Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sacha, Can't You See Michael Jackson is Burning?: Too-Soon-Ness and Icon Exploitation

I'm not particularly interested in writing about Michael Jackson's death. My parents called me in a short game of phone hopscotch to let me know about it after my dad heard the news on the radio. My reaction was indifferent, I liked a lot of his material and am old enough to remember when he was still huge, but besides a recent look back at his material after seeing The Nostalgia Critic's episode on Moonwalker, I just don't think of him often enough anymore to really feel anything. I was honestly more upset about Farrah Fawcett dying.

That said, I find myself somewhat fascinated by the media reaction. I suspect that this is less a particular fascination as it is the first incident of this kind I've been aware of post-college (particularly post-media studies courses) and in a moment of semi-leisure where I could actually critically take it in.

There are two incidents that fascinate me. The first is rather typical of a pop-icon's death or really any iconic figure's death. I am of course talking about the immediate need to exploit that death. It becomes the fixation of the media, prioritizing it over almost any piece of news that might actually be relevant to the lives of readers and viewers. As in life, the person continues in death to be a free-for-all commodity to be traded and sold. This relationship between person and image is embedded in their very title as icon, a term which loses the person in the "pictorial representation" of the person when their "form suggests its meaning" and becomes something in itself. Calling someone an icon thus creates a separation of the figure--of their form--from the literal intimate person, who becomes a source of tension and instability (e.g. Jackon's image of being a great humanitarian who loves children being all but utterly obliterated by accusations of child molestation later in life) essentially till their death. At which point, the process of shaping their total life into the particularly lucrative product of narrative becomes virtually stable (the imposed form of narrative onto the total life is completed by a formal and definitive end of the story).

In the case of Michael Jackson we can see the perversion in icon commodity value not through the under reported events of relevant news (well... we could... but who reads anything beyond the front page anyway? ;) ), but through the comparative valuing of another iconic figure's death on the same day: Farrah Fawcett. I think Larry King made this about as apparent as it could be made with his tasteless comment on CNN Live while plugging his show for that evening. Originally planned to focus on Fawcett, he said, "this puts that story into the past" (skip to the 1:50 mark if you can't stand Larry King and just want to get to the point). What is so striking about it is the admission that Michael's death does not mean that Fawcett's focus will have to be dimmed down to accommodate two icons dying, but that it means Fawcett is officially a less valuable commodity. She is yesterday's news. The stock has officially plummeted for Fawcett icon sales in light of the sudden rise of Michael's.

At the same time that the media floods the market with products of the disembodied body, the icon husk of Michael Jackson, there is another phenomenon of restraint which can be witnessed. In the case of Jackson, we can see an example of too-soon-ness in the choice to omit a scene in Sacha Baron Cohen's new Movie Bruno where he gets a-hold of La Toya Jackson's Blackberry and tries to get Michael's number. Ain't it Cool News reporter "Beaks" provides an account of the scene:
Earlier this week, I saw BRUNO (Cohen's follow-up to BORAT directed by Larry Charles), and thought nothing of a scene in which the flamboyant Austrian talk show host interviewed La Toya Jackson while sitting on, um, Mexican furniture. As with most of the bits in BRUNO, it was in spectacularly bad taste. But while Cohen was definitely taking advantage of Ms. Jackson's shocking naiveté, it actually turned out to be one of the least cruel vignettes in the entire movie. And what is cruel about it really has nothing to do with La Toya. In fact, the highlight of the scene - where Bruno commandeers Jackson's Blackberry and attempts to relay her ultra-famous brother's phone number to his assistant (in German) - actually elicits a kinda cute response from the giggly La Toya.
Unless he is grossly downplaying the scene, it appears that it has little to do with Micheal at all beyond the phone number, in which case the too-soon-ness of the scene would appear to lie not in its making fun of a figure whose recent death places them in high sympathy which as a result would hurt the
Bruno's sales, but the more subtle case of simply addressing Micheal after the fact.

How do we reconcile these two acts? How is it acceptable to flood media with icon commodity and yet in poor taste to address the deceased?

A consistency does occur upon closer examination. The commoditizing media produce essentially two kinds of products: "Jackson is dead" and "Remember Jackson" (this second one of course branches into multiple subcategories from nostalgia to narration to reexamination of past narrative, among others quite possibly). What is apparently so inappropriate despite the chronology of the film to Jackson's death, is the illusion that Jackson is not dead in the present. Bruno is something new, and will be seen as something new, but it is a world of the past which exists unaware that it is a product comprised of the past. This tends to happen with any contemporary fiction (acknowledging of course the problems with calling Bruno fiction in the conventional sense) that is not date specific, a sort of space-time split where the fictionalized present is either an alternate universe or simply in the close future. As such, Bruno becomes out of joint with the current, like the long unseen friend who upon bumping into you in town asks about some mutual acquaintance unaware that they're deceased.

What is likely to become (if it hasn't yet) the classic example of this phenomenon is the digital removal of the twin towers from Sam Raimi's Spider-man. While the media was generally called on for its exploitation of the incident, it was essentially accepted that images of the towers being hit and collapsing could be shown over and over (and over) again, but the idea of showing the towers in some of the last films that captured them before the attacks as if they still existed was somehow too upsetting. It recalls to me the Freudian story of the father who dreams of his son burning so that he will not wake to the horror of him actually being dead and burning as it was reinterpreted by Lacan and introduced to me through Zizek:
Why do we dream? Freud’s answer is deceptively simple: the ultimate function of the dream is to enable the dreamer to stay asleep. This is usually interpreted as bearing on the kinds of dream we have when some external disturbance – noise, for example – threatens to wake us. In such a situation, the sleeper immediately begins to imagine a situation which incorporates this external stimulus and thereby is able to continue sleeping for a while longer; when the external stimulus becomes too strong, he finally wakes up. Are things really so straightforward? In another famous example from The Interpretation of Dreams, an exhausted father, whose young son has just died, falls asleep and dreams that the child is standing by his bed in flames, whispering the horrifying reproach: ‘Father, can’t you see I’m burning?’ Soon afterwards, the father wakes to discover that a fallen candle has set fire to his dead son’s shroud. He had smelled the smoke while asleep, and incorporated the image of his burning son into his dream to prolong his sleep. Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality.
To understand this theory that the dream of the boy is more terrifying than the actual death of the boy, we must note from the set up that the boy is already dead. The horror of the dream is the confrontation with the desire for the son, The World Trade Center, and now Michael Jackson (the element of the absurd in this statement does not escape me) to live. It is traumatic in that our desire cannot be fulfilled. Our dreams show us what we want but can never ever truly have. With are own anxieties of death, is the unbearable reality not the fear of non-existence but rather the horror that we don't want to cease existing but will anyway? That our underlying nature is in an inherent conflict with the real, which as a result reveals a fundamental riff in our sense, or rather our illusion, of control?

The films show us things that are no more and act as if they still are, and like the long unseen friend, we tell the screen that they aren't, but we wish they were. Of course, I doubt Sacha or Raimi were really thinking about this when either made their call, but does it not explain this inconsistency? How exploitation is met with cynical but nonetheless complacent disgust while the phenomenon of films like Bruno and Spider-man evoke a need for self-censorship? The exploitative supplements our desire for what can't be through the persistence of the disembodied body, the commoditized icon. As Elton John put it, "your candle burned out long ago/ your legend never will."


Blogger Edward Azad said...

I presume 'political correctness' is the rationale for the film edits you mentioned. Kind of a vague term in the contemporary context. Lately, it seems the only times political correctness becomes an issue is when someone is in a position to sue.

Now it's simple to understand why Jackson befriended similar reclusive people who had ugly experiences with the media (Liz Taylor probably had the one of the most unpleasant celebrity lives of anyone in history, at least according to my mother :/ ).

9:03 PM  

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