Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fantasies and Reality

Like many a young boy, I indulged in fantasies of being not only a professional athlete, but a superstar athlete. While throwing a tennis ball against a wall, I would construct elaborate scenarios in which I would get drafted by a major league baseball team, work my way through a minor league system, and eventually achieve big league stardom. Based on the bounce of the ball, I worked out a season-by-season fabrication, so intricate that I was acutely aware of when I was eligible for free agency. (My football fantasies were a little less pronounced. I determined that I would be a punter. I saw two advantages to this: a) I would not get hurt and b) I could conceivably play for any team in the NFL and still root for the Packers).

Though there is no shame in admitting to childish ambitions, there may be a stigma attached to pursuing Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy in adulthood. But I'd bet that even though few would admit it, almost everyone who thought about being an athlete as a youngster still occasionally lets the mind wander to "what if" scenarios even in adulthood. I know I have. While my days of ball bouncing are long gone, I still sometimes wonder: if I woke up with a 99 mile-per-hour fastball, what steps would I take to try to make this known?

While I suspect I am not alone in considering such questions, I would admit that another fantasy scenario I've indulged in may not be as common. I have never achieved that dream of being a pro athlete, but at one point I did manage to work my way into big league locker rooms and clubhouses as a member of the media. And it was my observation of the interaction between media and athletes that made me regret not becoming a superstar. It wasn't because I envied the lifestyle or desired the adulation. What I wanted was the opportunity to be the one on the other end of the microphone.

What kind of monstrous ego do I possess to have desired such a thing? I'll leave that general question for others to determine, but I will say that my desire to have the spotlight to myself was rooted in a practical objective. After witnessing the sheer banality of athlete/media exchanges, and noticing the potential for attention that the best athletes can command (something truly capetlized upon by a surprisingly few enterprising types such as Cinncinati's "Batman and Robin"), I though about how much utter fun it would be to deconstruct the concepts of the sports celebrity and the sports interview.

I worked out a mental scenario befitting the ones of my youth, but aside from the vague notion that I would annually lead the league in several offensive categories, I spent the majority of the imaginary excercise thinking about what I would do and say after games. I decided that every season I would show up with a different personality, just to mess with the media (and by extension, fans). My rookie year I would take the league by storm but mutter nearly inaudible one or two-word answers to every question. Just when everyone thought I was incapable of articulating a coherent thought, I would show up the next year and turn every question into an opportunity to extemporize about philosophy. I would fill my locker with literary classics, and I would never be seen without a book, even carrying them with me to the shower. My third season I would continue to dominate on the field, but I would grow my hair long and my main focus off the field that year would be to blare glam rock from my locker. And every single time I answered a question from the media, I would find a way to reference Kiss. The next year I would show up with a series of wigs, and I would blare indie rock at every opportunity, and I would turn every question into an opportunity to make references to obscure bands that nobody in the sports media would have ever heard of (though every couple weeks I would sit at my locker and just sob uncontrollably). Season five I would only speak in Zen koans, and perhaps by season six I would go back to offering one word answers.

In short, I fantasized about becoming a sports star just so I could become a performance artist, notoriety being a prerequisite. But having never achieved notoriety, my plans were dashed, and my hope of seeing a mockery made of celebrity rested with actual celebrities. And since I missed Andy Kaufman's heyday, I had to wait until this week for someone to actually step forward.

Consummate actor and star of the just-released I'm Still Here Joaquin Phoenix (and his partner in crime, director Casey Affleck) revealed that for the two years, whenever he made a public appearance, he has been literally following Shakespeare's credo that "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." As to what was on the mind of the actor and the director, we no longer need speculate. Affleck was forced by his studio to come clean, and he gave a particularly thoughtful and articulate interview to Roger Ebert. My favorite quote:

All cultures are different. Some commit genocide. Some are uniquely peaceful. Some frequent bathhouses in groups. Some don't show each other the soles of their shoes or like pictures taken of them. Some have enormous hunting festivals or annual stretches when nobody speaks. Some don't use electricity. We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don't know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.

Since this revelation, the genre of this movie has been reclassified from documentary to "mockumentary." While this word generally refers to the idea of a faux documentary, it is especially apt here, since it can perhaps be interpreted that the audience is being mocked. Predictably, not everyone appreciates that.

But to my way of thinking, I don't see how this is any different than a plot twist in any other narrative. When an author or director surprises us in the course of a story, we respond with admiration. I not only admire the meta-twist, but also the skill to pull it off, the commitment to pull it off, and the salutarious effect that such a performance could inspire. If we were to ever get to the point where the boundary between a celebrities' persona and performance were indistinguishably blurry, many of our most absurd cultural rituals would be eradicated. There would be no need for any further debate over the never-ending question of whether celebrities should be role models, because no celebrities would be real--they would just be cartoon characters. And nobody worries about whether Bugs Bunny is a good role model.

Also, if we ceased our ridiculous hero worship, I could quit worrying about what I would say in a post-game press conference and get back to thinking about what pitches I would throw in Game 7 of the World Series.


Anonymous Layla Bahrami said...

Dr Azor, I loved this post! I adore Joaquin Phoenix and now that the truth is out I love him even more! It's really too funny. Is what you were saying in this post in correlation to what the class discussion was about in class Tuesday? About Malcolm X's story about the Conk? When I was reading the post I was reminded of the points made in class about the slap in the face as a rhetorical choice.

11:14 PM  

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