April 11, 2011
In the Capitoline Museum in Rome there is a bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This is the only complete bronze statue of a Roman emperor that still exists. It was erected while the old stoic was in office – 176 AD. The reason that there are no other bronze statues from that era is that it was routine in the fourth and fifth centuries to melt them down so that the metal could be used for other statues or for coins. Sic semper gloria, as the saying goes. Statues of the emperors were destroyed also because Christians — apparently with no regard for the historical curiosity of future generations — regarded them as offensive remnants of paganism. In fact, it is said that the statue of Marcus Aurelius survived because it was erroneously thought to be an effigy of the sort-of Christian emperor Constantine.
It has not been unusual for statues of great, or at least dominant, figures to be desecrated by unappreciative come-latelies. Just the other day, some Syrians who are impatient with the fact that they lack basic political and economic rights did insulting things to an image of their former president, Hafez al-Assad, affectionately known as the “butcher of Hama” because of an unpleasant incident in which he caused the deaths of from 17,000 to 40,000 people.
There was some unpleasantness of a different sort about 8 years ago concerning a statue erected in Richmond representing Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad. The statue reflects on Lincoln’s visit to the ruined city in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War. There were bitter protests by people who objected to the statue, apparently still not able to concede Lincoln’s conciliatory attitude toward the southerners whose treason brought on the war in the first place.
Meanwhile, there has been some statuary-related turmoil in England. The trouble isn’t about figures of Neville Chamberlain or Guy Fawkes or Edward VIII. No, the man at the center of the maelstrom is Michael Jackson. There are two new statues of Jackson in place in the UK, and both of them are getting the raspberry from some of Jackson’s fans.
One scuffle is about a statue of Jackson dangling his baby son out of a hotel window. The life-sized image — which the artist calls “Madonna and Child” — recalls the incident in which Jackson held his son Prince Michael II out of a window in Berlin in 2002 while hundreds of fans were gathered below.
The sculpture is by a Swedish-born artist named Maria von Kohler; it’s displayed in the window of a music studio in East London. Jackson’s fans — who apparently haven’t been lured away by any of Simon Cowles’ instant sensations — find the sculpture revolting. They see it as an part of a persistent campaign of slander against Jackson, who set the bar for slander rather high. Viv Broughton, chief executive of the music studio, has a different view. He called the sculpture a “thought-provoking statement about fame and fan worship.”
The other skirmish has been prompted by a statue of Jackson erected outside Craven Cottage Stadium in London. The stadium is the home of the Fulham Football Club, a soccer team. Mohamed al-Fayed — whose son Dodi died in the auto accident that killed Princess Diana — owns the football club. The elder Fayed was a friend of Jackson.
Art critics have had a field day with the statue and some of Jackson’s disciples have criticized it, too.
Fayed responded to the criticism with a certain delicacy: “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell.”
I’ve often thought, when I pass the statue of Vice President Garret Hobart in front of City Hall in Paterson, how melancholy he must be as hundreds of people pass him each day without a glimmer of recognition. On the other hand, he has nobody attacking him except the pigeons.
July 11, 2009
The Christian Science Monitor has joined the chorus whose song is that Michael Jackson was likely one of the the last “mega-stars.”
A story in the Monitor this week, written by Stephen Humphries, included these passages:
That Jackson could command such an audience is testament to the kind globe-straddling star power that was possible in an earlier, simpler entertainment age. Amid today’s fragmented popular culture, in which an unlimited buffet of mass media has segregated consumers into niche-oriented tribes, Jackson was arguably one of the world’s last superstars.
“It isn’t just that Michael Jackson was the last superstar because he was one of the last people to benefit from an unfragmented media,” says Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “He may also have been one of the last people who could surprise us with a stunning innovation where we didn’t have that sense already of being so jaded by the ubiquity of spectacularly good entertainment. That someone could just leap on the stage and do this thing, and you could go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’ “
I don’t know that either niche marketing or a need for innovation supports the bold prediction that no one after Jackson will be able to appeal to a global audience.
Luciano Pavarotti, for example — whose estate was worth about a half billion dollars the last I read about it — appealed to millions of people all over the world, including people who knew nothing about opera, including people who did not want to know anything about opera, and he didn’t appeal to them because he was an innovator — certainly not in the sense that Michael Jackson was. Pavarotti’s performance was pretty much traditional. Whether he was, as a friend of mine claimed, “the second greatest tenor in history,” is a matter of conjecture — and conjecture, I might add, that has no real meaning. Most of those who bought Pavarotti’s recordings, attended his concerts, and watched his television appearances, wouldn’t know if he were second greatest or not. What they knew was that they liked him, and that was all that mattered. The implication of my friend’s remark was that Enrico Caruso was the greatest tenor in history, and Caruso and Pavarotti were alike in this: There was something about each of them that simply appealed to people, including those not normally in the opera crowd. The very fact that the something can’t be quantified, while both tenors’ enormous audiences and coincident earnings can be quantified, should tell us that it’s foolhardy to predict that no such performer will appear again.
Susan Boyle’s experience is also instructive. The record-setting video on YouTube featured Boyle, not Jackson. That doesn’t imply any parallel between the two as performers, and that’s exactly the point. Boyle’s appeal was unpredictable. No one saw it coming. And I dare say that even experts in the field, if they had heard Susan Boyle perform before her appearance on the British TV competition, would not have forseen her appeal, which has cut across all the usual borders of musical taste and which, it is important to note, has been a function of a new mode of almost universal communications whose implications and whose future we can’t even imagine. Jackson only got to scratch the surface of the rapidly evolving technology. Even if Susan Boyle turns out to be a comet that will soon fade to black, we don’t know that there won’t be another Susan Boyle who will burst out into the world via YouTube or some unforseen successor to it and re-define the concept of a “star” in ways we haven’t dreamed of.
July 3, 2009
Amid all the tsurris about Michael Jackson’s death bubbles the question of how long his fame will endure. He will have done well, it seems, if the public fixation with him lasts as long as its interest in John Dillinger, an anti-social holdup man and murderer who was shot to death 75 years ago. Once Independence Day is out of the way, we can focus our attention on John Dillinger Day, an observance that commemorates his death, which occurred on July 22, 1934.
There are those, of course, who say that it wasn’t Dillinger who was gunned down outside a movie theater in Chicago, and I suppose we’ll have to live with those who will claim that Jackson didn’t die in Los Angeles last week but is living in Buenos Aires with Adolph Hitler, Emilia Earhart, and Elvis Presley. At last, a fourth for bridge.
The reviews in the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post are unenthusiastic about the movie “Public Enemies,” in which Johnny Depp portrays Dillinger. Dan Zak writes in the Post:
There’s no excitement in the bank-robbing, no thrill of the chase, no emotion over justice served or thwarted. Depp’s Dillinger is neither charming nor despicable, nor does he occupy that delicious gray area between the two. His spree unspools dispassionately, cold as a Colt .380.
Peter Rainer in the Monitor writes:
Mann’s hero-worshipy treatment of Dillinger is undercut by the film’s dreamtime existentialist aura. In reality, the working poor cheered Dillinger’s bank raids but in “Public Enemies” the Depression is just a prop, and so Dillinger’s populist hero status, what little we see of it, makes scant sense. (This is probably why we see so little of it.) Missing, as a result, is the knockabout tumult of a time when gangsters could ascend to the same stardom as the movie actors who played gangsters. Dillinger was, for a while, every bit as big as Jimmy Cagney. Mann pirouettes around the twin realities of the Depression and the star culture it engendered and offers instead a moody blues doominess. It’s a vacuum filling a vacuum.
So Depp becomes neither Clyde Barrow nor Robin Hood. Maybe, in his old age, he can play Bernie Madoff.
I noticed references to a public wake for Michael Jackson, and that got me to thinking about the manner in which previous celebrities of that magnitude have taken their leave, as it were.
I should qualify this observation immediately inasmuch as I’ve been hearing for several days that there has been no other celebrity of that magnitude — and today I heard the Chicago Tribune music critic say that there won’t be another, at least not among singers. These are meaningless statements, of course, because the magnitude of any person’s celebrity is affected by multiple factors, most of them subjective. Enrico Caruso, for example, was treated all over the world as if he were royalty — even by people who had never heard him perform, and 88 years after his death he is still the standard by which male singers are measured. His name, in fact, is a synonym for “male singer.”
A man whose status as an international celebrity was emerging just as Caruso died was Babe Ruth. He transcended the sport that his fame was based on to such a degree that Japanese soldiers during World War II, nearly a decade after his career had ended, would shout “to hell with Babe Ruth” as an insult to American servicemen. Like Caruso, Ruth remains the model to whom his successors are compared.
When Ruth died, he had been retired for 14 years. His body lay in state at Yankee Stadium where an estimated 100,000 people of every age and description bid him a solemn farewell. When Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrated Ruth’s funeral mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, a crowd estimated at 75,000 filled the church and spilled out into the rain-swept streets.
It is likely that no outpouring of grief in this nation, at least, has exceeded that which followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln. In retrospect, the reaction was not out of proportion to the importance of his death; in some respects, one might argue, the country has not yet fully recovered, given the debacle of Reconstruction and its aftermath.
Contemporary accounts describe the American people, including many who recently had excoriated Lincoln and his policies, as either numb with shock or crazy with anger. Millions of people stood along the right-of-way as the funeral train carried Lincoln’s body over the 13-day journey from Washington to Springfield.
Perhaps the instance that will prove the best analogy for the case of Michael Jackson is that of Rudolph Valentino, the silent film actor whose life and career were as tumultuous and controversial as Jackson’s. Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31 from complications after surgery for appendicitis and gastric ulcers. His funeral, which was something of a circus, attracted an estimated 100,000 people in the streets of New York, a large number considering the limitations on travel at the time. The crowd erupted in a riot that lasted most of one day and required more than 100 mounted policemen plus police reserves to restore order. Several of Valentino’s fans committed suicide and the actress Pola Negri sent to the funeral home 4,000 roses in an arrangement that spelled out her name. During the wake period, Negri announced that she had been Valentino’s fiancee — something no one else was aware of — and promptly collapsed on his coffin in a fit of hysteria. She followed the funeral train from New York to California and was composed enough to stand for photographs whereever the train stopped.
June 30, 2009
Several decades ago, I made an appointment to meet the actress Jane Russell in Manhattan. While I was waiting for her in a bar off the lobby of her hotel, a man came in and asked if I was who, as it turned out, I was. He made small talk that included apologizing for the delay, an apology Jane Russell had already adequately made via the house phone. Somewhere in the chit-chat, the man said, “By the way, it might not be a good idea to ask her about Howard Hughes.” Nothing, I told him, was farther from my mind. Jane Russell’s association with Howard Hughes — which dated back to the 1943 film “The Outlaw” — had been documented ad nauseam. In fact, I wasn’t primarily interested in the career in which she established herself as a talented entertainer. I was there to talk to Jane Russell about an organization she founded that did pioneering work in placing children from overseas in adoptive homes in the United States. As far as I know, this organization — the World Adoption International Fund — is still functioning.
I understood the motivation for the emissary’s advice. Jane Russell’s life had its “paths and detours,” as the title of her autobiography noted, but she was hardly alone in that regard. In the short time I spent with her, she seemed like a nice woman, and I believe that is her reputation. But it was hard for her to escape questions about Hughes — who had first made her a national celebrity.
Hughes was an unusual figure, an engineer, an award-winning aviator, an aeronautical innovator, an airline and aerospace mogul, a film producer and director, and a philanthropist. He was also eccentric, and over time his eccentricities took on more and more bizarre and self-destructive characteristics. There had been a flurry of news reports about his mental condition around the time I visited with Jane Russell — whose connection to him was far behind her — and it must have been inevitable that someone would seek her opinion. Hughes’ behavior was at least as outlandish as that attributed to Michael Jackson, whose death prompted me to think about Hughes. One can only imagine how his life would have been covered by today’s media.
I do not understand the subject well enough to know what to make of all the hyperbole about Michael Jackson’s transforming influence on popular music. Even if it’s valid, it hardly compares with Hughes’ contributions, but it does present a similar paradox — a man endowed with more than the usual share of talent and insight and the will and savvy to put it to use, and yet a man so deeply flawed that his insanity becomes more an object of public fascination than his achievements.
The man who approached me in the bar didn’t think I was going to ask Jane Russell about Hughes’ design for the H-4 Hercules. Given the man’s apparent age, in fact, I’m not sure he would have known enough to think that. Hughes was already known more for his frailties than for his works, and his experience evokes the question of how Michael Jackson will be remembered in the long run.
June 28, 2009
If this isn’t a record, it might as well be.
Sylvia Levin of Santa Monica, Calif., registered approximately 47,000 men and women to vote. It can’t be established formally, but authorities on the subject say that total exceeds anything accomplished by an individual in the state.
Sylvia didn’t achieve this distinction overnight. She did it by setting up her rickety card table six days a week for 36 years and calling out to passers-by: “Are you registered to vote?”
Sylvia Levin died Thursday — the same day as Michael Jackson — at the age of 91. Her son, Chuck Levin, who has his own history of registering voters, told the Los Angeles Times that his mother “lived a long and full life of adventure and grace, simplicity and openness, of love and hope — no regrets or fear.”
“Grace, simplicity and openness” — a nice epitaph for a woman whose death attracted no crowds of voyeurs, no lurid headlines, no morbid speculation, just the appreciation of the relatively few who know what she contributed to the well-being of us all.
The full story about Sylvia Levin appears here:
When I learned last night that Michael Jackson had died, I was at a fair – kiddie rides, foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes – in a town in Bergen County. I drove about an hour and half to get there — not for the hot dogs, which were fine, but to listen to Noise from the Basement, a band in which my son plays keyboard. I would do it again.
When I got home and checked my blog here on wordpress, I saw that traffic on my journal had already soared beyond the normal number of daily visits – by a factor of eight. This was caused by the death of Farrah Fawcett. Her passing apparently sent many people scurrying to a search engine, and some of their searches tripped over two entries I have made in the past couple of months complaining about the way some of the media and some of the public were reacting to her illness.
It might be fortuitous for Farrah Fawcett’s memory that she and Michael Jackson died almost simultaneously. Because of the complicated life that Jackson led, there is likely to be an endless stream of speculation about the nature of his death, and even some serious commentary on the meaning of his life.
I have to say that Michael Jackson meant nothing to me, one way or the other. I didn’t pay close attention to the coverage of his life, but I did see and hear enough to know that the difference between fact and fiction was difficult to discern. If the far more sedate lives of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Sir James Matthew Barrie are any example, some of the questions about Jackson’s behavior will never go away.
One small issue in Jackson’s life that did get my attention was the report in 1987 that he had offered to buy the remains of Joseph Carey Merrick, known in popular culture as “John” Merrick, the “elephant man,” a 19th century Englishman who was severely deformed by a disease that has not been conclusively identified. I have spent far more time learning about Merrick than I have ever devoted to Michael Jackson, because I have been interested in Merrick’s determination to achieve some sort of human dignity despite a condition that, through no fault of his own, made it impossible for him to live in society. In fact, he had to be protected from the public. It’s worth noting that Dr. Frederick Treves, who was principally responsible for providing Merrick with a home at London Hospital, had misgivings about his own role in making Merrick something of a darling of British society, including the royal family.
My initial reaction when I heard that Jackson had tried to buy Merrick’s remains was disgust. I couldn’t imagine any legitimate purpose to such a thing, and I felt strongly that Jackson would be violating Merrick’s memory by removing what remains of him from the hospital that gave him the only true sanctuary he ever knew. Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s “bones,” my reading indicates that it never happened. Some have claimed that Jackson himself deliberately spread that rumor after having viewed the remains in London, but I haven’t found any substantiation of that idea. The bizarre tones and the uncertainty of this bit of Jackson’s history or legend is a microcosm of the odd and often mysterious biography that will be written and re-written for years to come.
Peter Conrad wrote an interesting essay in The Guardian about Michael Jackson in anticipation of Jackson’s appearance in London next month. It’s at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/michael-jackson
Tammy Paolino — the name is no coincidence — also wrote an insightful piece about the impact of Jackson’s death. It’s at http://blogs.courierpostonline.com/mamadrama/ in an entry dated June 26.