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Genie Was Right

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Genie Was Right

The blogosphere being what it is, I’m sure the expiration date on Golden Globes commentary has passed. But since Monday night was a grotesque revelation, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

After being released from press tour coverage, I drove to the home of my pals Margy and Robert and watched the Pacific Coast feed of the Globes, and got there in just in time to watch the last 45 minutes of red carpet coverage on E! Between the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interviews and the gratuitous iris-shaped split screens and the director’s inability or unwillingness to identify who, exactly, we were looking at, I felt as if I was watching not a live telecast, but a pop physics event: the atomization of celebrity culture.

It was a surreal, bewildering and ultimately (yes, I’m surprised too) sad spectacle. In the hands of this year’s E! team, the red carpet walk was stripped of its last shreds of faux-pomp, its charming mirage of dignity (it’s essentially a receiving line for dollar-store royalty) and turned into a metaphor for how modern consumer culture treats its entertainers: as product.

Watching Paul Giamatti, Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Maria Bello, Natalie Portman, Geena Davis, Jamie Foxx, et al, crammed into the same soap-bubble-matted frame was instructive. Visually, without even realizing it was doing it, the channel revealed that it truly is interested in nothing besides compiling a cold-eyed tally of who’s here and what they’re wearing, then hazing them. This was to Joan Rivers as a jackhammer is to a stickpin. It reminded me of that moment in Phantom of the Opera when the creature strips off his already scary mask to reveal a face that’s even more hideous.

The new E! team of Ryan Seacrest, Giuliana DePandi and Isaac Mizrahi was dumber, uglier and rattlesnake meaner than the last red carpet team, which counterbalanced Kathy Griffin’s postmodern bitch improvs (many of which were brilliant; she forced guests to rise to her level, and only the smart ones succeeded) with Star Jones Reynolds’ anesthetized ass-kissing. Rather than simply make small talk with the arrivals, Seacrest, DePandi and Mizrahi seemed to be trying to bring everybody down a peg, or several pegs. Between DePandi’s har-de-har breasts-equals-golden globes jokes, Mizrahi’s nonstop questions about underwire and underwear and his fetishistic invasion of women’s purses and his groping of Scarlett Johansson (“I touched Scarlett’s boobie!” he crowed), and Seacrest’s Green Goblin smile and his thug-jock, When-you’re-slapped-you’ll-take-it-and-like it sniping at Mizrahi, I thought not about E!, or the Globes, or any specific movie or TV show that was up for an award, but a recurring conversation I have with my stepmother, Genie Grant, a seventysomething jazz musician who’s earthy and wise, but not so earthy and wise that she can’t admit missing a long-gone era.

That era, Genie tells me, was sometime before the 1960s, when people weren’t innocent (contrary to what certain TV producers and movie directors keep telling us) but did have a sense of decorum and perspective that has been systematically and coldly dismantled, and replaced with snark.

You may find this unbelievable, you might even find it absurd, but there was in fact a time when Americans expected celebrities to represent our best aspirations. Even though, deep down, everyone knew that was an unrealistic and even unfair expectation, they clung to it anyway because was a necessary social myth, part of the fabric of 20th century life, and an illustration of what the word “etiquette” actually means: not a manifestation of naïveté, not a lampshade drape that gives Blanche DuBois permission to feel pretty, not an indicator of insincerity or phoniness, but the glue that holds daily life together; the thing that makes it possible to get through 24 hours without wanting to kill somebody; the thing that separates us from, say, jackals.

Now, don’t misunderstand: my stepmother is not one of those holier-than-thou grannies who insists, against all evidence, on weeping for some American Brigadoon. She’s had multiple marriages and children and now tends enough grandchildren to field a football team. She dug the ’60s and ’70s, and I’m guessing she had just as much fun in the ’50s, though she’s too discreet to dish dirt. Being a homo sapiens of a certain age, my stepmother has seen, and in some cases been a party to, some of the worst human behavior you can imagine. Or, as she puts it whenever she senses that I think she’s at risk of dying from nostalgia: “I’m a jazz musician, for God’s sake.”

When Genie says there was a better time than this, all she’s asking for is a bare minimum of decency. The minimum being exemplified by, say, engaging with, but not reflexively insulting, the celebrities you’ve been assigned to cover; making charming, smart, perhaps obliquely racy small talk with them (for a master class in the latter, see Johnny Carson) rather than putting them on sexual display and habitually mocking and diminishing them and generally acting like snotnosed American children in London trying to get a reaction from the palace guard by making fart noises. That sort of thing.

My stepmother, a jazz musician, isn’t interested in contemporary pop culture because she thinks it does not respect itself and we don’t respect it, and that those two mutually reinforcing realities contribute, in some small but tangible way, to the degradation, the emptiness, the rampant materialism, the sheer animal crudeness of so-called modern life. And you know what? She’s right. This telecast was proof. Our celebrities represent us; most of them are mediocrities, and we hate ourselves for filling our minds with their plasticine images, and that that’s why we encourage our media proxies to abuse them.

“Every single movie for the last three years, you look like a scary dyke with no teeth!” Mizrahi screeched at Charlize Theron. Then he asked her if her limo driver was hot—flummoxed, she answered “No,’ then looked right into the camera, as if picturing herself being dumped by the side of the road, then amended, “Kind of.” At the red carpet team’s request, the camera went in for a tight shot of Theron’s sheer gown—not a porn star outfit, like a lot of red carpet getups, but a pretty decent tightrope walk between class and naughtiness, the haute couture equivalent of a Johnny Carson double-entendre—then moved the camera from head to toe like the Big Bad Wolf ogling Red Hot Riding Hood. “Give us that shot one more time,” Seacrest intoned, briefly reminding me of the hate-sex-loving yuppie swine in Mike Leigh’s Naked. As a telephoto skycam shot straight down into Mariah Carey’s bosom, DePandi said, “It’s a good thing you’re up above the red carpet, because there’s Mariah Carey!”

It was an evolutionary moment for E! In its first few years, the channel built a lucrative brand name by swathing bitchy detachment inside pro forma stargazing. Now, like the Phantom, it reveals its true face. E! puts celebrities, near-celebrities and onetime celebrities on pedestals, the better to pelt them with balls of dung.

I’m not saying that certain celebrities aren’t trivial or stupid. I’m not saying that the rich and famous don’t deserve to have their bubbles punctured. I’m not saying this country, indeed the world, isn’t better off for the sexual and philosophical revolutions of the postwar era. And I’m not saying that E!’s Golden Globes arrival coverage is what’s wrong with America.

But I am saying that if you want to know why you feel disgusted when you think about what passes for The Culture, Monday night’s red carpet walk isn’t a bad place to look.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.