By David Wiegand

By David Wiegand

San Francisco -- I have watched it several times now, each time finding myself adopting a different point of view. First I watched it with horrified fascination. Next, it was almost as if I were wearing my TV critic's hat, taking note of the artificiality of the scene, analyzing the dialogue, rating the "performance."

Then I tried to imagine how his parents and family might react if they ever watched it, how irretrievably their grief would be compounded by seeing their son alive-- permanent past tense-- at a point when perhaps they or someone could have stopped him.

If only they had known.

If anyone had seen that video before Friday night, would they have taken it seriously? Would it have been too much of a performance to be credible, or is it only tragically credible now when he is beyond stopping, and beyond help?

Yes, it's sick to even think of Elliot Rodger's video as a performance, as if it occupies the same cultural territory as, say, Jon Hamm's Don Draper.

But force yourself beyond the initial revulsion you may feel at that notion and you may find it hard not to think of it as a performance. Was it rehearsed? Perhaps not word for word, not in the sense that an actor rehearses a role or a bridegroom rehearses his vows. But if rehearsal can be defined as whatever twisted mental process led Rodger to his killing spree in Isla Vista, his rambling oral manifesto of madness was "rehearsed."

By the third time I watched the video, I was hoping it might reveal something to help me make sense of a world where sociopaths act out their long-bottled detachment with random violence against people they don't even know. Of course, the question is always, "What made them do that?" And do they always plan to kill themselves as well? Certainly, even the most irrational mind cannot possibly believe you can kill six people in a sleepy California college town, or 13 people in a Colorado high school, and think somehow you'll survive it.

But I am being rational. Most of us looking at stories like this one are rational, which is why we can never understand the reasoning. Reason has nothing to do with it. Ever.

Elliot Rodger's video is disturbing, but not just for the obvious reason. There's also the setting. He's sitting behind the wheel of his car -- presumably the car he would drive Friday night, the car in which he'd take his own life. It seems to be near sunset or sunrise -- it's notable that the light at the start and end of the day is so much the same, except, for course, for the angle of origin.

There are palm trees in the background, serene and still, trees we associate with paradise and carelessness. We see an occasional car passing in the background, seeming to be in no particular hurry. There are joggers, too, far in the distance, completely unaware of what is -- what was -- happening in the car. Life is taking its usual course.

Defining identity

He starts casually, but it's a studied casualness. He's trying to be eloquent and focused. Occasionally, he interrupts himself with forced laughter, as if he's some kind of movie mega-villain. It's evidence of his decayed mental state, but it also speaks to something else, a kind of need to define his own identity on the basis of a manufactured self . A young man unable to understand himself or his place in the world creates a starring role for himself, a fantasy. Fantasy is so much part of contemporary life, in smaller, far more innocent ways. It's is a compelling force and refuge in human nature. We look to movies made during the Depression, for example, where the myth of overnight fame and sudden fortune drew thousands into theaters to forget their troubles and c'mon get happy.

With television, pathways to escapism became available in our own homes, at almost any hour of the day at first, and later, every hour of the day and night. The Internet only upped the possibilities to stratospheric levels.

We project our lives and fantasies, and perhaps even our identities, onto TV screens, movie screens, cell phones and computer screens. On one side of the world, Kim and Kanye get married in Florence instead of Versailles -- E! has the exclusive.

On the other side of the world, a young man tries to enact a character to represent the mess of anger, hatred and self-loathing that has clearly subsumed his identity.

If Nathanael West were alive to report on what happened in Santa Barbara Friday, he would need only to borrow from the finale of his masterpiece, "The Day of the Locust." Like his friend Scott Fitzgerald, West understood where our obsession with fantasy could lead us.

Even if Elliot Rodger weren't a child of the movie business, he was afflicted with, among many other things, the kind of 21st century narcissism that has permeated every level of American culture. It's not just the glut of TV shows feeding fairy tale dreams of fame, wealth and happily ever after marital perfection; on a far more mundane level, it's our obsession with recording every experience of our lives with a selfie.

I don't mean that the Videolicious of your day at the beach or your Instagram of your breakfast is in the same category as Rodger's twisted pre-rampage video. But we have become a nation that somehow needs to validate what we have done, where we've been and perhaps even who we are with a selfie.

Instant sharing

Back in the day, of course, people photographed themselves with Brownie cameras standing near the Grand Canyon. Kodachrome may have had those nice bright colors, but it still took a couple of days (and later, a couple of hours) to develop the photos. If you wanted to share them, you had reprints made from negatives. There was nothing "insta" about any of it.

Not so today's selfie. Moments of quotidian life, large and small, zip around the Internet like swarming insects, creating an nearly parallel universe.

We need to say we were there. We need to show we did this, or sang that, or danced this, or wore that. In a moment, we'll need to show we did something else. We pose. We make funny faces. We can't be Kim and Kanye, but we hold the cell phone up to our own faces as if checking ourselves in a mirror.


Elliot Rodger made a selfie. He posed. He spoke "dialogue." He wasn't standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but sitting behind the wheel of a BMW. As he spoke, he tried to project a sense of power and superiority, but he will never know how much he failed, that he would only come off, after the fact, as demented.

At that moment, he probably thought he'd succeeded at telling the world how wrong it was about him, how much it deserved what he would do, how justified he would be in doing what he would do.

Yes, Rodger's selfie did validate who he was, but in a way he never would have understood or even recognized.

It may be the saddest video ever made.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV