Stay Tuned for History


In my review of Jan De Bont's "Speed," which stars Keanu Reeves as a Los Angeles cop trying to defuse a bomb set to go off on a bus if it dips below 50 mph, I said the idea of a vehicle even reaching that speed on the forever-clogged L.A. highways is science fiction.

A week later, the eyes of a nation were trained on some of that same acreage of concrete, watching a white Ford Bronco, whose passengers included an infinitely more famous and well-liked star than Mr. Reeves, as it cruised along at will, the traffic ahead parted like the Red Sea, the air above churned once again by the blades of hovering TV helicopters.

In this case, the bomb and the star were one and the same, and as the Bronco led a posse of black-and-white police cars down the ghostly freeway, we watched in dismay and some horror, wondering whether he would suddenly explode in front of us.

As it turned out, nothing conventionally dramatic happened during that prime-time event. Its dynamics were, in fact, the opposite of those of "Speed," which features constant action and virtually no human context. But it was one of the most riveting moments in television since the President Kennedy assassination, whose coverage included a remote feed from the scene of Jack Ruby's execution of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I was a college student when those events in Dallas occurred. I not only remember where I was when I heard the news about JFK, but that I was eating a fried-egg sandwich two days later when Ruby popped out of the crowd in the basement of the police station and shot Oswald in the stomach.

That second murder, in full view of the emerging electronic press, may have been the transforming event in modern American culture, the ultimate promo for the second half of the 20th century: "Stay tuned, or you may miss being a part of history."

Actually, the movie that the recent televised chase reminds me most of is Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," which Warner Bros. plans to release in August. It's the story of a pair of sociopathic young lovers who become media stars de

spite their trail of murders. The movie is a satire on the commercialization of violence in America, done in a hallucinatory style that obliterates the lines between fictional and real violence, and between entertainment and news.

In a greatly exaggerated way, "Natural Born Killers" puzzles over the relative fame and fortune we heap on people whose behavior is beyond contempt. We call them by their first names. Joey, Amy, Tonya. We welcomed home Michael Fay, an American teen-age vandal who owes his fame (and, no doubt, a book deal) to having gotten caught and spanked in Singapore.

It is not their deeds that catch the media's attention and the public's fancy, it's the dramatic incongruity of them, and the fact that they are played out in real time without scripted endings, possibly before our very eyes. The stories turn to mundane pulp when dramatized as movies of the week, but as continuing stories coming to us as news (in cases that are later tried live on Court TV), they are irresistible.

One might argue that they also have become habit-forming. Oscar-winning writer Paddy Chayefsky envisioned the total loss of objectivity between news and entertainment with his 1976 "Network," the results of which are on view nightly on tabloid shows wallowing in tragedies both real and re-enacted. And while righteously campaigning for the opportunity to televise a condemned man's execution recently, Phil Donohue seemed to transform himself into Howard Beale, "Network's" "mad prophet the airwaves."

But before we blame the media, we should be able to answer, which came first, the hunger or the feast? Curiosity comes with our genes, and raising it and satisfying it is the essence of art, entertainment and news. The fact that the lines separating them are being blurred is an inevitability of the TV age, because news events occurring before our eyes are the most dramatic stories of all.

We are riveted by the Simpson case, not because we are a race of ghouls, but because its events are both beyond our imagination and real. In the great debate about whether the constant exposure to tragedy inures us to it or makes us more sensitive, I'm inclined to take the second view. Seeing the Vietnam War on television certainly hasn't given us an appetite for battle. In fact, the image of Americans coming home in body bags has become an effective weapon for opponents of U.S. involvement in foreign crises ever since.

If anything, the Simpson case has made it clear just how well we do know the difference between fictional and actual violence. The murder scene outside Nicole Simpson's condo -- the ragged pools of blood, the draped bodies -- was more horrifying than any movie scene, and nobody has staged murders for a camera as ugly as what we know, in our dark and persistent imagination, occurred there.

What we may as well accept is that television, whose ability to put us in the middle of breaking news will only get better with technology and experience, has created a new form of dramatic expression. It's news, but it's also entertainment, and it involves us in ways no art form can.

The truth is that newspapers in Los Angeles did the real work of covering the Simpson story, but when the TV helicopters took us up and let us follow the Bronco across town, we were in it.

Jack Mathews is chief film critic of Newsday.

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