Gentle Ben

Gentle Ben

The first time I came to California I told my best friend where I was going and he said “careful Stenhouse, it’s a different country”.

I’d always thought of America as a lie I had been told as a child that I’d since disbelieved. Like Santa Claus.

As a kid I loved the TV Show Gentle Ben.

I also loved those strange 70’s and 80’s movies where cars and/or trucks and/or motorbikes drive fast and run each other off the road in vast desert landscapes.

Films like Convoy.

A friend of mine recently told me I should look up the film Vanishing Point. He said if it hadn’t been made in 1971 he would have thought it was Action Hero who made the film. I just looked it up to post a clip on this blog and I clicked on another film and this bizarre clip appeared.

You might recognise the weird looking actor who starts the race. It’s the same actor who played the kid in Gentle Ben.

Being exposed to these landscapes and these stories as a kid growing up in the UK its easy to see why America doesn’t feel like a real place. It’s a place where people have bears as pets. Where dads ride hovercrafts to work. Where driverless cars run cops off the road. Where naked women ride motorbikes. Where people shoot at cars from helicopters. As I grew up I learned about America via the news and I saw the gulf war and I thought about the nice family in Gentle Ben and the cars and trucks and landscapes and the two things didn’t seem to meet anywhere. So I guessed America must be a lie.

Then I went there as an adult and I fell in love with it. I went to Texas and I was completely seduced by it. I came to think it wasn’t a lie, it was a story. A story playing out in real time.

And now maybe I see it as a convergence of real places and unreal places. Of fictions and non-fictions. But as an outsider I find it hard to distinguish between them. The ‘real’ place viewed through the lens of the media, where I see 9/11, where I see the poverty of the ghettos, racism, Hurricane Katrina, the Mexican border appears in the same frame as the movies. Most of my knowledge of the ghettos comes from watching fictional TV shows like ‘The Wire’ which made for some strange experiences walking through New York and San Francisco when I couldn’t separate the fictional danger that surrounds the characters in those shows from the real people walking past me who looked the same. I wonder if it’s the same for people who live in those cities? Or even the people who live in the ghettos. Perhaps they become versions of themselves learned through fictional representations? There’s a complex interweaving of real, unreal and hyperreal and maybe none of us know where one begins and the other ends. I read a statistic recently that said 30% of people outside the US didn’t believe that the moon landings actually happened. When that many people don’t believe its real it kind of starts to not matter whether it was real or not. Or 1 in 4 Americans believe there are Aliens in Area 51. We have only seen the moon landings on TV, in the same way we see fictional aliens in Area 51 on TV. As our realities are blurred it gets harder to decide which version matters most. I like to think there are Aliens in Area 51 despite the fact that I’m pretty certain they don’t. It sounds like a contradiction but maybe its not?

The actor who played the kid in Gentle Ben also starred in Apollo 13 sitting at a desk on NASA mission control.

I’ve been watching the Olympics a lot this week. They’re happening in London and when the gold medal winning athletes are interviewed they keep saying the same things. They say “its unreal”, “its so surreal”, “it feels like a dream” and I wonder of that’s because they are playing a role in the story that the country is telling itself about the Olympics? It makes me think of the victims of 9/11 describing the experience as surreal, or like being in a movie. Are we confused as to when the story ends and the reality starts? I wonder if we have to keep telling the story anyway? I wonder if it matters if the real America starts to disappear if the fictional America and the nostalgia for the old America exist so strongly and so pervasively in unreal forms? I wonder if the distinction between real, unreal and the hyperreal exists anymore? I wonder what will happen when we come to America this time. Will we keep writing the story? Will it feel real? Will we dance together like Kevin Bacon or will we run each other off the road, will we sing together like Springsteen or shoot at each other from helicopters? Will we get naked and ride motorbikes? Will we meet the actor who plays the kid in Gentle Ben? Will he be playing someone else? Someone who seems real?

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