Reality on VHS

After his appearance on The Daily Show, where he claimed to have gotten it “right about reality television in the ‘70s,” I walked down the street to the small independent movie rental shop to see if they had the Albert Brooks’ movie, “Real Life,” made in 1979. I couldn’t find it under drama, documentary or comedy, so I finally asked the guy behind the counter if he could check his computer. Yes, they did have it, but only on VHS in the back. “Hmm…” I muttered disappointedly before I realized, “I actually do have a VHS player!”

I assuredly rented the movie and walked back to my apartment long before I remembered the term “VCR,” but soon a rush of memories came to me with the whirling sound of the tape being rewinded over the wheels. How many times did I listen to the same sound when watching and rewatching the two-cassette-tape-long movie, “Titanic,” more than an entire decade ago?

After I recovered from a brief moment of marveling at the rapid advance of technology and the serious street cred I felt my fond memories of VHS tapes gave me, I hit the play button and plopped down on the couch.

Recently I read an article in The New Yorker called “The Reality Principle” by Kelefah Sanneh, which focuses on the genre of reality television and makes reference to the first reality television show called “An American Family” that aired on PBS in the early 1970s. I recalled this bit of television history as I began watching “Real Life.”

I found myself struggling to understand the premise of the movie. My mind could only think to process it along a singular axis. It seemed to be about the making of that inaugural reality-TV show, but was it serious or not? –was it real? Albert Brooks played himself, but since it was made 20 years before the popular emergence of the “mockumentary,” I was lost in trying to confidently identify it solely as a farce.

By the time the “Brooks” character played by Brooks got the brilliant idea to commit a theatrical act of arson, however, I settled nicely into the understanding that he had not lied on The Daily Show—he really had gotten it right. More than a decade before the genre actually caught on, Brooks had already predicted the major pitfalls and general absurdity of trying to entertain audiences with supposedly un-scripted “reality.”

Since watching the movie two weeks ago, I have yet to figure out how to succinctly and accurately designate it, but I did have the small pleasure of remembering how important it is to Be Kind Rewind.

2 thoughts on “Reality on VHS

  1. Very well-written!! Yes, Brooks’ film is a classic and was his response to seeing the family portrayed on PBS, to their eventual decline into dysfunction. For that reason, Brooks’ classic here is painful to watch at times. He might have been imitating Woody Allen’s style a little, as in Take the Money and Run, but he was also pre-dating his own work in short films that appeared on SNL for much too short a time in season one.

  2. Makes me want to see that movie again. Also makes me want to recommend a book to you. It’s called Mediated by a guy named Thomas Zengoti or something like that. Your struggle with figuring out the “reality” of the movie is an issue he really looks at. We live in a “mediated” age. Which is something new I guess. Keep writing, Miss Grace. You always give me a new slant on the world.

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