, I wouldn’t ever have to be afraid of dying. Any time you see people on reality shows being faced with extreme physical challenges like sky diving or rock climbing or battling with flaming death wands or even with minor things like the challenges on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, like being locked in a dark room with creep crawly things, any time you see them, almost all of the contestants without fail completely freak out about the challenges, get scared, yell and scream and bounce up and down, give panicked or excitable interviews about how dangerous and frightening the thing they’re doing is. This is, of course, exactly the reaction that the producers are trying to create and they juice up any hint of faux-danger in the challenge with music and close-ups and slow motion. But of course that’s all a lie, that’s all just a performance, that’s all just aesthetics. The real truth is that thousands and thousands of people die every day in the real world but nobody has ever died on The Real World; everyone survives Survivor. People on reality shows may be tortured and humiliated, may suffer all manner of minor injuries, may completely and totally lose their dignity, but they never lose their lives, there’s no death, no one is ever completely and definitively edited out of the picture. In this respect, the absolutely absurd sentimentality that’s attached to contestants leaving reality shows seems almost justified, in some weird. There was this moment in the reunion show for The Real Housewives of New York City where a clip was shown of Jill’s mother being really kind and loving towards Bettheny, saying she was her daughter, and after the clip Jill started crying and all of the other women started crying, too, and talked about how they wished that Gloria “was with them” or “could be here with them today” and I watched this and I was just so sad for Jill that her mother had died, until I realized that she hadn’t, she hadn’t died, that all they were crying about was that she wasn’t on the reunion show for Real Housewives of New York City. The apotheosis of this kind of simulated grief is the long, faux-tribal setpiece in the finale of every season of Survivor, the scene in which the final three contestants walk down a trail and stop at predetermined and camera-friendly vistas to remember each of the contestants who they “lost along the way.” The scene always comes off as maudlin and melodramatic, but if leaving the protective halo of the lights and cameras of a reality show means leaving immortality behind and becoming a human again, one who is no longer immune to death, well, that’s a pretty sad thing, I guess, a thing worth grieving.
Of course, this is all ridiculous. All the reality shows in the world couldn’t save Jade Goody from cancer, and, sad as it may be, an exhaustive television documentary probably isn’t going to keep Farrah Fawcett alive any longer than she would be otherwise, no matter how many tapes and hard drives are filled up with fresh footage, no matter how many lights and cameras are covering her at all times. Just last week, Noncho Vodenicharov, a fifty-three year old contestant on the Bulgarian edition of Survivor, died of a heart attack during filming. According to the reports, in his youth, he was a stuntman for films, which seems like such cosmic irony, that a man who when he was young was able to perform death-defying feats on the silver screen died during the filming of a television show about reality. In Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, we see Martin Sheen shooting that incredible scene when his character is alone in his hotel room after the war, wasted and suffering, literally and physically fighting his demons. As it turns out, the scene was shot on the night of Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday and he was, in his own words, “so drunk I couldn’t stand up.” The outtakes in the documentary are really crazy: you can hear Francis Ford Coppola coaching him through the scene, telling him how to move and act and you can watch him doing the things he’s told with a kind of drunk person time delay and yet, at the same time, he’s obviously only kind of half there, only semi-conscious of what he’s doing or saying. The moment when Sheen breaks the room’s mirror, a climactic part of the scene, was actually an unplanned event, a fluke of reality, and he cut himself badly on the glass so that it’s his real blood we see on the screen, not sugar syrup dyed red. Francis tried half-heartedly to get him to stop shooting and receive medical attention, but Martin said that he had to continue to experience it, he had to go on, he had to keep playing the scene, which makes sense, of course, since the scene was his life and that’s a scene we never want to end.