Friday, August 23, 2002

Thirteen ways of looking at a Celebrity Biography
(Part one)

1. "Rita and her first husband, Eddie Judson, shortly after they eloped, in 1937. He pressed her to sleep with other men if it would help her career." - caption to a picture in Barbara Leaming, If This was Happiness: a biography of Rita Hayworth.

When I flip through a new novel, I first read the description on the inside cover, and the first paragraph. When I pick up a CB, I go right to the photographs.

Usually there will be two or three sets of them in the book. Usually they are in black and white. This says something about my choice of celebrities. I am not of the Britney generation. And I'm nostalgic for the larger than life, black and white divas. Somehow, color is tacky. First we get the family, all unknown faces, badly mounted shots. Then, gradually, one of those faces becomes familiar. A pudgy cheeked little boy with a cap becomes James Dean. Margarita Cansino, at three years and eight months, becomes Rita Cansino, "before she underwent electolysis treatments to alter her hairline," and then Rita Hayworth.
I look for the odd, lewd shot, the one that shows a different level of nakedness � the nakedness of not looking famous, of not having yet achieved, or temporarily discarding, the iconic image. Here�s "a rare shot� of John Wayne without his toupee. And here�s Janis Joplin, naked. John Wayne looks more naked - he has been stripped, briefly, of his recognizability.

2. Captions. The picture stands in the visual order, the caption in the verbal. These two orders come at the world in different ways.

When I look at Rita and her first husband, I see a woman sitting down, smiling, wearing what looks like a camel hair coat. Her hair is a mass of black, pulled back. Not yet the famous hair, the trademark hair. She has made a little pistol with her thumb and index finger. This in itself is interesting and odd � what is she doing? I�ll never penetrate that hermetic gesture, not now. Is she pointing her �pistol� at this man to shoot him, a sort of comic joke between them? Should he have seen the message in this photo? Could he, did he have that much intelligence? There he is, sitting on the arm of the sofa, sitting slightly above her, turned to look at her, a woman who doesn�t look famous at the time the photo was taken, and looks famous now, now that we know this is Rita Hayworth. He, however, looks the same � he was not then, and is not now, famous. He wears a suit, and, oddly, either a scarf or an Ascot tie, left casually unfastened around his neck. I could amass a long list of more and more specific details, here, but the image is systematically fixed, it is all there is of it, it is one of a kind. I�d say that the picture doesn�t change, but of course it did. Fame changed it.

So I read the caption, knowing what I know. What changes with the caption? Not Rita. No, her husband changes. Her husband, not being famous, seems suddenly slightly louche, as if there were something slightly sinister about that scarf or Ascot tie. Is this the ornament that betrays the pimp? And the woman�s gesture - the pistol - is now defensive. She smiles, but she won�t let him get to her. He sits so pretty on the arm of the loveseat, above her, patronizing, even... threatening. He �pressed her� - but surely she resisted.

The caption makes the picture talk to me, as the picture itself doesn�t. The linguistic order, as opposed to the order of the image, is expansive. Whatever frames the possibility of speech, here, is indeterminate. I unconsciously think of the caption as what these two are saying to each other, but that isn�t quite it. It is what they aren�t saying � it is what they are meaning to each other. Something which isn�t said � something which transcends saying. Meaning is easy for the picture, saying is impossible. Linking the picture to that verbal data is the celebrity biographer�s act of supreme fiction. The pictures in the celebrity biography are a sort of abridged version of what the biography is about: becoming-famous.

3. �Who were these serious cocksuckers, these jerk-offs who approached moving pictures as if they were fucking reality, who wouldn�t even know reality if it bit them on the ass?" - Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.
The technical term for a verbal picture, in classical rhetoric, is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is considered slightly suspect in the world of scholarly biographies. It exists there, if at all, in order to entertain, as a distraction from the real business of analysis.

Not so in the CB - it is ekphrasis-happy.

Since a verbal picture is a picture, it permits - it wants - a caption. This way, the same dynamic between picture and caption can be embedded in the story. The voice of the caption can become, by imperceptible increments, the actual voice of the celebrity. Martin is not being quoted verbatim by my citation from Tosches, but is being, in a sense, invaded. We are overhearing his thoughts as he ponders some bad press. In Tosches� Dino, we overhear his thoughts quite a bit. Tosches extrapolates from quotes he�s culled from other celebrity bios - most notably, Kitty Kelly�s His Way: The unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra. He couldn�t extrapolate "cocksucker" from, say, Dean Martin�s interview with TV Guide - that language is already public, already completely invaded. It is not Dean Martin�s own, whether he spoke it or not. When the celebrity speaks in an interview, we know the words are part of a program. They are publicity. They are, as Jack Nicholson once said, "selling eggs." Cocksucker, though, is oddly authentic.

It is necessary to stage some invasion if we are going to be intimate with the celebrity. We are presumed to be not famous, our faces never figuring in the pictures. But we have no solidarity with the other not famous � they compete with us. Why them? So the CB, promising us intimacy, restores some fairness. The real story, the man as he has never been seen before. The man behind the mask.

Tosches� technique, in a novel, would be called interior monologue. Because modernist novels started using it in the 20s - Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf - the academic might suppose that the celebrity biography took this technique from the novel. I think, however, that both genres got it from the where captions and pictures come together - the newspapers and the movies.

4. "Here�s the deal: No one knows, and no one with any integrity has ever spoken. About anything" - Loni Anderson, My Life in High Heels, about her alleged fight with Burt Reynolds on the eve of their wedding.
In philosophical relativism, the truth of an expression depends upon a given system�s norms for selecting true statements. Truth isn�t necessarily about picturing facts, unless, within the system, we make it a rule that the truth is necessarily about picturing facts. Coherence trumps correspondence, to use the jargon.
The C.B. is a limit case of relativism. Here, the relation between tabloid truth and the sources of verifiable fact are shadowy, at best. Was Errol Flynn a Nazi Spy, as Charles Higham maintains in Errol Flynn: The Untold Story? Or is Higham a fraud, as Tony Thomas says, in Errol Flynn: The Spy who never was? On her wedding night, did Jean Harlow naughtily wave a giant dildo under her husband�s nose, mocking his penis, which measured about the size of her pinkie? Or was Irving Shulman fantasizing in Harlow: An Intimate Biography, as Jean�s friend Adela Rogers St. Johns forcefully maintained (by "forcefully maintained, I mean she whacked Shulman on the head with her purse on TV, according to David Stenn in Bombshell, Jean Harlow�s most recent biography. As we know from Freud, the purse is a symbol of the vagina. So if Shulman is lying about Harlow�s husband�s dick, how appropriate that he get whacked with Harlow�s friend�s pussy � okay, pussy substitute). Did Sonny Liston throw his first fight to Cassius Clay, as Nick Tosches charges in his just published The Devil and Sonny Liston? Or did Sonny�s lineman, Joe Polino, put a special linement on Sonny�s gloves in the fourth round to blind the challenger, as Nigel Collins says in Boxing Babylon?

It isn�t just that the norms, in this genre, are vague - you get a feeling that they are a sap�s game. There�s another game going on, another history. It�s Chinatown, Jake.

LI's brothers live in Gwinnett County, Georgia. For their affection and votes, two men were running for the House of Representatives in the Republican Primary this year: Bob Barr and John Linder.
LI knew who the right choice was there, all right. It was Barr, all the way.
Barr, though, was defeated, and polite liberalism everywhere seems to find this only proper. Here's the WP editorial about it:

"There was no nastiness or acid-dripping one-liner that was too much for Bob Barr. He proudly broadcast a commercial depicting himself as a bulldog. Voters in the 7th District, though conservative, had no use for a spotlight-craving politician who lives for the insult."

Living for the insult isn't such a bad thing to do if you are good at insulting. Bob Barr was to conservativism what Gorgeous George was to wrestling -- a man who made a minor art form out of a fixed and venal venue. To call Linder, his opponent, non-descript is to exaggerate. Apparently at one point, Linder, in a debate with Barr, alluded to his 39 year marriage. Well, that is about the sum of the man's accomplishments -- he is able to perform monogamy.

Barr and Linder shared rightwing records, but the good thing about Barr was that he was, eccentrically enough, a civil libertarian. He sponsored a bill with Barney Frank to abolish drug forfeiture law, and it even passed. It was later vetoed by Clinton, ever afraid of not appearing tough on crime, even if that means countenancing the transformation of police departments into banditti. And banditti, moreover, who prey on blacks -- racial profiling being, in one of its aspects, the expropriating of 'inappropriate' sums of money from black men on our nations highways, from New Jersey to Louisiana. Barr was, like Linder, a good second amendment man -- and LI does have a weakness for that second amendment. But the love affair with the pistol does seem to have awakened him to some of the more onerous encroachments of the government on our civil liberties. There was a story in the American Prospect, last year, about the alliance between Barr and the ACLU to modify the more barbarous strippings of our freedom proposed, in the name of the Heimat, by the Bush coup team:

"The day after the attack, Halperin [with the ACLU] began e-mailing his colleagues. By the time they called their first press conference on September 20, they had a name (Organizations in Defense of Freedom), a 10-point statement of principles, and even spin-offs (such as Computer Scientists in Defense of Freedom). They also had a secret weapon: Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, scourge of the liberals, conservative guru par excellence. "The Bush administration said, 'We've got a bill that we've gotta pass right away,'" recalls Norquist. "As soon as I heard that, I began to get worried."...

"Almost immediately, prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill began to sound a lot like Ted Kennedy. "Why is it necessary to propose a laundry list of changes to criminal law generally and criminal procedure generally and cast such a wide net?" Republican Congressman Bob Barr demanded in the House Judiciary Committee's first hearing on Attorney General John Ashcroft's antiterrorism proposals. "And why is it necessary to rush this through?"

It strikes LI as nutty that some liberals think electing Linder is a victory. It isn't. It seems like a victory only if you confuse partisan wrangling -- for instance, Barr's prominence as a Clinton impeacher -- with real political goals. If you do, you will always have a home with the DNC.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Note: LI looks around the world, or its representation, today, and what do we see? Breaking news on Enron (from the flipping of one of Andie Fastow's crucial boys to the odd, unremarked arrest of the past chairman of Wessex Water, an Enron spin-off, for bribery), global warming (ignored by coup leader Bush) on the agenda in Johannesberg, and the ever present Iraq war. But instead of politics -- it is much too hot for politics -- we are thinking of putting up an old essay we wrote for Feed on Celebrity Biographies. Feed's editors, as a matter of fact, didn't like the piece, so after several tries we parted ways, with LI out of pocket to the extent of having spent the time to do the thing. Anyway, the CB essay is entitled, 13 ways of looking at a Celebrity Biography. At some point today, we are gonna put it up.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002


LI is surprised, this morning, that the Bush administration came through on an old American promise, and released documents on the 1970s Terror in Argentina.

LI has no doubt they were sifted to remove various inconvenient names -- such as Kissinger's -- but it is one of the few applaudable American actions of the past couple of months. Here are two grafs:

"One embassy dispatch, for example, cites an Argentine source who says that captured leftist fighters, known as Montoneros, were all dealt with in the same way, through "torture and summary execution."

"The security forces neither trust nor know how to use legal solutions," the dispatch quotes the source as saying. "The present methods are easier and more familiar."

Now, LI has always thought that the great mystery of the Argentina terror was whether the Monteneros weren't ultimately led by an agent provacateur. This is the thesis put forth in a great book of political reportage, "Dossier Secreto: Argentina's Desaparecidos and the Myth of the "Dirty War," by Martin Edward Anderson. The leader of the Monteneros, the sinister Mario Firmenich, survived the military repression, and is now, we believe, languishing in jail, an odd scapegoat in the accord that basically allowed the fascist apparat in Argentina to escape, unscathed, with its crimes. According to Jorge Castaneda's history of the Latin American left, the money accrued by the Montonero's policy of systematic kidnapping went to Cuba, and thence to the Sandinistas, with Castro acting as a broker. There's a strange parallel in the course of action taken by the right and left in Argentina, with the right proceeding to install a cocaine-ish military regime in Bolivia and aiding the Contras with weapons and training, and the left helping the Sandinistas even up to training their secret police. Meanwhile, in Argentina, the guerrillas proudly proclaimed their responsibility for acts of violence some of which they certainly did not commit. Firminich seemed to have a passion for the planning and committing of acts that were, from the perspective of either damaging the regime or rousing the people, so grossly misplanned, and so criminal, that they seem congruent with the military's own on-going effort to legitimate its counter-terror to the population. And that population, of course, went about its business purposely not noticing the disapppearance of this or that person, or the body parts washing up on the banks of the La Plata. For what was special about Argentina was that the crimes were known as they were being committed.

Moral is, of course, don't think that the good middle class will necessarily rise up in revolt if some of its sons and daughters, and many of its troublemakers, are bloodied. In fact, in the U.S., how many have risen up, so far, and asked questions about the illegal detention of at least a thousand people since 9/11? Count em on your fingers. This is not even an issue going into the November election. And if these arabic named guys and gals disappear, does anybody imagine the American population drawing back in revulsion?

Now, Anderson's thesis would be absurd in the world as it is portrayed in your average daily paper. That is the newspaper, by the way, that publishes, with the utmost credulity, scare stories fomented by the Attorney General's office about the capture of terrorists with dirty bombs in the A section -- and publishes retractions of those stories months later, in the C section, if at all. But the figure of the agent provocateur is all too common in the political netherworld -- as Joseph Conrad shows in Under Western Eyes. And in Argentina, the idea that the Montonero high command could have been working on an agenda that converged with the military agenda has floated around for some time. In a memorial notice to the great Argentina journalist Rudolfo Walsh, a journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald recently discussed the possibility that his ambush and assassination was a set-up:

"At the moment of his death, Walsh, disguised as an old-age pensioner, was on his way to a meeting with Jos� Salgado, the Montonero and police officer who - in July 1976 - placed in the Central Police Department the bomb which killed 20 policemen and maimed some 60 others. Strangely enough, Walsh - who was a high-ranking member of Montoneros intelligence - did not know on that fatal morning Salgado had been captured months previously, tortured beyond recognition and executed. In other words Rodolfo Walsh was set up by his own Montoneros whose leadership may have been working with and for the armed forces. The point has never been clarified, but there can be no doubt some terrorists were serving both masters and not everyone was as committed to their ideals as Rodolfo Walsh was."

That Walsh, a moralist in the tradition of Kraus and Peguy, and a journalist in the mould of Seymor Hersch, could countenance Salgado, tells us something about the state of terror then existing. Walsh's daughter, incidentally, was killed in a shootout with the cops the year before Walsh was bushwacked. Walsh's career is not known in the U.S. -- he hasn't been translated -- so for our American readers, here's a summary of his career:

"He is credited with being the father of investigative journalism in Argentina. In 1957 he published Operaci�n Masacre - based on an interview with a survivor - which tells the real story of how a group of 34 men, most of whom had no connection with a recent revolt against the Aramburu dictatorship, were taken to a garbage dump in Jos� Le�n Su�rez, a suburb of Buenos Aires, and summarily executed in a hail of machine gun fire. "All Peronists", said Per�n, "are indebted to the author of Operaci�n Masacre", but Walsh was now a marked man and anonymous death threats became part of his life.

"In 1969 he published �Qui�n Mat� a Rosendo? which tells how trade-unionist, Rosendo Garc�a, died in an Avellaneda pizzeria in a shoot-out between rival unionists, Raimundo Ongaro and Augusto �Wolf� Vandor (2). In 1973 he published �El Caso Satanovsky� which tells the sordid tale of the murder of a leading lawyer who was litigating against the military government. None of these cases were ever solved and Rodolfo Walsh became an unpopular name for many powerful people for having investigated them."

LI wonders whether the full story of what happened in the seventies in Latin America will ever be uncovered. But certain things can be uncovered by the determined individual investigator. Although I could not find a photo of Jose Salgado, I did find a picture of a kid -- Alfredo Daniel Salgado -- whose clear and present danger to the State was snuffed, no doubt by an airplane trip, or the bloody necessity of torture. The Sinolvido site, by the way, contains photos of 3,000 of the disappeared. The high school album.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002


LI is not posting like it used to because LI doesn't have a computer like we used to.
Instead, we are being ground to death by computer service places, who are supposedly saving the stuff we've written over the last four years.

Sunday, LI watched Dona Flor and her two husbands with a friend, S. S. said she'd never seen it, and we thought she'd like it -- S. likes bawdy comedy. Hell, S. likes mere lechery on film, if it is done right, as any right thinking person should. Cinema has added immeasurably to the human sex life, I would imagine, but this is one of the unsung triumphs of the Arts and Sciences.

So we watched the video. LI had last seen the film many presidents ago -- in the Prytania Theater, in New Orleans. Watching a film you liked at one point in your life is sometimes a tricky proposition -- the bogus stretches that, somehow, you didn't see on first viewing stick out, and the clever bits seem less clever than sophomoric. Still, we like the divine Sonia Braga, still young, and as yet not totally advanced on her career as Brazil's answer to ... to whoever that actress was who played in the Emmanuel Films. We liked the music. No, we loved the music, still. The first husband. The Flaubertian business with the ineffably repulsive second husband, poor guy, a pharmacist of sterling character and an absolute sexual blank. This time, it was clearer that the film was referring to the novel it came out of -- in the same way the rude mechanicals in Midsummer Night's Dream refer to the whole of ancient literature, seen peaking through their flaws and flippancy.
LI hates to admit this -- one of our Brazilian readers, in particular, will raise holy hell with us, we know -- but we haven't read the Amado book. In fact, we have somehow acquired this snobbish sense about Amado, that he is the Brazilian equivalent of Isabel Allende -- a writer for tourists only. But there were numerous touches in the film that implied some rich novelistic subtext over and above the merely picayune. So today we dutifully went out and found the novel, and plan on reading it.
We aren't the only ones to have this sense about Amado. His death last year was obituarized in the Guardian in ambiguous terms. After making the traditional distinction between the first phase and the second phase of Amado's career, with the first phase being serious and the second being, uh, carnival-esque, Sue Branford and David Treece write:

"By then Amado was changing the way he wrote. He had become critical of his early novels for being "too serious, too ideological, too full of rage", and became convinced that the most effective way of dealing with political enemies was to laugh at them. He had by then read the Russian critic, MM Bakhtin, who was an exponent of what he called "the subversive power of comedy". Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque, with its potential to upset the hierarchies of power and turn the world upside down, had a particular relevance for Brazil, where each year the keys of cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, are handed to Rei Momo (the king of carnival) for three days of riotous living.

This perspective came to define the second major phase of Amado's writing, beginning with Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (1958, Gabriella, Clove and Cinnamon), but it was not without its problems. The earlier dramas of social conflict, class consciousness and collective change gave way to the carnival of cultural and ethnic promiscuity, the celebration of diversity in the indiscriminate infusion of the melting-pot. The post-war novels tended increasingly towards a formulaic recipe whose typical ingredients - the white plantation baron, the black rural worker, the tropical landscape and the mulatta seductress - were tempered with the spices of sex and magic. The result was a dish which all too easily corresponded to official Brazilian and international expectations of a prepackaged, stereotypical image of an exotic third world culture able to dance, sing and love its way out of its misery.

Fiction here became the playground in which Brazil's vast contradictions could be subverted without overflowing the constraints of individual rebellion, just as the shortlived revelry of carnival is circumscribed by the realities of the wider world, and order is ultimately restored as everyone returns home on Ash Wednesday. Amado's solution to the problem of racism - that whites and blacks should simply go to bed together - similarly failed to address the fact that a centuries-old history of miscegenation, while contributing much to the myth of a Brazilian "racial democracy", has not in any way diminished the country's profoundly racist structures. The celebration of cultural promiscuity is, instead, a recipe for a complacent resignation to the impossibility of radical social reform, which doubtless explains why Amado's work has become the centrepiece of Brazilian cultural diplomacy."

This is an example of that very British art of turning up your nose at the gaucheries of the dearly departed. We looked around for criticism of Amado that was a bit more in depth, and discovered that Dona Flor is a much book clubbed novel. We also found an outpouring of bile on the subject of Amado by one Janer Cristaldo that must hold a 20th century record for insults thrown at a man of letters. Cristaldo accuses Amado of being a Nazi, a Communist, and a tool of multi-national Capitalism. I mean, the man is in blood up to his elbows, according to Cristaldo, who has, to say the least, a spotty sense of the repressiveness of Brazilian governments.

But still -- Communist, Nazi, Capitalist Pig -- this is the kind of triple denunciation action LI envies. Although we try hard, so far, we have remained undenounced on the Web. A year of this, and nobody has accused us of rampant anti-Americanism, anti-semitism, Chomskian lunacy, phallogocentrism, nor nothin'. It discourages a man. We must be doing something wrong.

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...