Miley Cyrus Syndrome

The end of Western Civilization may be at hand.  When a respected online news source follows an article about the latest actions taken by the Secretary of State with an explanation of why Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out so often, oblivion cannot be far away.  This manifestation of what we might call pop news is related to our society’s fascination with being fascinated.  The pursuit of piquancy apparently justifies squandering brain power on some truly absurd material.  What was once repugnant is now embraced for its very repugnance.    

     Cole Porter famously contended that “in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows anything goes,” but that’s not quite true.  Our craving for fascination requires us to be shocked, even by things that aren’t shocking.  The current drumbeat of Cyrus stories is hard evidence of our affection for the din and the draw of the old circus midway.  For now, this interest in the bizarre might as well be called Miley Cyrus Syndrome.

     The condition used to be associated with Janet Jackson, Mother of the Wardrobe Malfunction, in honor of her outrageous (and obviously staged) performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII.  Just as they are now, the people of that time were abuzz with chatter over the incident.  People were astonished by the unastonishing “event.”  And just as now, the “event” overshadowed real news stories. 

     You probably didn’t need Maria Puente’s recent USA Today article to tell you how many more people were interested in Miley during the days immediately following her bizarre teddy bear showstopper than they were in what was happening with Syria.  The explosive overseas conflict was no competition, even though – unlike the static Cyrus story – the Syria details changed significantly every other minute.

     This is far from the first time that an unsavory gyration – literal or figurative – has eclipsed matters of actual importance, setting the public mind temporarily afire.  Back in 1896 Thomas Edison outraged audiences with his short movie depicting a kiss between two Broadway actors, May Irwin and John Rice, who were recreating a moment from the play in they had starred, The Widow Jones.  One critic of the time declared that “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions . . . it is absolutely disgusting.”  Imagine what the reaction would have been if Edison had thrown dancing teddy bears into the scene.

      Miley is no match for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the movie comedian who attended a lavish multi-day party in September of 1921 and ended up in the Twilight Zone when a young reveler died and he was falsely accused of her murder.  Could Miley stand on the same stage with Mae West who rocked Broadway with a risqué play five years after the Arbuckle incident, and spent a week in jail on a charge of “corrupting the morals of youth”?  As entertainment fans know, Miss West went on to feed the public appetite for outrage on radio and in movies. Responding to public criticism, NBC banned her and the mention of her name from their stations.

      Can Miley compete with actress Jayne Mansfield who exploded the outrage meter in April of ’57 with the unthinkably low cut gown she wore to a Hollywood dinner party held for Sophia Loren?  The image of Mansfield leaning over the irritated Loren as she stopped by her table for a scene-stealing “Hi” is iconic.  Miley can bump and grind to whatever inadvisable level she chooses without ever touching that long ago moment.

     A been-there-done-that malaise unavoidably descends over the Cyrus saga when one remembers real Hollywood news stories.  When Ingrid Bergman, famous for playing a nun, threw her husband away for an Italian director, it was news.  When Lana Turner’s daughter fatally stabbed the actress’ gangster boyfriend it was news.  When A-list celebrity Frances Farmer was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Knickerbocker Hotel and subsequently placed in a psychiatric ward (no, Lindsey Lohan wasn’t the first wild one) that was news.  Miley Cyrus is not news.

     In 1975 Frank Sinatra, having retired, staged a comeback.  Puffy faced and paunchy, the former “Chairman of the Board” received some scathing reviews.  One critic roasted “Old Blue Eyes”, saying that “Tony Bennett out sings him; Mel Torme out swings him.”  Suffice it to say that Miley Cyrus was out sung and out swung long before her birth.  Judy Garland was an authentic troubled talent.  Miley Cyrus is, well, not Judy Garland.

     In the afterglow of her publicity grabbing teddy bear dance, Ms. Cyrus has favored the public with a “topless” Rolling Stone cover (Thank heaven the only thing exposed is her bad taste) and has even offered the bottoms of her feet to photographers, the right tattooed with “Rolling” and the left tattooed with “$tone.”  This is the stuff that overshadows stories about terrorism in Kenya or debates over health care. We don’t need to ask ourselves why because we know the answer.  For one thing, Miley is manageable while events in the nation and the world are not.  It’s more fun to shake our heads over aberrant celebrity behaviors than to bow our heads in disbelief over the real news. In addition, the American public has an appetite for the lurid.  The success of pulp fiction in the early 20th century is now the success of the so-called reality show. Larger-than-life characters engaging in unbelievable stunts against colorful backgrounds make appealing distractions.  Many enjoy a steam bath of scintillating specifics to lift them out of their otherwise mundane lives.  And finally, there is a strange bonding effect to sensational occurrences.  People either huddle together to giggle over the details or they gather to lament the latest evidence of Western Civilization’s fall.  Either way, whether to the positive or the negative, a sense of unity is provided.

     So the next time a celebrity starts figuratively “twercking” or a well-known politician sends unfortunate pictures to someone on his I-phone, remember there’s a national audience eagerly awaiting the details, no matter how redundant they may be.  As Anna Jameson has so perceptively pointed out, “Conversation may be compared to a lyre with seven chords – philosophy, art, poetry, love, scandal, and the weather.”  In our day, it looks like we’re down to scandal and the weather.


Batman v. Superman: The Inside Story

There is something which must be remembered before any rational discussion of Batman or Superman or Batman v. Superman can take place.  The real super heroes and their histories are to be found in that magical realm in which all reds are the same red, all blues are the same blue, and all greens are the same green: the comic books, preferably the Canon (the body of Superman/Batman comics ranging from the late ‘30’s to 1966).  The movies and the TV shows are only pale imitations. 

      Knowing this will help you in any conversation about what’s coming in the new Batman v. Superman movie.  Likewise, this knowledge will give you an edge in any consideration of whether or not the producers of the Batman/Superman project committed the atrocity of casting Ben Affleck as Batman simply to start a buzz.  It worked didn’t it?  It proves that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  Ask Miley Cyrus.

    If you haven’t been complaining about the Affleck casting choice, it’s because you understand that the Canon will stand no matter what.  If Batman can survive George Clooney and Michael Keaton, Mr. Affleck can do no harm.  If you haven’t been combing the net for word on what the film will be about, the reason is that you know the Canon.  While others scramble to learn plot details, you rest in calm awareness that the course was laid out in the Canon fifty-seven years ago.

      Batman experiences what he thinks is a dizzy spell while working in the Bat Cave.  He doesn’t think much of it, perhaps because the humidity down there is about one hundred and fifty percent and he’s needlessly wearing that heavy costume even though nobody can see him.  He doesn’t tell Robin about the incident, wishing to avoid silly health concerns.  On a routine patrol of the city that night, the dynamic duo stops a bank robbery.  When the thugs try to flatten the Caped Crusader with their getaway car, his body turns the vehicle into an accordion.  Batman has inexplicably gained super powers. We wonder what happened during that dizzy spell.

     This astounding surge of strength sets the stage for a titanic clash.  Batman couldn’t go against the Man of Steel without picking up some extraordinary new traits.  You’ve probably heard people arguing from time to time about who would win a fight between Batman and Superman.  Although the argument is as sensible as debating how the Hulk would fare against the Flash in a track competition, I suppose it’s more fun than talking about how close the U.S. is to the start of a third world war in the Middle East.  Those who favor Batman to triumph over Superman refer to the Caped Crusader’s astounding resourcefulness.  Those who believe that Superman would win refer to . . . well, the obvious.

     Back to our story, Batman’s sudden acquisition of super powers puts him into direct competition – and then into dark conflict – with Superman.  The two battle over the best ways of addressing the crises that normally only Superman can handle.  Soon, the two are throwing each other through stone walls, throwing huge boulders at each other, beating each other with gigantic uprooted trees, and blaming each other for the collateral damage. Robin tries in vain to stop the super standoff. 

     Finally, the Boy Wonder is sucked up into space on a tractor beam.  He soon finds himself in the lair of two alien gamesters who have found a unique way of resolving their own Batman v. Superman argument.  They explain that they are behind the dire duel taking place down on Earth.  Using their sophisticated technology, they beamed Batman and Superman up to their lab where they infused the cowled crime fighter with all of Superman’s abilities.  Next, they put them under a hate ray to insure combat on their return home.  As a final touch, they ran the pair under an amnesia ray, wiping out any memory of the experience.  The aliens never explain how they kept Superman from rolling them up into basketballs and using them to smash up their work shop. One of the sacred laws of comic reading is that skepticism is not allowed between the covers.  You just don’t question.

     Before the gamesters can do anything to Robin whom they have kidnapped to prevent him from interfering in the ferocious feud below, the aliens hear the big boss of their planet stomping down the corridor, calling to them about how he hopes they haven’t been screwing with other planets again.  Panicked, they beam back Robin who arrives just in time to see Batman lose his powers and regain his friendship with Superman.  Apparently, the big boss caught the gamesters and made them turn off the ray that was keeping everything in motion.        

     This isn’t fan fiction; this is the real thing, the way it actually happened back in 1956.  Want an alternative scenario?  How about the amazing Composite Superman?  It also comes from ’56.  Another alien inserts himself into the Batman/Superman story line by visiting Earth.  He admires both heroes so much that he uses his chameleon capacities to turn himself into a half Batman and half Superman to combat crime on his home planet.  Eight years later, the DC writers used the same idea in a story about an embittered custodian who is struck by lightning during his night shift at the Superman museum.  When the jolt occurs, he’s standing near a display of small statuettes depicting various super friends of the Man of Steel.  Naturally – This seems natural only if you’re a comic book reader – the custodian is immediately endowed with all the super powers of all the super heroes (yeah, from statuettes – remember, the no skepticism rule).  From there, the only sensible thing to do is turn himself into a half Batman-half Superman and start taking over the world.   This is the historical record in the Batman/Superman universe; the movies, as we know, are only fiction.

     And the cinematic versions of our heroes are poor fiction at that.  Even when the casting is deemed good, the portrayals create different entities from the comic book originals (Sorry, graphic fiction originals for those under thirty). Take Christian Bale as Batman.  I doubt the real Batman’s voice made him sound like a late-night telephone stalker. Neither did Heath Ledger’s darkly psychotic, scarecrow Joker bear a resemblance to the real thing. It’s practically illegal to criticize the late Ledger’s performance, but he did not project the fun-loving bad-boy Joker we first knew.  And as reverently remembered as the Christopher Reeve Superman is, he was really an affectionate cartoon of the real Superman.  By the time we get down to Ben Affleck as Batman, I have to say no; Ben Affleck for Jimmy Olsen – maybe.   In the real world of the comics, the one in which most men have strange blue highlights in their black hair, the current chatter about the plot of Batman v. Superman is irrelevant.  As the tired saying goes, we’ve been there and done that – generations ago – probably better than it will be done on film.

The Greatest Gatsby (Tender is the Sight)

This is for those lovers of the art of language who feel disappointed whenever a favorite novel comes to the screen.  The book-to-movie business has a history that is largely a Hall of Shame.  Think about it.  Did readers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels recognize their hero in any of the movies after the first few?  I still feel uncomfortable thinking about Roger Moore, his skin becoming leathery with age, struggling to simulate a character he had grown too old to play. And what Hollywood did to the classic horror novels is, well, horrible.  Did Bram Stoker ever imagine his Transylvanian vampire starring in Billy the Kid v. Dracula?  Would Mary Shelley have published her novel about monster-making if she had foreseen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? And don’t tell me Robert Louis Stevenson would have been pleased with his classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde morphing into The Nutty Professor. (And yes, Stevenson’s dualistic protagonist was forced to have his own meeting with A&C as well!).

Like these writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald has often suffered in the translation from print to film.  Anyone who sat through Benjamin Button knows what I mean.  When news of the latest version of The Great Gatsby reached me, I was not hopeful.  I put off going to see it, fearing the seemingly inevitable disappointment. Just as you know the story doesn’t end well, viewing the story made into a movie has never ended well either.  The first attempt at a Gatsby movie was made in the 1940’s and starred the then-hot young actor Alan Ladd.  I’ve never seen this one, and no one I know has ever seen it.  The comments I’ve read about it haven’t exactly inspired me to dig it up either.  The second Gatsby movie was made about thirty years later with Robert Redford in the title role. One of the problems with the 70’s Gatsby is that Robert Redford was too cool.  There was no way he could capture the awkwardness of a man who didn’t belong.  Redford just put on his white linen and went through the motions. 

When I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio was the third cinema Gatsby, I cringed.   I had never forgiven Mr. D. for certain violations of dramatic decency.  The scene in Titanic when DiCaprio is being chased with his girlfriend through the ship by men who are trying to kill him, and stops for a romantic interlude in a car is almost satirical.  And the forays into biography when DiCaprio attempted to pass himself off as Howard Hughes and then J. Edgar Hoover had all the realism of boys playing super heroes in the backyard.

So I went to the latest version of Gatsby, expecting to shake my head and utter a few tsk tsks on behalf of Mr. Fitzgerald. Maybe I felt there was nothing left to lose.  A few days earlier I had endured the relentless road rage of Fast and Furious VI.  After that anything would seem worthwhile.  (On this note, I have a gripe with Rotten Tomatoes which gave Furious a 70+ and Gatsby only a 50.  If these numbers are correct, there is little hope for our country’s future.)  But Gatsby III denied me the privilege of cynical dismissal.

 Like Fitzgerald’s writing, this film is a thing of beauty.  In fact, its beauty is derived from Fitzgerald’s writing.  The actual words of the novel glide across the screen, allowing the viewer to see as well as hear them.  And there is a cinematic majesty to this feature.  At last, a book-based movie acknowledges its debt to the words, in this case some of the most beautiful ever assembled.

Something else comes through in this version.  The partying crowds and their music are not a simple merriment; they constitute a vortex of irresistible intensity.  We can now feel the power of what drew Fitzgerald and his wife into the life of mad revelry that ruined them.  This isn’t a series of parties; it is one big bash that doesn’t take no for an answer.  It is a monster concealed in violent torrents of confetti and restless rivers of champagne.  Poe would have found his “Masque of the Red Death” here.

Against my will, I was drawn in by the introductory scenes.  Tobey Maguire easily established himself as the definitive Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and Carey Mulligan brought Daisy to life in all her superficial splendor, careless and fragile.   

When DiCaprio’s Gatsby first appeared, calling everyone “Old Sport,” in an awkward, artificial dialect, I winced at first. 

Yes, it’s in the book, but nobody can get away with calling anyone that and making it sound anything like natural.  Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, the only two men who might have pulled it off, never even tried.  But then I understood that the awkwardness is the point.  Gatsby isn’t supposed to sound natural; he’s supposed to be a misfit.  Gatsby is playing a role; he isn’t the old-money sophisticate he’s pretending to be.  DiCaprio, I am forced to admit, plays the part as though he’s been prepping for it all his life.  He and his fellow actors make these characters accessible to the audience.  We can recognize aspects of ourselves and people we know. 

And that is the charm of this movie.  It captures Fitzgerald’s sense of vulnerability.  All the key players are vulnerable on some level.  As the story plays out, you can see how vulnerable Fitzgerald was, how much he was Gatsby, living it up in realms where he never felt he quite belonged, ultimately being kicked to the curb by his glamorous fellow travelers.  That’s what gives this story its universality, and Gatsby III captures it all perfectly.  My apologies to Mr. DiCaprio; I’m willing to forget about Howard Hughes, and when you’re running through a ship as big as Titanic, maybe you have a right to take a breather.