Monday, October 26, 2009

Boy in a Well Stories

Excellent call by Isaac Chotiner, who goes after Frank Rich's latest effort. As Chotiner realizes, when you write a sentence like this:
If Heene’s balloon was empty, so were the toxic financial instruments, inflated by the thin air of unsupported debt, that cratered the economy he inhabits. tends to turn your entire project into a joke, as Chotiner explains:
I can glibly say that "Just as numerous Americans were fooled by the few hyped instances of shark attacks into staying out of the water in the summer of 2001, so were many Americans fooled by Bill Clinton's initial comments on Monica Lewinsky." The problem is that such a comparison is completely inane and worthless. Rich should stop looking for patterns where none exist.
I don't agree with Chotiner, however, that the entire idea of finding an "intersection between American cultural life and America political life" is inherently problematic; it's just that Rich is far too often glib and inane. Take the question of "boy in a well" stories. Rich would have us believe that there's something peculiar to right now about the balloon boy; he says its "certainlly...a reflection of our time." But of course "boy in a well" stories -- and that's what we're dealing with here -- are practically a cliche of the mass media, including the subset of "boy in a well stories" that are partial or absolute hoaxes. After all, Bart Simpson was pretending to be in a well way back in 1992. Nor is there anything new about media exploitation of these stories; in fact, the definitive treatment of such media circuses is Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" from 1951 (OK, it's not a boy in a well; it's the virtually identical man in a mine). Relevant too is the girl-in-a-well story in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," a 1987 movie set in the early 1940s.

Rich would also have us believe that today's quest by ordinary Americans to become celebrities is, conveniently, just like Depression-era talent shows. Sure -- but it's also just like the game show fad from early, non-Depression television. The American quest for celebrity is surely interesting, but it doesn't take much reflection to see that it isn't limited to hard times (although the Scorsese classic "King of Comedy" was released in the recession year of 1982, but I don't think of it as a reaction to the Reagan recession at all).

Again, I don't think the idea of linking politics and culture is a mistake -- it just takes a lot more thought and discipline than Rich is showing here.

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