And you thought Memorex vs. Ella was tough

WHAT IS REALITY? It’s a question that has plagued high school sophomores since time began, but few people have come up with an answer.

It’s a deeply troubling thought. Have you ever wondered whether what you dream is reality, and what you think is reality is the dream? Or — even scarier — have you ever been cornered at a party by some stranger who insists that you answer this question, but all you really want to do is get to the clam dip?

Reel Life sympathizes with you. But the good news is that soon you won’t be confronted with these questions: Thanks to TV and film, the line between reality and fantasy is quickly disappearing.

“CBS This Morning” newsman Charlie Smith appears as himself on “Picket Fences.” Murphy Brown has a baby shower attended by a handful of real-life newswomen, including Paula Zahn. When Zahn has a baby shower on “CBS This Morning”– don’t ask — Candice Bergen sends a taped clip as Murphy Brown.

So then you watch “CBS This Morning,” and you begin to wonder if the news clips they’re showing are real or, you know, “real.”

On HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” John Ritter (playing himself) gets into an argument with Gene Siskel (playing himself) over the latter’s review of Ritter’s real film, “Skin Deep,” and while Larry Sanders isn’t real, Ritter and Siskel are (kind of), so the animosity might be real, too. But maybe not.

Film is certainly making its own contributions to the dilemma. Edwin Newman appears as himself, interviewing Denzel Washington, who’s not playing himself, in “The Pelican Brief”– though Washington, playing a reporter, seems at least as real as Newman, who’s also playing a reporter. Or is a reporter. Or something.

Ann Jillian plays Mae West in a TV movie, then plays Ann Jillian in another TV movie. Sophia Loren plays her own mother, then plays Sophia Loren in the same telefilm. Nearly every new vidpic is “based on fact,” which means some of it is real and some of it isn’t, but viewers never know which is which.

NBC has begun airing a series of telefilms based on segments of its “reality” show “Unsolved Mysteries.” In “Victim of Love: An Unsolved Mysteries Movie,” the “real” characters in the movie watched the real TV show, where “real” actors enacted the events of their lives. But of course, it was just actors playing real characters watching actors play real characters. I think.

Has “Rescue 911” ever won awards for its directing — and if not, why not? The show recruits, when possible, real people to re-create their real-life tragedies. Imagine the director’s unenviable task of walking up to a non-actor, putting an arm around him or her and whispering, “Try to capture the feeling you had when you found out your best friend had drowned.” Now that’s a challenge even Sydney Pollack hasn’t had to face.

BOOKS LIKE “RAGTIME,” films like “The Seven Percent Solution,” and TV shows like “Young Indiana Jones,” while entertaining, are a few of the numerous examples of fictional characters interacting with real-life personages. You begin to get confused: I know that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, but was Hemingway?

No wonder huge numbers of youngsters don’t believe the Holocaust really happened. They may have seen Nazis in films, but the poor kids probably thought they were fictional.

To publicize a new movie, the studio will often release a “Behind the Scenes” documentary to show how special effects or stunts are done. The message is clear: What you’re watching in the movie isn’t real, but our talking behind the scenes, oblivious to the camera and microphones — that’s really real. TV shows like “Roseanne” and films like “Grumpy Old Men” show outtakes over the closing credits as a way of saying, “C’mon, you didn’t believe this, did you?”

HAPPILY, “SCHINDLER’S LIST” does not conclude with bloopers and outtakes, but the film ends with a segment using the real-life people that the film is based on. The segment is “real”– except, of course, that it was staged by Steven Spielberg and the real people walk with the actors who portray them, meaning the “fake” people are in the “real” part.

Perhaps the networks should add the safety valve of outtakes to soap operas. There is endless fascination at hearing stories of soap actors being slapped in a shopping mall by an angry viewer, or accosted in the streets by a fan warning them of Erica’s plotting. Obviously, these devotees can’t distinguish between reality and soaps (although it’s hard to understand why it never occurs to them just to advise the actors to tune in to Channel 7 to find out what is going on in Pine Valley).

MTV’s recent “Real World” series took a documentary look at unscripted incidents — but the real people involved had been handpicked and thrown together in a house chosen by the producers. After one of the women accused a male roomie of sexual harassment, the docu showed everybody agonizing over what really happened, but never showed them consulting with the producers or asking to view videotape of The Incident. Everything you saw was real. But you didn’t see everything that was real.

If such a thing as “real” exists.

The Lapps have at least 50 words for snow; soon America will have to invent many more words to account for the degrees and types of reality. However, the whole issue doesn’t really concern Reel Life. For us, reality is only something that we fantasize about.

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