First published in 2011 by OER // Reprinted with permission of author
I’ve been watching COPS.*
In an episode I saw recently, two of the three individuals arrested had a Bible in their possession. I see the Bible often in COPS. In a completely unscientific study I conducted over several years while eating Lean Cuisines on the couch and watching daytime reruns (oh, graduate school), I ascertained that a staggering 60 percent of COPS episodes include at least one peek at a bound copy of Our Lord’s Gospel. I suppose this number is not too surprising when one realizes that a 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. The Harper Book Catalog published in August 2007 that the annual expenditure for Bibles in America is about $425 million and that the average American household contains four Bibles. A good number of these Bibles have bit roles in the action of COPS. One suspect had been using his Bible as a lap table in the passenger seat of an SUV, breaking up big buds of stank chronic to roll a joint for he and his buddy as they cruised in their minivan around greater Fort Worth. Another suspect cut the middles out of the pages in his Bible and used it to conceal drugs. These appearances of the Bible in COPS are initially unremarkable, but they quickly become nauseating as the cop, without fail, launches into a cycle of holier-than-thou rhetorical questions: You gonna take this Bible to Church? What if Jesus saw you wrapping up a blunt on his Bible? What if your mother saw you doing dope on the Bible? Is this your momma’s Bible? Why don’t you crack this Bible open and read it once in awhile? In one instance, the cop actually cracks the Bible open to make his point and a number of previously undiscovered baggies of crack cocaine come tumbling out.
In these primary occurrences of the Bible in COPS, the implication of hypocrisy is obvious and the cop’s performance of moral superiority is an age-old cliché. In these moments there is nothing very genuine happening, the potheads don’t really have beef with the Bible, they are just too lazy to procure legit rolling papers or too indifferent in general. And the cops, with their questions, are at best performing for the camera and, at worst, thoughtlessly reinforcing the particular moral strategy (for dealing with existential guilt) on which they were raised.
In these moments the Bible is little more than a prop.
I am only really fascinated when the Bible shows up in COPS and it has absolutely nothing to do with the unfolding conflict for which the police have been summoned. No one is hiding pot in the Bible. No one is even aware of the Bible except, possibly, the one who records it. The cameraman. Ah, the cameraman.
Let me give you this example: I believe it was season 8 or 9—there were still a fair amount of mullets and the broadcast was definitely not HD.*
The cops were dispatched to a residence where an elderly woman was afraid someone was breaking into her home. Upon entering the home, the cops found her to be the owner of many birds and, most notably, some particularly gigantic parrots. While the cops swatted at the birds, the cameraman took a tour of the small house. He recorded caged birds, flying birds, birds rather pathetically trying to get airborne, birds scurrying along the floor, and a whole slew of gigantic parrots yapping away. He recorded a pile of empty cages and cages full of crap and the floor covered in crap. So much bird shit. And, more than once, he recorded, just at the edge of the frame, on the coffee table: an open Bible.
This Bible was not in a privileged position for the few moments it was in frame, but somehow it was the focus. Perhaps the Bible seemed highlighted because it was the single item on the table that was clean of parrot shit. But I recognized something familiar in the pattern of its appearance. The quick sideways movements of the camera. The camera was not panning. This was not a cinematic technique. This was something else: a glance.
And after a moment, the camera alights on the Bible a third time. And the Bible lingers in frame for almost two seconds.
Three glances, each a bit longer than the last. It made me nervous. It reeked of anxiety.
The cameraman was nervous, I thought.
This segment did not include any real sense of imminent danger. The tone was that of the many comic relief segments that often end an episode of COPS: a cat needs rescuing from a tree or a hooker tells a funny story about a one-legged john or an old person gets confused and mows the shag carpet of the living room. An old woman has too many birds. Sure, there is something innately unnerving about a bird lady and her house full of bird shit, but this does not seem reason enough to spook the kind of experienced and battle-hardened cameramen that COPS employs. The nervous glances were not, then, a result of any external threat, but were instead the manifestation of something welling up from inside the cameraman, something undoubtedly related to the very object that both attracts and repels him: the Bible, this object whose existence (or absence) in the life of the cameraman is so fraught that even the bulky, standard definition, mid-90s brute of a TV camera was able broadcast the subtle signs of his anxiety.
I guess this small moment in an otherwise forgettable episode of first decade COPS is intriguing—haunting!—for me because, in that moment, I felt a subliminal empathy with the unseen seer.*
First, I realized the presence of the unseen seer. Then, I had some sense of exactly what he felt and it was a feeling whose impetus and expressions seemed wholly outside the parameters of the television show. I do not expect, as an educated and discerning viewer, anything like sincerity or the experience of empathy from Reality TV. I understand that the premise of Reality TV is a claim (accurate or not) about the relative realness of the people and their relationships but not a claim about honesty or sincerity in the approach to or the experience of that content (this shit actually happened, despite how manufactured the scenario may have been vs. this is what it might genuinely be like to experience an experience spontaneously).
But if there were to be sincerity in Reality TV, it would have to be in the godfather of the genre, COPS. A show that was real before Reality and real (at least in the beginning) because it wasn’t about manufacturing scenarios in which something like real life could occur. The shitfree Bible seemed to evidence a truly organic and honest subjectivity—an organic expression of real experience (consciousness?)—that I had never noticed in the show before: the cameraman. I was so shaken by the incidental presence of the Good Book (the nervous glance), so obscenely stripped to the cold buff of existential anxiety that I made a desperate vow to understand the Bible’s presence in that specific moment (the motivations and levels of sincerity in the nervous glance) with hopes that I could learn to melt the particulars of my own subjectivity into organic subtleties I could broadcast in my work as true honesty.*
This is how I became interested in Bertram van Munster.
For seasons 1-9, the credit sequence of COPS lists Bertram van Munster as a producer and cameraman for the show. I had always noted his name in the credits—a solid vampire name. But when I saw that shitfree Bible in the bird lady’s house, I became interested in exactly who it was that chose to look at that Bible in the midst of that chaos and I began a search to identify the cameraman and I soon focused on Mr. van Munster as the most likely seer.
Mr. van Munster is often considered the field producer and primary cameraman responsible for developing the realistic cinematic techniques used in filming COPS.*
Was it merely a cinematic technique, Bertram, when you glanced at the Bible?
I know you better than to believe that.
I know you turn out the light only after you are in bed.
I know you bought a headboard so you could knock on wood as you fall asleep.
I know you never pray out loud.
I know you think everything is prayer: the sirens, the handcuffs, the drugs, the beat-up wives and babies, the blood, the syringe, the gun, the foot-chase, the fence, the fingerprints, the nightstick, the black eye, the missing kid, the angry man, the shattering sound, the bones!the bones!the bones!, the drunk girls, the speeding ticket, the burning rubber, the face blown off, the dumpster blow job, the gasoline and the fire!the fire!the fire!, the blow up and the burn, the last time anyone ever got out alive, the way you see it all on accident on purpose. I know you because I spent seasons 3-9 in your eyes, Mr. van Munster.
When I called Bertram van Munster, a woman answered and said, How did you get this number, after I’d said, Can Bertram answer a few questions about his relationship to the Bible? I’m not a salesman, I said, I’m just working through a crisis.*
She gave me the number of a CBS office and hung up, forgetting to even double check with me to see if I had the number correct. The person who answered at the office turned out to be an intern named Eugene, who I’d spoken to before (several times while trying to get Bertram’s number). Eugene was more than willing to spend an hour on the phone with me, discussing his views on the Bible.
Eugene did not really watch COPS and had never seen the episode with the miraculous shitfree Bible, though he agreed that such a Bible, in such a home, was a genuine miracle. He had grown up in a conservative Catholic home but had only recently announced to his parents that he was a gay man. He kept saying, I just announced I was a gay man. I assume the announcement part of that statement was gay and not man, because presumably his parents would have known his gender but one never really knows these days. The point: there was something important to Eugene (about Eugene) that he had to bury, had to hide, had to lie to himself about because the expression of that that thing was frowned upon by everyone around him. The Bible, he said, had kept him an outcast from his family for most of his life.
Eugene’s favorite TV shows are Amazing Race (because he sort of works for them) and True Blood, an HBO series about a culture of bloodsucking.
I asked Eugene, When was the last time you cracked open a Bible? He got defensive and said, What’s in it doesn’t matter, it’s how people wield it that causes problems.
Eugene’s parents had sent him to a number of Christian counselors during his early teen years when his sexual preferences became apparent. They called his burgeoning sexuality a conduct disorder resulting from his inability to emotionally connect with his father as a child. Eugene even quoted the scripture they’d often made him recite—1 Corinthians 6:9, Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind…. At this point Eugene began to sob. Not just a little sniffle holding back a tear or two, but an all out sob that I could tell, due to the background commotion, had been recognized even by his coworkers. I said, Corinthians was written by Paul. Most scholars agree Paul is full of shit.* To which Eugene responded, I thought you were inquiring about a shitfree Bible.
Haw Haw Haw.
Live long and prosper, Eugene.
I said goodbye to Eugene knowing that he had been brutally honest with me and that I had lied to him about who I was in order to get at Bertram (never mind that my reason for wanting Bertram was to understand sincerity). I felt bad.* It was time to heat up a Lean Cuisine and go back to square one.
In the very first episodes of COPS, broadcast in 1989, the show follows a single Sheriff’s Department in Broward County, Florida. The show’s original idea was to establish characters for the audience follow, cops-as-characters, both on and off the streets, a real-life Hill Street Blues (which first aired in 1981). So, in season one, episode two of COPS, we follow a female deputy as she roughs up a suspect (her hair in a tight braid) then, later in the evening, we follow her as she rides on a speedboat with her boyfriend (her hair now in the voluminous mane popular in those days). The romantic boat ride ends with her boyfriend proposing to her as the sun drops and hits the ocean and sets the whole scene aflame (the voluminous mane a monstrous silhouette against the fire).
The producers of season one were struggling to mold the show to the structure of a traditional network drama. Presumably we were meant to follow that one cop and her voluminous mane through marriage and childbirth and divorce and the shackling of a billion Florida rednecks and a few wayward crocs. But watching episodes from that first season makes me want to barf because it smacks of dishonesty. Bertram must have felt this too because by the conclusion of season one, we are no longer tethered to a single department or even a single country (season one ends with an episode in the former Soviet Union!) and the tripods have all apparently been burned because after season one, all the cameras are handheld and any characterization of cops is limited to a 15 second introduction as the cop (any old cop) rambles about his wife and kids and all the noble reasons for fighting crime, rambles just enough to prove he’s an average joe and then there is the squelch of the dispatcher outlining the criminal activity that will be the segment’s focus.
This is still the COPS formula today, but by now the show has become a victim of its own success. Bertram left after season nine and COPS slowly became a part of the Reality TV phenomenon that it had helped to instigate. In a season 21 reunion with the Broward County Sheriff’s Department (our intended heroes from Season 1), the deputies are all giant body builder dudes who have disposed of tan slacks in favor of camo pants. They look like mercenaries.*
These bulked up, over armed, mercenary cops know they are on TV and they act accordingly, not ever looking at the camera but always acting for it in a way that smacks of what we now recognize as Reality TV. And the cameramen are of such high caliber these days that they think (and record) only in technique. Gone are the days when we might see a boom mic operator dive into flaming squad car. The camera in post-Bertram COPS fosters and pretty successfully sustains the illusion that we are in the cops’ POV and only the cops’ POV (something that is maybe cool but obviously in no way real).
And so I think of seasons 2-9 as the golden age of COPS, when Bertram was the main character and he couldn’t help but be genuine about what he saw; even through the brute and bulky camera, the world was still enough unknown and Bertram was young and nervous and we (the audience) were fine with seeing his feet once in a while or his nervous glances and we loved the awkwardness of the cops around the camera because in those days, the golden age, we (the audience) still accepted that reality changes when you try to capture it.
At the end of the shitty birdhouse segment where I first notice the cameraman’s nervous glance, the cops conclude that a few rowdy neighborhood kids were throwing rocks at the crazy old bird woman’s house. They recommend the old lady consider getting rid of some her birds and the credits roll as the parrots squawk something incomprehensible and the cops walk off the property, one saying to other, You ever seen such a thing?
The shot of this particular exchange is from the front, with the cops walking toward their car and walking toward the camera. But the camera is also moving, and in such a way that I must assume that Bertram is walking backwards as he records. This is how I remember the segment ending. And to me it is a powerful ending; only a moment before we’d seen the genuine nervous glance and now Bertram is walking backwards, a way he would never walk without the camera—this walking backwards: a technique. Bertram van Munster, one foot behind the other, ushering us away from that nervous glance, ushering us finally out of sincerity and into Reality TV.
I’ve tried to find this episode many times online, but to no avail. Much of the golden age of COPS is not available online and is less and less often in syndications because of the profound explosion of imitators. I’ve searched and searched but this does not seem to have been an episode popular with the kind of people that post clips from golden age COPS on YouTube (most clips involve nudity or drugs or both and wildly fighting or fleeing the scene). But what I have discovered is the honesty of BabyBoy.
Babyboy is an African Grey Parrot.*
On YouTube his owner, shirlee500, has posted a video of Babyboy reciting Bible verses and singing the Bad Boys theme song to COPS, except BabyBoy changes the bad boys lyric for the more species appropriate lyric bad birds.*
He sings over and over…Bad birds, bad birds, whatcha gonna do, watcha gonna do when they come for you? The video is, by YouTube standards, a solid hit. It has over a quarter of a million views and hundreds of comments. Many of the comments come from earnest Christians praising the bird’s faith. A particularly long debate-by-comment deals with the issue of memorized vocalizations and whether or not BabyBoy is creepy because he doesn’t understand what he says. Others call his words pure and of the most genuine variety. I watch this video over and over for several days, analyzing the jerky movements of BabyBoy’s little bird head for the sort of honesty I’d seen in Bertram’s glance at the shitfree Bible. And, in fact, there is a palpable anxiety in BabyBoy, in all birds I guess, the near constant fidgeting and the way the movement is exaggerated (but quick) in the neck, nervous vigilance that is not so unlike Bertram’s glance at the shitfree Bible. But I’ve come to no definitive conclusion about the honesty of Babyboy.*
The voice is, undoubtedly, the most human of any parrot voice I’ve heard (complete with the Southern accent of his owner, shirlee500). He even prefaces the singing of the theme song with a partial recitation of John 3:16, a highly sophisticated choice of prologue, in my opinion. Yes, we can admit that he only knows these phrases, these songs, because shirlee500 walks around the house saying/singing them. But isn’t this how we all pick up language? There doesn’t seem to be anyone cueing BabyBoy in any of the videos so I have to assume the bird made some decision about linking the COPS song and Bible verse and maybe there is honesty in that (see note 9 for evidence that BabyBoy is intellectually capable of making decisions and note 11 for a discussion of the complexity of the decision that may or may not have been made by the bird). Or maybe the goddamn truth of it all is just that we are prone to go to great lengths searching for evidence of faith and meaning or at least some inkling that there is anything genuine in (or out) of this world.
Maybe Bertram van Munster has no special relationship to the Bible. Perhaps he was marketing to what he must have known was a largely Christian audience when he brought the Bible into frame. Maybe it’s not the Bible that matters but the fact the Bertram allowed himself the glance at all—breaking the illusion of the show and then, just as quickly, backpedaling into the illusion once more—the miserable illusion that reality is something we can capture with a camera if only the technique is good.
I think I’ve decided there is something genuine in BabyBoy’s words. I’m choosing to believe the parrot has something to say for himself, not as the result of any hard scientific evidence I’ve found but as a desperate leap of faith, a plea that it is possible to have something to say, something sincere and all your own, and if a parrot can do it then I can maybe do it too (no offense, BabyBoy). And thing is, this is the same desperate leap of faith I’m making with Bertram, the idea that as he revised his style some of his real—genuine— self must have slipped through, that the three quick successive movements that brought the shitfree Bible into frame were not some memorized vocalization of technique but a genuine nervous glance, a true acknowledgement of subjectivity, that in some way makes the show more real (and less Real). I guess I hope someday my real self will slip through, that you will catch my nervous glance as I wade through the shit. I hope that Reality is not something we can sustain or endure. I need, in this world of Reality techniques, to believe that BabyBoy daily visualizes himself perched on Jesus’ shoulder, singing as they stroll the golden roads inside the pearly gates. I need to believe that one day I will get Bertram on the phone and we will sob as he begins to recite scripture.