Today's gladiators aren't necessarily the testosterone infused warriors above. Nor are they slaves and enemies of the state. Instead, the mortals drawn to engage in battle are plucked from the hoi polloi, the masses, and there have been many works of contemporary fiction that borrow this idea of commoners competing against each other for society's entertainment. Classic examples such as Stephen King's The Running Man and The Long Walk and Koushun Takami's Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale), plunge your local neighbour, relative, and workmate into dangerous arenas that are broadcast to multitudes. I'm currently engrossed in reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and when the protagonist clinging onto life could be someone you know or even yourself, the immediate drama that unfolds becomes visceral.
Indeed, the allure and addiction of reality television is that ANYONE has the potential access to recognition and rewards but at a high risk. It's less random than a lottery ticket, and the exposed psychological reactions provide a fascinating study into the range of human emotions. A brilliant satire of today's obsession with reality TV can be seen in the film Series 7: The Contenders by director Daniel Minahan. In it, five everyday Americans are selected to fight to the death while a camera crew and producers document every blow and weepy confessional. The film is presented as a straight marathon of the show's 7th season featuring a return champion vying for her freedom. Oh, she's also pregnant.
In a more positive light, certain reality shows include the spin of including educational demonstrations and showcasing actual talent. It reminds me of a sub-genre of documentary films that follow the aspirations of quirky individuals performing in niche competitions: prepubescent spellers in Spellbound, scrabblers in Word Wars, and Chinese campaigners in Please Vote for Me come to mind. Works of fiction in a similar vein include the classic Chorus Line and Christopher Guest's deadpan movie, Best in Show.
The most radical form of schadenfreude catharsis arrived in Josh Harris's art experiment, QUIET: We Live in Public. Ondi Timoner's documentary of the same name (We Live in Public) reveals the dark and deranged footage of about 150 volunteers living together in a NYC basement fully wired with webcams and monitors. Every participant lived in a podlike bunker equipped with a TV set that showed live feeds of the orgiastic compound. No square footage was safe from scrutiny: the communal shower, dining hall, and other pods where people openly fornicated. To encourage uninhibited behavior, illicit drugs were available buffet style, and there was even a shooting range where people could go aggro after undergoing one-on-one sessions with a live-in psychologist who snapped people's spirits like uncooked spaghetti (all under the lens of course).
Two critical elements distinguish themselves in QUIET's dystopian rave party:
1) It is a non-stop surveilled environ rather than an edited product.
2) The participants of the project are simultaneously the viewer and the guinea pig.
There's something romantic about the notion of living so openly and publicly. We are ALL in the public sphere (especially so if you have a Facebook, Twitter, Blog, or even just an email account). Why not just admit privacy is a Matrix-y illusion, right? On the flip side, We Live in Public shows that a buffer or distance between fellow men and women is necessary to maintain sanity and a semblance of self. Humans are prone to attachment and sometimes the groundswell of community and fellowship can lead to activism (see: 99%) or hysteria (witch trials anyone?). I haven't figured out yet what factors contribute to where the needle pitches (light or dark) once a collective force has gathered. I only know that the technological social sap that glues us together is tasty and addictive stuff. People like Mark Zuckerberg are billionaires for knowing first.
To read about someone's experience in QUIET:
Watch Ondi Timoner's trailer for her excellent documentary here: