Better Than Life

November 30, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Boston. JUST WEEKS before the country had lost its taste for Milli Vanilli, I found myself speaking in a cavernous convention center in Toronto. I was dwarfed less by the room than by the image projected onto the screen beside me like a giant replica of the original. The original me.

The small me, the real me, was talking to the audience. But the audience was by and large watching the big me, the video me talking simultaneously on the screen. A roomful of people had come to hear or see someone live and then stayed to watch on TV.

The larger-than-life image was more arresting than the diminutive and real thing. Which was lip-synching?

I was not entirely innocent of the new technology of entertainment before this day. Nor was I unaware of its power to amplify, enlarge, improve and finally distort human reality. This split-screen split-reality is a staple of national political conventions and sporting events.

But I'd never experienced it first-hand. On the plane home, I felt as if I'd barely been there. I might as easily have sent a videotape.

I raise this because of what technology has done to authenticity. It has changed both the reality and the perception. It doesn't always hit us until Milli Vanilli melts down and we discover that the singing duo did nothing more with their mouths than move their lips. But it's all around us.

In 1939, Hollywood offered a warning of sorts in ''The Wizard of Oz.'' At the end of that movie, the exposed wizard desperately ordered Dorothy and her friends to: ''Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.''

The man behind the curtain was no wizard at all. He was an ordinary person merely ''enhancing his image'' with an amplifier and assorted machinery.

That was a parable for the entertainment industry even then. In 1952, in ''Singing in the Rain,'' Gene Kelly pulled another curtain to show the audience the voice behind his lip-synching co-star. But 14 years later, when Audrey Hepburn lip-synched through ''My Fair Lady'' nobody cried foul.

Gradually, the audience has obeyed the would-be Wizard. We pay no attention to the machinery. We prefer the illusion.

In the editing room, people sing and dance effortlessly without a single short breath. In the recording studio, voices are enhanced and warped. On the synthesizer, anyone can play the saxophone. On tour, the stars lip-synch to their studio tapes. We are told Madonna does it. New Kids did it. Janet Jackson too.

Behind high-tech art and art-ifice is a pressure to create something larger than life, better than best, an ever-improved version. It is a pressure that can lead from illusion to trickery, from lip-synching to fraud, from being entertained to being duped. It comes from dissatisfaction with the limits of what is real and what is humanly possible.

The people who created Milli Vanilli wanted someone who looked like Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan and sounded like Johnny Davis, Charles Shaw and Brad Howell, who reportedly did the singing. Like genetic engineers, they grafted the voices of one onto the bodies of another -- as if they had heard Barbra Streisand and seen Julia Roberts and then created a composite.

Talent inflation drives entertainment. If the image is bigger, it is also better than the real thing. The star has been replaced by the superstar. But the superstar -- producer, writer, director, dancer, singer, sex symbol in one -- can only be sustained by the synchronizer and the plastic surgeon. How often is a star told that he looks smaller in person?

This passion for the larger-than-life size is not exclusively the product of movies and music. Politicians are also produced to the hilt. A candidate goes around the country reciting another writer's script. A businessman goes on the author's circuit with his ghost-written memoirs. A sports star performs his broad jump with steroids. A beauty contestant struts her stuff with perfectly formed silicone.

The expectations of the audience, our well-trained preference for the large-screen hi-tech version over the human scale, has led to more than one act of creative larceny. This time, the fraud has come on a stage as wide as the Grammy and a scale as broad as 7 million records.

But the warning is as old as Dorothy's solid Kansas sense: Pay More Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.

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