Unreal case unreels for millions of eyes, but we see nothing

June 20, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

This time, the story was too real. We live in a time of blurred reality. We don't know virtual reality from the real thing. We don't know docudramas from the news. It's as if somebody were intentionally trying to confuse us.

When we watched O. J. Simpson's bizarre ride through the tangle of L.A. freeways, we couldn't get away completely from its essential movie-of-the-week quality. It was a role that O. J., the actor, might have played.

It was real.

It wasn't real.

We've seen this plot a million times on TV. Famous, rich guy accused of murder. Famous, rich guy escapes police dragnet with help from his best friend. Famous, rich guy proves himself innocent just as cops close in.

Or famous, rich guy pulls the trigger on the gun and writes his own ending.

We watched. We watched for endless hours. We watched courtesy of the 10 helicopters and their TV cameras in a reality so dense that it nearly choked us.

At last, when the helicopters hovered above the final scene, with a noise that must have been deafening from the ground, I felt suffocated.

Not for the first time, I didn't relish being part of the invasive, ubiquitous "media." There are no private hells anymore. On the information superhighway, there are no back streets, only freeways.

We see Rodney King's beating on videotape. Reginald Denny's trauma is shown live from News Chopper 1. We know too much. We know too little.

As I watched O. J., I couldn't help feeling dirty and a little ashamed. And yet, I couldn't turn away. If the picture from the helicopter on one station began to blur, I immediately hit the remote and moved to another. I was mesmerized and maybe titillated, certainly horrified.

And as much as anything, I watched because I could not believe what was on the screen.

The news anchors -- they all showed up for this one, as if it had been a presidential assassination or a Michael Jordan retirement -- did their best to allow events to tell the story. Occasionally, they slipped into some pop psychology. And Larry King went to the experts. Do we round up the experts before or after we round up the lawyers?

Millions watched the white Ford Bronco's ride to nowhere, waiting for what? The breaking of the glass as O. J. pulls the trigger? The police shoot-'em-up?

In Shakespeare, Simpson kills himself. Read your "Othello."

In the movies, the police rush in.

Life doesn't really imitate art. In real life, we don't get neat endings. We get ambiguity. We get a man, a lost man as he described himself in the letter his friend dramatically read on TV and news anchors quoted throughout the night.

We get a man who is finally talked into surrendering because he needs to go to the bathroom and he wants to call his mother and he'd like something to drink. A lost, troubled man who is charged with stabbing to death the mother of his children and another person.

And who is O. J. Simpson? He is an American hero, who, as a football player, brought new dimensions of grace and possibility to the sport. After football, he became a likable spokesman, a serviceable actor, always O. J.

In his final chase scene, some of his fans mistook it for a sporting event. Again, the blur. You saw the signs: Save the Juice. You heard the cheers. The freeways became bleachers. So did some living rooms.

And outside Simpson's house, people came to watch. One young woman said, "I wanted to be part of history."

As the sports announcers like to say, that really puts it into perspective. But what perspective is there? There's certainly no precedent.

In real life, nobody this famous has ever been charged with murder.

In real life, nobody this famous had ever been a fugitive from justice.

But, there have been famous people who beat their wives, as Simpson was convicted of doing back in 1989.

We don't know Simpson, of course. This story goes beyond fallen heroes and betrayed trust. It's also about the dark secrets people keep.

Look around the office. Somebody in there beats his wife. Somebody abuses his kids. Maybe somebody you're talking to now or having lunch with later. The numbers don't lie.

Here's real reality: We don't know anybody. We barely know ourselves.

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