Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gorbachev? Who's Gorbachev?

Walking home from our favorite Chinese restaurant in Manhattan last night, my boyfriend and I happened on a large crowd gathered outside West 49th street, between Broadway and 8th avenue. The horde, an interesting body of mostly tall, bony models and exuberant-looking, overweight tourists, was assembled underneath the Chicago marquee. The play was letting out, and the actors were filing out sporadically, one-by-one.

I knew what the fuss was about—I ran into this crowd about a month earlier, when on my way home from seeing Hal Sparks perform at Caroline’s Comedy Club. They were waiting on the star of Chicago, Rita Wilson, to come out and sign autographs before being briskly whisked away by her bodyguard and her black, protective SUV. But, as I would find out, tonight would be even more special—well, by American standards, anyway.

It seemed, among the anxious chatter and nonstop camera clicking, that something was abuzz in the air that made this event too good to miss. I asked one in the multitude just what everyone was waiting for, and he told me that Tom Hanks would be escorting his wife (Rita Wilson) to her car after signing autographs for the crowd. And, as if this weren’t enough, apparently Steven Spielberg was seated across the street in his own mystical-looking SUV, waiting for the couple. Wow, I thought; this is going to be an interesting social phenomenon that should not be missed.

I begged my partner to stay—a partner prone to disgorging at the mere mention of a celebrity event—and pleaded my case that tonight we would be witnesses to a most interesting social occurrence: celebrity culture in action. And, as a not-too-poor byproduct, we would get to see Hanks, Wilson, and Spielberg. Not too bad for a walk home from dinner. But, then, that’s Manhattan.

As we were standing and patiently awaiting what one would have thought was a premier of the resurrected Christ, my partner snidely remarked that “these people are so stupid.” “Stupid?” I asked. “Why stupid?” He proceeded to tell me what most college professors and cultural and political elitists would—that “these people,” standing breathless for hours, in the biggest heat wave to hit New York in some time, were perfect examples of the idiocy of the typical American; that is, that he will wait in scorching and humid weather for hours to see the star of The Da Vinci Code, but that he would probably not vote in the next presidential election (not to mention any other election—yes, they exist); that he would most likely not even know the issues at hand in any election (except, of course, the most divisive: abortion and gay marriage—duh); that he could name the most recent eliminations on shows such as American Idol and America’s Got Talent, and that he could, from this latter show, probably tell you the most recent pithy PR catchphrases from David Hasselhoff (you know, like “Don’t Hassel the Hoff,” “Look at this hot Hoffie,” etc.), but that, in all likelihood, he could not tell you why he is a Democrat or Republican—just that he is a Democrat or Republican; that he probably could not tell you what the theoretical benefits of communism and capitalism are, but that he could, of course, tell you that “all communists suck.”

My partner had a point. So he put it to the test. As we were still standing in the stickiness of a New York summer, he asked a fellow bystander if he was excited about seeing the dignitary about to come forth. Luckily for us, the bystander was unaware of why the mass had assembled in the first place and responded to us by asking whom we were waiting for. “Gorbachev,” my partner said. “Gorbachev? Who’s Gorbachev?” the passerby asked. Needless to say, within minutes this at-first-excited participant simply walked away. But there was more. Another pedestrian strolled up to us and asked what was going on. “We’re waiting for Gorbachev to come out of the building.” This stunned onlooker seemed to have a difficult time even repeating the name, “Gor-ba-what?”

There was no need to wait hours in a drenching sweat for Gorbachev, a man responsible for some of the most important reforms in the then Soviet Union, a man responsible for so many decisions in the Cold War. No, this day, like others, was won by the stars of Hollywood. Nobody cared if a political heavyweight like Gorbachev or Charles Schumer or Rudolph Giuliani was waiting inside. They wanted the Hollywood whipped cream: Hanks, Spielberg, and Wilson. I imagine this same crowd probably lauded the representation of Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, extolling his rebellious virtue and his refusal to accept the status quo; yet I would be shocked if they still commended his “humanitarianism” if they knew that he was one of many responsible for savagely murdering thousands of civilians and putting Fidel Castro into power.

Exactly what this means to me is unclear. Perhaps this is just another experience of the richest country in the world doing what it does best: celebrating those who have more wealth and fame than the common man will ever have, simultaneously decrying “big business” and “the corporation-run country,” whatever that means, all while concomitantly enjoying the byproduct benefits of celebrity-obsessed culture, free-market capitalism, and democracy: namely, wealth and the freedom to be shallow.

The worst part? Probably the fact that right after I joined my partner in scoffing at “these stupid people” I whipped out my cell, called my parents in Ohio and bragged that I had just seen Tom Hanks.


posted by A Little Boyish @ 2/22/2007 02:42:00 AM |


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