Our February quote comes from David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest. This passage (pp 834-836) calls on the TV series Cheers as a vehicle to express the intriguing concept of the figurant. Don Gately, former thief and Demerol addict turned AA counselor, is in the hospital with serious injuries which fuel the feverish wraith-visited dream below:
The wraith hefts the can absently and says age twenty-eight seems old enough for Gately to remember U.S. broadcast television’s old network situation comedies of the B.S. ’80s and ’90s, probably. Gately has to smile at the wraith’s cluelessness: Gately’s after all a fucking drug addict, and a drug addict’s second most meaningful relationship is always with his domestic entertainment unit, TV/VCR or HDTP. A drug addict’s maybe the only human species whose own personal vision has a Vertical Hold, for Christ’s sake, he thinks. And Gately, even in recovery, can still summon great verbatim chunks not only of drug-addicted adolescence’s ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Ren and Stimpy’ and ‘Oo Is ‘E When ‘E’s at ‘Ome’ and ‘Exposed Northerners’ but also the syndicated ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Hazel’ and ubiquitous ‘M*A*S*H’ he grew to monstrous childhood size in front of, and especially the hometown ensemble-casted ‘Cheers!,’ both the late-network version with the stacked brunette and the syndicated older ones with the titless blond, which Gately even after the switch over to InterLace and HDTP dissemination felt like he had a special personal relationship with ‘Cheers!,’ not only because everybody on the show always had a cold foamer in hand, just like in real life, but because Gately’s big childhood claim to recognition had been his eerie resemblance to the huge neckless simian-browed accountant Nom who more or less seemed to live at the bar, and was unkind but not cruel, and drank foamer after foamer without once hitting anybody’s Mom or pitching over sideways and passing out in vomit somebody else had to clean up, and who’d looked — right down to the massive square head and Neanderthal brow and paddle-sized thumbs — eerily like the child D. W. (‘Bim’) Gately, hulking and neckless and shy, riding his broom handle, Sir Osis of Thuliver. And the wraith on the heart monitor looks pensively down at Gately from upside-down and asks does Gately remember the myriad thespian extras on for example his beloved ‘Cheers!,’ not the center-stage Sam and Carla and Nom, but the nameless patrons always at tables, filling out the bar’s crowd, concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations: their faces would animate and mouths move realistically, but without sound; only the name-stars at the bar itself could audibilize. The wraith says these fractional actors, human scenery, could be seen (but not heard) in most pieces of filmed entertainment. And Gately remembers them, the extras in all public scenes, especially like bar and restaurant scenes, or rather remembers how he doesn’t quite remember them, how it never struck his addled mind as in fact surreal that their mouths moved but nothing emerged, and what a miserable fucking bottom-rung job that must be for an actor, to be sort of human furniture, figurants the wraith says they’re called, these surreally mute background presences whose presence really revealed that the camera, like any eye, has a perceptual corner, a triage of who’s important enough to be seen and heard v. just seen. A term from ballet, originally, figurant, the wraith explains. The wraith pushes his glasses up in the vaguely snivelling way of a kid that’s just got slapped around on the playground and says he personally spent the vast bulk of his own former animate life as pretty much a figurant, furniture at the periphery of the very eyes closest to him, it turned out, and that it’s one heck of a crummy way to try to live. Gately, whose increasing self-pity leaves little room or patience for anybody else’s self-pity, tries to lift his left hand and wiggle his pinkie to indicate the world’s smallest viola playing the theme from The Sorrow and the Pity, but even moving his left arm makes him almost faint. And either the wraith is saying or Gately is realizing that you can’t appreciate the dramatic pathos of a figurant until you realize how completely trapped and encaged he is in his mute peripheral status, because like say for example if one of ‘Cheers!’ ‘s bar’s figurants suddenly decided he couldn’t take it any more and stood up and started shouting and gesturing around wildly in a bid for attention and nonperipheral status on the show, Gately realizes, all that would happen is that one of the audibilizing ‘name’ stars of the show would bolt over from stage-center and apply restraints or the Heineken Maneuver or CPR, figuring the silent gesturing figurant was choking on a beer-nut or something, and that then the whole rest of that episode of ‘Cheers!’ would be about jokes about the name star’s life-saving heroics, or else his fuck-up in applying the Heineken Maneuver to somebody who wasn’t choking on a nut. No way for a figurant to win. No possible voice or focus for the encaged figurant. Gately speculates briefly about the suicide statistics for bottom-rung actors. The wraith disappears and then reappears in the chair by the bed’s railing, leaning forward with its chin on its hands on the railing in what Gately’s coming to regard as the classic tell-your-troubles-to-the-trauma-patient-that-can’t-interrupt-or-get-away position. The wraith says that he himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges, for Gately’s info to either believe or not, and but in the entertainments the wraith himself made, he says he goddamn bloody well made sure that either the whole entertainment was silent or else if it wasn’t silent that you could bloody well hear every single performer’s voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they were; and that it wasn’t just the self-conscious overlapping dialogue of a poseur like Schwulst or Altman, i.e. it wasn’t just the crafted imitation of aural chaos: it was real life’s real egalitarian babble of figurantless crowds, of the animate world’s real agora, the babble of crowds every member of which was the central and articulate protagonist of his own entertainment. It occurs to Gately he’s never had any sort of dream where somebody says anything like vast bulk, much less agora, which Gately interprets as a kind of expensive sweater. Which was why, the wraith is continuing, the complete unfiguranted egalitarian aural realism was why party-line entertainment-critics always complained that the wraith’s entertainments’ public-area scenes were always incredibly dull and self-conscious and irritating, that they could never hear the really meaningful central narrative conversations for all the unaltered babble of the peripheral crowd, which they assumed the babble(babel) was some self-conscious viewer-hostile heavy-art directorial pose, instead of radical realism.