Well, Survivor II is in full swing now. In case you missed it, a group of individuals are placed in a primitive, uncivilized location and forced to fend for themselves for three months or so while relying strictly on their wits, skills, and courage– and the generosity of the camera crew– to survive. Once a week, they have a “tribal council” meeting and vote one member out of the club. The last remaining member wins $1 million.
The movie is called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” based on a novel by Horace McCoy (1935) and filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1969 (starring Gig Young, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda).
What? How can that be?
The movie is about a dance marathon. During The Great Depression, various organizations, including radio stations, would host these crazy dance marathons to attract an audience, and, I suppose, to distract people from their problems. Couples or individuals would sign up and dance and dance and dance, non-stop, until only one couple was left on the floor. That couple won some money. The prize was never really very big, but it was the depression. People were desperate.
Gig Young, in one of the great roles of American cinema, plays the MC of this particular dance. His performance is dazzling. He is a mixture of Dick Clark, Billy Graham, and Satan, cajoling the dancers onwards, promising them extravagant rewards and fame, ruthlessly weeding out the half-hearted, the weak, and the indifferent. When a beautiful young girl offers to have sex with him on the understanding that he will help her win, he smiles slightly, takes the sex, but delivers nothing. The girl mistakenly believed some kind of obligation would exist, when she knew full well that she had no power to compel it.
Some medical care is provided for the dancers, but they are generally brutalized, ruthlessly weeded out, and cruelly disposed of when they give up.
When it becomes clear that not enough dancers are falling fast enough, they hold “sprints”. The dancers race around in a big circle, and the last couple is eliminated. During one of these sprints, a sailor (Red Buttons) has a heart attack and dies. His girl continues dragging him along and over the finish line ahead of one other couple. As medical personnel attend to him, Gig Young orders the band to play to distract the crowd– the party goes on. And now a word from our sponsor.
The similarities between “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” and “Survivor” are uncanny. Except that Jeff Probst is to Gig Young what Dean Jones was to Laurence Olivier. But the message is the same. Survivor is about our system, our society, and what makes you a winner or loser in the general scheme of things by which most of us live. As such, it is a remarkably amoral scheme. There are no rewards for virtue, honesty, or integrity.
The scheme of Survivor is sold to us as a contest in which the most talented and strongest are the likely winners. But it soon became clear that the most talented and strongest were the first to be voted off the island, and the most devious and manipulative dominated the proceedings. It is a tribute to the endless resourcefulness of our culture that this state of affairs was readily absorbed and adapted. Richard Hatch, the cleverest and most cunning of the contestants, quickly became a celebrity.
It is interesting that, while selling us the program as a test of survivor skills (even the name…), the producers didn’t have the guts to stay with the original concept for very long. First of all, emergency medical help was always readily available. Secondly, food had to be flown into the island on a regular basis in order to keep the contestant’s alive. Thirdly, scenes were regularly staged or re-enacted to improve on camera angles.
But most importantly, contestants were routinely manipulated in order to provide more conflict– and better television. Left to their own devices, they were quite likely to have cooperated, something that could only be allowed in the worst nightmares of the sponsors.
But the most important element of phoniness in the whole thing is the rather bizarre ritual of voting someone off the island at the end of every episode, as if this process is analogous to some indispensable element of human society. Think of the possible alternative ways of determining a winner. A simple vote by all the contestants at the end of three months. A vote by the audience. A skills contest. Or they could even have split up the million among anyone who could survive one year without any outside help.
What might have happened is that the group would have pulled together, built a society that works for them, and learned the value of cooperation and sharing. But hey, even Sesame Street has advertising nowadays.
On the other hand, they might have broken down into competing factions, started bickering, and ended up killing each other.
What is clear in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” is that the entire contest is rigged. The participants are urged to believe that, “in this great country of ours”, the rules are fair, the rewards are just, and anyone can win. The belief in this system is what propels people to join the marathons, and what provides the owners of the marathons with their wealth. The climax of the story is when the contestants find out that the cost of all of their “expenses” (food, water, bedding) are deducted from their winnings. Not only are they exploited and cheated– they are obliged to finance the very means by which they are exploited and cheated!
In the same way the Capital Gains Deduction takes money out of the revenue stream and hands it over to the rich, so that middle-class taxpayers– who can’t afford personal accountants, and can’t make the huge investments that are eligible for capital gains exemptions– are essentially funding the very system by which they are cheated.
The weekly tribal council idea is propaganda for the right wing. There are only so many goodies to go around, and the best way to distribute things is to have a system that rewards the greediest and most ruthless among us, and punishes the nice. It’s George Bush Jr.’s tax cut in the flesh.
But I’ll bet the producers of Survivor didn’t consciously think that they were providing the right wing with free advertising. I’ll bet they just thought that a bunch of people cooperating and helping each other would be pretty boring to most viewers. And as much as I despise them, they got the viewers, and the headlines, and the talk shows, and the book deals.
They are the real survivors.