Fantasy Life on the Cheap

Show most cinephiles the current sales figures on video games and they are likely to curl up into the fetal position.  Between the sobbing you will likely hear a threnody for the death of narrative art, thematic complexity, visual style, light-based cinematography, theatrical exhibition, and a few other criteria that will seem increasingly quaint to the citizens of the 21st century--our future descendants who will one day go to work, buy groceries, have sex, tweet, twitter, and play Grand Theft Jetpack: The Hovering all at the same time--through an electrode implanted directly in the brain!  Stare at images projected on a wall?  Sure, right after I finish curing this mastodon meat and hide it from the moon gods.

Perhaps most disturbing for the cinema is the ongoing erosion of the line between “games” and “art.”  Games require active immersion of some kind, even if that only means paying attention every five minutes or so to roll the dice and move your thimble over to Baltic Avenue.  But the cinema has typically been regarded as a voyeuristic art of contemplative appreciation. But as headache machines like Avatar (2009) demonstrate so clearly, this line of demarcation is becoming increasingly meaningless.  In fact, after weeping for the plight of Pandora at the theater, gamers can now go home and mow down the Na’vi with complete impunity in the video game—a kind of affective disconnect that is, quite simply, awesome, and gives one hope that the forms of collective psychosis encouraged by Deleuze and Guattari in the 1970s might actually be coming true (if only this feature could be added to other movie-inspired game-play.  How much would you pay to be the government agent tracking down E.T., riddling him with bullets and then using your joystick to navigate his bloated corpse through the Orange Country sewer system and out to the Pacific to be eaten by sharks?  Or to pit Julie and Julia against one another in a catapult war of flaming Boeuf Bourguignons.  Or to re-score the next Rob Schneider comedy with an endless loop of Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings?  Oh age of digital wonders—when will you at last catch up to my fantasy world?

All around us we see signs that the old paradigm of voyeuristic detachment will have no place in the entertainment of the future.  For example, the press has recently reported on a community of interstitial beings so transported by the wonders of Avatar that they are “depressed” about returning to the real world.  "When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday," writes one fan on an Avatar support page, "the world seemed ... gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning.  It just seems so ... meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep ... doing things at all.  I live in a dying world." Whereas it used to take a couple of months and a few lids of good weed to cultivate a truly demented D&D delusion, seeing Avatar a couple times in one weekend apparently now does what Godard couldn’t achieve in a lifetime: force people to confront the profound alienation of their daily existence under capitalism.  And the only solution, apparently, is to yearn for the Na'vi to be real, to escape to Pandora through a variety of synergized media.  Add these disillusioned souls to the people who see the Na'vi and instantly want to fuck them, and you have an interactive empire with endless potential--a true model for the entertainment franchises of the future. How long until we hear of the first Avatar-plushies convention at the MGM Grand?  A precarious evening of restricted vision and sex on stilts culminating in an array of genital traumas the Vegas E.R. will be talking about for decades.

But, like most things we assume to be a new and/or impending crisis, the line dividing participatory gaming from cinematic art has never been all that clear—especially as the two converge in the hazy theater of fantasy that animates both realms.  In fact, we should probably be grateful that gaming systems now allow people to engage in more socially-sanctioned forms of fantasy play around the movies.  Before we all made the collective decision to abandon the real world and surrender our identities and imaginations to a converging horizon of market-tested media templates, the task of integrating movie-based fantasies into “real life” was a more difficult and potentially embarrassing challenge. In other words, before Star-Cons, “Second Life,” and Playstation made everyone more comfortable with the idea of investing untold hours of pretend-living into an entertainment franchise, having someone catch you engaged in such fantasies could be downright humiliating  (and sometimes still is, as “Star Wars Kid” can no doubt attest).

As proof, I invite you to examine a series of ads from a 1963 issue of Screen Thrills Illustrated.  From what I can tell, STI was a magazine for boyish kids who liked “screen thrills” but might piss their pajamas at night if they read the better-known title of the era, Famous Monsters of Filmland.  These ads come from the back of the book and all direct you to the "Captain Company" of Philadelphia—apparently a warehouse crammed full of cheap plastic crap just waiting to come alive through the power of your movie-addled imagination. 
First we have this nifty space suit, an attempt to capitalize on the Cold War space race and the attending roster of cheap rocket movies that proliferated in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Want to extend your latency period for a couple years?  Then here is the outfit for you.  One can just see Johnny riding his bike down to Old Man Cranston’s gas station, eager to inflate his “ELASTIC AIR COMPRESSION CHAMBERS” so that he might hurry back to the Gemini capsule he has constructed out of a refrigerator box in the basement, impatient to begin the countdown and take off for Jupiter (and beyond!).  See him there now as he stands alone by the gas pump, an air hose attached to his gently swelling thighs.  But wait…who is that emerging from Old Man Johnson's five and dime?  Oh crap, it’s those ninth-graders Judy and Susie from Johnny’s algebra class.  God, I hope they don’t see me, thinks Johnny, trying to find shelter behind the Goodyear sign.  “Blasting off today, Johnny?” giggles Judy as she walks by.  Susie whispers something into Judy’s ear.  More giggling.  Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! screams Johnny, pedaling his bike home in tears, the air draining--slowly, inevitably, pathetically--from his cheaply sown space pouches.  At home the Gemini capsule collapses on its launch-pad under a barrage of violent kicks, drained of its imaginary fuel and reduced to a heap of moldy cardboard, old egg-timers, and glued-on buttons.  With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Johnny goes upstairs for dinner.  He knows full well that when he re-enters the atmosphere of Mayfair Junior High on Monday, a cruel nickname awaits him more alienating than even the deepest abyss of outer space.  

If pretending to be an astronaut doesn’t work out, there is always the exceedingly creepy fantasy of donning the Hollywood Mystery Man Mask.  From the ad copy:

Who are you? What do you want? Are you good or evil? These are the questions that will be asked when you appear from some dark entrance on a black midnight.  People won’t know what to think when they see you.

Of course what makes these questions particularly disturbing is their uncertain origin.   Is this what Johnny’s befuddled friends and neighbors will say when confronted with his mysterious presence, or is this the probing interior monologue that goes through Johnny’s own mind as he skulks down to Old Man Thompson’s ice cream parlor?   “A banana-split, my good man,” says Johnny, “or ye shall feel the wrath of Zandar, royal executioner of ancient Caltronia!” The old soda jerk responds crisply, “Yes, Sir!” and then retires to the backroom to make a muffled phone call.  “Yes, he’s here again.  Yes, he’s still wearing that weird black hood.  Yes, I’ll keep him here a few more minutes.” Zandar is enjoying the spoils of his victory, conquering the final cherry at the bottom of his dish and awkwardly cramming it through his felt mouth-hole.  But wait…who is that coming in the front door?  Mom! Dad! What are they doing here? And who are those two men in white coats with them?  Years from now when Johnny is paying Mistress Olga good money to whip him in her chamber of horrors, he will look back on this day and its odd mixture of exhilarating humiliation and wistful eroticism.  “Now it is my turn, Olga,” he will say, tenderly removing his now faded and crinkled old friend from a briefcase, “Now it is my turn!”

Boldest of all, perhaps, are the empty promises and guaranteed humiliation to be had with the “MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE.”  Says the copy,

A fight to the death with a 10-foot snake can make you the winner.  Just as movie heroes have fought and won Python battles, so can you amaze your friends and family with this 10 foot “MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE.” Wrap him around you and surprise everyone with the realistic effect of a genuine snake fight.  Show you’re not afraid of anything as you wrestle this fierce snake to the ground.

Johnny’s back now from his “rest” upstate, and unbeknownst to everyone, he is plotting a final victory over his tormentors.  His only confident is his little brother, who he pays a quarter to climb the big oak tree behind Old Man Paxton’s candy store and, at the appointed time, drop the deadly plastic python on Johnny’s head.  It’s 3:45pm.  All the cool kids are there now after a long day at school.  They sit on the grass or at picnic tables, drinking sodas and nibbling on candy treats.  A transistor radio blares the new Chubby Checker record as a couple of ninth-graders smoke shoplifted cigarettes by the trashcans.  His heart pounding, Johnny quietly hits his mark beneath the tree.  “What’s that rustling noise?” he shouts at the top of his lungs, pointing upward into the verdant foliage.   Everyone’s attention turns toward the stately old oak.  On cue, his brother drops the snake from a hidden limb.  The python falls a little to the left of Johnny’s position, but thinking fast, he executes a daring somersault to take up the deadly lizard and engage it in battle.   As Johnny writhes back and fort in combat, he coils the snake tightly around his body for maximum effect. The world around him becomes a blur as he thrashes spasmodically—his vision focused on the forked rubber-tongue that he pretends is darting menacingly for his jugular.   As he falls to the ground for a dynamic series of choreographed rolls, he glances around to gauge the impact of his performance so far, searching the crowd for the screaming girls and awestruck boys, the swelling crowd of supporters egging him on to vanquish the scaly beast before it escapes up the hill to Lover's Leap.  But there are only dumb stares and a brutal silence of disbelief punctuated by the sound of the tussling boy’s labored grunts and exclamations.   I need to be more convincing, thinks Johnny, I have to sell this, I can’t give up!  He redoubles his efforts at making the snake come alive, choking his python around its imaginary neck.  Take that!  Die! Die! Die!  he shouts again and again.  But wait…the silence has now turned to laughter…jeers…taunting.  Before he knows it, Johnny is no longer wrestling his MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE but is instead embroiled with a trio of football players. They pick him up and carry him toward the oak.  The last thing he sees before blacking out is one of the hoods by the trashcan. He's laughing, laughing in a rare moment of solidarity with the jocks who have just suspended Johnny from the tree by his underwear, the MOVIE FIGHTING SNAKE uncoiling obscenely from over the top of his mud-caked Tuffskins. 

Years later, in college, Johnny will have an epiphany.  That all would have been so much less humiliating if done in electronic form.  Soon after comes Pong…Mario…Pac Man… Doom…WOW…Avatar…and then the greatest cinematic/game system hyrid of all:  Omnipotent Little Boy Who Can Never Die III: Atomic Wedgie Patrol.  


Ads from Screen Thrills Illustrated (September 1963)  

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