David Shields is the author of ten books, including New York Times bestseller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, the PEN/Revson Award winner Remote, and the forthcoming Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, Believer, and McSweeney’s. David sent the following essay for the Fictionaut blog.
The police in Milpitas, CA, are going to make arrests in this case because someone video-phoned the fight and then uploaded it on YouTube. At the 2:42 mark, the video moves inside the Vietnamese restaurant. You can see how quickly things get out of control. What’s remarkable about the video is that you get to see how people really fight. In real life, as opposed to movies, it’s never fair. The guy has no chance. They’re breaking chairs and tables over his head, sucker-punching him, and then there’s that last kick to the face. The guy who kicks him is either really mad about something or just evil. It’s the most awful thing to do: kick someone like that when he has no chance. You really feel this restaurant fight. Scorsese can’t come close to matching this realism.
Another thing you’re getting with these phone-videos is spontaneous commentary. The person with the phone, who’s shooting the images, is usually talking while the event is going on, or friends are talking as the phone films. You have a narrator of sorts with the phone, as in this fight scene: the girl who’s filming sounds a little ditzy, but you can feel her emotions (“Oh my god!”), spontaneous because she’s watching the fight and commenting live (no editing). She’s feeling the emotions in person, while we feel them through the computer screen.
We suffer from reality hunger. We crave this stuff. It’s what we’re after: feeling the emotions of others, their pain, as we’re shut up safe in our houses—cut off from our own emotions. We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else’s joy or woe. The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger dose in order to experience the thrill.
“Reality”—the idea that something really happened—is providing us with that thrill right now. We’re riveted by the rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at the very least less worked over than a polished mass-media production. Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments which, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored.
What was it like witnessing this free-for-all? Was someone dialing 911? Did you think someone was going to die? Did you think guns were going to go off? Did you think Columbine? Virginia Tech? Nick Berg? Hǒa Lò? Will you sleep okay? Do you need therapy? We’ll get you on Dr. Phil next week.