The Case For Caring About Famous Dead People

The response to the recent news about the death of John Hughes, director of seminal teen comedy works like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, was interesting in a number of ways. Not only because his death gave me a reason to rewatch some of the best comedies of my lifetime, but also because the sudden outpourings of nostalgia had me thinking about the nature of admiring and identifying with famous people.

When Michael Jackson died back in June, I felt something similar to the slight sadness with which I received news of Hughes’ passing. Still, my personal relationship with Jackson’s cultural legacy was greater than it was with Hughes. Before they turned to the crime mystery genre, many of the Jackson obituaries in some ways resembled my own: They purported to be about the man himself, but without even wanting to, many of them ended up as some sort of testimony to the impact Jackson’s music and myth had on a generation of pop music lovers. In addition to being a source for personal therapy, they offered a way to investigate his impact on a culture at large.

It is this, watching how people of different generations and backgrounds find support and comfort in common experiences at different times, that makes our obsession with dead celebrities so fascinating. I may have been introduced to Michael Jackson through Dangerous not Thriller, and my first experience with John Hughes may have been Home Alone and not The Breakfast Club, but regardless of the fact that I’m too young to remember their prime, the written eulogies stirred me. Not only because many of them were thoughtful, appreciative, poignant and beautifully written, but also because I had, many years later, and long since removed from the cultural moment that canonized them, some of the same experiences.

Even though I was born the same year The Breakfast Club was released, its anti-authoritarian spirit, surprising warmth, wit and eye for effective and essentially cinematic storytelling, still spoke to me when I saw it for the first time two years ago. And I’m pretty sure this had little to do with the consensus in declaring it a modern classic. Despite all the later attempts to create something similar, the source of what had later become tired cliches nonetheless still feels funny and fresh. That basic fact, paired with a sense of how its gallery of teen comedy types prepared the way and made recognizable and acceptable the characters of more recent teen comedies classics like Dazed and Confused and Clueless, meant that the Hughes obits felt just as relevant to me as they would have to anyone who matured with Hughes’ short span of precise and angsty teencoms during the eighties. Thus, I’m inclined to agree with Dana Stevens of Slate, comparing Hughes’ cultural impact on that decade with that of Marlon Brando in the fifties, at the same time that I understand and appreciate the long-held skepticism of New York Magazine’s David Edelstein. Sixteen Candles was never a part of my growing up, but Dawson’s Creek was. I’m pretty sure Kevin Williamson’s TV show would have looked pretty different if it hadn’t been for Hughes. He simply offered a lens through which the social strata of teenagehood could be interpreted, and hopefully transcended.

Michael Jackson and John Hughes are only two examples of how the immediate framing of the legacy of influential personalities interest me, however. I don’t even have to have any personal experience with his or her work. The death of the author David Foster Wallace is a case in point. Before he died, I had only the vaguest sense of how central he had been to the debate about the concept of the Great American Novel over the last nearly twenty years, and I didn’t know Infinite Jest other than by name (no, I still haven’t read it, if that’s what you’re wondering). But some of the articles praising his work, like this one by Laura Miller in Salon, made me really interested in him both as an author, a “reporter”, a mythical figure (the brilliant but disturbed young literary genius) and a symptom (what it says about a culture to obsess so much about the romantic idea of the classic literary novel). In a perhaps bitter irony, it is great pieces like Miller’s who contribute to the fact that I probably read more books and articles about the possibilities and primacy of literary fiction than I read actual literary fiction itself. Laura Miller gave me an opportunity to share in the sense of loss and common experience, even though I had actually never read anything he wrote.

To me, expressing what Michael Jackson meant to you through personal anecdotes is not self-centered, and being moved by the death of David Foster Wallace is not conformism. It has little or nothing to do with a celebrity-crazed culture as such, and it doesn’t mean that we project our deepest feelings onto famous people because we don’t have any close friends or because we are unable to express them in other ways. Because our own experiences take the feelings from the abstract to the concrete, on the contrary, we are able to express ourselves individually within the context of a shared experience.

Or, as in the case of Laura Miller’s David Foster Wallace obit, it could be that the words are just that powerful. That’s a beautiful thought, don’t you think?

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