The Breakfast Table

Bad taste

Good morning, Nell.

The vultures are circling, the jackals are circling the vultures, and the piranhas are circling the jackals. The weasels are just watching. The mosquitos are feeding on the weasels. Where am I going with this? In my Darwinian way, I’m coming to what seems to be the last act of the Monica and Bill Follies. According to “broadcast sources” according to Reuters according to NPR according to my wife who yelled something I didn’t quite hear in the shower, Monica Lewinsky has allegedly reportedly told representatives of Independent (hahahahahahahaha) Counsel Kenneth Starr that she and Bill had a “sexual relationship.” (Do any of your law books define a “sexual relationship”? Has the Supreme Court ever ruled on where a “sexual relationship” begins and a “skanky blowjob in the Oval Office broom closet ends?”)

But wait! We are talking about perjury, damn it! “Grand Obstruction!” (William Safire’s grand headline) Measureless webs of deceit!

Even if Monica refuses to confirm that the Prez (or any of his subordinates) asked her to lie under oath, Clinton is still bound by his affidavit in the Paula Jones case, in which he flatly denied having sex. So it has come to this, as perhaps we have known it would: the fate of a United States presidency resting on he-said/she-said. Let’s see the spurting, er, smoking gun.

A part of me–even as someone who thinks that Clinton is a remarkable president in so many ways–hungers to hear him say, “Yes, I have a problem,” to see that slippery grin fade from his face, to see him for once at a loss for words. But another part of me wants to see him, like Indiana Jones, dodge the boulder, the trapdoors, the poison darts–because in this instance, even perjury is not worth bringing down a presidency. Watergate was, and so, for that matter, was Iran-Contra. But not this. A truly independent counsel would know that.

So Nell, if you were to advise the president in his testimony: To what questions may he say “I won’t answer that, you prurient piece of Republican monkey poop” without being cited for contempt?

For years I’ve known of many powerful people–actors, editors, teachers, executives in all fields–who have had affairs with assistants, interns, and every other kind of subordinate. But the gap between private and public morality continues to be vast. Actions we take, or know about, or think about every day simply can’t be addressed in public with any kind of candor, with an open mind to their complexities. Robert Young, who was buried yesterday, embodied what many have called the ideal ‘50s patriarch; he was a role model, an (I hate this word now, but in this case it applies) icon. Yet in life he was a terrible depressive and an alcoholic, a man who was unable to reconcile his true feelings and impulses with the characters he portrayed. I know, there are some things that are meant to be private. But when the gap between private and public is so extreme–when a secretary of health can’t venture the opinion that children would be better off being taught to masturbate than having sexual relations with one another without being hounded out of office–it’s a recipe for trauma.

That’s why I go for stuff like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, which I discussed yesterday, and also There’s Something About Mary, in which an ejaculation gag makes audiences scream with shock and glee. In this week’s New York Magazine, my friend David Denby takes me to task (not by name, but it’s me, since I called him up and told him to go see it before he went to Europe) for raving the movie. David watched the Farrelly brothers’ film with pangs of conscience. Of the convulsively funny scene in which a little dog is drugged, appears to die, and is revived with an electric charge for a lamp cord, which also starts it on fire, Denby writes: “While watching this episode, we feel we’re being tested in some way.” Er, WE didn’t feel as if we were being tested; WE were too busy laughing our butts off.

“Haven’t any of the movie’s fans noticed that the interiors are lit like a TV show?” Denby writes. Yes; I described Dumb and Dumber as looking as if it had been “lit by a desk lamp.”

He goes on: “Some of the critics write as if bad taste were an actual cause–as if a blow against p.c. were somehow a victory in itself.” No, if that were the case, we’d laugh consistently at Howard Stern or any of innumerable sniggering Fox sitcoms. The fact is, there is a consistency to Farrelly’s vision, which is rooted in one of the oldest and most honorable sources of tasteless comedy–sexual panic. It’s not insensitivity, as Denby maintains, but an adolescent’s OVERsensitivity.

“But anyone who falls into that trap not only loses his judgment but congratulates himself for far too little.” That’s right, David, congratulate yourself for not congratulating yourself. Last time I send YOU to a movie.

What else to report? In the New York Times today, Richard Bernstein beats up on the list of hundred greatest books–a straw man as I know well, having gotten a lot of cocktail party mileage beating up on the ridiculous hundred greatest movies list. Bernstein thinks that the novels of the 20th century don’t measure up to those of the 19th, and who wants to argue? But he doesn’t mention that, especially in the United States, many ambitious artists of the 20th century have chosen to apply themselves to other forms (especially theater and cinema) that reach the mass audience in a way that literature (alas) now doesn’t. Not to mention that they get to hang around with cute actors, interns, etc.

A rare and eloquent arts editorial in the Times celebrates Saving Private Ryan, beginning: “Gradually, each generation grows into the news its elders could not quite impart.” The point is that we’re seeing the experience of war as no artist at the time was capable of showing us–a fact that, according to the writer, elicits “faith and distrust.” The distrust “is measured by the realization that there was, for tens of thousands of men 54 years ago, a place and time where art’s ultimate usefulness–the ability to shape experience–was utterly lacking.” I submit that many artists tried and succeeded in transcending the gung-ho portrayals of war in that era, but that many others were stopped at the starting gate by studios fearful of audience hostility, and many more found their visions spurned by the mass audience that now seems willing to submit to Spielberg’s vision. Maybe it’s because of Saving Private Ryan’s simpleminded vigilante underpinnings, which rob the narrative of stature and make it easy to swallow the necessity of killing?