MARTIN SCORSESE wins the Stardumb play-of-the-week award for this beaut: "It seems to me that any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and, if it does, then only temporarily. . . There must be people who remember World War II and the Holocaust who can help us get out of this rut."
Note to the famed director of such bloody classics as "Goodfellas" (in which a Mafia organization maintains discipline through violence), "Taxi Driver" (in which a young girl is saved from a life of prostitution by violence), and "Raging Bull" (in which violence, sadly, gets the better of Jake La Motta): Violence changes everything.
Ask the September 11 widows. Ask the Holocaust survivors. Ask the French. Then again, don't ask the French, who rolled over for Hitler, apologized for Stalin, and have practically a zero batting average when it comes to opposing the world's most dangerous tyrants. In the last century millions of lives were annihilated by political violence while the French nosed around bookstores lost in some nihilist daydream over whether Life Itself still had Meaning.
Also this week, the cast of 25th Hour have been pissing on George W. Bush as they travel through France and Germany courting publicity for their film. Director Spike Lee hopes "more people will rise up" against the Bush administration. Lee says the French and German governments should be commended for opening a huge rift in NATO and helping Saddam nullify another inspections process. The film's lead actor, smart guy Edward Norton, said it was nice being in Europe just now: "I almost forgot what it was like to be proud of my government." Sexy showditz Rosario Dawson commented that in the United States these days "any dissenting opinion is considered unpatriotic."
Ah, yes. The American habit of playing dissenter abroad meets the inability of a stardummy to admit one's acting experience hardly matters to the question of how to deal with Saddam. Of course most of this is mere shadowboxing, opining about what it means to have an opinion. With rare exceptions like Susan Sarandon, who had the courage and stupidity to ask what Iraq ever did to us, most American celebrities posing for the anti-American press in Europe haven't the stomach to actually go where they are heading. That is, they won't say Saddam poses no threat to anyone. They won't say the inspections process works. They won't say the United Nations is the only just arbiter of warfare. They won't say the Iraqi people are safe and free under the current Baathist regime. Of course, being stuck in a logical corner doesn't stop them from taking a swing at the big issues of the day. The temptation to assert their omni-relevance is simply irresistible.
TODAY'S FEATURED STARDUMMY, John Cusack, has also been caught yearning for proof of his own significance. The sadness of it is that a talented and deeply likable actor has now made a baffling spectacle of himself.
Half the problem is that Cusack currently plays the title role in a Weimar fantasy flick called "Max" which is outstanding for its unwitting wrong-headedness. The film's unfortunate mix of anachronism, historical romanticizing, and out-and-out crappiness makes it the accidental soulmate of "Springtime for Hitler," the intentionally bad play-within-a-play in "The Producers." The other half of Cusack's problem is that, while doing publicity for his bizarre movie, he has been mouthing off about George Bush, calling the president a kitschy warmonger devoid of moral purpose. Thus has the endearing star of such movies as "Say Anything" and "The Grifters" placed himself in the curious position of trying to humanize Adolf Hitler even while trying to Hitlerize Bush.
Stardumb Hypothesis Number 2: A blind spot for infamy is a necessary precondition of stardumb. Intellectual pretensions, however, are merely helpful, though increasingly so when offered to compensate for the non-intellectual source of one's fame.
In an extraordinary interview with Beliefnet, Cusack is asked how he prepared for the title role of art dealer Max Rothmann, a German Jew. However, the interviewer pushes a button by mentioning, en passant, that Cusack himself was raised Catholic. The actor's answer: "I was raised Catholic until I was old enough, you know, to say no. My father was great friends with [peace activist] Phil Berrigan, who just passed away. So obviously, I was informed by his kind of radical, left-wing Jesuit mindset." Notice how even as an ex-Catholic, Cusack seems to want credit for being the right kind of apostate. That established, Cusack goes on to say that "research-wise," he did do "a little work" on the role of Max: "I read a book by a Yale professor, Paul Mendes Flohr, a history of the different manifestations of German Judaism."
Cusack is clearly no humble romantic of the Lloyd Dobler school. Rather, by his name-dropping and hilarious "I read a book by a Yale professor" formulation, Johnny, as he calls himself, shows he genuinely wants to be taken seriously. Just not as the kind of stuffybutt who does a lot of work and takes himself too seriously. Okay, then let us try to take seriously the man whose fame goes back to playing Lane Myer in 1985's inspired bit of silliness, "Better Off Dead."
"You put your schedule on hold until you could make this movie," says interviewer Paul O'Donnell. "Why was this movie so important to you?"
Cusack's answer: "So many reasons. First of all, this notion that Hitler's only original idea was this fusion of art and politics. He saw that the future was going to be a fusion of these two forces. He despised the content of left-wing aesthetics, the art of the avant-garde, but the form he found remarkably powerful. He understood that, in the modern world, whoever controls images and symbols has the power. He understood that art reaches people's subconscious, and that battles will be fought on the spiritual plane of art for people's souls."
First, let's note the inanity of holding Hitler in contempt for his lack of "originality." A man takes over practically all of Europe, he brings about the death of six million Jews, to say nothing of the 20 million Russians who died during World War II, and the many English and French and so on, and Cusack treats him like a second-rate art-school wannabe. The premise itself is of course laughable: Surely, the ultimate relevance of Hitler's artistic endeavors is rather on par with the fact that Josef Stalin once studied in a seminary. (No, wait, that would make a great movie about a priest and a future murderer-dictator going back and forth over theological questions as they represent competing futures for Russia. We can call this Stalin flick "Bill," after the priest who is intrigued by this willful young man with bushy hair and godless ideals.)
Next, has the future, as Cusack says, proven to be a "fusion" of art and politics? What facile nonsense. So generic, so windy, so worthless--as is the idea that "whoever controls images and symbols has the power." The movie poster for "Max" offers another version of the same adolescent theorizing: "Art + Politics = Power."
Stardumb Hypothesis Number 3: People whose success relies largely on images are likely to credit imagery for all kinds of success. Rational examination, however, shows this to be a bit like a tailor saying the reason a politician is so popular is his excellent taste in blue, single-breasted, two-button suits.
The omniscient Cusack then applies his aesthetic view of history to September 11: "The reason bin Laden staggered the planes going into the towers was so every camera would be focused on the second tower when the plane hit. It was not only the murder, but the perpetual image of the horror that permeated into people's consciousness. It was not the murder itself, but the iconography of the murder."
No other comment I know of so perfectly succeeds at capturing the amorality and fatuousness of viewing a real-life calamity as a movie production. Not that Cusack faces all that much competition on this score.
In summary, Johnny boy seems torn between two views. On the one hand, the terrorism of September 11 was a horrible assault on human life. On the other hand, it was great cinema.
The latter take isn't very different from the infamous words of "Prozac Nation" author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who called the World Trade Center attacks "a really strange art project," saying that, visually speaking, Osama's performance piece was a success: It made for a "most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone's head." Incidentally, Miramax has been keeping the movie version of "Prozac Nation" in the vault for about a year now because of the controversy generated by Wurtzel's comments.
Read Cusack's key assertion again: "It was not the murder itself, but the iconography of murder." Bin Laden, you see, is essentially a visual artist. And pretty handy with symbols, like, well, that famous painter, Adolf Hitler. The two of them are/were just a couple of beret-wearing, portfolio-toting, studio-dwelling sketchers struggling with their respective media, and wondering how to make good on their great ambition to change the way we look at the world around us.
Barbrometer: Four out of five Barbra Streisands.
Grader's comment: John Cusack proves that a decent IQ is no defense against idiocy. In fact, certain errors absorb and feed off the mind of a bright person like a plant sucking water through its roots. Making matters worse is the fact that Cusack tries to coast on the expectation of his cleverness. So he lazily dresses his comments in just enough intellectual garb for them to appear deep. As for his thoughts on art and power, well, only a true pseudo-intellectual could be this dumb.
Incidentally . . . Several helpful readers bring our attention to a very funny piece by Laura Billings in the St. Paul Pioneer Press defending stardummies like the peerlessly stupid Martin Sheen. But more important, who knew there could be a stardumb flack? It's apparently a volunteer position, requiring no better understanding of the current situation than that possessed by your clients. My favorite part of Billings's essay is where she compares Sheryl Crow, famous for worrying about the karmic consequences of toppling Saddam, to Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, and Jesus Christ.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.
Correction appended, 02/14/03: The article originally stated that Laura Billings's article appeared in the Star-Tribune. It appeared in the Pioneer Press.