1) An Opening That Begins With Zoolander and Proceeds to King Lear via the Car-Wash Video
I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated by catch phrases and what it says about us when one of them catches on. I’m having a drink with an editor before going to the book party for Still Holding , Bruce Wagner’s deeply disturbing new novel (part of his cell-phone catch-phrase trilogy, which also includes I’m Losing You and I’ll Let You Go ), and for some reason we got to trading catch phrases from Zoolander .
I could be wrong, but I think the number of Zoolander aficionados out there is approaching the critical mass required to tip it over from stupid guilty pleasure to Spinal Tap –like cult status. It plays enough on cable, and it’s one of those comedies that grows on you. Not as good as Spinal Tap (really, what is?), but up there with Waiting for Guffman .
Anyway, as I recall, she threw down the tragicomic “orange mocha frappuccino” fatal gasoline male-model immolation fight, with the idiot Wham! song on the soundtrack (you had to be there), and I came back with the super-groovy loft-scene moment when Owen Wilson asks some spacey stunner: “Ennui, could you get us some of that tea [we] drank when we were free-climbing the Mayan ruins?” (Could somebody please make a movie starring the woman who played Ennui?)
At which point, the editor came back with the genius apes-and-iMac riff on Kubrick’s 2001 . I tried to up the ante with what has become my all-time super-fave Zoolander catch phrase. It’s the one delivered by Evil Fashion Guru Mugatu, Will Ferrell’s great role.
It’s the moment when Mugatu denounces Derek Zoolander, the moronic male model (played with steel-jawed stupidity by Ben Stiller) who’s become famous for his signature “Looks”: “Blue Steel,” “Le Tigre” and “Ferrari.” The embittered Mugatu cries out with helpless rage, “They’re the same face ! Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills !”
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills …. I don’t know whether it was a subsurface catch phrase before Will Ferrell uttered it (the movie was released in September 2001) and he just propelled it into mainstream popular consciousness, or whether he (or the screenwriters) invented it, but it seems like it’s a phrase that’s found its moment: 3,400 Google entries so far, with variations like “Are you on crazy pills?” and “What am I, on crazy pills?”
I guess it’s not hard to figure out why this moment in history precipitated “crazy pills” into pop argot. Certainly it had something to do with the way Will Ferrell did it so perfectly, while faintly mocking it at the same time. But these last two years have been a kind of Bad Dream-History on crazy pills, you might say. So the timing was right.
And such “verbal icons”-as they used to call them in the Yale English Department (where the catch phrase “verbal icon” was invented)-as “crazy pills” don’t get propelled into popular linguistic consciousness unless they strike a chord, expressing or echoing something deeply felt in the collective unconscious in some new way.
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills …. It’s that feeling you get when everyone around you seems to have willingly bought into something that seems like a mass delusion to you. (For me, Seinfeld was an example-and, more recently, Lord of the Rings .) In effect, what it’s really saying, obviously (or “obvs”-catch word of the guy on whatevs.org), is that everyone else is on “crazy pills.”
Anyway, forgive the long wind-up, but I just want to say that in the past few weeks, when I’m watching the way pseudo-events like the Dean “scream” and “the breast” become somehow real events by having real-world consequences, I want to say, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.” The insanely disproportionate reaction to those pieces of videotape is crazy-making. My fave example of media hypocrisy on the question was the Dateline show that featured an in-depth analysis of the Janet Jackson breast-baring, with all the simulacrum of solemnity a TV magazine show can muster (the greatness of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is in the dead-on parody of TV magazine solemnity they do). Dateline then followed that segment later in the program with some pathetic “exclusive” about what? The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue! Complete with acres more of partially, subtly, obliquely, coyly exposed breasts than just the one oh-so-terrifyingly bared at the Super Bowl.
Am I on crazy pills? It seems to me the real scandal was that MTV, the allegedly hip music network, had Janet and Justin on the half-time show in the first place. Really thinking outside the box. Why not be really daring and get Donny and Marie?
But I’ve veered off-course here. What I’m trying to get at is the other piece of videotape shot on Super Sunday. The one that exposed something more than skin-deep, some ugly abscess in the human heart below the skin, a tape that asks questions deeper than “Have you seen a breast before”?
I’m talking about the Evie’s Car Wash Abduction Video. Yes, it’s been played frequently , but with nothing like the ridiculous frequency of Janet Jackson’s tiled-out breast. (It would make an interesting study for some cultural-studies major: tiling-style differentials. I saw one instance, on MSNBC, where the tiles seemed to be barely enlarged pixels, hardly a disguise at all, while other networks had veritable floor-tile-sized squares of light that magnified the “disguised” breast into Rothian proportions.)
Have you seen that haunting Evie’s Car Wash video? The one taken in a Sarasota car-wash parking lot by a surveillance camera that presents, in stuttering rapid-still motion, the abduction of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia. We see her approached by a skeeve wearing some kind of uniform shirt; he stops her and then leads her off to what would ultimately be her brutal murder. The video ends with the young girl and her alleged murderer walking rapidly out of the frame. It is basically about the moment of approach, the moment of decision to initiate the act.
Am I on crazy pills? How often does it happen that we witness the very moment of choosing evil? Is Janet Jackson’s breast more worth replaying and re-discussing to the point of regurgitation, just because it’s a celebrity breast? (Is this further confirmation of one of the central metaphors of Bruce Wagner’s new novel: celebrity worship as symptom of cultural brain damage?)
Where are the congressional committees convening, the pundit panels debating what this piece of tape, the Evie’s Car Wash tape, means? Bill O’Reilly has gone on a crusade against the judge who refused to return the skeeve to prison for a parole violation, but I wonder if there’s a deeper question here. The question the tape asks is: How did the skeeve-how could any human-get to the point that he was capable of doing this? A “flip-flop” in his attempt to reconcile with his wife? (Which is what his boss suggested in a piece in the Post .) Of course, that suggests something akin to a blame-the-victim explanation-a blame-the-wife explanation-for Carlie’s death.
O.K., you say, it must be something deeper, something that happened in his childhood, so he really couldn’t help it. When she walked across the deserted parking lot, he didn’t really have a choice. He’d been programmed by his history and psychology to do what he did. And if he was programmed, the implication is he wasn’t responsible for his act. He had no choice in the matter. Or did he? That’s the kind of question you find yourself asking when you watch that videotape. Sure, it’s a question that can occupy you in the abstract at any moment-it’s a fundamental question about determinism and free will-but here it was in your face.
Can any psychological investigation into the skeeve’s childhood and youth explain-thus, in effect, excuse-him? Was it, in other words, something beyond his control? Or was there a choice, a choice to do evil, and what does that say about human nature, that it contains the capacity for that kind of choice?
Sure, a million moments like this happen every year all over the world. But here we were, witnessing it right in front of our own eyes. That fusion of the casual and the sinister in the jumpy surveillance-cam style, the meeting, the paths crossing that will soon devolve into horror. It asks questions that go beyond the psychological explicability of evil. I can’t help seeing a stark moment like this-the visible manifestation of the million other invisible moments like it-as asking questions about whether we live in a universe of moral justice or meaningless cruelty.
2) Here’s the Shift to Lear
That was why, I guess, I found myself thinking about it at a certain point during the first preview of the Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Miller King Lear at Lincoln Center. (This is not a review, but it’s unlikely you’ll see a better live Lear in your life than Mr. Plummer, although I’m still under the spell of Peter Brook’s film, with Paul Scofield as Lear, and the remarkable Lear of Michael Horden in the BBC television version directed by, yes, Jonathan Miller, who has made this his play.)
Lear is, of course, in at least one important respect about “the myth of moral justice” (the title, by the way, of a provocatively skeptical book about the law, forthcoming from my colleague-no relation-Thane Rosenbaum). “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport,” as the blinded Gloucester says bitterly in Lear . It’s hard to disagree when you look back at the history of the past century. Although, for some, Lear is a play about the ways that suffering is, in some sense, redemptive.
The particular scene that triggered the connection I’m thinking of is the one where the blind Gloucester-his eyes gouged out for his loyalty to Lear-encounters his fugitive son Edgar posing as a madman.
But I want to digress for a moment about the way the blinding of Gloucester (James Blendick) is handled in this production. It’s a horrifying scene however you play it, horrible even in a play whose final scene has been called, by the brilliant scholar Stephen Booth, “the most terrifying five minutes in literature.”
Shakespeare didn’t explicitly indicate how he wanted the blinding done, so the director faces a choice: full-frontal blinding, where the audience watches the nails and tongs gouge out the “vile jelly” (as the tender-hearted Cornwall calls it) from Gloucester’s eye sockets. Or should the blinding be staged more obliquely, or out of sight altogether?
Many directors have felt full-frontal blinding too unbearable to inflict upon the audience, in effect torturing the spectators’ eyes in a way analogous to the way Gloucester’s are tortured.
According to Stanley Well’s Oxford edition, in Jonathan Miller’s 1989 Old Vic production, Sir Jonathan took the eye-gouging entirely offstage. All you heard were the screams, a powerful concept calling upon the audience’s inner eye to torture itself with the “image of that horror.”
In this production, he does something different: Gloucester’s onstage, but he’s seated with his back turned to us. His tormentors face us directly, giving us a chance to look into the eyes of the gougers . That’s where the Mystery is, the mystery of cruelty and evil. Those are the “vile jellies.”
But to return to the subsequent meeting of the blind Gloucester, who is led through the countryside by some unnamed “Old Man” and crosses paths with his son, the fugitive Edgar disguised as a madman. Edgar cries out, “But who comes here? My father, poorly led?”
That phrase, “poorly led,” was the one that conjured up the surveillance-cam image of Carlie Brucia being led to her death. There has been a certain amount of scholarly disputation over “poorly led.” Some have suggested that it’s a printer’s misreading of Shakespeare’s “foul papers” (as his lost manuscript is called), and that it should read “my father, parti-eyed,” as in his eyes multi-colored by blood and bandages. But I’ve found the argument made by R.A. Foakes in the Arden edition persuasive: Edgar sees his father “led” before he knows he’s blind.
In any case, I’ve never had a problem with “poorly led.” It’s one of those incredibly resonant phrases: We are all, to one degree or another, “poorly led,” aren’t we? Poorly led, misled, led astray, flying blind, wandering across the wasteland of a deserted parking lot with only an uncaring surveillance cam to watch over us and someone who wishes us ill-our death itself, perhaps-approaching.
Hmmm. Pretty bleak. I think I need an orange mocha frappuccino.