`WHAT is a Max Headroom?'' A year and a half has passed since dear, dear Max arrived from England, yet the question can still be heard on the lips of parents and other obsolete types -- mostly at the pitch of a wail.
Those who have encountered another experiment in future-culture -- the new Coke -- may have seen Max, without quite realizing it, in one of that beverage's commercials. He is the flat-headed chap who looks like a Charles Addams character, lost on a bleak science-fiction cityscape -- one of those surreal scenes where motorcycles snarl and bonfires burn barbarically.
Why this should make a person thirst to buy a soft drink lies beyond ordinary logic -- but then, so does Max Headroom.
Max, first of all, is a Canadian actor named Matt Frewer, made up with latex mask and other devices to resemble a plastic doll from a flawed mold. By his own description, he has ``teeth like ironing boards'' and ``a forehead like Mt. Rushmore,'' topped by blond rubber hair. His voice is electronically filtered to a computer-gargle, producing weird vibratos, yodels, and mirthless yuk-yuks. Plastic clothes cover the top half of his body; you never see the lower half.
When he is not a Coca-Cola salesman, Max plays host to a program on Cinemax, consisting of interviews, music videos, mock travelogues -- all occurring, it seems, at the same time. Tina Turner may be interrupted in mid-warble to present a closeup of Max's head, posed sideways against a Norwegian fjord.
Lines turn into waves, then collapse. Visual designs squiggle into other visual designs, and swallow themselves up. Max is promoted as the first ``computer-generated personality,'' and the screen becomes his high-tech doodle pad.
On one level, Max can be taken as satire in the psychedelic tradition of ``Yellow Submarine'' and that other Max, Peter. But Max is at least as disturbing as amusing. Winks are always turning into leers. There is a tone of being very, very knowing -- without anything ever being known. The punk scent of pop-snobbery fills the air.
But the thing about Max Headroom that really chills goes well beyond the whimsies of his performance. He and his producers have carried television to a new extreme of short attention-span. Not a second passes but something blinks, something flips, something wriggles, something changes color -- all orchestrated to a series of sound effects. Stimulus treads upon stimulus until numbness sets in. Life becomes one long audio-visual non sequitur.
In the post-technological world of people and machines, the nightmare is not that machines will ``think'' like people but that people will ``feel'' like machines.
Max Headroom is a human being imitating a robot -- a reversal of the usual science-fiction convention, and a far scarier idea. As you sit before your screen, watching, you have to ask not only, ``What is a Max Headroom?'' but also, ``What does he make us?'' A Wednesday and Friday column