Sunday, March 21, 2010

Long Form Gossip: The New Epic Poems Of Our Times

By Lars Trodson

Last week we were all briefly united through the dominant art force of our time: gossip. The saga of Sandra Bullock and her husband, the TV reality star Jesse James, created a national drama.

I had seen some early reports -- or, rather, the headlines of James' alleged infidelity on my Comcast homepage. But I find so many of the headlines for Comcast links to be misleading that I hardly even bother any more. So I skipped it.

But as I drove into work the next morning, I switched channels on the radio and heard an endless stream of people commenting on the Bullock/James story. It certainly seemed to unfold rather quickly -- the next thing I knew Bullock had moved out, canceled an important appearance due to “unforeseen circumstances” and then James issued a public apology.

Everybody had an opinion. Rick Sanchez on CNN asked why anybody would cheat on Sandra Bullock. He wasn't the only one. The implication being that it is unfathomable why you would cheat on a beautiful, rich woman but easier to understand if your spouse is unappealing and broke. Why bother to make a distinction; isn’t cheating cheating?

But that’s an aside. One of the first things I asked myself as this thing unfolded was: “Where did this news come from?” Someone had to spill the beans, and you figure it wasn’t the guy doing the cheating. I quickly learned that “In Touch” magazine had the exclusive -- maybe it’ll win a Pulitzer -- after talking to a woman named Michelle "Bombshell" McPhee. She's the one who supposedly had the affair with James. Then I read she had been paid for her story, but even so -- someone, somewhere -- contacted "In Touch" to let them know about the scoop. The story of an unknown woman and a married reality TV star (albeit one married to one of the true movie stars we have left) had to be told, didn't it? Isn't it important?

The answer is yes, it is important, because this is the kind of story that now captivates us.

This news broke about three weeks after Bullock had reached what no doubt will be the pinnacle of her career: a huge hit movie in “The Blind Side”, a modest hit with “The Proposal”, a stinker called “All About Steve” and a slew of acting awards, including the Oscar. People loved her as never before.

So everything about her or connected to her is news. Everything. I saw an editor from “In Touch” on one of the national entertainment shows. To see her seriously intone the words “vanilla gorilla” -- a nickname that Bombshell McPhee had apparently given to Jesse James -- was just about enough to make any patriotic American break down and cry.

What television and entertainment magazines and websites have done over the past few years is create a new type of gossip -- long-form gossip -- that has taken over from novels and movies as a way to capture our national attention. These are the stories that play out over days, weeks, months -- even years.

Even the coverage of politics has become a kind of celebrity gossip parlor game. The recent book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann garnered a lot of media attention not because of its incisive take on politics, or that it offered up sophisticated theories on modern political warfare, but rather because it was full of gossip. Harry Reid used an outdated word to describe blacks! Palin was dumb! Political spouses fought and probably weren’t as nice as we thought them to be!

The John Edwards story is the king of these kinds of long, drawn out political soap operas. If you think about it, there really isn't anything hefty about this story (outside of the personal weirdness and pain it caused the family). Edwards couldn't get out of the gate as a presidential contender, he doesn't hold public office and is, in a way, a marginal national figure. It's the idea that a guy who once ran for president and vice president got himself into an ugly mess that gets our attention. But knowing the details of this story reveals nothing fundamentally important about our country; it has nothing to do with the state of our economy or our safety. It's just...gossip, and we've been reading about it for months.

So the Edwards story isn't even political; it's celebrity entertainment, because that's who he is now, a celebrity. He joins the pack with Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Heidi and Spencer Pratt, Madonna, Amy Winehouse and others. These are the people constantly in the news and on TV -- so much so their lives begin to take on a kind of novelistic arc. The kids from the "Jersey Shore" are a modern version of the epic poem.

We’re hugely aware of the ups and downs and personal struggles of these people. The lure is so powerful that their friends, parents, boyfriends and girlfriends all become celebrities themselves. Long-form gossip has become so entrenched that I do not know if Lady Gaga is famous for her performing or for her personal life -- or does it simply not matter any more?

The perfect synthesis of this kind of storytelling can be found in Heidi and Spencer Pratt and Jon and Kate Gosselin. They have careers that are entirely made up of gossip -- about as substantial as the shadow cast by cigarette smoke. The fact that they are famous is due to their willingness to get on TV and gossip about their own lives. And now the tabloids are gossiping about their gossip and we’re gossiping about the tabloids’ gossip. It’s the perfect monster.

Michael Jackson went more than a decade without creating anything and yet he was always in the news. His story had everything;  and it not only was in full flower during his life, it shows no sign of abating months after his death.

This probably means the Bullock story won't go away any time soon. “In Touch” magazine caught the arc of the Bullock story beautifully. It hit right when the Bullock wave was about to crest. But now you can imagine armies of paparazzi and journalists and other types now scouring every detail of both Sandra Bullock and her husband. In a time and place where no detail seems too private or embarrassing to relate, it’s no doubt the stories will flow for weeks. And we'll all follow it. There's no need to sit down and try to create "Peyton Place" any more; it's happening right on TV and the Internet.

In the New York Times, the novelist David Shields is quoted as saying fiction "has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself." Shields is also quoted as saying he's "bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and characters..." He said he's much more interested in "reality-based art."

Shields' position could be nothing more than a conceit -- an artist that is barely known trying to get ahead of the curve on the next big thing. It could just be that this is all old-fashioned narcissism. Even so, he's on to something. The time we used to spend reading a novel is now spent on Sandra Bullock and Jesse James. If you want to be successful in the arts you may have to key into that. It's why the novel has morphed into the memoir.

I don't find anything amusing about this. The lives led by the Kardashians and the Jessica Simpsons and the Kirstie Alleys seem inexplicably dull to me.

But whatever I think about the details of their lives is irrelevant. These are now our national stories, the threads of drama that we speak about around the water cooler.

These are the epic dramas of our times.