What’s funny is how apparently stubbornly we grasp on to social identities that can in reality be tissue thin. In the self-preservation society instinct, we want to be on the right side of the consensus, whatever we believe the consensus is.
When I look back on my life, turn my thoughts to accounting for past events, beyond a week or so ago, memories fade. Each day in the past, thumbing through the calendar, each day a little less distinct, fading into what folk metaphors tell us of our memory warehouse, a kind of secret library in our mind littered with cobwebs and dark dusty corners. Banker’s boxes on shelves, file cabinets, pictures, antiques, a spiral staircase to different levels; the shiftable inner recesses, the Xanadu of the mind. Some areas of the warehouse are in front, accessible, others more discrete, or hidden, even some places with more security than others, requiring a series of keys. But the memories are only apprehended as much as we can pay attention to them. As if we traipse around the memory warehouse with a single torch – you can only see as far as the light goes, the rest fading to shades of grey and the darkness beyond.
In the late 1990s I remember coming across an article in a film magazine, I’ve forgotten which, about the special effects in Forrest Gump. The movie, as you will recall, is noteworthy for the realistic integration of special effect shots. The landmark Oscar-winning effects were perhaps most famous for the scenes which integrated Tom Hanks’s titular character into a kind of Baby Boomer cultural scrapbook, including archival footage of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Those scenes were not perfect, however, as the effects directors acknowledged, and lag behind the more clever effects of the film like erasing Lt. Dan’s legs. The tiny imperfections when the mismatching voiceovers don’t quite match the lips of JFK and LBJ draw attention to the effect itself as a gag. Back in 1994 we thought it was a flaw and gave effect a pass because this was, after all, both a gag and something novel.
But the truth, as the article explained, was much stranger. It reported that there was a conscious decision to not make those scenes too realistic. There was something of a ethical choice on the part of the film makers. They wanted to think of the scenes as a special effect, to draw attention to the forgery itself, and not in some way as altering the historical record. Was it Jean-Luc Goddard who said it was a moral dilemma deciding where to put the camera? It’s a remarkable statement and rare to hear about such ethical considerations from a special effects department, because the object of the dilemma is the concern about tinkering with reality itself. The deep irony, of course, is that motion pictures themselves are technologies of illusion, so what was the significance of their hesitation?
What, in short, is in the periphery of Adonis, what in the shadows, behind the movie set kitchen? What is left unsaid? I can’t help but fantasize about the contents of the superhero’s garbage can. Does he recycle? What’s left of the now contaminated residuum of those single-serving wrappers of Cliff Bars? Are his Almond milk containers and plastic jugs of pea protein clogging up a landfill? Those leftover tins of tuna and sacks of raw, organic almonds, once lovingly stored in his stainless steel Frigidaire, now finding their way to the ocean to be inhaled by a sperm whale?
This may be dismissed off-hand as the bizarre world of the madman, but it’s indicative of a broader social pattern of grave suspicion of social reality, a kind of full flowering reifying the post-truth world we’ve found ourselves in. Entertainment has conquered reality after all, and buried the world of facts with it. Everything became suspicious, cynical. Art or entertainment no longer a reflection of the real world, but its hall of mirrors absorbing reality itself. Only when everything became an absorbing simulation, reality became somehow more melodramatic. It was emotional. It was meaner, fearful, dumber. The masters of the suspicion proliferated in tandem with the explosion of the phony world, and everyone’s lost their minds.
Yet we are trained by the stories of this self-styled individualism, its attendant self-obsession over personal wounds and desires that must be faced. As if stories were there to serve only a private therapeutic function. This basic level of selfish heroism is in fact a fantasy. And perhaps, I suppose it could be argued, a necessary one in some respects because it is itself a bulwark against an unbearable reality of our own foolishness, our own meaninglessness, our own boredom, the slow tedium of everyday life. We are, perhaps all, in fact becoming Walter Mittys – or perhaps a better more recent example is Sam Lowry from the film Brazil – one of the quintessential American heroic tropes. We’re all timid bored milquetoasts trapped in an addicted consumer-driven neoliberal dystopian nightmare who increasingly rely on heroic fantasy to cope with reality becoming more and more unbearable.
Most dramatic fiction these days takes places in a world of the color blind, unconscious to the racial contours of society, as if race were incidental, and certainly showing no thought on the character’s behalves of their own whiteness. Here I to look at three films to show a kind of time lapse of a similar racial story tropes, separated by about twenty-five years and all having Sidney Poitier as a symbolic touchstone. These three films all touch a kind of inflection point in white racial awareness in their respective eras – Get Out, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (the boilerplate for these type of movies) and Six Degrees of Separation. These dramas don’t present one-stop answers, nor are they meant to, but they do demonstrate and dramatize the contours of the problems of whiteness with different levels of fledgling racial self-awareness.