Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Zombification of American Culture


I hate ‘em.

Them, and vampires. I have neither read even a single issue of “The Walking Dead” nor watched even a minute of the TV show. It may well be the finest thing on television, but I have absolutely no interest in taking the time to find out. I just find the whole genre and concept boring beyond belief. The reason I drag vampires into this is the association I make with them and the other whole misbegotten genre of rewriting classic novels to include the undead and other creatures. (I was going to mention some of the titles, but I don’t want to give them even that much credibility or notice. Suffice it to say that, if you’re looking for them, you’ll find them.)

But that idea – zombies – is associated with another one in my mind. Lately, there’s a commercial running that features a youthful Audrey Hepburn – who died 21 years ago (thanks, Scott!) – pimping for candy. Now, I have no idea if Ms. Hepburn did or did not enjoy a nice chocolate. (Who doesn’t? But that’s another matter.) The technology behind the commercial is as impressive as it is annoying. Hepburn’s face has apparently been digitally grafted onto the body of another actress, an idea that does not bode well as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure that, lurking in the back of the heads of Hollywood executives is the idea that they can make “new” movies starring Humphrey Bogart or James Dean – or even Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose last unfinished performance in “The Hunger Games” (and don’t get me started on that franchise, either) will reportedly be digitally “enhanced.” Now that I think about it, in 1993, there was an episode of “Tales from the Crypt” that used early CGI to feature a “new” performance by Bogart. The resulting images were stiff and as lifeless as Bogart himself, but it was the first hint of the grave-robbing to come. (Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to try it again.)

 The live-action version was about this lively.

Now, as I’ve explained before, I don’t have much use for ventriloquists. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just one step from the bottom of show business. The bottom itself is reserved for impressionists. For my money, impressionists are bloodsuckers and bottom-feeders, playing on the notoriety that certain celebrities have achieved and latching onto the affection the public has developed for them. I don’t deny that crafting a good impression of someone is a talent and a skill. I just don’t know that it’s a worthy one. Why ape someone else’s personality at the expense of developing your own?

And even below this level are the people who imitate imitators. How many times have you heard someone do a Christopher Walken impression? Well, they’re not doing Walken; they’re doing Jay Mohr or Kevin Pollak’s version of Walken. Even when someone as talented as Kevin Spacey does his Johnny Carson impression, he’s not doing Johnny; he’s doing Rich Little’s Johnny.

The original. Accept no substitutes.

Back in my youth, impressionists like Little or Frank Gorshin or David Frye were always on variety shows, doing their voice work, and rather than coming up with something clever or based on their own personalities or sensibilities, it was inevitably “What if Jack Nicholson was a waiter?” or “Here’s Robert Mitchum working at a gas station.” Oy.

I hasten to add here that I exempt such performances as Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore or Frank Ferrante as Groucho Marx. Plummer was trying more to evoke Barrymore’s panache than do a straight “imitation” (and he was fucking brilliant doing it), and Ferrante is playing a character – as was Groucho. Even Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek is less trying to imitate Trebek himself than his public persona; he’s not trying to make us think “Why, he sounds just like Alex!” (And, of course, Ferrell’s Trebek is one of the few characters he does that I find even remotely entertaining. His George W. Bush and James Lipton, to name two, leave me utterly cold.) Back in the 80s and 90s, especially, there was a whole spate of TV movies dedicated to giving us the “real” stories behind such distinctive and original personalities as Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and even the Rat Pack. The vast majority of these were failures because – despite the good actors who appeared in them – audiences realized they were getting pale imitations of vibrant and original performers.

Buddy Hackett and Harvey Korman as Lou Costello and Bud Abbott -- two distinctive personalities straitjacketed by trying to play two other distinctive personalities.

But this whole digital thing is the ultimate in impressions; by combining the distinct image of Hepburn with a digital mask is like Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum; not only is it appropriating the affection the public has invested in these actors, but it raises them from the dead to sell us crap we don’t need.

It's alive! And trying to sell you a vacuum!

But now that I think about, though, isn’t that the American way?

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