Tag Archives: fame

Extra funny, extra sad: the fear of extraneousness

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

My husband (in my opinion a delightfully funny man) likes to joke that I have no sense of humour — it isn’t my fault, he says soothingly. It might be my Dutch background. When he brings home funny movies, he holds them up and says “Not available in the Netherlands!”

It’s true that for the most part I don’t like funny movies or funny TV shows, or at least the ones that are billed as comedies. I cringe at most stand-up comedy, where the jokes are rolled out one after another and the audience sits gawking and guffawing in all the right spots. But I do love to laugh. I think the best humour is woven in with other things, so that it surprises you when it comes. I guess my funny bone is particular, like my sweet tooth. I don’t like sweet desserts, but sweet with salty, with bitter, with sour, can be delicious.

Recently we watched two seasons of the show Extras, in which English comedian Ricky Gervais portrays a lowly extra, Andy Millman, who eventually soars to fame by playing a character he comes to despise. He gives up on his integrity, and dismisses his closest relationships, which have become irrelevant — extraneous. I liked Gervais’ earlier series, The Office, but I didn’t expect that this one, with its parade of enormously famous stars (David Bowie, Robert de Niro, Clive Owen, Kate Winslet), would really pull me in. So I watched most of the episodes with one eye on the TV and the other on the newspaper. I laughed occasionally while my husband dissolved into hysterics beside me.

And then came the series finale. Andy Millman’s fame has peaked and is now on the downward spiral. He begins taking every opportunity to claw his way up to a more respectable level of celebrity, but of course it’s the slipperiest of slopes. He winds up on a reality TV show, with a bunch of “stars” he’s never heard of, and they all sit around talking about themselves and imagining their futures, which, for one woman who likes to rhyme off all of the famous people she’s slept with, includes a celebrity wedding for which Hello! picks up the tab. “Andy, will you come to my Hello! wedding?” she asks. This sets Andy off on a fabulous rant about the pointlessness of “selling ourselves … selling everything,” and living life’s most personal moments out in the open.

“What are we doing?” he asks.

Partway through, the tears were streaming down my face. Not funny tears, but real weeping tears. I turned to my husband and said, “Now this is the kind of comedy I can appreciate!” (Which should prove that I do indeed have a sense of humour.)

This show expertly reveals the emptiness inside that desperate search for recognition. And that sense of desperation, I think, is something most of us can relate to, whatever our career or situation. It’s easy (not to mention painful) to fall into the trap of determining your own self worth by what the wrong “audience” thinks of you. Watching Extras, I was reminded of those excellent children’s books, Frog and Toad, which should perhaps be required reading for all ages.

In one story, “The Dream,” Toad falls asleep and imagines himself on stage in a large theatre, wearing a grand costume and a feathery hat. Only Frog, his loyal companion, is in the audience, cheering Toad on. A voice introduces each of Toad’s acts and Toad plays the piano magnificently, walks on tight rope, and dances, calling out each time, “Frog, can you do this?” Each time Frog answers “No,” and grows smaller and smaller, his voice fainter and fainter, until finally Toad cannot see him or hear him at all. The booming voice begins to announce Toad’s next amazing accomplishment, but humbled Toad is “spinning in the dark,” fearing he’s lost his one true friend.




Filed under Uncategorized

Mourning kings and angels

china nell, cropped

This regal picture was snapped several years ago. Happily, my daughter seems to be moving out of the princess phase. I like to think it’s because she listened when I told her that princesses were overrated — she says “over-aided,” which is also true — but maybe it’s just a natural progression and has little to do with me. What irks me about so many of the princess stories is that the heroine does so little for herself. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Cinderella weeps until the birds and mice come up with bright ideas.  These are beautiful victims, desperate to be saved. What makes us adore them so much?

Actually I don’t remember loving a princess when I was little, but I’m sure I must have. The heroine who sticks with me from early childhood is Pippi Longstocking, who could outsmart policemen and lift up her horse with one hand. She was no beauty, not in the traditional sense. But later, as I approached my teen years, something must have shifted: I had a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall (along with Vinnie Barbarino and Fonzie), and had already been infected by that adoration and the accompanying dread that I would never be nearly so lovely, no matter how I styled my hair.

Since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, the news everywhere speaks of “the king” and “the angel.” Radio stations and websites and talk shows are asking us to share our thoughts, about “Jacko” especially, as we embark on some collective form of mourning. But what are we mourning, exactly, aside from the loss of talent and the tragedy of famous lives cut short? An old friend of mine said, “It’s always sad when part of your childhood dies,” and that seemed to encapsulate the wave of sorrow so well — celebrities’ highs and lows, from our perspective, are more about us than them. So in this way the screen that we stare at is really a lens that looks inward.

I remember when Elvis Presley died. He was a king too, of an earlier empire. I was eleven years old, and knew of him just because everyone did, not because I or my parents listened to his music. We didn’t. But I knew it was an historic day, and I remember taking the front page of the newspaper up to my room, and folding it and putting it in my drawer. I thought it was something I would always keep, and I recall having the sense that this was the first time I had consciously shared in something that touched so many people, united by their focus on one man. I suppose one of the functions of celebrities is to form a community among strangers.

The Kiss, with crowns on

The Kiss, with crowns on

Who would ever wish to be so relentlessly famous? People are gathering in huge crowds for Michael Jackson just as they did for Elvis and John Lennon and Princess Diana. I keep thinking of one of the interviews I watched on David Lynch’s new Interview Project, in which an 85-year-old woman, rocking on her porch, sums up her life as child, mother, grandmother, in just a few minutes. “I just don’t know of anything I would change very much,” she says. “I’ve lived a good long life. … To be right honest, I don’t care if anyone remembers me or not.”

I find these stories about ordinary people so refreshing. Interview Project is not perfect — in my opinion, it relies too heavily on romantic rural images like dusty roads and birds on a wire, and the questions asked of its participants are often too broad to really be meaningful in such short clips. But the idea behind the project is excellent — a crew traveling across the country and finding people as it goes; collecting and documenting their stories.

When my sister and I were first working on The Occupied Garden, someone asked me what made our family worthy of a book, what was different about them than any other family. And I found myself scrambling for an answer, when really the point was that they weren’t different to any great degree. It’s interesting how in fiction we like to read about “ordinary people” as characters, but memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies in large part are reserved for the celebrities among us. We crave their stories. And yet it’s hard to decipher the truth of those stories — to find the person inside them — when we make them into kings and angels.

***Just adding an interesting aside to this post, having recently come across the Fallen Princesses photos by Vancouver photographer Dina Goldstein. Here, “Disney’s perfect princesses ” come up against “illness, addiction, and self-image issues.”


Filed under Uncategorized