Fame as Disease; Celebrity as Illness (conclusion)

There’s a difference between Flo Ziegfeld’s shameless 1896 scandal publicity and the corporate machine that was MGM’s 1949 publicity, which brings us to the present day. You see, Ziegfeld was selling sex to a society that didn’t allow women’s ankles to be exposed in public, while MGM was pouring an endless glop of corny wholesomeness on the pancakes of sentimental hogwash to more or less that same society.

One of the tamer “official” Ziegfield girls
photos by Alfred Cheney Johnson,
The Playboy centerfold of its day 

What brings us up to date is that we now have a machine that sells the former with all the institutional muscle of the former.

Fame and celebrity are commodities, to be sold at the highest price per pound of sleaze that the market will bear. 

Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.]

In the 1949 MGM Jimmy Stewart film (yesterday), pure crap though the publicity campaign is, it’s pure WHOLESOME crap.

Frank Morgan (different film, obviously)

Frank Morgan’s ‘moustache’ and his ‘youthfulness’ and ‘athleticism’ are pushed by the Public Relations Department, but nobody is going to talk about Morgan’s well-known alcoholism. In fact, if anybody does, MGM will do its best to quash the story, flexing its muscle behind the scenes, as in “if you run this story, you will never receive any cooperation from this studio in future, no movie passes, no press kits, no stills, no interviews with our stars.” Wikipedia:

He was widely known to have had a drinking problem, according to several who worked with him, including actress Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the Westin The Wizard of Oz, 1939) and “Oz” historian Aljean Harmetz. Morgan sometimes carried a black briefcase to work fully equipped with a small mini bar.[3]

MGM had industrialized Ziegfeld’s publicity stunts, but they’d also sanitized and wholesomized them. Ladled with a helping of 100% Pure American Corn, the lead suggestion for a Sunday article is “17 MILLION CRITICS” and explains that Jimmy Stewart has to be believable to seventeen million fans who watched major league baseball, but it also is aware of a nation in which hundreds of thousands of veterans had returned from World War II, many with disabilities, and the fundamentally inspirational notion of the major league pitcher who lost his leg but returned to form.

wounded veteran Blaine Sullivan — 
2010 story from the Las Vegas Journal

You ought to recognize that story in a thousand variants from the nightly news, no matter whose news you use.

It relates very closely to the positive aspects of fame. “Human interest” means more than merely “interesting humans,” but also in the interest of humanity.

But today  MGM-style media/publicity machines dominate the landscape, and poor Ziegfeld is turned on his head: instead of using sleaze and scandal to sell sex, the media monopolies — that dwarf MGM’s (by comparison) paltry operation — use sex to sell sleaze and scandal.

To the eternal shame of the Pulitzer prizes …

Don’t believe me? Today’s sleaze scandal headline:

Michael Jackson Nude Death Photo Shown on Television
Tuesday October 11, 2011 03:30 PM EDT
People Magazine

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In a shocking moment during the televised Dr. Conrad Murray manslaughter trial, a photo of a nude and dead Michael Jackson was shown briefly on television Tuesday.

The photo, which had blacked out the singer’s genital area, showed Jackson lying on his back on an autopsy table after he died at age 50 in 2009….

Let’s track that. What draws you to the headline, the shameless reptile brain LOOK AT ME! — is “Michael Jackson Nude Death Photo.”

Naked death photo

OK. So you click, and they tell you how scandalous it was (“a shocking moment”) and then tell you the genital area was blacked out (therefore, not actually “NUDE”) and they do not show you the picture, nor tell you where this Matter of Pub(l)ic record might be viewed — which is the reason they SCREAMED for you to click on their slimy article in the first place.

Another click, more traffic, more advertising revenue and, of course, YOU get nothing at all. Not even the sleazy secret thrill of looking at this curiousity. Hey, we all rubberneck just a little at train wrecks — which is what People Magazine is depending on.

But note the Media Megalopoly that People represents the tiniest fraction of: Time/Warner, which includes motion picture studios, magazine and book publishing, cable channels (HBO, CNN, TBS, TNT, TCM, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera), cable SYSTEMS (Time Warner Cable) and so on and so forth and this entire story could play out within the confines of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE symbol: TWX) without ever making it out of the black hole of the Warnerverse (where Time slows to zero).

Mitt Romney at the Event Horizon

The same is true of the Murdochverse: you could commit public fornication with an underage student on local Fox News. Be publicly tried on Fox News Channel by Greta von Susterinininin, have your jailhouse memoir published by Harper-Collins, the book turned into a movie at Twentieth Century Fox (A NEWS CORPORATION COMPANY), be picked up by the Sun in the United Kingdom (don’t forget that Page 3 Girl™!), then pooh-poohed by the Sunday Times of London, your British scandal then editorialized on in the Wall Street Journal, and sleazy screen captures from the film (always come-on stories like the Michael Jackson story above) could show up on Page 6™ of the New York Post, and reported wide-eyed on Fox News Channel again, where Chris Wallace could interview you, fresh out of the pokey on Fox News Sunday, and NO OTHER COMPANY needs to have picked it up.

And then F/X could show the TV broadcast of your movie, which was hyped for all those months by all those scandals.

Then your paperback could come out.

And you could make the circuit of Fox syndicated talk shows on both TV and Radio.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And you’d have never left the Murdoch Multiverse.

Citizen Murdoch

No other media titan ever need mention a single word on the arrest, trial, etc. etc. etc. (But, of course, they DO; one hand scratches the other in the tidy country club of the Media Megaverse.)

I’d be against net neutrality if I were them, too.

The sausage that is bottled, canned, packaged and shipped through these massive entities is called “fame” and “celebrity.” Because it gets viewers, and it fills space with phony reporting about non-events that get the clicks. And, more often than not, the promise is never fulfilled, and readers and viewers are seen as domesticated livestock, to be exploited for cash, rather than customers you try to please with the best products and the best service.

Celebrity and/or fame becomes the commodity, and it’s bankable. Your “fame” or your Q-rating determines which talk shows will book you and which books will be written “by” you for those talk show appearances.

Where, formerly, if you wrote a book (and generally more than one) you might experience celebrity as an author, and even be allowed on the “dead” back end of late night talk shows, now, celebrity MAKES you an “author,” or, in Paris Hilton’s case a “NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR.”

Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt

You know, like Ernest Hemingway, or J.G. Ballard.

And, clueless civilization that we are, nobody blinks when functionally-illiterate-until-recently celebrity “authors” extol their bestsellingness and authorness on said talk shows. (Often but not exclusively from the publishing arm of the parent media corporation.)

Sorry, but if that’s an arena I’m supposed to be competing in, I refuse. (J’accuse!)

I am a writer and they are not, and that’s that for what it’s worth.

It comes back to something that I learned in understanding the mechanics of commercial pornography: it isn’t awful because the people making it are so awful; it’s terrible, because that’s what the customers want to see.

If something better is made, it doesn’t get the sales numbers that the “invisible hand of the market” acts on to move ALL pornography in that direction. No: business are lemmings, and whatever makes a big success will spawn imitators and counterfeiters until it’s not successful and they move on, like locusts to video arcades, or whatever is making the most money at present. If celebrity sleaze is what’s selling, then we sell celebrity sleaze. In American history, when the almighty dollar clashes with the public welfare, the almighty dollar always wins.

Or, as a literary agent once told me: “In the Seventies, if it was “erotica” it sold. I sold it and I sold it. In the Eighties it was romance novels, and I sold them and sold them….”

Our media is so terrible because that’s what the public is buying.

We are complicit as we fall for come-ons like “Michael Jackson Nude Death Photo Shown on Television.” And we are especially complicit when we consume this swill without ever noticing that they’re lying to us, conning us out of our precious time, our LIFE time, to watch some show or read some article that sells sleaze but will not deliver because they’re “too moral” for such things.

But we may only be complicit because we don’t ever realize how badly and shamelessly we’re being conned with fake news and ginned-up stunts. With trickery, with smoke and mirrors and variations of the old shell game that still gulls foolish men with too much money and too little sense.

There was a reason that I brought up commercial pornography.

Paris Hilton’s sex tape “leaked” onto the internet. And, instead of shunning and ridiculing Paris Hilton as all porn actresses are shunned and ridiculed by most media, somehow it wasn’t her fault, and the tape isn’t STILL selling, and Paris Hilton became a celebrity (“famous for being famous”) which she cashed in on with a bestselling “book” two reality tv shows, lines of perfume, makeup and other FemmeTech accouterments, etcetera, etcetera.

I’m keeping this “G” rated and not posting a link

Funny: I don’t see Annette Haven on Jay Leno or Dave Letterman. At the very least, you can say that Annette Haven is honest. She had a purpose for doing what she did, and she has never been ashamed of it, or backed down.

An odd morality we have these days. When the same behavior is accepted or shunned, depending on the spin one puts on it. I mean, I’ve seen the tape, and while Paris Hilton does what she does exactly as you would see in ANY American commercial pornography, she doesn’t do it as well as you would see in any American commercial pornography.

Whoops! Wrong commercial pornography. Sorry.

Or Kim Kardashian, who did the same thing with the same results — whose fame came precisely the same way Paris’ did — except SHE did it with a BLACK MAN, and suddenly the Kardashians have completely taken over the E! Channel (owned by NBC/Universal, which is itself owned 51/49% by Comcast and General Electric, respectively but not respectfully).

And, just to make my writing life easier, lookie what just showed up on the news feed:

Keeping up with Kim: Paris Hilton the copycat borrows her rival Kardashian’s look 


Last updated at 8:39 PM on 11th October 2011

Keeping up with the Kardashians is not easy – just ask Paris Hilton.

The socialite, who has been eclipsed in recent years by her former best friend and employee Kim, was spotted at LAX airport in an outfit seemingly inspired by her brunette rival.

The 30-year-old touched down in leather trousers, black boots and an oversized Rachel Zoe cape cinched in at the waist…

Ooh. Dots connected.

I’ll save your reptile brain the trouble: they’re both dressed in glorified ponchos and wearing thigh high leather boots. They’re wearing sunglasses and wearing oversized sunglasses. Hardly worth the bother, but it gets you to click.

This week’s sleaze (8 Oct 2011) “Revealed: Actress
Dyan Cannon, pictured at a fancy dress
party in the 1960s, has lifted the lid on her
troubled relationship with Cary Grant

This is toxic celebrity: the fame whore as literal whore (having sex on camera for notoriety and money), who thrives on being constantly written about by a vampiric celebrity press — who only care that they get lots of clicks. And when the fame goes away, they write about whomever else. As democratic as piranhas, but not what I’d call “reporters.”

The celebrity machine trucks in human suffering, and if they can’t find it, they’ll manufacture it.

We have become the two American travelers in the story:

Traveller #1: The food there was TERRIBLE!

Traveller #2: And such small portions!

The swill decrys itself, even as it delivers itself to us: Nude Dead Pictures! (But we’re too decent to show them.)*

[* And what sleazeballs these meat-vendors be. See here for my exposé of doctored photos in the Mel Gibson case, “If You’re Going to Pull a Hoax, LEARN about PhotoShop(17 July 2010). When both the site in question and their competitor sites were informed of this, no one reported it. Instead, the entire line of “news” ceased. Across the board. When narrative conflicts with facts, dump the facts. When facts embarrass the narrative, run silent, run deep.]

When caught running a lie, they simply dropped the story

Hiltons and Kardashians, reprehensible they might be, could not continue to bounce off media outlets like a pinball gone wild against the bumpers, unless it fit into the agenda and aims of that selfsame media: they are the grease that lubricates the gears of the monoliths that dominate the world landscape. It’s a sort of Field of Nightmares: If you gild it, they will come.

But you’d better gild it in sex, scandal, drugs, partying, lots of juicy gossip tidbits and bad fashion. (Really, in the Daily Mail article, they look like transvestite versions of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.”

(Is that a Mexican poncho, or is that a Sears poncho? Line is from Frank Zappa’s “Camarillo Brillo” — a song that might have been WRITTEN about Paris or Kim.)


Now, in 1948 (the year before “The Stratton Story” was made by MGM) the Supreme Court handed down a decision that effectively broke the monopoly of the old studio system, in which the studios owned the theaters, and independent producers were effectively frozen out of the market. *

Here’s the gist of it:

The Hollywood studios’ antitrust problems began with an Federal Trade Commission investigation in 1921. The FTC declared block booking anticompetitive, and brought into question other studio practices related to their theater monopolies. In 1928, the FTC took Famous Players-Lasky (the forerunner to Paramount Pictures) to court, along with nine other major Hollywood studios. In 1930 the major studios were declared guilty of monopolization. However, the effects of the decision were nullified by a controversial deal arranged with the Roosevelt administration during the depths of the Great Depression.

After having weathered the worst of the Depression, the major studios emerged more powerful than ever. In 1938, the Roosevelt administration turned the tables on the studios, ordering the Department of Justice to file suit against Hollywood’s Big Eight. The case U.S. v. Paramount was delayed several times by consent decrees and World War II. However, largely due to the influence of the independent producers and the rise of the SIMPP, the case made it to the Supreme Court where the famous 1948 decision lead to the abolishment of block booking, and the forced divestiture of the studios to sell off their theater chains.

And the interesting thing is that antitrust violations were still being in 1998:

And it continues nearly to the present day:

FRIDAY, MAY 21, 2010
(202) 514-2007
TDD (202) 514-1888


Divestitures Will Preserve Movie Theater Competition
in Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis Metropolitan Areas

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice announced today that it will require AMC Entertainment Group Inc. to divest movie theater assets in Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis in order to proceed with its proposed $275 million acquisition of most of the theaters operated by Kerasotes Showplace Theatres. The department said that the transaction, as originally proposed, would likely substantially lessen competition among movie theaters that show first-run, commercial movies in the Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis metropolitan areas, resulting in higher ticket prices and decreased quality viewing experience for moviegoers.

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division filed a civil lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Washington to block the proposed acquisition…

Still, it seems astonishing that we have allowed these monopolies to creep up in our media, as in our banks.

Bank Consolidation – click for larger

Which is a simpler version of media consolidation:

click image for larger, or here is the original blog posting

It has become a mindless race to the bottom, as we increasingly venerate mediocrity and sleaze (and, I will submit, both terms apply equally to our two poster girls, Kim and Paris) in a never-ending cycle of non-news, punctuated by lies and lunatics like Nancy Grace, who has turned beauty parlor vengeance rhetoric into a national televised institution (and now she’s invading the muse Terpsichore’s turf, which, were I Terpsichore, might give me pause).

The endless variety of train-wrecks that have commanded our national gutter attention is so endless, I will not limn them here. If you feel in any wise deprived, think of five celebrity sex scandals (hint, think “Jennifer Anniston”), five celebrity drug and or jail time scandals (hint: think “tax protestor”), and five former felons who have made media comebacks and now sit as pundits or personalities on tv and radio. (Hint: think “toe sucking.”)

The media monopolies have to fill the endless void that 24-hour-news creates, and it’s no accident that many cable outlets do at least three hours of repeats of their top shows every 24 hours. But, increasingly, the “celebrity” news and the “celebrity” aspects of the news manage, via the “entertain-o-mania” of the Media … colossuses, colossi?

The Media Colossus and its few clones.

What were we talking about?

Oh yes, how vacuous filler and nonsense are drowning out the point of the news, and the meat of the news, and the news we need to hear.

Consider how the media spent hours and hours for weeks and weeks on Kim Kardashian, and almost zero time for weeks and weeks on the “Occupy Wall Street” phenomenon. Whether intentional (likely) or merely “accidental” (less so), the fundamental issue of our crumbling social contract, finances and nation was not as important as Kim Kardashian losing her goddam earring?

I rest my case.

Moral: If you’re going to run your entire culture according to the reptile brain, don’t be surprised if you end up in a culture of snakes.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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