Monday, August 06, 2001

What You See

You see it in the grocery store in the cookie aisle, the meat section or the condiment selection. It's on display at the drug store, whether you're talking about shampoo or deodorant. It's even reflected in electronics as evidenced by offerings from Apple and Visor. Everywhere you look, you can see not only the box, but the inside as well. We're talking about the tendency to make everything perfectly clear, so like the old spaghetti sauce commercial said, you can see that "it's in there."

It's actually not a new idea, but one that has been slowly gaining steam. Throughout history, in fact, we have been on a quest to make things transparent. We want to know exactly how everything works, how it functions, why it does what it does. Whether it's legislative sessions or stock trades, game shows or gymnastic routines, we like to see what goes into the process. Nothing upsets us more than seeing that behind the Wizard is a curtain, and being told that we're not allowed to draw it back to watch the little man pulling the strings.

It's tempting to say that the reason for this is that we have an insatiable intellectual curiosity for all things. And there may certainly be some truth to that. After all, Marie Curie didn't go looking for X-rays to make money, nor did Marconi "discover" radio with an eye towards future fame and profit. These folks and others simply wanted to know how things work. And so they poked and they prodded, they unscrewed and they looked inside, with the result that they not only discovered the underlying causes of things, but how to use those as building blocks for creations much more complex. The results of this process can be seen in such things as computers, air conditioners, automobiles and microwave popcorn.

But for the vast majority of us, the rationale is much simpler. It's not that we want to know the intricacies of nature. Rather, we're afraid that someone, somewhere, might have a leg up on us. Put another way, we're not so much afraid of losing the race, but terrified that someone will get a head start. And the surest way to level the playing field is to shine the biggest spotlight there is on everything we have.

This accounts for a whole myriad of creations. In C-Span, we have government in action in its most naked and boring form. You can see all that happens regarding a vote on the floor, all the posturing that takes place in the committee rooms. On "The Weakest Link" we get to see whether the contestants know the answers themselves or not. There are no "agree or disagree," "survey says," or "Can I call my Cousin Ernie?" places to hide. And Britney Spears is nothing if not transparent: pure, unadulterated pop, regardless of her protests about being "not that innocent."

Are we happier this way? Do we really want to know it all, and leave nothing to imagination? Writer and commentator Kurt Andersen argues that, in fact, we don't. In a recent essay, he says that while transparency might be OK in our everyday life, we are coming to prefer translucency in our diversions. We want just enough obscured to keep the mystery unveiled, the romance intact. He points to examples like the iMac, in blueberry, sour apple or raspberry sheathing that breaks the convention of a beige central processing unit; to movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Ang Lee's swirling fusion of martial arts, ancient Chinese legend and Star Wars sensibilities; to Cirque Du Soleil, that French Canadian pastiche of a circus; to Dave Eggers and "The X-Files" and Moby. All, he writes, illuminate, yet don't harshly expose.

But while I concede the superiority of a negligee over nudity, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Anderson. We don't want translucency: that requires too much thinking. What we actually want is simple complexity. We don't mind twists and turns to get to the end, but we want to be able to see that there is an end, and what it actually looks like. Sure, there will always be an audience for The Moody Blues and Steven Sondheim and Jackson Pollock. But check the box office totals: they're much higher for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aerosmith and The Lion King. In a world of complexity, things that are what they say they are, with no surprises, gather a much greater crowd.
I was struck by this as I sat in my local gigaplex, watching trailers for "The Mexican" and "One Night At McCools." You might argue that these pictures were translucent, that they were multi-layered, that they consisted of intersecting storylines which challenged the casual viewer to discern their true meaning. In truth, they were simply bad: so confusing, in fact, that an FBI agent couldn't tease out a plot... and both, in spite of their high wattage casts of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, Michael Douglas and Liv Tyler, did horribly at the box office.

You see this again and again: nebulous, convoluted elements jumbled together in an attempt to dazzle. It happens with books ("a shimmering tale of intersecting emotions"), wine ("a heady confluence of warm tones, with a tannic top note") and TV shows ("Medical professionals coping with human tragedies... and their own mortality"). In an attempt to be literate and artistic, too many create something akin to how Churchill described Russia: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." But that may be giving any of it far more credit than is due. Perhaps a better explanation comes in the form of that old saw, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull."


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds that more and more he needs glasses to see even the things that are supposed to be clear. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.