Like most zombie Americans, I tend to zone out once tucked inside an elevator. For us introverted chaps, the slide of the closing doors can be like the lowering of eyelids to begin meditation, the cue to attend to the white noise within and without. Or, if one is in a more sociable frame of mind, it can be a bitsy opportunity for mindless chitchat in which the mouth forms words while the mind drifts elsewhere. Ideally, an elevator ride offers brief entry—a bracketed interval between points A and B—into what the authors Orvar Löfgren and Billy Ehn called “the secret world of doing nothing,” which served as the title for their engaging study of everyday ethnography (2010). It’s a tiny packet of “me time,” a momentary prelude when one waits like an actor in the wings before dispersing into the lobby or wandering around the hall trying to find the chiropodist’s office. But today no captive audience is safe from the info-and-advertising stream, the panel screens in so many modern elevators flashing news, weather, sports, stock-market updates, and photos of office views, which, unlike the intrusions in the backs of taxicabs, can’t be vanquished with an irritable jab of a thumb. In the Digital Age, not only does information want to be free, it insists on getting in your face. In the post-9/11 panopticon of security cams, viral Internet videos, and TMZ, not only is news being piped into the elevator, it’s exploding out of it and taking down careers with it. Nothing is safe from the Eye of Sauron, and 2014 was, among other things, the year of the elevator video.
Elevator videos are not a new genre of peekaboo. The boxily confined space—so suitable for controlled studies of strangers under certain stimuli, so conducive to micro-analysis of claustrophobia, panic, and group behavior—has been a perfect staging site for pranks and social-psychology tests, which have often overlapped. In 1962, the TV show Candid Camerapulled a classic stunt called “Face the Rear” in which it had actors standing in the wrong direction in an elevator, facing the back wall, then showed how an unsuspecting rider would step into the car and, after a momentary bafflement, turn and face the wall too rather than be out of sync with the others. The Candid Camera segment complemented the “Asch Conformity Experiments” performed by Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch, and the shocking obedience-to-authority experiments conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who had assisted Asch at Harvard. The result might be interpreted as a comic parable for the Age of Conformity, except that when a similar stunt was unscientifically staged in an elevator at the Juilliard School in 2013 on the ABC prime-time show Would You Fall for That? the first two subjects shown under surveillance turned and faced the rear rather than be the odd ones out. What lemmings we mortals be. The elevator-as-laboratory-theater took a gruesome turn in 2013 when the marketing agency Thinkmodo hired a pair of actors and faked a murder in progress to record the reactions of New Yorkers about to board the car. The video of this hoax went viral, or should I say venereal. The majority of elevator vids that go YouTube-crazy, however, are the strictly vérité ones, such as the nightmare incident that could have come from a Final Destination film in which a man found himself trapped in a malfunctioning elevator that rocketed up 30 floors in 15 seconds with the doors open and smashed into the roof; fortunately, unlike the ill-fated patsy in Final Destination 2, he survived. Harrowing as this was, it was a momentary blip compared with big elevator breakers of 2014.
In May, the elevator at the Standard hotel in New York was the site of an impromptu steel-cage grudge match between Jay Z, renowned rapper and husband of the Queen of the Milky Way, Beyoncé, and her sister, Solange Knowles, who wields a mean handbag in close quarters. The altercation took place on the night of the Met Museum’s Costume Institute Gala, which is traditionally a pressure-cooker occasion in Manhattan, a Tom Wolfe-ish spectacularama of fame, money, and social cachet as fraught with intrigue, status jockeying, and dueling décolletage as an opera ball in Balzac, and let no one tell you different. The animated tussle has been attributed to Jay Z’s expressed desire to exit solo to attend Rihanna’s after-party, and I think we can all agree that a Rihanna after-party would be a pretty kicky affair. Allegedly, Solange didn’t approve of Jay Z’s unilateral bugout and voiced her opinion with perhaps more vigor than the situation required, and before reason could prevail she was flailing at him with arms and legs like an angry windmill until a bodyguard enfolded her in a bear hug, as happens almost every day on Jerry Springer. Another speculative theory holds that Solange was incensed over Jay Z’s getting too chummy with designer Rachel Roy, but the source of the ignition spark really doesn’t matter. Considering the exalted position that Jay Z and Beyoncé hold in the entertainment firmament, it was as if Pippa Middleton lost it after some command performance and tried to lay some Tae Kwon Do on Prince William. The incident might have remained a private psychodrama had it not been for the leaking of the CCTV video to TMZ by a hotel employee, who was soon identified and fired. The fracas was spoofed everywhere from Saturday Night Live to the CMT Music Awards and predictably inspired a torn-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order: SVUand now is looked back upon almost fondly, a souvenir from the continuing saga that is the Jay-Bey Olympiad.
No comedy or melodrama was to be wrung from the episode in late August when the C.E.O. of the food-and-beverage corporation Centerplate, which services event venues and sports arenas across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, was caught mistreating a friend’s one-year-old Doberman pinscher puppy in a Vancouver elevator. I’ve watched the video only once, with one eye shut and the other squinting, because I find any depiction of the mistreatment of animals acutely upsetting, even in fiction films when we are assured in the final credits that no animals were harmed during the production. Rather than dwell on the unpleasant particulars, marvel at the speed of the viral vigilante outcry that led to the C.E.O. (whose name doesn’t need another airing) being forced to resign after social media went on the warpath and a Change.org petition calling for his firing racked up close to 200,000 signatures. Less than two minutes of elevator video lobbed onto the Internet and, poof, up in smoke went a career. Retribution is ours, sayeth the Internet.
And no one knows that better than Ray Rice, the former star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, who had a September to remember, for all the wrong reasons. Last February, Rice and his then fiancée, later wife, Janay Palmer, were arrested for assault and released following a fight at Revel Casino Hotel, in Atlantic City. A few days later TMZ showed a surveillance video of Rice dragging Palmer like a limp doll from the elevator, trying to haul her to her feet before letting her flop facedown while a security person moseys over. The assault charge against Palmer was dropped and the charge against Rice was raised to aggravated assault. The day after the indictment was issued Rice and Palmer were married. In May, in a decision that will not go down in the annals of Great Moments in Damage Control, the Ravens orchestrated a press conference where the somber newlyweds appeared side by side and made a public act of contrition for the harm and turmoil the incident had caused, though it was unclear to most onlookers what Palmer, the recipient of a knockout blow, needed to apologize for. The hollow sham of it all blew open when, in late July, N.F.L. commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for a measly two games, a punishment that everyone except the most rabid Ravens fans in their purple pajamas thought was a wrist slap. Yet the controversy might have trickled away, supplanted by some other football-related, police-blotter uproar (of which there is seldom a shortage), if, in September, TMZ hadn’t obtained and released the heretofore unseen Part One of the Ray Rice video, the prequel in the elevator that showed how Palmer had been forcibly put out of commission—with a punch that sent her flying backward into the railing, where she hit her head. Revel closed in September, another victim of Atlantic City’s ailing economy, and this video will be remembered as part of its melancholy legacy.
The most portentous elevator incident of 2014 involved a bit of disruptive behavior that could have been the lead-up to something far worse and, so far, hasn’t surfaced on video. Zeke J Miller, a political reporter for Time, documented what could have been a history-altering moment: “A private contractor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta boarded the presidential elevator on Sept. 16 and wouldn’t heed orders to stop photographing Obama. Agents pulled the man aside for questioning after Obama left the elevator, at which point the man’s supervisor fired him on the spot for his behavior. It was only then that officers discovered that the man, who [had been] arrested several times, was carrying a firearm, officials said.” If a presidential elevator isn’t secure, then even us peons had better never lower our attentive guard, especially in a gun-promiscuous culture like ours. Who knows who might step through the sliding doors next?