Thursday, April 21, 2011

Heaven Is for Suckers

I can't think of a better example of the infantilization of theological thought than the current bestseller Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo. (Note: Burpo's coauthor, Lynn Vincent, ghostwrote Sarah Palin's recent Going Rogue, making this her second bestseller in a row.)

The unfortunately named Burpo is a small-town Nebraska pastor whose four-year-old son Colton, after being clinically "dead" for three minutes following an undiagnosed ruptured appendix, claimed to have visited Heaven -- and met not only his long-dead great-grandfather and miscarried sister but Jesus Himself.

Burpo's contention is that Colton can be taken at his word because he's never been prompted in any way. But let's be real: the boy's father is a pastor. And he's attended Sunday school, where he very likely was implanted with the traditional imagery of floating white clouds and Jesus on a throne, stigmata wounds and all. Plus any child in any household absorbs all sorts of information without anyone intending it, including tidbits of family lore and recent sorrows like the loss of a baby sibling.

Burpo's most frequently applied argument for the authenticity of Colton's claims is that the child reported seeing his earthbound father during the period that he was "dead." But it's not like he spotted his dad buying a lottery ticket at the 7/11 or having sex in a Chevy Impala with one of his parishoners. He reported that during the three minutes when he could not be revived, he saw Burpo praying. What else would he have been doing -- or would claim to have been doing?

It's been said that the popularly accepted perception of Heaven as a place of pillowy clouds accessed through a golden gate, populated by angels in white smocks and shining halos, originated with just one Negro Spiritual film from the 1920s, then cascaded through the public consciousness in the century since. So it doesn't surprise me that little Colton Burpo(!) saw that same juvenile version of it while in a physical state where many people have claimed to experience out-of-body sensations. That said, it also doesn't surprise me that Heaven Is for Real placed number one on the New York Times Bestseller List -- it's exactly what most people expect and are willing to hear, and better still, the message seems untainted by adult intervention because it, supposedly, comes from the mouth of a child. It's just depressing that we as a people don't demand more of our exploration of our existence, and that human thought hasn't kept pace with our physical evolution as a species. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Family Jewels

How do you stay relevant if you're an aging, unemployed famewhore? If you're Frederick Prinz von Anhalt, the eighth husband of nonagenarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, you keep coming up with evermore absurd pronouncements before your far more famous wife finally shuffles off to her reward.

The latest scheme of Prinz von Anhalt (that's his last name, though how he acquired it is up for discussion) is to make his 94-year-old wife "a new mother" in order to continue the Gabor name. It seems Gabor's two sisters, Eva and Magda, both deceased, neglected to have children. And though she herself did manage to produce a daughter now just three years younger than her current husband, that offspring goes by her father's last name of Hilton -- and is understandably appalled at the thought of her dying mother becoming a new mom.  

In one of his frequent photo-op events, Von Anhalt made a "deposit" at a fertility clinic yesterday, and apparently plans to use donor eggs and, of course, a donor womb (spelunking for either within his wife's current physiology is, of course, out of the question, even in an era where women well into their 60s are surrogate mothers). So how would such a baby be a continuation of the Gabor line? It wouldn't, because it would have no relation to the actress. He may as well adopt a child and name it Gabor, but that wouldn't allow him to incorporate his alleged virility into the mix.

This is the man who, in 2007, claimed he was mugged by a group of wanton young women who stripped him of his clothes and left him naked and, supposedly, sated in his Rolls Royce. According to Prinz von Anhalt, his assailants bound him and placed him in handcuffs, yet he managed to call the authorities on a cellular phone. Los Angeles police found him completely naked approximately one hour later. No handcuffs were found at the scene. The culprits reportedly drove away in a Chrysler convertible.

More recently, Prinz von Anhalt claimed he'd had an affair with the late Anna Nicole Smith, and that he was the biological father of her daughter. There's absolutely no evidence that he even knew Smith, let alone had any opportunity to have even the most brief liaison. And no more was heard of his claim to be the girl's father.

So don't count on any little Zsa Zsas any time soon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tempest in a Toenail Polish Bottle

Here's what you should remember about advertising: so much planning, reworking, and second-guessing goes into the process that almost no marketing effort sees the light of day without extensive consideration of its impact. And that includes the buzz or controversy it may generate.

That applies to this J. Crew email ad, in which a mother named Jenna (who happens to be J. Crew's Creative Director) enjoys quality time with her young son by painting his toenails neon pink.

The expected backwash of outrage was immediate, and originated exactly where you would expect it to: in the conservative wingnut backwater that is Fox News.

"This is a dramatic example of the way our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity," wrote psychiatrist Keith Ablow in a health column. Media Research Center's Erin Brown piled onto the shock wagon, calling the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." (Note: I'm sure Ablow didn't mean to use the word trappings, but after all, isn't that what they are?)

I'll stick my neck out on this and say there's no reason we shouldn't celebrate transgendered children if that's what they are. What's the alternative -- shame them, or drive them to suicide? The nuns at my mother's Catholic school forced her to become right-handed when she was clearly inclined to use her left and that alone may have made her the shamelessly unsentimental and volatile 83-year-old her six children have been traumatized by for their entire lives, so let's be careful how we interfere with the innate tendencies of children, okay? But there's nothing transgendered about little Beckett, right down to his pink toenails.

You can bet that the business minds at J. Crew had lengthy internal discussions about the effect a simple ad like this would have on the marketplace and the media -- including how the howling nabobs would emerge from the woodwork. And they were right: the cries of outrage come from people who worry more about traditional gender roles than how those same children, and their children and grandchildren, will be impacted by the cost of three simultaneous wars as their educational, health and social needs are ignored in lieu of bombs, tanks and troops.

UPDATE, April 14:

Jon Stewart's take on this controversy captures the full absurdity of the situation:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pie Filling

When I first heard that the classic James M. Cain story Mildred Pierce was being remade as a five-part HBO mini-series, my first thought, like a lot of people's, was why bother. The original film version's plucky heroine was so firmly associated with Joan Crawford's stalwart interpretation of the titular character it seemed nothing could compare with its noirish perfection.

But having just read the source material, I understand why another pass was called for. Unlike the film, which was released in 1945, Cain's novella takes place in the early years of the Depression, when the hopelessness of a woman abandoned with two young daughters, and the narrow field of options open to her, are far more palpable. So instead of being the story of a stoic entrepreneur riding the surge of war-era prosperity, it's one of a desperate woman rising above a landscape of global impovershment.

There's a deeply carnal element to the story that couldn't be depicted in the Crawford film, and that too adds texture to Mildred's feverish hunger for success, especially as depicted by Kate Winslet in the new series. But there's an added subtext of sexual obsession between Mildred and her now adult daughter, the cruel and calculating Veda, that comes through in the book as well. It's not at all the story of a mother sacrificing everything for her daughter's chances, it's one of a mother who idolizes and, yes, sexualizes her wicked daughter to the exclusion of all else -- even her younger child.

If you go back to director Todd Haynes' past films, from his first effort in 1987, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (enacted with disfigured Barbie dolls), to the popular Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven, which hinged on a chaste friendship between a white suburban housewife and a black gardener, you'll quickly see that he's not a subtle technician. His choices are very deliberate and they get your attention. In the new series, when one of the thirties-era roadsters bustles down a street and emits a huge plume of exhaust, you know that was an intentional effect; he's reminding us that the few vintage cars we see now from that period are maintained to current environmental standards, not those of eight decades ago.

More importantly, when the Pierces' fortunes begin to improve and Milded is able to hire the maid Letty, I was surprised to see that the actress cast in the role was white and was perhaps instructed to be something of an Okie.

That makes some historical sense, I suppose, because the Los Angeles area of the day was infused with Dust-Bowl evacuees eager for any kind of work. But the wonderful black actress Butterfly McQueen, who had the role (named Lottie) in the film was so entrenched in my mind in that part that I went back to the novel to see how she was depicted there and, yes, it only says that Mildred engaged "a girl named Letty" for various household tasks. I still think Cain intended her to be black, and have to feel that Haynes made a politically-correct decision that revises a history we find unsavory today. But if we can revisit the national tragedy that was the Great Depression, shouldn't we also accurately reference the status of blacks within society during that period? Having next read the novella that Double Indemnity was based on, my suspicion that Cain equated a hired-help "girl" with an African-American maid is confirmed; there's extensive reference to protagonist Walter Huff's Filipino houseboy but the young man is never once mentioned by name.

Regardless of your thoughts on the new series, I strongly endorse reading the original novel. The prose is rich and muscular, providing us with a masterfully direct depiction of an era in American history that's both alien to us and, due to recent economic events, strangely familiar, peopled with vivid characters and settings that leap off the page.