Spectres Of America: The Graduation

The way I figure it... the only way we are going to make it into the next century with any grace at all will be in some kind of altered state... I mean, a state that is radically altered from what we have mostly come to assume is real. Like Lester Burnham in the film American Beauty we've come to accept too many habitual patterns of fear and guilt and suffering as the defining notes of our existence. We demand from each other little more than that we happily (or not) re-enforce one another's laboriously crafted cages.

In its themes the film American Beauty can be seen as a revisitation of The Graduate, another movie that in its time served to identify an entire generational struggle with the angst and meaninglessness of the postwar world. When The Graduate was made, in 1967, my generation was just beginning its arc toward self-definition. We were awakening to the fact that the definitions of reality accepted by our elders lacked what we thought we needed, essentially, to survive. Benjamin Braddock, the Dustin Hoffmann character, gave us a clear image of how we felt, adrift, caught between worlds, feeling alternately stifled and abused. We wanted only to escape the constricted and paranoid expectations of a generation that had survived a victory over fascism only to succumb to a vision of post-modern suburbia.

At the end of The Graduate, the two lovers find themselves riding a city bus, detached and disoriented, having scaled the castle walls like Buddha, facing the inquisitive eyes of a suffering world outside. 30 years later, like Lester Burnham in American Beauty, we find ourselves curled in our SUVs, wondering where our lives have gone and how we became as lost and bewildered as our parents. We are puzzled and horrified, because our children seem to be as alienated as we were.

Just where has the bus taken us? What kind of world have we created?

Many in succeeding generations consider our generation's own apparent fall from grace to be a more unforgivable crime than whatever came before, because we came so close to imagining something better. We paused long enough to erect the images of revolution, but then we were caught in the almost irresistible historical current of a century steeped in war and the dream of a technological paradise. Although we perceived and resisted the trends of ongoing environmental and cultural abuse, the corporatization of everyday life, and the burying of our better impulses and higher knowledge under the detritus of denial, we were largely swept along by the tides of endless innovation and the pressure to "succeed."

Still, something carried through, something wasn't forgotten. My parents' world was shaped by the bestial global insanity of World War II. The fearful social barriers they carefully constructed were a reaction to the demonic extremes of a world at war with itself. When my generation began to come of age, impatient with the routines of safety and supplication, we unloosed a seal long set on the grave of time and allowed the angels and demons to fly free. In our Dionysian hubris we opened ourselves to ecstasies not known in hundreds of years, and for our visions we paid the price of ecstasy's shadow, exposing ourselves to whole new breeds of addictive and obsessive behavior, the modern forms of demonic possession.

As a culture we are at home in altered states. In fact, it can be said that we're a culture on a collective shamanic journey. We devote an immense amount of resources and attention generating and sharing our images and dreams. Storytellers and sorcerers are at the leading edge of cultural innovation. Technology, in fact, has become the primary vessel of our collective imagination as well as the purveyor of our visions of past and future.

We are like infants in a new world. Having learned to see, we do not yet know how to walk. We are fascinated with the image to the degree that many of us spend a large part of our days in an altered trance state of television viewing, having all but lost the ability to distinguish between trance and reality. We are like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, escaping what we know is an insane world by floating face down in a swimming pool, endlessly caught in the patterns of light on water, unwilling to come up even for air.

For storytellers, and those living at the edges of collective life, looking back toward the center and revealing what is seen, there is a clear imperative to make us more aware of body and soul and the link between them. To merely indulge in recreating the dissonant and deadly world of corporate greed disguised as entertainment is no longer conscionable.

In the modern world we have all become so involved in a maze of sorcery and magic that what we decide to watch is what then becomes real. In a world so completely skewed toward the visual, things are not perceived as real unless they are seen. Yet, the visual can be so totally manipulated, and is, that it becomes harder and harder for us to believe what we see. The overall effect of being caught in this paradox is numbness, resignation and apathy. Although we sense the suffering and imbalance at the periphery of our vision, it's easier and more comforting to surrender to a theme park version of the world crafted by the people who think they are in control.

In one of my favorite movies by David Cronenberg, the statement is made that "...the battle for the minds of North America will be fought in the video arena... the Videodrome." Of course we all have come to know this to be true. The battle is on between sorcerers and shamans in a land of vision. In the world of television, the forces of social management are firmly in control. Partly because of the commercial demographic priorities of the people in charge and partly because of the nature of the image itself, television rarely if ever transcends the droning banality of the entertainment trance.

The televised image is small and sketchy and can only represent reality through a rather limited vocabulary of outlines and icons. Whatever is shown on television is immediately transmuted to the level of symbol, at least one step removed from any context of flesh and blood. This is why, invariably, when a person is exposed to television beyond a certain threshold, the ability to discriminate between the quality of images all but disappears. We find ourselves either endlessly flipping channels or simply lost in a trance in which commercials, news, sitcoms, talk and game shows, and anything else that happens to be on washes over us and we are neither able to effectively distinguish between them or to turn them off.

The movies are a little more encouraging. Here, the storyteller has a much wider visual palette and has an audience that has made a more deliberate and conscious choice to come and see these particular images. Competition between cinema and television for the attention of the public encourages moviemakers toward more innovation and relevance while the distribution structure has led to a diversity of cinema venues not directed exclusively at some fictional average viewer. The proliferation of less expensive and more sophisticated technology has placed the tools of moviemaking in the hands of a wider cross section of the population, so that more and different stories can be told.

Movies seem to be getting smarter while television keeps getting dumber. These trends are likely to continue for years to come. The most sophisticated images on television are in commercials, devoted toward reinforcing a carefully crafted marketing image. The purpose of commercial television is to sell merchandise, and television will continue in the predictable future to function as the primary tool for social engineering. Since news management achieved new heights during the war in Iraq and fell to new lows during the Clinton Impeachment hearings, television has managed to convince most people that it is absolutely the least reliable source for information. The total corporatization of the media (as documented in Michael Mann's film, The Insider) has put the final kibosh on anyone taking anything or anyone on television seriously. The best thing about television is that it's sort of a corporate subsidized training ground for the directors and cinematographers who may one day make an impact in the movies.

While television languishes in growing mediocrity the movies and other digital forms of communication (i.e. the computer) attract artists after alternative expressive forms that have power to make us actually see our lives differently. Thanks to television the movies have become a marginal form, and thanks to the competitive nature of capitalism marginal forms are driven to strive for original qualities in order to overcome their marginalization.

Except for the occasional tape of the X-Files or an occasional Public Television news segment, I personally stopped watching network television years ago and don't feel that anything is missing from my life as a result. I'm certainly not less informed or less entertained. On the contrary, every moment not spent in the trance world of the tube is a moment of creative rebellion against powers that would otherwise control the way I perceive my everyday life.

(Movies on VCRs may transcend the television trance to the degree that we choose to honor the ritual of cinema... a delicate line between surrender to the spirit of the artist or the spirit of commerce... made more challenging by the degraded quality of the image. We come to the theater as we come to a church.)

I encourage an effort to become more aware of the conscious intent behind the images to which we expose ourselves. It's the only way we can detach ourselves from the deadening apathy and parched conformity of the times. When living in a world created by sorcerers it behooves one to learn the intent behind their spells. Americans have given too much of their lives to those who would manage us as commodities. When reality is appropriated by those who want to sell us a lifestyle we feel lost and alone and painfully conscious of the fact that something important has gone missing. Fortunately, as Lester Burnham says in American Beauty, "...it's never too late to get it back!"

Ralph Melcher is a freelance editor and essayist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.