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celebrity

9.12.98

"You just don't know how good I am."
- Toshiro Mifune, The Seven Samurai

This is the ignorant swamp that is America:

Last Sunday, Akira Kurosawa died. Okay, most of you are savvy enough to know who he was and why he was important even if you haven't seen many of his films. But the vast wad of Americans have no clue. "Who was he, a Jap, right? An executive at Nissan?" -- Yeah, he was an executive at Nissan, asshole.

What's scary about this ignorance is that, if a giant like Kurosawa not only won't be remembered but isn't even known to most Americans, what hope do the rest of us have?

Kurosawa wasn't alone in his obscurity, though. It's been said that if you took a poll outside a theater and asked people at random who directed the movie they just saw, nine out of ten people would give you a blank stare. (In fact, now that I think of it, Joe Queenan once conducted just such an experiment for Movieline magazine.) Ask them who wrote the movie they just saw, and the results will be even more depressing. And if you ask them to identify the director of photography, the editor, or the composer, they'll probably just beat the shit out of you for making them feel as ignorant as they are. Such is America.

I'm one of those people who give just as much attention to the winners of Best Animated Short Subject and Best Sound Effects Editing on Oscar night as to Best Director or Actor. It pisses me off when those "lesser" awards come on and people go "Who gives a fuck?" Well, the people who bust their ass to do the shitwork you don't notice if it's done well -- they give a fuck. And it annoys me no end that a Best Actor winner is given as much self-indulgent time as he wants to give his acceptance speech, whereas the four or five winners of Best Sound Effects Editing have to divvy up fifteen seconds each, if that, before Bill Conti's shut-up-and-get-off-the-stage music starts up. I say, get rid of the boring production numbers and montages and tributes, and give more time to the unsexy, unglamorous, hard-working craftspeople in movies.

But that tirade is for another time. Today I'm concerned with the primarily illiterate and celebrity-driven nature of our culture. Most Americans don't know who Kurosawa was because he didn't appear on the cover of Pimple magazine and he didn't break Roger Maris' home-run record. Of all the directors since the birth of the medium -- and this doesn't include actors-turned-directors who were recognizable before they started directing, like Clint Eastwood -- I'd say only three would spark recognition in the average American. Hitchcock, of course -- probably the most overexposed director in history, though not necessarily in a bad way, because his appearances were always entertaining. And then Spielberg and Tarantino. (Welles and Huston don't really count because they did almost as much acting as directing; Spike Lee too.) You show anybody photos of Bergman or Kubrick or even more recent masters like John Woo or Brian De Palma, the odds are you'll get a pair of glazed eyes and "Duhhhh."

It helps, of course, to be young and physically perfect (though if you're male you can get around that more easily than if you're female). It also helps to be glamorous, because Americans, lacking their own real royalty, make their own royalty -- they live vicariously through other people's glamour. Which explains the American obsession with Diana (and the Kennedys). Princess Di's life and death have been overhyped past the point of no return, but at least she did make some effort to do something with her fame. I begrudge her fame far less than that of, say, Pamela Anderson Lee or Kato Kaelin or the guy who dances around onstage at Mighty Mighty Bosstones concerts -- people famous for being famous. I take that back: at least the Mighty Mighty Bosstones dancing guy does something.

What's sad is that a good number of people feel jealous and pained because they will never attain the visibility and fame of American celebrities. In this culture, obscurity is becoming more and more disrespected, but I think it should be valued. Those people you've never heard of should be glad you've never heard of them. After all, they've never heard of you, either.


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