Manufacturing 21st Century Reality

The author takes us into the heart of a vivid and authentic-looking antebellum scene that may be coming to your screens soon


Jim Gabour
25 November 2012

This morning I faced the truth. And it was again a lie. Which is actually the norm these days, in almost every area of contemporary existence. But, maybe, just maybe, acknowledging the untruths will mitigate my own responsibility. Or at least take the edge off my guilt. I will attempt to relate a relevant tale from just this morning, a small personal detail of existence that happened to spur all this inelegant thought.

I was waiting in line to pay for my groceries in a supermarket geared to wealthy young professional apartment dwellers (I am not any one of those), and I was cringing inwardly at the thought of the currency that would exit my wallet upon its arrival at the cash register. The store’s management and marketing arms, however, knowing this to be a regularly occurring phenomenon, had outfitted the store to distract potential shoppers/investors. Above every check-out line they had hung a huge hi-definition television monitor. Each and every screen was loaded with the fodder of 2012 diversion: reality.

Customers were to be distracted from thoughts of imminent economic ruin by garish displays of life. Someone else’s life, of course. If we could see “those people” were running the gamut of human emotional instability, our problems were certainly to be diminished in comparison.

And, of course (#2), that reality had been carefully invented and scripted from varied morsels of the truly unreal in caffeine-driven brain-storming staff meetings in Los Angeles, California, and Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Executives in both places are constantly, relentlessly looking for the perfect demographic. In these cases, it seemed they were in search of middle-aged, white, schizophrenic, xenophobic males with bad skin and a repressed attraction to robust and hirsute Italian females wearing multiple petticoats. And the color red.

Or at least that was the way I read it. Possibly I am interpreting through the wrong cultural filter?

But the electronic onslaught was intimidating. One after another reality show alternated with an equal number of talk programs, slipping between even more disturbing niche reality shows. Swamp rats, baggage looters, car junkies, fat people, skinny people, sexually insecure married couples, sexually insecure unmarried couples, brash Vegas women, brash men from Jersey, anorexic fashion moguls, obese Korean food-truck drivers. A perfect and wide display of the lowest common denominator of worldwide human existence yelled at me from the ceiling of the supermarket room. I looked up.

There was a 30-second advertisement for a new series starting this week: “Killer Karaoke”, in which people are subjected to torture while trying to lip-synch songs, and then another for “Wives with Knives”, reporting on “true” cases of women justly stabbing their husbands.

The screen went black, just for a split second waiting for the next bit of video, and just as suddenly I came to, and came back down to my own life. Where I was $127.48 poorer, and walking to my car with only three bags.

* * *

“Somebody makes this stuff up,” I thought to myself as I began driving home. I was remembering the Louisiana “swamp people” that inhabited one particularly disgusting show. And thinking that the depiction of those low-lifes was now being burned into literally millions of brains across America. Twenty thousand people in Iowa City alone now believe that every person who lives in my home state is a foul-mouthed miscreant with a lust for his cousin and a mouth full of really bad teeth.

I do not wish to be characterized in such fashion. I have good dental habits.

“They lie and deceive and act like the harm they do to society is what society actually wants,” I said aloud to my steering wheel. “These show producers are despicable, horrendous excuses for human beings.” I honked my horn as punctuation, causing the elderly couple in the bright yellow Chrysler station wagon ahead of me to brake suddenly and pull over. I waved to them and smiled as I passed to try and dispel bad feelings they might harbor toward me. I am not a bad person. Though possibly a bad driver. And nowhere near as evil as those reality twisters.

Then I remembered what I do for a living. Besides teaching the filmmaking process in a university, I also lie. Which is the living, beating heart of much of commercial filmmaking process in the 21st century.

About five years ago I wrote a story about the dilemma. I have decided that I should prevail upon your sensibilities by retelling that story and reminding myself how easy it is to fall off the truth wagon.

* * *

The golden sunlight of a summer afternoon warmly caressed the lush, verdant expanses of a typically Southern, rural antebellum scene. Across the vast green lawn, family members strolled and excitedly exchanged reminiscences in French, as was their custom, in anticipation of the more formal gathering that was to come. The tableau was pure Seurat, women clad in pastel cottons and linens, men in tailored grey and black morning coats.

Uncle Ben approached his great nieces, a smile spreading broadly across his gentle mahogany face. The two handsome young girls stood waving in the hallway of his family’s lavish plantation home. Jade, their mother, watched the old man’s approach, knowing that Mon Oncle, as she had affectionately always called him, would once again come to her aid with his tantalizing sauces.

What had he in his bag? A jar of Creole sauce, or perhaps Louisiane, or a jar of Nouvelle Orleans? She knew that, with his help, she would feed her family and friends a grand meal, whatever he had brought.

Jade was right.

Later in the afternoon, a pianist played ragtime under the towering front veranda. The dutiful niece carried her steaming main dish between the stuccoed columns of the porch and out onto a linen-covered table set amidst the flourishing grass of her front yard, a huge space that sloped in the distance to the Mississippi River. Close to the house between the colonnades of ancient oaks, her hungry guests waited.

In her heart Jade thanked her Uncle for his idees recettes. His recipe ideas were always perfect for the occasion. Sensing her approval, the kindly man beamed in her direction, a familial affection apparent in his eyes. The rest of the family applauded. The pianist brought up another jaunty chorus of ragtime music. Happiness reigned.

* * *

“Cut. Cut! I can see the bloody rain pooling on the dinnerware! Kill the lights. None of this sounds or looks like the Old South. This is not one bit New Orleans! None of it!” yelled the ascotted British director.

Massive 10K spots and multiple grids of nine-lights clicked and hummed as they switched off and faded into darkness. The actors and actresses, all English-speaking African-Americans except for the Parisian Niece, scurried to the warmth of the modern cafeteria kitchen, the soles of their shoes stained chartreuse by the dye used to make the Winter lawn look like Summer. Two stories of cleverly tinted blue sky backdrop cloth fluttered on sandbagged thirty-foot iron masts as the freezing January shower again pelted the set. One of the lesser lights exploded, sending a fine, stinging cloud of glass pellets over 84-year-old Freddie Washington, Uncle Ben for the last two ad campaigns, and the slowest-moving of the actors. A New Orleans native, he put his teeth in his pocket to protect them as he continued on toward the break room. They’d been loose all day, and he thought he was coming down with a cold.

He didn’t understand a word of the French that the woman from Paris had been saying in the commercial. She was intimidating to Freddie who, in his own neighborhood, was used to being deferred to with a certain gentility and respect, even among the meanest of company.

“The woman a bitch,” he thought as Jade bumped him aside while hurrying to the heated room, but he refused to say a word out loud. All he had to do to get paid was keep his teeth in his mouth during the takes and smile broadly.

The American actor playing the part of The Nephew, however, was complaining loudly, as he had between every set-up for the last three days.

“I mean, what the hell we doin’ here, man?” he screamed at the top of his voice. No reaction. The crew had long since learned that ignoring him was safest. Any recognition and he got louder. Still he persisted.

“This plantation nothin’ but nigger hell -- the brothers didn’t come here from the motherland wearing no cast-iron ‘welcome home’ bracelets -- they wasn’t on no fuckin’ VACATION, man. And then they get stuck here bein’ FREE -- meanin' they no longer slaves, but now they got REAL slave wages and maybe a shack, and now they got to BUY they own food from the Man. So here we sit with this honkey muthahfuckah, and he got us actin’ like we OWN the place? It’s a sin, man. It’s a fuckin’ sin.”

“A sin for which you get paid two hundred and twenty-five dollars a day,” yelled the location producer from somewhere off-set. “Unless I finally get too tired of hearing this spiel. May I remind you that yours is currently listed as a non-speaking part?”

The Nephew quieted immediately. He needed the wages he was to receive in cash when the shoot wrapped. He walked into the craft services tent. Bottom line was there were side benefits to the gig. This bit about being able to eat all day was a definite perk.

In the sequestered side kitchen, Jade sat drinking Provençal wine with the advertising executives. The French agency had agreed with the UK production company that American wines would likely be unpalatable, so an extra catering expense had been approved as a budget line item. Consequently, they’d hired an experienced sommelier in Paris who’d assembled and transported several cases filled with a variety of admirable vintages on the plane from DeGaulle.

Jade, too, had been imported to play The Niece’s part. She hated being so far from real civilization. Even those who spoke French here, like the First Assistant Director, were not understandable.

Quelques-uns de ce patois Acadien soi-disant,” she speculated to the casting director. The language she had been hearing was supposedly some of this Cajun patois.

The agency had, unfortunately, decided that Jade’s own French voice was far too French, and didn’t sound like it should for it to be considered by Parisians as Southern and American and antebellum. After all, this commercial would only air in Europe. The account executives were already auditioning females back at the hotel, looking for the proper accent. Something cruder was needed, they thought. Rougher. Something unrefined. Like America. Like New Orleans. Especially like New Orleans.

The food stylist had already dumped the last take’s steaming entree into the overflowing waste can, with her assistant preparing to strategically stuff a fourth platter full of the product with dry ice. The ice was a perfect tool for giving the food the steaming, appetizing, just-off-the-stove look that made audiences salivate. She’d already soaked and dried another bowl of rice with glossy liquid glue so that it would both remain shiny white and stay in place as the sauce was ladled over it. “Savory” had been the director’s sole descriptive instruction, and she knew how to deliver savory.

Dry ice and white glue.

Three makeup artists were back at work lightening the skin of each of the eight actors and actresses. The English director had decided that the actors and actresses he had chosen were, after all, too dark to be considered properly “Creole”, and was determined to preserve his idea of authenticity. After all, hundreds of thousands of people would be persuaded to buy this product as nourishment for their families on the perceived truth of the advertisement.

* * *

As the American executive-in-charge-of-production, setting up all the monumental multi-cam 35mm film logistics in pre-production, I’d helped spend a substantial amount of the approximately US$4 million the thirty-second commercial would finally cost after post-production polishing was completed. There were massive sixty-foot cranes, dollies with straight and rounded tracks, electrical generators with hundreds of yards of cabling, gaff and grip trucks, and a hundred personnel to house and feed on location for the better part of a week.

I had taken the job willingly, fully knowing the ethics of the work. Never a rich man, but after many years at least modestly solvent of finance, I had bought my first-ever house, a serious fixer-upper, and was in the midst of the overwhelming process of house restoration in New Orleans. I needed to maintain serious cash flow. There were more toilets to be bought, dozens of walls of new sheetrock to be installed, floated and sanded. Wiring and plumbing to be laid. Taxes and insurance to be paid.

I could not afford to hold out for Art. I needed immediate and ongoing Commerce.

Thus, in my own weak-willed way, did I help perpetuate another of modern civilization’s illusions, and delusions, about the heart of my hometown. Basically, I lied.

On the other hand, the sauces were quite tasty.

* * *

And thus do I commend myself to a close relation to the dentally-impaired swamp people. Who find deeper meanings in life as they sputter obscenities and grope at grease-stained truck stop waitresses in pursuit of ever-elusive truth.

As one of their number might be scripted to say: “This reality crap is a hard row to hoe.”

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