Monday, June 04, 2012

American TV public: Voyeurs of danger

I remain unsettled about how voyeuristic we’ve become as the modern American society; just how much, and enthusiastically, all of us desire to see other people put themselves in harm’s way.
It’s just a continuation of the wise old truism that the worst traffic jam occurs on the OTHER side of a highway wreck – due to people stopping to see what carnage has been wrought upon others. We just love to see bad things happen to others, or at least potentially.
When people watch NASCAR, or the Indianapolis 500, it’s not to watch an endless procession of toy model cars go round and round and round for what seems to be an eternity. Besides, unless you actually know, very few can point to the person in the race lead (without a chart or scoreboard as an aide).
However, all eyes, ears and senses immediately spring into action what tires screech, metal crumbles and danger exists during any crash. It IS the singular thrill of the moment that gets our adrenalin running and makes the event “memorable.”
On Friday, Sept. 15, ABC television will broadcast one of its summertime “reality” specials when one man will put his life in complete danger (of losing it), by tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls, one of this country’s (shared with Canada) most beautiful (and dangerous) wonders. And it just isn’t ANY man – he is a Wallenda, which used to be the first family of circus performers back when I was a child.
ABC will air a three-hour special devoted to this daredevil attempt and my question is “Why?” Why three hours? Why this man? Why show it at all?
Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of the circus troupe that has its roots dating back to 1780. The family act was known as the Flying Wallendas and its most famous member, Nik’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, fell to his death in 1978 (at age 73) during a tightrope stunt in Puerto Rico.
Anyone of my generation, growing up in Detroit during the 1960s knows all too sadly of the direct Motor City connection with the Wallendas. Long before Karl Wallenda’s tragic fall, it had happened before a full house at the old State Fair Coliseum on the Fairgrounds at Woodward and 8 Mile.
The year was 1962 and the Shrine Circus was in town. The Wallendas were the specials tars of the show and were performing their specialized seven-member chair pyramid – one of the most famous of all circus stunts. And it was performed without a safety net below.
Sadly, as a stunned audience watched in horror, the front man faltered and the pyramid collapsed, sending bodies flying everywhere. Three male members of the Wallendas crashed to the Coliseum floor. Karl Wallenda’s son-in-law, Richard Faughnan, and nephew, Dieter Schepp, were killed. His adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down from his injuries and Wallenda himself hurt his pelvis.
No one who was there would ever forget it and the news coverage of the tragedy seemed endless, even decades before 24/7 cable outlets dominated the airwaves.
It would not be the only tragedies to befall the family. Wallenda’s sister-in-law, Rietta, fell to her death one year later, and another son-in-law Richard “Chico” Guzman died in 1972 when he accidentally touched a live electric wire while grasping part of the metal rigging.
You’d think it would be seen as a sign, from above, to stop! But Wallenda adhered to the philosophy of “Because it is circus,” and remained an active performer until his death. That’s a great philosophy for some, but there are just some things that should not be tempted. Mount Everest is still littered with the remains of brave souls who thought their lives were incomplete without defying death in some form or fashion.
     Me? I take my life into my hands every time I drive on the freeway; that’s all the excitement I can stand for a multiple amount of lifetimes.
Sorry, but I will not be watching come June 15; there must be a baseball game or an Animal Planet nature special or an informercial to garner my attention. I don’t really want to see someone fall to their death when it is completely unnecessary.
Yet the show will probably draws millions of viewers – the same ones who think it’s funny to see people knocked into muddy pools of water by giant balls, or humiliate themselves in public, all chasing some monetary prize. After all, this is a nation of savant voyeurs; a country of Chauncey Gardiners (from the novel/movie “Being There”), whose favorite line was “I like to watch.”

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