The Real Surreal World

[27 January 2008]

By Ryan Smith

Sitting in the rigid seat of a witness stand in a Los Angeles courtroom, I probably should have been deadly serious about the testimony I was prepared to give. I ought to have been focused on swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth etc., etc., while the eyes of a collection of stern-looking officials, attorneys, and family members of the 15-year-old I had accused of robbery watched me intently. But I couldn’t.

It didn’t help that the prosecutor was a statuesque blonde who looked like she might have slinked off the set of The Practice. Or that the smarmy defense attorney guy who poked at his glasses when in deep thought never looked up from the manila folder perched in his hands while seemingly trying to trip me up with obtuse questions during cross-examination.

“What was the diameter of the circle you were sitting in on the beach?” he asked me with a bland smugness that implied I should have had a measuring tape with me to determine the distance I was sitting from my friends. “Fourteen feet?” I answered with a shrug. Then when approached with a request to describe the lighting of the scene (I figured he was trying to get me to admit it was too dark for me to see clearly) I got absurdly specific. “Well, there was a medium sized bonfire we sat around, the artificial light from the poles in the parking lot, faint light from the stars and the moon, and in the distance there was the orange-ish urban glow of the City of Los Angeles.”

When that didn’t work he resorted to Encyclopedia Brown-like parlor tricks. “OK, so which hand did you see the suspect pick up the beer with?” he asked dryly, followed up later by, “Which hand did he use to go for what you thought was his gun?” As if I had answered both questions “Right hand” the lawyer would have exclaimed ‘Ah-ha! Your Honor, the defendant could not have committed these crimes, for indeed he is left-handed!” which in turn would have caused the audience to gasp out loud and the judge to slam his gavel down and yell “Order!” and then instantly dismiss the case.

Because of these factors and the overall courtroom TV-episodeness of the situation, I found myself lounging in my seat, casually chewing a piece of watermelon Bubble Yum while trying to half-conceal a sardonic smirk. The fate of a teen boy was temporarily forgotten while I wondered at the scene in front of me. “Wow, this feels so weird,” I thought. “It’s like I’m not even in a good lawyer show. This is more Judge Judy than Law and Order.”

Perhaps this says something about our postmodern condition, but I would guess most of us at some point or another have had a moment like this—when a catastrophic, poignant or important event seems somehow distant or disconnected from reality.  Maybe it’s while behind the wheel of a car during an accident, while witnessing a drunken brawl on the streets, or even something more mundane like while kissing your date for the first time while on a Ferris wheel ride but that peculiar “Hey, it sort of feels like I’m in a movie/TV show/novel” feeling remains the same.

Ask yourself or someone you know how they reacted to witnessing the countless images of the Twin Towers tumbling down during 9/11. There was lots of shock and awe, yes, but some of the horror was tempered by this odd disconnected sensation that we were watching a disaster/action movie, and maybe that a Bruce Willis-like character should have been able to stop it from happening.

Oddly enough, the word we have unofficially dubbed the most appropriate to use to describe this condition was once used to label a highbrow genre of subversive, abstract works of art in the early part of the 20th century: Surreal. The way we use surreal now it’s defined as “having a dreamlike quality” or “seemingly unreal”. It’s a word utilized more than one might think. Try Googling the words “surreal” and “shooting”, for instance, and thousands of relevant results pop up. In recent news stories detailing the Omaha mall shooting or the Southern Californian wildfires there are countless quotes from victims and bystanders that use the word “surreal” to articulate their experiences. It’s also a word bandied about by professional athletes interviewed about their feelings about winning a championship or when lottery winners are handed an oversized check. The response usually resembles something like this one: “I dunno, it just feels pretty surreal right now. It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”

The question is: why does a very real moment feel surreal? Why are the most visceral, defining moments in our life often perceived as unreal or dream-like? And why do we feel compelled to turn toward a trench coated Keanu Reeves to save us all from our fate?

Some philosophers (postmodernist Jean Baudrillard especially), might say that all of the media-over saturation we experience on a daily basis is desensitizing us to reality itself.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that watching too much American Idol will render you unable to sing along to Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” on the radio without the creeping feeling that your voice is being judged by Paula Abdul, or that you’ll wonder while shooting hoops if you yourself are playing or if you’re actually part of Kobe Bryant’s consciousness. Maybe it’s true, though, that once we’ve experienced and absorbed countless representations of specific people, places and events, the “real thing” (real for us) can feel almost like a theme-park version of reality, especially when juxtaposed with our safe, relatively spontaneity free, everyday lives.

Ironically, when the word “desensitized” is used in terms of media, it’s usually in the sense of the still-unproved theory flouted by wonky psychologists or rabid conservatives that repeated viewings of violence in media turns children into impulsive, blood-thirsty automatons who dress as Goths and act out R-rated scenes of Grand Theft Auto or bad Vin Diesel movies.

But maybe our love affair with moving pictures and concocted stories isn’t stirring up more rage and hate, but rather, it’s causing us to feel numb; to slide over the surface of all things.  Maybe we’re all living the surreal life, the kind that doesn’t involve living with Flava Flav and Vanilla Ice in The Surreal World.

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