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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Saga of Balloon Boy

Andy Warhol coined the phrase "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Who would have known that Warhol predicted the age of reality television and the 24-hour news cycle almost two decades before the first Gulf War and Jessica McClure falling down a well.

On October 15th 2009, the world was gripped with fear and astonishment as a little lopsided helium balloon, which I’ve dubbed the Helium Falcon, took flight across the skies of Colorado. The experimental balloon, which looked like the love child of a Jiffy Pop pan and the Swedish Chef’s toque blanche, was tethered outside the home of a family in Fort Collins, Colorado. Reports came in that the six year old Falcon had climbed into the basket or compartment below the balloon and undid the moorings. The balloon then floated up and away from the home as onlookers wondered if this was an attack or a live promo stunt for ABC’s V, airing in November. That’s when the world started watching. Speaking of ABC and 15 minutes of fame, the Heene family was featured on the show Wife Swap.

As the detached dirigible floated up towards 10,000 feet, everyone sat on the edge of their seats wondering if little Falcon was inside. Wolf Blitzer covered it on CNN as analysts and pilots debated on the qualities of the balloons. Was it big enough to carry a boy Falcon’s size? How did the father construct the balloon? All manner of questions were thrown out to keep the story alive for longer than 20 minutes. Helicopters and camera crews watched in awe as the spinning balloon soared along the skyline towards Denver International Airport. Two Imperial Officers watched the balloon whiz by their tower, “Look, there’s another one.” “Hold your fire, there are no life forms on board.” To which the other officer replied “What are we being charged by the laser, now?”

Then as suddenly as it happened, the balloon gently landed in a field and little space men walked out and greeted Richard Dreyfus. Kidding, there was no Falcon inside the balloon. Where was Falcon? So, then it becomes a mystery as to what happened to this little boy. Did he fall out? Was he ever in the balloon in the first place? Now, a twenty minute story morphs into a media frenzy as search and rescue teams head out into the dwindling daylight to search a 15 mile or so radius for this detached basket. Soon, Wolf Blitzer throws up an image of the balloon and in the lower left corner of the image an object of some sort is seen in motion. Cue the Mega Pixel Giant Touch Map! Now we people trying to grasp and stretch this image that, wasn’t clear to begin with, into a huge blurry image so that we can try and perform a mass Rorschach test on live television. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it Falcon? There was no clear indication what the hell that thing was except for the fact that it happened to be in the field of vision during the photo. It could have been a turkey flying over head.

Now, here’s where it gets even crazier. All the while during this media frenzy being dubbed Balloon Boy, which conjures up images of Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy, the Internet goes nuts with parodies. Shirts on Zazzle and CafePress hit the net. Writers in Hollywood start churning out spec scripts for a movie or at least a Lifetime Television Event. Everyone goes nuts until…….they find out the kid is hiding in the garage.

Around 6:15 pm, I finally switched back from watching Glee on my DVR to find out that little Falcon had been found alive, hiding in a box in the rafters above the family’s garage? His diary will be out next week. Seriously? The kid was hiding in the garage. Was this kid taking lessons from Bart Simpson? Did he just watch 12 Monkeys? WTF?!? (Internet Slang Quota Reached)

Now, what would have happened had this turned out differently? The entire media machine, including the amateur set of bloggers and shirt designers [read me, et. al], went crazy over the story and had we been wrong and the kid did fall out of the balloon or crashed, we would have been no better than the paparazzi standing alongside the wrecked remains of Princess Diana’s car in 1997. The ability to reach out and propagate a thought or fad or meme today is astounding. Blogs let us publish opinions and editorials, instantly. YouTube let’s upload movies…as long as they are not copyrighted… in minutes. I can produce and publish a design for a shirt in less time than it took for that balloon to crash into a field.

But, the joke could be on us. All of us who got sucked into the pseudo drama of Balloon Boy may have been taking for more than just a balloon ride. This could have been some Warholian attempt to get back into the spotlight. When asked by Wolf Blitzer why little Falcon didn’t come out when he was being called for, the kid didn’t answer. When his parents repeated the question, the six year old did what most kids do, say the wrong thing. “You guys said that, um [pause] we did this for the show.” What show, exactly? For show, meaning pretend? Then the kid gets sick, twice, during interviews on television, when asked the question, again.

Now, taking a day to digest all this, I watched the video of the “lift off” by the Heene family. After the balloon starts to float away, the father gets visibly upset, almost to the point of bad acting. Then, watching the Wolf Blitzer interview and hearing Falcon’s response, it almost seems like the kid was afraid to answer, like he forgot the preprogrammed response to that question. Asked about Falcon’s response, Richard says that Falcon was talking about a later moment when he was asked to recreate his climbing into the ceiling for the cameras.

As more and more comes out about this story, shock and awe turns to disbelief. The kids are allowed to swear and make rap videos? What about the report that the father asked his other son, Bradford, to take a ladder and get on the roof to look for the balloon’s heading. Then he states his fear that the kid could touch the high voltage supply inside. Was it 1.21 gigawatts of electricity?

As this all unfolds, you feel like this is some unscripted episode of The Office and Richard Heene is Michael Scott. Then the police hold their briefing today and the candor of the officer is just hysterical. I couldn’t hear all the questions being asked but at one point it sounded like a reporter asked him his personal take on the story and he responded, “I’ll tell you off record, perhaps over a toddy.”

And yet we watch and we watch and for 14 more minutes the world talks about Balloon Boy and his father Caractacus Potts. ABC is probably shuffling to find a spot in the schedule, so that they can rerun the episodes of Wife Swap featuring the Heenes. I’m sure the SNL is churning out specific bits for their live show on Saturday. I can see Bill Hader playing the beleaguered father while Fred Armisen plays the young Falcon. Robot Chicken could do an entire episode of bits with the balloon crashing into various Pop Culture clips like the aforementioned Star Wars interlude I spoke of or crashing into the balloon from the end of the Wizard of Oz after the Wizard breaks loose and even floating across the stage of the VMA’s in miniature as Kanye West halts the balloon’s progress long enough to say, “Im’ma let you finish, but Richard Branson has one of the best balloon videos of all time.”

See, we just can’t stop ourselves because our common sense is hiding somewhere in a box in the garage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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