The Real Cancun “will be a huge money-maker. Every 15-year-old in the country will want to see it because of what it offers–pornography,” said a critic friend over dinner, adding, “I find that horrible. I don’t object to pornography per se, understand. I object to pornography because it drives out art. It will do that to movies just as it has to TV.”

Ironically, what bids to be the most important movie of this hype-heavy season–more influential than The Matrix Reloaded or other mega-budget f/x spectacles headed our way–isn’t even a movie, strictly defined. It’s a reality-TV show tricked out for the big screen by the producers of the genre’s granddaddy, MTV’s The Real World. Cast with college-age bubbleheads whose antics at spring break at a Mexican resort were recorded by six video crews, The Real Cancun has nothing new or striking to offer as entertainment. Its claim on the history books has to do, rather, with its potential for driving one of the final nails into cinema’s coffin.

In “The Death of Film/the Decay of Cinema,” the two-part essay I published in these pages in 1999, I predicted that the arrival of digital projection technology would cause televised and TV-style entertainments to rapidly displace traditional movies at the nation’s multiplexes. Well, digital projection is still a coming attraction, yet one of the most debased of all TV’s recent forms has just wormed its way into your local movie house.

Money, of course, is at the root of the reality-TV phenomenon. By now it’s old news that a season of the TV shows can be produced for a fraction of what dramas or comedies cost, largely because the talents of actors, writers, directors, set designers, etc., are dispensed with. The same economies apply on the big screen. The average studio movie today costs around $50 million. The Real Cancun was cranked out in weeks for eight million. That difference alone explains the dire revolution that will shortly send scads of movie professionals to the unemployment lines.

The other factor that propels reality-TV is, undeniably, its popularity. The skeptics who saw it as a fad that would collapse after a season or two of Survivor clearly were wrong. Not only is it here to stay, but as of this week–like the creature in Alien or the SARS virus–it has leapt from one unsuspecting host organism to another.

Why should anyone doubt that it will be as voracious on the big screen as it is on the small? In the 28 years since Jaws rode to a record-setting opening weekend on the basis of TV advertising, movies have become a de facto colony of the electronic medium; younger audiences especially flock to multiplexes mainly to see things they’ve seen advertised or promoted on TV.

Speculation abounds as to why reality-TV has been so popular, and I haven’t seen a single explanation that strikes me as both comprehensive and convincing. My own thinking on the matter begins with the observation that, as TV culture both proliferated and fragmented with the arrival of cable, VCRs and computers, fictional made-for-TV entertainment began to lose its luster with audiences. Relative to the speed, multiplicity and vibrancy of latter-day TV commercials, music videos, hip talk shows, web-surfing and the like, traditional sitcoms and dramas increasingly seemed slow, creaky, old-fashioned, phony.

Reality-TV did not, however, overthrow those older forms so much as it rejuvenated them with an injection of spontaneity and “unscripted,” jus-folks naturalism. In fact, the term “reality” is a bit curious in this context. For while these shows use ordinary people rather than professional actors (a distinction that’s fast becoming meaningless), the situations into which they’re placed are as contrived and artificial as any 50s game show or sitcom. In a way, the basic set-up appeals simultaneously to the audience’s knowingness, its naivete and its narcissism: Watching a reality show, you’re flattered by being in on the manipulative method, yet encouraged not to ask what it means to anyone but you.

The form’s primary effects, when charted along moral or psychological lines, can hardly be considered as anything other than sociopathic. Unlike movies and most forms of art, which rely on imaginative projection, reality-TV appeals to sheer voyeurism, with a distinct S&M twist: iIs “stories” are generally rituals of abasement or debasement, of zipless self-aggrandizement or callous humiliation.

Surely, entertainment has always contained a portion of scabrous and violent (and sometimes quite wonderful) low comedy, from Aristophanes through the Three Stooges. The problem with reality-TV, as my friend suggested, is that it seems to have perfected TV’s natural propensity to drive out everything else, not just art, but intelligence, subtlety, compassion–any form of moral discernment. In place of such traditional values we are given what is effectively a nonstop, wall-to-wall advertisement for the Seven Deadly Sins and various of their most noxious modern descendents–especially self-absorption and stupidity.

It might be said that selling dumb yuks to the hoi polloi is a very old business, and perhaps no different now than it was in Shakespeare’s day. But this, I think, is new: Formerly, the key transaction simply aimed at getting money for a product. Now the product is essentially irrelevant; the crucial operation involves creating a dumb, docile, obedient consumer.

For The Real Cancun, the producers chose 16 college-age Americans (evenly divided between males and females) and took them to a swanky condo complex in Cancun, where they were provided with all the fun activities, stimulation and opportunities conducive to “hooking up,” as they call impromptu sex. That objective, and the mini-melodramas it entails, would seem to be the film’s main selling point, as well as the reason my friend called it pornographic. Yet I think the movie’s qualifications in the latter regard are so multi-leveled that The Real Cancun could end up reminding the close observer of Dante’s Inferno.

Consider, as regards the filmmakers’ sociopathic intent, the dramatic element that appears necessary to produce the sex and, in fact, far overshadows it in terms of screen time and emphasis–alcohol. If you thought this show was staged in Mexico for the tropical scenery, guess again. Nine of the kids in The Real Cancun are under 21. If its makers had lured them to Fort Lauderdale and plied them with tequila there, the spectacle might not have escaped the attention of some enterprising DA.

Are there no laws that prohibit moviemakers from taking underage drinkers across international borders in order to circumvent American alcohol laws? Perhaps not. But if Mothers Against Drunk Driving are hankering for a new crusade, they need look no further. The Real Cancun is easily the most lavish display of (and advertisement for) underage drinking I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it comes to us from a major (if collapsing) U.S. media conglomerate, AOL Time Warner.

The movie’s R rating, which supposedly limits it to viewers over 17 unless accompanied by an adult, is another bit of corporate irresponsibility cum hypocrisy. The prime audience for this unfettered Jose Cuervo fest, unquestionably, will be teens and college age viewers. Kids of all ages, meanwhile, can visit the film’s Web site, which identifies most of its cast as underage and offers “drinking games” and such.

Alcohol, though, does help solve a crucial dilemma facing the filmmakers. Lord knows how many kids the producers interviewed to get their 16, but they obviously were aiming for a mix of attractive, venturesome collegians who would interact entertainingly and mirror, to an extent, the film’s target audience. But what a dull bunch these pretty, buff, empty-headed party monsters turn out to be! It quickly becomes evident that as real-people screen stars they’re as bland as tapioca–with one exception.

The kid’s name is Alan Taylor. Blessed with a spark of personality that his compatriots notably lack, he’s a semi-cute, semi-geeky 19-year-old with a soft Texas drawl. The thing about Alan is, he doesn’t drink. So he says, and he seems intent on maintaining his abstemiousness. Naturally, this provides a bit of ready-made drama, and just as naturally, the drama’s conclusion is foregone: Before many days pass, Alan’s slamming back shots and slurping tequila from the belly buttons of obliging babes.

In context, it seems to me, the point of this convivial conversion is not alcohol is good, or even old-fashioned mindless hedonism is good. Rather, the point is, conformity is good. Nay, it is essential.

Indeed, absolute, pervasive conformity–more than sex, inebriation, or “fun”–seems to be the core experience being pushed here. It’s hardly a new lure, of course. As Alissa Quart makes clear in her chilling new book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, during the past decade American corporations, advertising agencies and television have made huge strides in perfecting a kind of Orwellian mind control over U.S. kids that addicts them to certain brands and–more importantly–to the need to define themselves via consumerism and media from the earliest possible age. The New American fashioned by this collusion is, by definition, dumbed down, pliant, unquestioning, perpetually anxious about appearances, and hooked on commercial suggestion.

Such a transformation of the human animal comes at a cost, naturally. In creating this obedient new species, it’s as if our corporate Dr. Frankensteins have managed to drain away not just intelligence and rebelliousness, but soul, individuality and character. And, as reality TV eerily demonstrates, what survives once you expunge character is a lingering, almost nostalgic fascination with its residue: personality.

But here a troublesome paradox arises. As The Real Cancun‘s dim cast proves, even personality is now an endangered quality. Thus, initially, we can’t help but be thankful for spunky, spirited Alan Taylor. Yet as the film rolls on, a subtle but unmistakable transformation takes place. From being (or seeming) genuine, Alan begins performing “genuine.” Right before our eyes, he morphs from “real” person into actor, or, if you factor in this enterprise’s libidinous dimension–into prostitute.

Pornography originally meant written or graphic material concerning prostitutes, and in this aspect of The Real Cancun, you glimpse what may be the deepest level of reality-TV’s fascination: In watching a real person transformed into a sham/actor/prostitute the viewer is transfixed, like Tantalus, by the degradation not only of “reality” but of himself as well. Thus we return to what has been identified as the central theme of directors including Jean-Luc Godard and R.W. Fassbinder: the modern West’s decline toward a state of “universal prostitution.”

Nor is it easy to ignore the political implications of this decline, at a time when America is positioning itself as a “New Rome” with an imperialist war supported by a largely delusional new “consensus reality” injected into the public mind via television. The same root as pornography also gives us a word once applied to the old Rome. pornocracy, defined as a state dominated by “the influence of harlots or prostitutes.”

That term may not be current at the moment, but just wait. Or as they say: Stay tuned. EndBlock