Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dom DeLuise has died...

...and so has Bea Arthur. So has Jack Kemp.

But that's not really what this post is about.

The first celebrity passing which I recall actually being aware of was when a newscaster for the evening news gave a teaser that John Wayne had passed.

People died back then, but, pardon the crassness of my saying so, it seemed to happen less frequently. I'm sure there were obituaries and all, but with the Internet, it seems that someone dies every day.

And that's what this post is about.

There seems to me to be something pat, routine, and "Now...This"ish about the whole exercise of acknowledging (different from memorializing) celebrity passings that I actually find dispiriting and depressing. The phrase "Now...This" is from the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (who I think is dead, but I'm not sure). It is the transition, he says, that indicates what you have just heard and been asked to think about has absolutely no connection to what you are about to hear or think about. Okay, that part is just typical media age disconnectedness. He also says, though, that it is the cue that you have thought long enough (an appropriate time) about whatever and now are okay to think about something else. If it is a really big celebrity, that might mean long enough to post a thought on your blog (or read someone's), but if it was someone you didn't really know was alive or dead until you read the obit, it's more usually a moment of silence or an acknowledgment.

What's wrong with that?

Well, nothing, I guess, other than my general dislike of expressions of anything that are ceremonial rather than actual. But it just seems like the canned way of responding is so routine that it just means that all we think about is death, that death is the only thing that gives the story meaning. It's also a bit of a trap in that not acknowledging makes us feel cold and hypocritical, so we have to acknowledge everyone...."Hey, that person that was in the commercial for x died...yeah, that was a funny commercial...hey and the first drummer on the One Hit Wonders...and the reserve point guard who played on the NBA finals..." But in acknowledging everyone, isn't there a kind of trap or hypocrisy as well? "So and so...wasn't he the one who did that television show I never watched before doing that other television show that I didn't watch?"

If nobody died, we can always do a catch up with the friends or family of somebody who died last month or last year. Earlier this month I was at the supermarket and there was a magazine that had a famous celebrity talking about dealing with the death of a family member. "Oh, yes," I thought, "I remember [vaguely] when it was reported that that happened."

The fact that I hadn't thought about it once since then is, perhaps an indication that this story didn't really have anything to do with me. That a stranger died in another part of the country under sad and tragic circumstances. Or perhaps it is an indication that whatever sympathies I had for that family and those people was parcelled into increasingly smaller packages to be shared with the friends and families of Dom DeLuise, and Bea Arthur, and (not dead yet!) Roger Ebert, and Patrick Swayze, and Farrah Fawcett...

Kon Ichikawa died this year. Seems like just yesterday we were talking about Bergman and Antonioni going in quick succession. Oh, wait that was 2007. I totally skipped over the tragic deaths of Heath Ledger and Natasha Richardson, didn't I? How could I have forgotten those stories? No, I mean that literally, how? They were all over the news, weren't they?

I don't mean to disparage any of these celebrities who brought beauty and entertainment to countless people and who, I hope, had friends and loved ones who will feel their losses very deeply, not because a newspaper told them to, but because they were integral parts of their lives. I don't even mind people who have a particular remembrance of a film or a performance writing a memory or an appreciation. (I did, when Nick Reynolds passed away last year...or was it 2 years ago...). I just wish that we could find some way of making such gestures something other than compulsory so that I could trust and believe them when I read them and not just feel like they served no other purposed than to make the person making them feel insulated from the charge of being a jerk less anyone notice that, "Hey, Marilyn Chambers died, and Ken was so busy writing about his life and his family that he didn't even mention it."

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