Skip to main content

Real vs. Reel

By Richard Walter · November 8, 2016

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece Mark Oppenheimer writes (appropriately enough on July 4th) of symbolism run amok: he complains specifically about flag-waving replacing true and thoughtful patriotism. [Full disclosure: At my house on national holidays and—displaced New Yorkers that we are—also on September 11th we proudly fly stars and stripes.]
In the late ‘80s when the Supreme Court declared flag-burning to be expression protected under the First Amendment, self-described patriots went ballistic. 
I heard a veteran’s son remark, “My father died for that flag.”
God bless the soldier for his service and sacrifice. That said, however, it was not a symbol– the flag– for which he died but that for which the symbol stands: the nation.
There’s the problem right there: We’re so inundated with media that people can no longer tell the difference between symbols and what the symbols represent.

I strongly expect this is because there are simply too many screens. Every bar and restaurant has forty screens running sports, news, ads, and u-name-it. Recently I stood before a urinal in a public restroom and stared straight ahead at the wall where a digital screen ran commercials hawking various products and services. At the pump islands of gas stations, there are screens running news and, of course, ads.

Haven’t we all witnessed families at restaurants and in other public places where members are not interacting with one another but staring instead into their own individual iPhones?
It’s no wonder people can no longer tell the difference between what’s real and what’s reel.
Do people get, for instance, that the current presidential contest (at the time of this writing) featuring the overfed guy with the paint-on tan and funny hair is an actual political campaign and not merely another reality show?

In Los Angeles County, authentic replica look-alike handguns are prohibited. If someone points in your face, say, a look-alike Glock 19, how do you know it’s not the real thing? You better comply with what its bearer commands you to do.
If, however, it’s an actual Glock, if it can blow your brains out, it is permitted. The real thing, a device that can tear your face off, is authorized by law. The harmless symbol merely representing it, however, is illegal.
As a screenwriting professor at a film school I enjoy something of an unofficial first-look deal with America and the world. Knowing that people send me scripts from everywhere, the management team for a prominent but aging prize fighter called me. They saw their client as segueing from champion boxer to movie star. They wanted me to keep an eye out for scripts that might be appropriate for him. They favored scripts where, for example, his character engaged in plenty of action but spoke little dialogue.
They told me also that he was a deeply religious man who takes seriously his position as a role model for young males. For that reason, he refuses to be depicted in a movie as causing harm to anybody.
The dude is a prizefighter!
He is willing actually to use his real fists beating real men into real unconsciousness. He draws the line, however, at harmlessly simulating such activity.
In the sorrowful catalogue of mass shootings that plague the nation, we hear sometimes that it’s Hollywood’s fault—there is too much blood and guts in movies and video games and on TV.
In doing so, we confuse the reel for the real. Since we’re so ineffective at controlling actual gun violence, let’s see if we can’t at least control symbols of such violence.
That would prove as effective as, for example, keeping your weight under control not by dieting and exercising but by seizing a Sharpie and drawing the number of pounds you want to weigh on your scale’s dial.

# # #


About the Author: Richard Walter is a playwright, screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. In January 2017, Richard Walter will offer an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Reserve your seat at:


Richard Walter Copyright © 2016