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American cannibalism: Eating ourselves for Entertainment
"We have become so good at imitating reality that we will take the fake version over the real one every single time,” Michael Nigro, the co-director of American Cannibal, told me.

The man may be right.

I savor the jpeg of Hillary Clinton in front of a backcloth of the White House, crave the video clip of Karl Rove rapping for journalists, relish the digitally enhanced 30-second spot of Lou Gehrig addressing an empty Yankee Stadium for Alcatel, damn near salivate over the YouTube of Tony Snow warning “we may be out of touch with reality because we sit around and we look at fractional pictures on the screen.” Yummylicios, those pseudo-event are lip-smacking good simulacra. Bush in a codpiece on an aircraft carrier? Make that two to go.

So imagine my imaginary amazement when, on the same week Nigro’s documentary about reality TV and a report noting a sharp rise in pathological narcissism were released, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard died. The prophet humorist of hyperreality, Baudrillard knew all about taking the fake version over the real one. He understood our place in the virtual vacuum where what is real is what was once an imitation.

American Cannibal was filmed on location in that virtual vacuum. Nigro, with his co-director Perry Grebin, initially set out to document the sausage-making process of creating entertainment by filming TV writers Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts pitching sitcoms to producers. Ripley and Roberts soon discovered that fictional sitcom didn’t sell. Reality TV, however, did. After a brief episode of soul-searching, the writers took the premise of Survivor, added steroids and begin pitching a reality TV show that featured contestants convinced they were eating the remains of other contestants. Believe it or not, Ripley and Roberts found a taker for their idea, Kevin Blatt, the promoter behind the Paris Hilton sex tape. Filming soon began on the faux-cannibal reality TV pilot, The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge.

Meanwhile, back at the documentary, Nigro and Grebin were following Ripley’s and Robert’s ultimately disastrous path, which, in turn, became a lesson in the anthropologist version of Heisenberg’s Principal of Uncertainty: You can’t measure a system without changing it.

“You turn the camera this way or that way and you've changed reality,” Grebin told me. “The events themselves actually become different.”

This is what makes American Cannibal such a hauntingly hyperreal documentary romp. Imagine Baudrillard and his pop contemporaries, Daniel Boorstin, Guy DeBord et al, hovering just outside the camera lens while Nigro and Grebin, aiming their camera to steer the narrative, plunge balls out into a reality TV fishing expedition cesspool.

Which brings us to the man who the hocked the Paris Hilton sex tape, Kevin Blatt — or as he likes to call himself, The PT Barnum of Pussy.

“Blatt is definitely a shameless and sleazy promoter,” Grebin said. “People find him repulsive. He's also really honest and he's also really good documentary. He fills the bill.”

Point a camera at a sleazy promoter and what do you get? Sleaze. At one point ringmaster Blatt fills the bill by throwing a splendiferously sordid party. Grebin, Nigro, Ripley and Roberts are invited.

“He would never have had that party if we weren't involved,” Nigro said, suggesting that Blatt was well-aware of Heisenberg’s Principal.

If you’re wondering what happens when you throw a party for a documentary crew and a porn posse, go see American Cannibal. The vibe is pure spectacle. The music pulsates. The egos, among other things, inflate. Cue the strobes and lasers. A woman starts to strip. She’s down to her tampon string, before Grebin, confronted with his own simulacra, shouts to Nigro, "What movie are we making?”

What movie, indeed. American Cannibal is ultimately a copy of a copy of a copy, so degenerate in its relation to the original (reality TV porn) that it can no longer be said to be a copy. The simulacrum, in this case American Cannibal, stands on its own — a copy without a model — literally. The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge ultimately never made it to TV due to a contestant's injury and unforeseen circumstances.

There were times when Grebin and Nigro might have thought they swallowed the red pill and dropped into The Matrix — that cavalier attempt to bring Baudrillard's real and hyperreal to the big screen. “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce," Baudrillard said about the Wachowski brothers Keanu Reeves vehicle.

“The naive illusion about the media is that they are used by those in power to manipulate, seduce and alienate the masses. A vulgar interpretation,” Baudrillard once wrote. “The more subtle version, the ironic version is precisely the opposite. It is that, through the media, it is the masses who manipulate those in power.”

In other words, Karl Rove, we’ve got your number. We’re the manipulators. We’re the media. It’s our movie and the message is pure effigy: It’s not who we are, it’s what our images — digital and otherwise — say we are. Between MySpace, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, YouTube, American Cannibal, and the Alternate Reality Gaming Network the possibilities are deceivingly infinite, as well as infinitely deceiving.

Our movie of the masses, however, may not have a happy ending. Those researchers who wrote about pathological narcissism in a report entitled Egos Inflating Over Time warned that our self-contained world could cause serious personal and social problems in the future. People with an overblown sense of self (read: those inclined to take the fake version over the real one every single time) tend to be disinterested in intimacy — lashing out if they’re rejected or insulted.

“People don't feel redeemed, or validated, or even useful unless a camera is aimed at them,” Grebin said. “This has become so important to the younger generation that if they don’t go out at night and get photographed, they feel that they've misspent their evening.”

Whatever. The inhabitants of that global village can’t say no to meaning, no matter how superficial. Photoshop it. Drop in the green screen. Post it on YouTube. And after they’re flamed, what to do? How about a little ultra-violence?

Maybe we should chill out, kick back and enjoy our self-contained predicament — stop being alarmists and relax on the skillet. Who needs violence, when you have the culinary arts? Rare, medium or well-done, we’ll eat ourselves, the TV image we make about ourselves, and the documentary we make about that.


Here’s the menu: American Cannibal, American Idol, Anna Nicole Smith, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fear Factor, Paulina Porizkova, Project Runway, Simon Cowell, Donald Trump, Funk Master Flex, Sanjaya Malakar, Britney’s bald head, George Bush’s empty one — there is no end. And it's all deliciously described and delineated by the late great philosopher clown Jean Baudrillard.

May he rest in simulated peace.

— Nathan Callahan, March 29, 2007


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