Illusion today is trumping reality, thanks to the obsession with celebrity

Talk about coincidence. A week before the Academy Awards, my husband and I rented the movie Simone. (Our daughter, determined that her parents occasionally resist their troglodyte inclinations, regularly supplies us with a list of "must see" movies.) Unlike other Al Pacino motion pictures, Simone is unknown to many fans of the well-known actor. And no wonder.

This dark comedy raises intriguing questions about celebrity, the nature of reality and, as Pacino notes early in the movie, our ability to create fraud being greater than our capacity to detect it. While Simone is neither as cerebral nor ponderous as Michaelangelo Antonioni's classic Blow-Up, both movies consider the phenomenon of illusion--be it accidental or created--in contemporary life.

Pacino plays a down-on-his-luck movie director who becomes the beneficiary of a computer program enabling him to create Simone, a virtual star. No one, of course, knows that Simone is a collection of pixels, so when her popularity extends around the globe, well, you'll just have to see the movie.

It's been said we create our own reality. In truth, what we create is our own set of illusions. If we affect a certain style, we'll be hip; if we lose 20 pounds, the opposite sex will find us irresistible; if we buy a certain product, we'll be happy. Self-deceiving notions such as these are bad enough, but when modern technology is introduced into the mix, the risk of losing touch with something as slippery as reality increases exponentially.

Technology allows us to go beyond whatever illusions we conjure when, in the process of embracing a technological illusion, we find ourselves changed by the fictions created for us. And the insidious intent of the wizards who create the technology is not to have it serve us (despite their well-oiled publicity machines), but to change our perceptions and beliefs so we end up serving the technology.

Simone illustrates this brilliantly. Pacino believes his creation will enable him to take charge of his life, win the recognition he slavishly desires and, in the process, result in financial success. While he does manage to fulfill his ambitions, hubris prevents him from considering the price. When the illusion trumps reality, Pacino's character, a victim of his own device, finds himself in the midst of an absurd series of events he has dwindling ability to control.

So it is with us. Television, film and print have conspired to present us with a mythical world of illusions known as celebrity. And by our acceptance of that world, we are changed in subtle--and sometimes dramatic--ways. We believe the lives of Hollywood stars are fuller, richer, somehow more worthy than our own. We believe being in their presence or, better yet, acquiring an item they've touched bestows a special grace on our glamour-deprived existence. We follow their actions with more emotional investment than we do the lives of our own neighbors.

And there's more. Women (and increasingly men) dedicate enormous quantities of time, energy and money in a futile quest to acquire a celebrity's "look" in dress, body and affect. Women's magazines promise instant beauty if we'll just follow the "Secrets of the Stars," while just one of "Oprah's Favorites" may set us back a couple of paychecks--but hey, isn't it worth it? Illusion trumping reality.

Maybe contemporary life is so filled with dread that illusions provide a safe and comfortable haven. It's so much easier to pretend life happens between the covers of People magazine; that the exploits of Tom and Katie or Brad and Angelina are worthy of consideration.

Come March, we are treated to a veritable orgy of illusion when we tune in to see the stars in all their glitz and glam at the Academy Awards. What we don't see are the scars from the facelifts and tummy tucks, or silicone shifting in breasts and lips. Better not to think about it.

Instead, we cling to Hollywood's extravaganza for days after the Oscar presentations. Not willing to let go, determined to hang on to the illusion as long as possible, we relive the night by going online to learn who the pundits have named the best dressed, the worst dressed; who had the best hair and who the worst; who was the sexiest and who the most dowdy.

Really, what difference would it make if the next big thing from Hollywood, the next star to capture our imagination and transform our reality, were nothing more than computer software? What if the next Nicole or Jennifer or Tom were a collection of cleverly crafted pixels projected on the big screen and holograms substituted for flesh and blood? Would anyone care? Would anyone want to know?

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