The Bigger Picture

So Universal Studios has decided not to convert the latest installment of the Harry Potter franchise in 3-D, which is good news no matter where you stand on 3-D. What passes for 3-D content is often more gimmick than substance, and in most cases, it doesn’t add much more to the film than increased ticket prices, especially in those instances where the 3-D conversion was done after the movie was filmed. Avatar (which was shot in 3-D) was fine, but didn’t the 3-D images kind of distract us from the primarily cheesy dialogue in the movie? Do we really need 3-D TV? Do we really need EVERYTHING to be in 3-D? Does the public really care? Are the effects really worth it?

The whole story reminded me of growing up with my  uncle Tom. Uncle Tom was actually my great-uncle, my mom’s uncle, and my grandmother’s youngest brother. He’d been a go-between in my grandparents’ courtship, running letters between them on a daily basis. He was a bachelor his entire life. After his mother died, he and my great-grandfather moved in with my grandmother, the family’s only daughter. Even though she had her own family, she took them in, and another brother or two came along with the deal as well, although they eventually got married, moved out and had their own families.

This was a time we often forget or discount as old-fashioned, a time when men had certain roles and women had others. He was the kind of man who wouldn’t have been able to fend for himself. Not that he wasn’t a strong man, because he was. He was a god to us kids. But he never would have been able to cook for himself, or iron his own shirts. Maybe he would have learned how, if he had needed to, but he didn’t need to because he could rely on his sister. It was a time when families stuck close together. Afterall, they were first generation Americans. Where were else was he going to go after their mother died?

He worked outside of Philadelphia at the Sun Shipyard as a welder. He worked long hours and came home filthy every day at 5 o’clock, where the dinner my grandmother had cooked was waiting for him on the table. He always had black under his nails, and he had these big, meaty thumbs. He once told us that he had “worked on the bomb”, or I would guess part of its outer shell, which I suppose could have been possible. The whole operation was compartmentalized and so secret. He said they “didn’t know what they had been working on” until after August 6, 1945.

Me in the middle with Uncle Tom on the left and my cousin on the right. 1965

Uncle Tom had three domains. His primary one was a garage he rented in the alley across the street from my grandparents’ house. It was filled with all kinds of things that we always thought of as “real man” related, fishing poles, styrofoam coolers, auto parts, sports equipment, tools and things he would just find and collect. Truth be told, we kids were not allowed to venture far into the garage (tetanus being the primary danger there, I’m sure), but he would take us over to collect the items for our afternoons of play. Sometimes we would play softball, or he’d take us fishing at the state park. We’d go crabbing in the Chesapeake, searching for fossils along its bed (and we’d find some!), or more often, we would just take long walks in the park, which in those days was almost as dense as a forest. And he would point to the surrounding neighborhoods and say, “You see all this? When I was a kid, it was all trees, as far as the eye could see.”

He would open that garage door and the smell would hit us. I can still remember it, though I couldn’t say what it was exactly, nor have I smelled anything like it since. A mixture of motor oil with a pinch of gasoline and a whole lot of fishing residue baking inside the walls of those coolers while enclosed in the hot garage; to us kids, that smell was heaven. That smell meant fun.

His other domains included his bedroom, the threshold of which we rarely crossed. The room was immaculate. The bed was always made with military smoothness, and though it smelled like an old man, it looked relatively untouched, not a doily out of its place. He would sleep late on the weekends, which often drove us crazy waiting for him to come play with us when we visited. My grandmother had this fox stole that looked like several foxes, each biting the tail of the one in front of it. We used to like to leave it outside his door when he was sleeping so that he would step on it when he got up. I can still hear him yelling, “Get those crazy cats out of my way!” putting us in hysterics.

Uncle Tom’s other, and most sacred domain, was the basement where he shaved in the morning looking at his reflection in a small mirror over the utility tub, and changed every evening into the freshly pressed shirts that my grandmother would leave down there for him near her ironing board. We used to have long talks with Uncle Tom in that back room there. He’d be shining his shoes or doing some other man-task while we sat on a hard box full of dark brown Balantine empties (“The champagne of beers!”).

The finished part of the basement was where he kept his chair and his TV, which was always black and white, even though color TVs were readily available in those days. I asked him one time why he didn’t have a color TV, and he responded that it “hurt” his eyes.

That line has always stuck with me, not because I really believe that his eyes hurt, but I do think there was something to what he said. I think that watching TV in black and white helped him and his generation to distinguish the difference between reality and TV, a line that we in the 21st century see getting more and more unclear every day. We live in a society that is currently obsessed, almost terminally distracted by “Reality Television.” I personally find this ironic, because while most Americans watch some form of reality television, almost an equal number, if not more eschew what is ACTUAL reality television, network news. Networks over the last two decades have put less and less money into producing news programs and more and more into the cheap form of “reality TV” and it’s been wildly profitable for them.

But what’s crazy is that it’s not reality. It’s orchestrated and staged for the greatest possible effect. Read any of these blogs about behind the scenes of Kate Plus 8 or any of those shows, and you know that the producers put these characters (and that’s what they are — CHARACTERS) into situations that will produce the best footage, and then they weave that footage in such a way that viewers see the version of reality that is the most sensational.

In addition, we’ve created a society where almost everyone expects to have the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised, and once some get it, they cling tenaciously and become such train wrecks that some of us can’t look away. (See: Spencer/Heidi Pratt, John and Kate and the like.) Some of these nobodies who are instantly propelled to arbitrary fame just refuse to go away. But what’s even more disturbing is that so many Americans think they could have a shot at it as well. In the early days, and even into the 70’s and 80’s you needed actual talent to be famous. Now it’s just a competition to see who can be the lowest of the lowest common denominator.

Every kid is a star. Parents talk about their kids’ talents like everyone’s a prodigy. If one girl kicks another in a soccer game, the parents consider suing for what might be a lost career, or a potential scholarship. Couples have multiples, five kids, six kids, one family’s even considering having a 20th child just to stay in the limelight. Doesn’t matter that their 19th child was born prematurely, spewed from a womb too tired to keep it going for another couple of months. Doesn’t matter what effect it will have on the child’s health or quality of life. It’s all about the fame.

And the media celebrates it. The Daily Show talked recently about how the media is like Doug, the dog, in Up, who is easily distracted by squirrels. Their point rang true for me. The media are too easily distracted, and because we are a media-centric society, we follow the lead.

3-D may be part of the never-ending push for reality in entertainment, but is it necessary? Is it like color, or hi-def, or is it just a gimmick? In a world where you don’t have to do anything special to be famous, where “reality TV” personalities are considered “talent” how much further do we really need to go?

I don’t want to sound old-fashioned or anything, but personally, 3-D hurts my eyes.

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