Monday, January 28, 2008

The Death Biz

As a nation we are in love with death.

Not our own deaths, of course, nor those of the people we hold dear. Death that is near to us we don’t particularly like. But other deaths, those of the famous, we love. We pretend not to like them, to be horrified by them or saddened, but the truth isn’t as easy as that.

When Princess Diana died we saw an outpouring of grief in the British that amazed us. We felt it too, of course. When a celebrity dies we always do. But the British had a long history of intensely mourning members of the royal family, and Diana was the most popular royal in centuries. Anger toward the royal family that had simmered for years combined with a very real affection for a very real princess, and was fueled by tabloid sensationalism, which was itself quickly blamed for her death. And the grief was immense. I remember someone being interviewed during that week saying “Can you imagine what will happen when Mother Theresa dies?” Then Mother Theresa died a day or two later and Calcutta exploded.

And then it was over.

Oh, there remain the icons, after a fashion. There are movies about Diana. She appears on a few mugs and t-shirts. Mother Theresa of course will have the greater memorial, as she will be canonized and her mission in Calcutta become a place of pilgrimage. But for the most part it’s over.

But look at America. Celebrity death in America is a big-time industry. With Heath Ledger’s death we should all be reminded of that. Already he’s appearing on lists of “dead before their time” actors. Soon we’ll see him on t-shirts with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. He’ll be photoshopped into that great poster by Gottfried Helnwein, wherein Bogart, Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have been cut and pasted into Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” (never mind that there are only four people in the original). He’ll have monuments to him in Hollywood and in the Village and maybe on the wall of the Chelsea Hotel (though they don’t have a plaque there for Sid and Nancy, and they really should). His face will stare out at us from t-shirt shops in the village, along with “Jimi, Janice, Jim, Jerry” and John Lennon (I don’t know why he wasn’t included with the other Js) in his New York City T-shirt (I love the T-shirt in a T-shirt thing). Laike Che Guevara, he’ll become a highly marketable commodity, and maybe even be tattooed somewhere on Mike Tyson.

I’m not saying the grief isn’t real. Most of my friends are in shock. They’re in a daze. Hanna has been distracted by it for days. The Hollywood grief is real too. Daniel Day Louis was so sad and moving when he broke down talking about it, and then again at the SAG awards. The still photo of Ledger, added to the end of the traditional memorial collage at the last minute, with no music underneath, was heartrending. The tribute at the Oscars (assuming they happen, and they should if for no other reason than the fact that Ledger is dead and it will give the academy a chance to honor him and try to make up for the shameless way they passed him over for the Oscar after Brokeback Mountain), will have time to be prepared. It will be well structured, pitiful and poignant in perfect button pushing Hollywood style. And then the mugs and key-chains can be printed and everybody can make a buck. (and Oscar will like reward him posthumously for the Joker next year).

Do I sound too cynical? Do I sound like I am being flip about people’s very real grief? I wrote the other day that Ledger’s death was James Dean huge, and it is. I cried. I’ve been bothered by it all week. I’ve seen people walking around in a daze and when I ask why they say “I’m just so sad about Heath.” The feelings are real, sure. But they were the same for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. And look at them now.

Dean is, of course, the closest comparison: both the most talented actors of their generations, both of them beautiful and young and vibrant, both serious about their craft and troubled by celebrity, and both of them dead in an instant, spreading shock throughout the world. When I heard Ledger had been found dead it hit me like a physical shock. I felt it like a blow, striking me in the chest and radiating pain throughout my whole body. I searched on line to find out if it was true and was momentarily relieved when Google News didn’t have it yet. But then it turned out to be real. I wasn’t alive for James Dean’s death, but I heard it was much the same minus Google. I’ve been to the spot where James Dean died. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, a lonely road between Atascadero and Bakersfield. There’s a beautiful eye-catching monument by a Japanese architect: a low, twisting wall of mirrored bricks built around the tree he crashed into. Right there in the middle of farm country. Dean’s death was monumental and ledger’s will be the same.

And we will continue to trade in it. We continue to build the memorials, print the t-shirts, sell the mugs, get the tattoos, and profit from the deaths of celebrities. I didn’t know Heath Ledger. But I did know how he made me feel. He had a powerful effect on a lot of people, myself included, and now his death is having a powerful effect too. We often *feel* we know celebrities because they provided us with emotions that are sometimes bigger and more powerful than those of the people we actually do know. It’s why we have mass hysteria at celebrity death (it’s also why we have stalkers). Heath was somebody like that. And there is profit to be made off of these deaths.

Barak Obama is profiting off sudden tragic death as well. For months the news media has been comparing him to the ultimate American icon of boomer angst, John F. Kennedy. Yesterday he was endorsed by JFK’s daughter Caroline. Today he will be endorsed by Ted Kennedy. It could be the thing that seals the nomination for him. Up until now I thought Hilary would win in the end, but now it looks otherwise.

Obama as the new JFK is great political theatre. He’s the second coming of the great Liberal martyr. He is young and handsome, moving and articulate, and most of all he’s inspiring. JFK himself was a mediocre president who usually gets a pass on having gotten us entwined in Viet Nam because of the shared tragedy everybody felt at his assassination. Had he not died his lasting legacy would not have been Camelot or the space program or the Peace Corps: it would have been Viet Nam and the Bay of Pigs. But we are a forgiving nation, and we will forgive almost anything in death (we even forgave Nixon in the end). But Kennedy was assassinated and became, like Lincoln, a Christ-like figure in the American mythos, especially for the liberals who make up the Democratic Party base.

Comparing Obama to Kennedy is great in another way. It immediately offsets the generational war he has waged against the elder half of the baby boomers. Technically, like your humble narrator, Obama is a boomer; but we are on the back end of the boom and weren’t actually involved in all that 60s revolution, so we can gleefully proclaim it time to pass the torch and leave behind the strident politics of the past. (Nobody, by the way, has accused Obama of ageism when he takes this line, yet it seems like the whole media universe has been willing to accuse Bill Clinton of engaging in racism for challenging Obama’s record). With the comparison to Kennedy all of that can be filed in the dustbin. Now Obama is no longer the anti-boomer candidate: he is truly one of them. He is the second coming of their messiah. And like a vendor hawking a John Lennon T-shirt, he is selling that memory to people who desperately want to relive the past. Cultural pain works that way. So he can be both the anti-boomer and the archetype boomer at the same time (JFK wasn’t a boomer, of course, but you get the point).

And it won’t stop there. Already, with his brilliant speaking style that morphs into Baptist preaching from time to time, Obama is garnering comparisons to the other great martyr of the 60s, Martin Luther King Jr. As a symbol of hope and of healing racial divisions, Obama could prove a more powerful figure than even Dr. King himself. What would it signal with regards to slavery, the civil rights era, the whole black/white history of violence and oppression in this country, if we could elect a black man president? There are black people who think there is no way “They” (the infamous “They” with a capital T) would let it happen. The Man will prevent it one way or another, because the Man has always kept the Brothers down. We could finally be rid of that paranoia with Obama. And then, who knows? Maybe if black people finally feel a part of this nation and stop feeling like the ever-oppressed victims of our American history (which they have every right to feel given what this nation did to them), maybe race will indeed become a thing of the past.

Of course, there is a downside to this whole thing. The only way Obama can truly become Kennedy or Dr. King is to be assassinated and to join them in the pantheon of martyrs. It would prove the paranoid right, that a black man could not be president. It would also elevate Obama to that mythical status occupied by the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King and Malcolm X (and Lincoln, but not McKinley for some reason). Then we could all weep and wail and mourn him. Riots would break out in the cities. The south-side of Chicago would burn. We would rend our garments and pull our hair and grieve, conservatives and liberals alike. Then the T-shirts would come and the coffee mugs, and we would buy them, and we would love him forever. Because we are in love with death.

God forbid.


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