"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why We All Love People Magazine, Celebrities, Reality TV, And Trashy Novels

There is only one good thing about going to the periodontist – People magazine.  For the twenty minutes in the waiting room I can shamelessly and enthusiastically read about who’s wearing what, married to whom, pregnant, or on the way up.  Movie stars are glamorous, but also very much like us. Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson go grocery shopping, dress down, and try to keep the kids in tow. People gives us Hollywood beauty, glitz, and glamor and a peek into stars’ private lives. Movie stars need to be more beautiful, richer, and far more stylish than the rest of us, but we need to connect with them as well.  That’s the secret of People’s success.

Tom Cruise is looking his age.  Why don’t Sly and Arnold hang ‘em up? She’s pregnant again? That marriage is a big mistake. What ever made her choose that dress?.


An especially literate friend of mine read trashy novels on long flights. He confessed that ‘airplane reading’ was simply a cover for People magazine syndrome. According to popular wisdom, reading page-turning potboilers takes your mind off  tediously long trips and uncomfortable seats.  It passes the time. “No”, he said. “Most people read trashy novels on planes because they want to.”  IAD to SFO is the perfect time to forget the spreadsheets, law reviews, and Tolstoy and get deep into Maya Banks, Sylvia Day, Nora Roberts, or Andrew Peterson. .


But how can these travelers do it?  How can they switch so easily from serious writing to trash.  How can they read something like this:

He wrapped a long, thin finger around the sturdy handle of the shiny black receptacle. Slowly, he hoisted the ceramic vessel to his pale pink lips. The steaming liquid rolled acridly around his sensitive tongue, evoking an involuntary reaction to the South American beverage's bitter taste. The liquid was a stark black, reflecting the pale glow from the screen of his rectangular computer monitor. His concerned green eyes darted from one  letter to another, drinking in each word’s meaning as purposefully as he drank in his coffee.

instead of this:

From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Americans who have spent their days as lawyers, architects, and college professors, sit down in front of the television and watch crime shows, reality TV, and sitcoms. Their cultural taste buds go dead.  Their critical faculties pull up lame. They experience a willing suspension of critical appraisal and search for meaning. Whodunits are enough as long as long as the evidence can easily be traced to the killer. Cook-offs, snake pits, and Real Housewives are best. So are The Hills, Big Brother, and So You Think You Can Dance.

Rating agencies confirm that everybody watches reality TV – all income groups, ages, and occupations. For example a manly-man show like Ice Road Truckers brings in a high middle-aged man demographic and tons of commercials for booze, razors, and sporting equipment.

It doesn’t matter if you’re top dog at a law firm or you work weekends at a Wal-Mart, reality TV manages to hit just about every salary bracket, educational level, and gender (CableTV.com)

A close friend of mine grew up without television.  Her long childhood in France and adolescence on a Western ranch limited her exposure to American popular culture. For her there was never been an issue about airplane reading and literature. She turns on the TV only to stream Antonioni; and brings her own book to the hairdresser. She does not sniff at E! or Hollywood Life.  She is not a snob.  She simply has no interest. Dickens is the closest she has ever gotten to a potboiler.  The short stories of Mark Twain, John Cheever, and Somerset Maugham fit into thirty-minute time slots. There is nothing dutiful about reading Richard Ford or Dreiser.

For most of us, however, Hollywood, Las Vegas, reality TV and People are in our blood.  We live, breathe, and eat popular culture.  We are attuned to fashion, musical trends, language, and social media.  Some of us are immersed in the trendy and current. Others pick and choose; but all of us participate one way or another.  We know what glamor, ditz, and show are.  We know that they are low-brow and incidental, but we still need them.

Las Vegas is America’s heart and soul. Its glitz and fantasy are unalloyed. It is without pretention or artifice. No one goes there for meaning.

I have gone to the movies ever since I was 10.  I watched Saturday matinees, weekend double features and new releases at the Palace, Strand, and Embassy theatres.  I grew up on  Bogart, Hepburn, Grant, and Holden and the New Wave.  I watched Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables, William Holden in Picnic, and The Cranes Are Flying. I loved John Wayne and Last Year at Marienbad.

I know the complete dialogue of The Hustler and Sexy Beast by heart. I know all the movies Ben Kingsley has ever played in.  I watch anything Scarlett Johansson is in. I dream of Marilyn Monroe. I have seen Basic Instinct ten times just to see Sharon Stone.

I want to know how tall Tom Cruise is, who Amy Adams is seeing, and whether Werner Herzog has planned his next movie.

The French still bitch and moan about the Hollywood invasion.  The government subsidizes French-made films to keep the industry alive; but even then, Parisians give these movies wide berth and stand in line for American Sniper and Birdman. The French live in the most intellectualized country in Europe, famous for Derrida, Lacan, Sartre, Camus, and Liberation; but no matter how much the elitists at the Élysée protest, Les Theatres Gaumont sell more tickets to Hollywood B movies than they for all of French realism.

Bollywood out-produces Hollywood by far.  Bombay, Madras, and Hyderabad crank out more movies in one year than the Burbank studios do in five.  Bollywood stars are as big as those of the West Coast.

Hindu iconography has always been part of popular culture and is an inspiration for Bollywood movies and poster art. .

Bollywood movie billboards and posters are derived from religious imagery and add a characteristically Indian melodrama.

It often seems to a foreigner that all of India is Las Vegas.

It is hard to pry Indian movie viewers out of their seats even after 3-hour Bollywood marathons. They can never get enough and follow their movie stars in magazines like we do ours.

Marilyn Monroe

Popular culture is lowbrow.  It is venial and superficial. Its themes are stock and predictable – love, betrayal, deceit, greed, and murder.  Not Raskolnikov’s murder and guilt; nor Christine Mannon’s poisoning of her husband; nor the abandon of Anna Karenina; and certainly not the palace intrigues of Richard III.  We don’t go to the movies for understanding, insight, or meaning.  We go for the glamour, sex, and violence. Art movies are few and far between; and while Hollywood does produce its share of ‘serious’ films, most productions are mass-audience blockbusters.

The point is, we all succumb at one time or another to Hollywood, Las Vegas, and People magazine. We have all been Deadheads, groupies, and teeny boppers.

We read the Style Section of the paper but say we don’t. We share dirty gossip but don’t admit it. Except for a few Duke professors of Deconstructionism, the rest of us love showy smarm.  Even the most hard-bitten, take-no-prisoners Feminists and Environmental Activists sneak a peak at People at the dentist’s. It’s what makes us Americans.

The French have always said that America has no culture to call its own.  Unlike France which has a storied religious, intellectual, and cultural history that goes back to the Gauls, America has only money, Hollywood, and fast food. They are right.

While some of us persist in reading only Dostoevsky and Proust, most of us happily and willingly swim in warm and easy waters of girly fiction and action heroes.  It is no accident that our ‘culture’ is a big export items.  Everyone wants Hollywood, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Facebook, and The Gap.

This is nothing to be ashamed of.  More people are touched by romantic fiction than by Faulkner’s tortured souls. Our ‘venial, insipid, tasteless, and vapid’ culture sells and sells big.  Not only do we want it.  Everybody wants it. Even North Korea’s Kim family wants it.

Kim Jong Il maintained an extensive library of DVDs, estimated to number more than 20,000. He allegedly loved the Friday The 13th franchise and dabbled in directing movies for fun during his free time. Now, North Korea is run by Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong-un, and he really, really likes movies too (Cinema Blend)

Now that is saying something about American culture!

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