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Hollywood Death Trip
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's been a couple of weeks now since you went scrambling to the computer on a hourly basis to see which new famous person had died, so I figured that this would be a good time to reflect on how truly ghoulish your behavior was. And please, don't deny it, and don't try to rationalize it, and don't try to pretend that you cared about those dead celebrities. I know you didn't. I know you were only interested because they were dead and they were famous. I know you jumped on the internet or the phone after you heard, hoping to be the person who broke the news to that friend who might have still been in the dark. I know that after Billy Mays died you thought we were in the midst of a celebrity death avalanche, and so you kept your eyes glued to the computer screen, interested (eager?) to see what body tumbled down next. I know that after a few eventless days you probably lost hope, but then Steve McNair kicked up the snow a little bit and you returned to your vigil.
Eventually, though, as the July 4th weekend passed, it became apparent that the McNair thing was the last flourish, and that the great Celebrity Death Storm of '09 had finally passed beyond your radar screen. And okay, maybe that Brazilian boxer guy got your heart pumping, at first--his wife killed him with her purse, after all--but come on, you were really reaching there, you never even heard of the guy. It's boxing, for God's sake. And Brazil. With a sigh you returned to your humdrum, predictable existence, with only the memory of those fun celebrity deaths to help you pass the days.
If it seems like I'm wagging a big, fat, righteous finger in your face, well, I am. But rest assured, I''m wagging it in front of my own face as well. I was thoroughly addicted to that "Breaking News!" scroll on CNN for a couple of weeks there, and I have to admit I relished being the first to repeat the ghoulish reports to some unsuspecting friend. There's no possible way to justify this creepy behavior, of course, but I can say that after a few days my conscience took over and I started to feel ashamed of my necro-voyeurism. Ultimately I think I had heard just too many Michael Jackson jokes from too many fools to feel comfortable studying the daily death columns with diligence.
It is worth mentioning the tritest of cliches here--namely, that celebrities are people, too, and that, as human beings, their deaths shouldn't be treated with perversity and mocking and contempt and dumb-ass jokes from brain-dead DJs and TV commentators. Their deaths should be treated with respect, as any loss of life should be treated. The hysteria of the Michael Jackson coverage produced some of the most galling comments I've ever heard on television, and the derision and morbidity that accompanied the reports made me cringe. I've never been afraid of gallows humor and God knows I love a cheap laugh at someone else's expense, still the mercilessness of people's response to some celebrity deaths is completely unnerving. Shouldn't we be just a tiny bit more reverential, more sophisticated? Isn't it still improper to speak ill of the dead?
I know I sound like a grumbling old man shaking a cane here, but I can't help it. We're a little too cavalier about celebrity deaths right now. Eveytime I see one of those "Memorials" on the Academy Awards I get incredibly embarrassed--people applaud for the dead, for some oddball reason, and they applaud harder for the more recognizable dead. This has always seemed comically inappropriate to me. Invariably, every year, some Swedish cinematographer who's revolutionized the art form will get a smattering of applause and then a photograph of, oh, I don't know, Grandpa Munster will appear and everybody goes nuts and brings the house down. It's embarrassing, pathetic, belittling--as if the audience can only think of people (even in death) in high-school, popularity-contest terms.
I remember a passage I read in Chaim Potok's book The Chosen--according to the Talmud, the only proper response to death is silence. Failing that, of course, we've learned other ways. I can't help comparing how I've felt about the recent celebrity deaths to my reaction to another death I read about earlier this year, in Fort Wayne. You may remember it, too. A local woman was found in her car in a northwest hotel parking lot. She had been dead a few days and apparently no one had noticed her. This saddened me greatly, that the loss of someone could be so oblivious to our city, to our world. It was the exact opposite of a celebrity death. I remembered thinking that this was a story from somewhere else, from some faceless, indifferent big city, some harsh highway metropolis like Los Angeles. Like Hollywood. Not Fort Wayne.