The great sea change, believed JG Ballard, was the assassination of President Kennedy. The author whose theory was expanded in his 1970 collection of stories, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, saw the shocking events of November 22 1963 as the moment when the media’s sensationalistic appetite for a dramatic death and the dehumanising effects of repeated exposure to such horrors on the consumer gave birth to the age we have lived in ever since. Of course, JFK’s fatal drive down Deely Plaza wasn’t transmitted live on television. When the story broke on CBS, news anchor Walter Cronkite wasn’t even seen onscreen for the first half-hour of the newsflash, as the TV cameras needed to warm-up before they could work. But the nation did witness the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald a few days later, thanks to Jack Ruby’s decision to shoot when the cameras were very much warmed-up and beaming live images into America’s living rooms.
Television had become the premier medium in the US over the ten years prior to the first Kennedy assassination, shaping the behavioural habits of the pliable viewers with phenomenal rapidity. Advertising was a crucial part of the package, not just the commercials, but the fact that virtually all programmes were sponsored, so that even the most celebrated elements of early American television – the live plays by leading playwrights and anthology series such as ‘The Twilight Zone’ – were presented as momentary diversions from the medium’s message. Along with the spread of enormous billboards coast-to-coast and the growth of the Pop Art movement that was both inspired by it and in turn inspired it, the American advertising industry created a climate in which everything and everyone seemed to be either for sale or selling something to an avid audience – and television was its most powerful weapon.
An event as brutally real as JFK’s assassination in an age that was already making the world increasingly unreal for the millions addicted to the TV mantra soon saw that reality absorbed into the same landscape across which the Lone Ranger rode Silver, Lassie ran for help and Speedy guzzled Alka-Seltzer. When the Vietnam War began to be enacted on a nightly basis, the initial shock of its graphic horror faded and relentless repetition turned what many regard as the first television war into something approaching a soap opera or serial. ‘Peyton Place’ followed by the latest pictures from Saigon; and in between, a word from our sponsor. Spot the difference.
Woody Allen brilliantly parodied the nature of US TV’s ability to reduce human tragedy to the same level as scripted drama or a sporting event in the opening to his 1971 movie, ‘Bananas’. The imminent assassination of the President of a Latin American country is presented by actual American TV sports broadcasters Don Dunphy and Howard Cosell, with the gruesome spectacle packaged to the public no differently from the Superbowl Final or the World Series. It’s a satirical take on the same point JG Ballard was making in literature and reflects the ongoing blur between fact and fiction television viewers were receiving at the time as well as anticipating a nightmarish future in which entire generations would perceive their surroundings and the people populating them as a TV show.
The democratising impact of personal technology in the 40+ years since ‘Bananas’ and ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ were respectively released and published, taking the power to weave make-believe from the hands of the broadcasters and giving it to the public, has had a profound effect on the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. When a member of the public can do what was once the sole province of television, whether recording an air-crash or staging a street punch-up, all is as unreal as it is real. Everything ends up looking like a movie and everyone can play the leading man.
The appalling murder yesterday of two regional news reporters live on air by a disgruntled ex-colleague who recorded the crime on his own camera and then uploaded it to social media sites was something with a hideous inevitability about it. Alison Parker was the Virginia equivalent of the woman who co-hosts your local BBC or ITV teatime magazine programme and Alan Ward was her cameraman. Assassins don’t even bother aiming at Presidents anymore; everyone is the President now – reality celebs, talent show contestants, and regional TV journalists known to a few thousand at the most. The sickening footage shot by the murderer as an oblivious Alison Parker conducts an interview on some banal, typically parochial topic, particularly when his hand aiming the gun at her comes into shot, is like a ghastly parody of ‘CSI’, a cheap and amateurish imitation of a slick, big-budget cop series. The fact that two real people lost their lives because those bullets weren’t blanks and blood poured from their wounds rather than a plastic bag hidden under their clothing didn’t matter to the man who pressed the trigger. He was the star in his own show and couldn’t wait to share it with the world before dying a rock ‘n’ roll death by turning on the gun on himself.
The Atrocity Exhibition can currently be seen on a screen near you.