Manufactured Images and the Origins of Reality Television


Did Peter Watkins create reality TV? He’d spit in my eye at the suggestion, but decades before that grim entertainment paradigm began to cancer around our cultural lives, Watkins was prophesying (amid his tireless interrogations of authority) about a world monstrously managed by image manufacture and fake truth. In this 1969 dystopia, as in his 1967 rock-cult diatribe Privilege, Watkins explored the fascistic impulses within entertainment media and at the same time waxed oracular on the big business pandemic of television meta-drama and mass conformity. Only a semi-faux-doc this time around, The Gladiators (shot in Sweden, where the censored Brit had already expatriated) focuses on a U.N.-formed, product-sponsored war game television event, ostensibly fought to curb war and rechannel man’s natural bloodlust, but in actuality facilitated by an elaborate computer system and executed by the world’s governments as a form of populace control. The soldiers are, naturally, low-class nowhere men (and women), forced to engage in pointless combat in an anonymous wasteland; Watkins’s pungently metaphoric scheme even allows for a love story, when the game becomes disrupted not by the skulking French anarchist foreseen as a systemic factor (more than three decades before The Matrix Reloaded), but by simple human resistance. Among the DVD pluses are an exhaustive “self-interview” by Watkins about the project and the various ways he has been disenfranchised before and since, as well as one of his early, homemade shorts, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), a hyperbolic WWI anti-war vignette dominated by Soviet-newsreel-style montage and interior monologue.

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