Tuesday, July 17

Where There's Smoke

Virginia Heffernan, "The Beautiful People, the Uglier the Better." Sunday Times

WHEN I was a boy, back in the reign of Charles the Bald, the Sunday Indianapolis Star included two Sunday magazines (nowadays if you forget to fold your breakfast napkin before you put it on the table you're in danger of losing the whole paper) one local, one national. I forget the name of the latter; at some point it was replaced by Parade, before the Star became a Gannett paper, but the MO then was identical to today's: celebrity fluff, recipes, low-cal articles, the difference being that back then those things didn't dominate the other six days of the week.

But if the name is lost, one piece has stuck with me forever. It was a short no-thinker about Len Berry, who, at the time, had a Top 40 hit with "I-2-3". Berry was a sort of past-the-expiration-date Bobby Rydell who'd made it just in time to get wiped out by the British Invasion (Wikipedia describes him as "a blue-eyed soul singer", but "a blue-eyed Chris Montez" is more like it.) Anyway, there was the usual Q&A, during which he was asked about those long-haired Limeys. And I've never forgotten his reply. It's rare when an adult says something stupid enough to make a ten-year-old blanch. "I don't like long-hair when it's done just for shock value, like The Beatles, but I don't mind it on really talented people like Freddy and the Dreamers."

I was, at the time, smack dab in the middle of the Freddy and the Dreamers target demo--the 9-to-11 year old with no discretion and fifty cents for a record--and even I realized how stupid that was.

And so we come to our semi-annual meeting with New York Times television critic Virginia Heffernan, who we suspect doesn't mind long hair on talented songwriters like Neil Peart, and who was last seen in these parts turning a supposed review of Josh Karp's book about Doug Kenney into Nancy Reagan's revenge. This was the piece that tried to sell us on the idea that it was P.J. O'Rourke and not the co-founder of the National Lampoon and scriptwriter of Animal House and Caddyshack who changed comedy forever in the 1970s. Do the Freddy!

This week, Heffernan wants us to consider the poor abused celebrity:
Celebrity magazines that in earlier incarnations used to peddle a fantasy of loveliness now traffic in dismantling that same fantasy. In collusion with ever more Johnny-on-the-spot Web sites, tabloids have invited viewers first to evaluate photos of celebrities for evidence of normalcy (Stars: they’re just like us!) and now for evidence of monstrosity. ( Nicole Richie : pregnant at 85 pounds and loaded on 73,000 pills!)

Certain celebrities lend themselves especially well to the new form of high-resolution scrutiny. Displaying weight loss and gain, unstable pigmentation, shadowy pregnancies, ocular dilations and erratic body language, figures like Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears have become favored specimens, inviting analysis and, like little Mona Lisas — repaying those who are willing to look and look and look.

Okay, a few questions to start off with. 1) I realize that as a former staffer, Heffernan is fully accredited in the Slate Counter-Anti-Reverse-Contrived-Contrarian Contrianess technique. At what point does that simply fold back on itself and become just another regurgitation of the zeitgeist? (My suggestion: five years ago.) Am I supposed to be fooled into believing that Heffernan has discovered a new phenomenon, or a new insight into an existing one, or that she herself imagines she has (the last is problematical, as we shall see.)? 2) How long is this "meanwhile on the wild-and-wooly, speed-of-light internets thing" going to play? A guess is that I'm roughly twice her age, and that she is still younger than I was the first time I had a computer to call my own, yet she's still astonished by tabloid web sites and their 24-hour digital rowdiness? 3) And shouldn't that go double for the "Look, somebody left a nasty comment at one of those sites!" which she indulges in three paragraphs later? 4) "Celebrity magazines" may once have offered pure PR puffery, but Daily GraphiC and the later Confidential were as chock-a-bloc with tabloid nastiness, if less explicit, as anything today , and any celebrity who got on the wrong side of Walter Winchell or Louella Parsons was in more trouble than Lindsay Lohan at a gymkhana. Is Heffernan exempt from knowing about the Blacklist? Or that Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman were driven out of the country largely by celebrity columnists?
It’s almost hard to remember now, but the old frustration of entertainment news was that celebrities made almost no false moves: a phalanx of publicists and stylists monitored them so closely that they always seemed composed, styled, scripted and (in the bygone idiom) “airbrushed.”

Only five years ago I remember watching a taped David Frost interview with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in which everyone smoked, appeared drunk and insulted one another. I was sure nothing like that would appear on any screen ever again.

It's almost hard to remember now, especially if you don't remember it, and your evidence comes from reruns you saw five years ago (everyone smoked! no one ate a bug!). Fatty Arbuckle? Wallace Reid? Francis Farmer? Paul Robeson? Should any of these ring a bell with people born after 1970? Should they skirt the attention of the New York Times television columnist? But Heffernan would rather tell the story of our decreasing civility thanks to The Internets, and, presumably, her editors would rather tell that tale than risk accuracy, and the whole thing has to be wrapped in Here's a New! Trend! You'll Want!
Us Weekly and its copycats quickly reinvented celebrity photography, eschewing production stills and party pictures in favor of snapshots. But they didn’t only go for red-carpet fashion photos, or the gotchas that come along once in a lifetime: Gary Hart with Donna Rice, Kate Moss with cocaine. Instead they focused on the mundane: stars in supermarkets, dog parks, parking lots. In all that natural light they looked indistinct, sometimes homely. At first I thought, who cares? But then the magazines taught me to care, and mistake the new unkempt images for intimacy, if intimacy is something I might achieve by rooming with a celebrity at a mental hospital.

What the hell happened that Us became required reading, let alone the Young Professional's Compendium of Life Lessons? Is it not the easiest thing in the world not to read Us? Granted, an unpleasant amount of celeb blather gets through no matter what you do to avoid it. This is something which should be taken up with, among others, the New York Times. Or Keith Olbermann, the source of nearly everything I know about Heffernan's trio of fabulously rich Unfortunates. I've never found myself digitally dragged to Perez Hilton's site against my will. Maybe Heffernan was forced by the condition of her employment. Maybe there's a 12-Step Program for people who will never get over Brad and Jen's breakup. I hope it includes high fences:
Weakly I have hoped reading portraits in this way might strengthen some evolutionary skill, the way gossiping is said to make you better at forging allegiances.

Sure you have. We appreciate the struggle.
One possibility presented itself last summer when I spoke to a lawyer I met on a “Lonelygirl15” message board. He and I were both obsessed with figuring out whether she was an actress or an ordinary girl.

And that was something which took a lawyer and a reporter more than, oh, thirty seconds?
“What do you do with your time when you’re not studying Web images?” I asked him in an e-mail message.

“I usually stick to stuff like Rathergate or the doctored Reuters photographs,” he wrote back, referring first to the bloggers who questioned documents cited by Dan Rather about President Bush’s National Guard service, and then to a well-known falsified news picture. “But this is fascinating.”

Okay, the unconscious pull of this little faux reveal had to be what got me to read the whole piece. And I'm still not sure whether Heffernan was fully aware of it, or whether she's trying to send cryptic messages to some Randian underground she's heard tell of. At any rate, it's obvious she imagines that lawyer + Rathergate + Reuters contrast adjusting = serious-minded individual whose stature speaks well--facts are so contrarian!--of the Internet Age pastime of celebrity nipple-slip reconnaissance.

I don't think that celebrity fixations are necessarily a bad thing. I think the real problem today is the public's atrocious record of celebrity selection. If there's a connection between Reutersgate and second-hard celebrity stalking isn't in technological advancements in digital enhancement. It's in the (phony) assumption of "Normality". This was the thing about the charms of The Simple Life that escaped me. You're watching a show whose concept is the delicious frisson between a couple of cosseted no-nothings and "real" people. But the supposed point of your viewing--your shared "normality"--is annihilated by the fact that you're spending time watching socialites. Who was the sucker there, exactly? By the same token, you have people born fifty years after the death of Eugène Atget who have suddenly discovered that you can adjust the contrast of a photograph! Or that a news organization might do so to accentuate the point of the picture! As with Rathergate, it's not a question of truth-seeking Internet obsessives dispassionately unearthing arcane mysteries; it's a text lesson in how easily scientism can be made to sound like science if you generate enough background noise. In this, too, there's nothing new, unless you still find the concept of digital photography shocking. When seeing is believing, instead of vice-versa, then you'll have a story.


Woodrowfan said...

Unless you are at least 70 years old being surprised by something said on the internet now is like being surprised by the existance of cell phones.

Scott C. said...

“I usually stick to stuff like Rathergate or the doctored Reuters photographs,” he wrote back.

If I suddenly realized that I'd been flirting online with Hindrocket from Powerline, the last thing I'd do would be to confess it in the pages of New York Times.

D. Sidhe said...

who we suspect doesn't mind long hair on talented songwriters like Neil Peart

Can we get a rimshot here? (Yes, I know it's a sting. Your point being?)

roy said...

Heffernan is such an obvious hack that you almost made me feel sorry for her, till I remembered how obscenely rewarded she is for stroking the prejudices of her target demo.

I find it nearly impossible to believe, based on the soporific quality of her prose, that Heffernan has any strong feelings about her subject matter at all but for its usefulness as a way of keeping her in front of a premium readership and paid accordingly. (But I work as a copywriter, and such cynicism comes as naturally to me as night sweats.)

Still, it may be that the internet morons who haunt my reverie are equally insincere, and only seem possessed by their subjects because they are better at faking it than she is.

All I can say for sure is that lifestyle reportage looks to be a grim business that I am well out of.

stAllio! said...

what a reveal! not only does the lawyer's answer reveal him to be an obsessive wingnut, but, when she asks him what he does when "not studying Web images" and his answer is basically that he spends all his time studying web images!

Robin said...

I thought that the story was going to look at the violent, angry "How dare that bitch age/get fat/not wear make-up/otherwise not excite me 24 hrs a day!?" comments that are so popular on the Interwebs. I was looking forward to reading something thoughtful about them. They really are amazing to me. I'd like to hear the authors of that stuff explain their thinking. Hefferman's time management challenges? Not so much.