Writers and Ghouls
As a freelance writer, I have a distinct way of grieving celebrities. I’ll check Facebook and see that, to use the most recent example, Adam West died. “No!” is always my first response, because there is some dumb part of my brain that somehow can’t ever believe it when someone famous perishes. Then I think about the person’s life and work and, in the case of West, how, as a child, West’s performance as Batman was one of my first and most influential introductions to camp, and how that went on to inform the way I saw both comedy and pop culture.
And then I’ll think about how West’s subsequent career rode the wave of winking, campy, meta-textual comedy Batman helped perfect, whether as the star of Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien’s super-genius pilot Lookwell or as the Mayor of Quahog in Family Guy. I’ll celebrate the dead artist’s life, and mourn their death.
This process genuinely takes anywhere between 37 seconds and two and a half minutes. The stages of grief are radically condensed for freelance writers. Then my brain immediately sets about trying to figure out the best angle to pitch freelance outlets with. Needless to say, time is of the essence. I pitched what I thought was an excellent idea early Sunday afternoon and was told by my editor, who I like a great deal, that she was going out for meetings all afternoon and by the time she returned the heat would be off West. I was disappointed, but I understood.
There’s an awful math that goes along with dead celebrity coverage. An editor has to gauge on the fly how much interest there is in the dead celebrity’s life, and consequently how much coverage is warranted, and for how long, and in what depth. This is another instance where ageism rears its ugly head. Dead celebs tend to be old, of course, and our society doesn’t much value old people even if they’re famous.
Some celebrity deaths are so big and shocking and dramatic that we never get over them. We’re still obsessing about the deaths of Prince and Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson and JFK and Elvis. We will never stop, whereas other deaths affect a much smaller group of people, like, for example, Michael Parks and Powers Boothe. Both were great actors with fascinating lives and careers who, alas, were nowhere near popular or famous enough to merit much in the way of memorial coverage.
I feel like a bit of a ghoul seeing a possible paycheck in the death of every great filmmaker, musician or actor, like a hearse-chasing opportunist trying to benefit financially from the deaths of my heroes. Truth be told, obituaries were always something I dreaded back in my days at The A.V. Club and The Dissolve. They were always something I did because I had to, or felt I must, not because I wanted to. It’s impossible to do justice to the complexity and richness of someone’s life in an article you throw together in an hour and a half to beat the rush of other sites running similar tributes, but it’s also necessary to at least try.
Besides, my interest in commemorating the dead comes from an honorable place, ultimately. I recently wrote up Jonathan Demme for my First and Last column at TCM Backlot, where I analyze a director’s life and career through the prism of their first and last film. I love writing the column, but I have weird dearth of options for it so oftentimes when a big filmmaker dies, I’ll often write about them for First and Last.
I wrote about Demme because there was a paycheck in it, sure, but also because while he’s never been my favorite filmmaker, I love his work and think he’s important and special and unique and I wanted to pay tribute to a great man who contributed a lot of the world of film, and the world of music, and deserves to be celebrated.
It’s also nice that First and Last is a column so I can choose what I want to cover, which is frequently the work of a recently passed filmmaker, and I don’t have to worry about rejection.
I’m also fortunate that I have Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, and I have so much faith in your intelligence, pop culture savvy and attention spans that I am going to assume that you’re still going to be sad about West’s death and interested in his extraordinary life and career when I publish my tribute to West next week. Such coverage would be ice-cold for most sites, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he’ll still have a warm place in your heart weeks, months, heck even years, after he died.
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