In the minutes and hours after Will Smith accosted and slapped Chris Rock in front of an audience of millions, social media platforms lit up with a breathless and emphatic take: surely, multitudes insisted, everything was staged.
They talked about the details of the altercation (“Rock barely moved”). Of his apparent artifice (“Looks like Chris arched his back like they do in stage fights”). Participants (“Was it just an amazing game?”). Some who watched were just dumbfounded (“Wait, that wasn’t staged??”), others openly critical (“a pathetic attempt to get some viewers to tune in”).
Hollywood, the factory of illusions, had produced an unexpected reality at the Oscars. And—surprise! – many people thought it was another illusion.
This is America in 2022 – captivated by immersive special effects, mesmerized by reality TV, convulsed by misinformation spread by both the malicious and the botched. And constantly asking, albeit about an ever-changing set of circumstances: What is real here?
“It’s not at all surprising to me that the first response is, ‘Oh, it has to be a bit, right? It has to be scripted,’ says Danielle J. Lindemann, author of “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us”.
“We are always looking for those authentic moments. … We feel a kind of triumph when we see something that was actually real,” says Lindemann, a sociologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “But when we encounter what is truly an authentic moment, we have skepticism about it.”
Is it amazing? After all, we exist in a culture where clothing factories pre-rip blue jeans to make them look “distressed” – as if they’ve been worn and frayed over years of real-life experiences. Where followers on Twitter — or faces appearing in your LinkedIn feed — may not be real people at all. Where lip-syncing in “live” performances – not so long ago a major misstep – now passes with barely a second glance.
“Life has become an art, so the two are now indistinguishable from each other,” cultural critic Neal Gabler wrote in “Life: the Movie.” It was in 1998, a generation ago. Since then, the “mockumentary” format pioneered by “This Is Spinal Tap” in 1984 has grown into its own genre, spawning TV series like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Modern Family,” which featured interviews documentary style. incorporated into their scenarios.
Next month announces a new Nicolas Cage movie starring Nicolas Cage playing Nicolas Cage — or, more accurately rendered, “Nicolas Cage.” It’s the latest in a long line of stars representing themselves (director Cecil B. DeMille appearing in the 1950 fiction film “Sunset Boulevard”, John Malkovich playing “John Malkovich” in 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” , Bill Murray playing “Bill Murray” in “Zombieland” in 2009).
Everyone asks, in short: where does the actor stop and where does the performance begin? Or is the line blurry and muddy?
That’s what produced some of the confusion Sunday night on social and professional media: Was it a scripted skit, embedded in a non-fiction show that itself is designed to reward the heights of artifice artistic? The one in which Will Smith and Chris Rock played “Will Smith” and “Chris Rock”? Or was it what it (apparently) turned out to be – real anger and violence, both authentic and unscripted, playing out on stage?
For every person who seized the frame at the fraud evidence department, another argued just as vigorously to the contrary – sometimes using the same evidence.
“We’re so used to things being scripted,” says Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which studies the impact of entertainment on society. “And we’re pretty hip and savvy about these things, except we’re not.”
“This one pierced the veil,” Kaplan says. “It was like a tear in the fabric of reality.”
This is partly because the price discounts are different. In the wilds of entertainment, they’ve long been a one-off beast – a time when stars come together under their own names, but still perform in front of cameras and crowds.
They are not exactly documentary (although they do contain elements of it). They are not mockumentaries (although they could certainly veer in that direction). Like Hollywood itself, they’re a stew of their own myths and realities, a high-end variety show where winners’ identities, fabulous outfits and remarks are the planned and usually mannered narrative engines. Until Sunday evening, when they weren’t.
“Award shows have a certain type of organization and protocol. You’re supposed to act in a certain way,” says Shilpa Davé, a media studies specialist at the University of Virginia. we’re used to seeing that in real time on these kinds of shows. We always see them in the movies – we see them playing that, but not actually doing it.
Live events, especially sports, are generally always seen as trustworthy, says Davé, because they happen in real time and “you can make your own assumptions about what you see.” But events on Sunday — especially since secular audio was released for American audiences — have called that into question.
“The fact that there’s skepticism about whether it was real is that people bring that cynicism to live events,” she says.
For those of a certain generation, the incident brought to mind another notorious on-air slap in the face – when professional wrestler Jerry Lawler punched out comedian Andy Kaufman on David Letterman’s show in 1982. Lawler and Kaufman had fueled a feud over Kaufman’s wrestling-related performance, and Kaufman had ended up with a neck brace after a wrestling match between the two.
A few months later, during a joint appearance on Letterman, the wrestler stood up and punched Kaufman in the face, knocking him off his chair, neck brace and all. “It was unclear if the altercation was staged,” one newspaper said. NBC said at the time it received dozens of calls from viewers asking if the fight was real. (It wasn’t, though it wasn’t revealed until Kaufman was 10 years old.)
And now we have Twitter (where Lawler posted on the similarities on Monday), and instant opinions, and a cacophony of declarative statements rather than phone calls to the network asking questions. As television scholar Robert Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University says, skepticism is a double-edged sword.
“To believe everything you see – especially in the age of technology – is naive. But to never believe anything, no matter how much evidence comes out, is just as unhealthy and debilitating,” said Thompson.
Yet in a nation where the “real” often turns out to be fake, the “fake” can turn out to be real and we all join the masses in the mass hypothesis along the way, how do you solve all of this ? Especially because in the end, everything that happened on Sunday night felt distinctly like a play, whether real or fake or somewhere in between: there was a stage, there was an audience and there were players.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted
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