Ari, We Hardly Knew Ye

Everyone’s favorite Bush flack on the Daily Show couch.

Don’t you kind of miss Ari Fleischer? White House press conferences just don’t have the same zing without his maddeningly bland demeanor  and utter imperviousness to truth. Last night, the mother of all press secretaries appeared on The Daily Show to promote his new book, Taking Heat, in which he remembers his days as a hapless “pinata” for the press corps, and reflects indignantly on the Fourth Estate’s outrageous presumption that “the press can challenge whatever they want to, any time they want to.” Fleischer’s time on the couch with Stewart— he was accorded the special honor of two interview segments—brought back old times in the White House briefing room.

Ari floated like a butterfly as Stewart buzzed around him, trying in vain to sting like a bee. Asked if journalists were justified in their suspicion that “this White House [is] more restrictive with information than others have been,” Fleischer answered with a monosyllabic “Yes.” After a moment’s silence, Stewart addressed the audience in a spooky voice: “Ari Fleischer was just candid with me.” But the Fleischer technique had worked its magic; his unadorned “yes” was apparently so disarming that Stewart failed to pursue the matter further. When Stewart pressed Fleischer on the administration’s tendency to manage and stage their press events, Fleischer complimented his host on his “good question” before reassuring him that “everybody does that.” Explaining why reporters had to be kept on a shorter leash than ever before, Fleischer even dusted off the McLuhan-era insight that “television is powerful.” (“It is?” responded Stewart. “Why aren’t I getting paid more?”) Though the interview never really got off the ground, Stewart seemed fascinated by the ineffable riddle that was Ari, closing the show with the observation, “I could talk about this for hours, and clearly, you could deflect me for hours.”

In an extended reflection  on the strengths and weaknesses of The Daily Show, the media critic  Dan Kennedy  argued yesterday that the program’s first half is often harder-hitting than the interview portion, because, like most of us, “Stewart […] is a lot less polite when he’s talking to a TV screen than when he’s face to face with an actual person.” Kennedy goes so far as to call Stewart a “suck-up” as an interviewer, an opinion with which Wonkette seems to concur in her assertion  that Stewart was pitching softballs to Fleischer last night.

I myself took Stewart to task  for buttering up John Kerry last summer. And it’s true that, while the first 15 minutes of TDS are appointment viewing, I’ll occasionally skip the interview, especially on nights when the guest is a dull show-business figure. (Though do you remember Stewart’s brutal evisceration of Jennifer Love Hewitt when she tried to pretend that Garfield was a good movie?) But it seems unfair to blame Stewart for failing to get the down-and-dirty scoop from Ari Fleischer, of all people—a task at which America’s best journalists labored in vain for the better part of Bush’s first term. …11:38 a.m.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

In this morning’s Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss complained that the nightly E! channel re-enactments of the Michael Jackson trial, which kicked off last night at 7:30 p.m. ET, were off to a dull start. I couldn’t disagree more. Everything Weiss disliked—the cheap-looking fake-wood sets, the sparse minimalism of the courtroom setting, the almost Beckett-like reduction of the trial itself to its barest component parts—was what had me Krazy-Glued to the television screen. Sure, the “analysis” in between segments (offered by such scholars as Johnny Cochran’s law partner, Shawn Chapman Holley, and former Jackson attorney Howard Weitzman) was lame, but no more so than the legal chatter we hear all day from talking heads all up and down the dial. I loved the DIY, let’s-put-on-a-show feel of the whole downmarket enterprise. As E! Networks head Ted Harbert has explained, each half-hour show will be put together in less than 24 hours, with writers and producers staying up all night to cull that day’s transcripts, selecting key passages, which the actors then memorize for a morning shoot.

Courtroom re-enactment is like a live-action version of one of those pastel artist’s renderings  of a trial. The form’s very artificiality is what makes it so fascinating; “You weren’t there,” it says, “but here’s the real scoop, hastily recreated by someone who was.” In fact, E! is sending a representative to attend the trial each day and report back with details of courtroom atmosphere and vocal inflection.

Edward Moss, the Jackson impersonator who landed the role of the defendant, has been much in the press these past few days. But so far, the role of Moss’ lifetime has been a lot like one of those temp receptionist jobs where you’re paid to sit at a desk and look pretty. The true star of the show—an actor who promises to grow in range and depth as the trial wears on— is  Rigg Kennedy, who plays Jackson’s flamboyant defense attorney Thomas Mesereau.

Rigg Kennedy has appeared in such films as Slumber Party Massacre, Curse of the ShadowBorg, and last year’s Swarm of the Snakehead (“Part fish. Part snake. Pure evil.”). He also has a sideline as a professional poet: A 2002 article in Harper’s described the actor officiating at a “Famous Poets Society” Convention in Reno, Nevada: “As he mounted the stage, I noted a strange buoyancy to his bright white hair,” wrote the author, “as if each follicle housed a tightly coiled miniature spring.” Rigg Kennedy still has important hair, snow-white and cut into a magnificent, shoulder-grazing shag. He looks like Phil Donahue after a year on a desert island, a feature that will serve him well in his impersonation of the real-life Mesereau.

Last night, as Kennedy-as-Mesereau went about impeaching the character of the accuser’s mother (who, whatever your belief about the defendant’s guilt or innocence, sounds like a bottom-feeding scuzzbucket), Kennedy’s mounting disgust was palpable. He described a shopping spree the mother indulged in on a day she was supposedly being held captive on Jackson’s ranch, the list of items and prices rolling off his tongue with a bombastic stop-start rhythm that was almost Shatnerian:  ” … bras and jockey bikinis … a total of 91 dollars and 24 cents … all billed … to Michael.” “If this is false imprisonment, I’d like to go there,” joked Rikki Kleiman, another of the celebrity lawyers on the panel. She may be on to something. Sometimes, the fake version can be better than the real thing. …12:00 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 28, 2005

My favorite moment of last night’s Oscar ceremony began with Antonio Banderas’ rendition of the song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” from The Motorcyle Diaries, which would go on to win the Oscar for best song. Banderas’ frothingly earnest and absolutely tone-deaf performance was a throwback to the days when true kitsch ruled the Oscars: Remember those Debbie-Allen-choreographed musical medleys, when all the nominated songs would be loosely interpreted, Fame-style, by a company of permed, thrashing dancers?

When Jorge Drexler, the Uruguyuan singer/songwriter who composed the song and performed it in the film, took the stage to accept his Oscar later in the evening, his only speech was a brief a cappella version of the first few bars of his own song, delivered in a clear, sure tenor that allowed the song’s delicate melody to emerge. My viewing companion found this move a bit self-aggrandizing; he compared it to a screenwriter thanking the academy by fondly reciting lines from his own script. But I appreciated the gentle malice of Drexler’s gesture. It was as if he were apologizing to his own song, saving it from Banderas’ unctuous clutch.

A little shakily bilingual research confirmed my suspicion: Drexler’s turn at the mic was indeed a protest against his replacement by Zorro. In fact, the Spanish-language press has been abuzz this past week with the scandal of Jorge Drexler’s dissing at the hands of Gil Cates. After Drexler was informed that he himself was far too much of a nobody to sing his own song, he suggested several more famous alternatives, all rejected: “I proposed Caetano Veloso; they offered me Enrique Iglesias,” he told  the Argentinean daily Clarín. Drexler also floated the possibility of giving the song to Beck or Beyoncé Knowles (who, had she sung the Spanish-language song, would have made it a trilingual night; she performed both Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Learn To Be Lonely” from Phantom of the Opera and the French-language nominee from Les Choristes, not to mention a tepid duet with Adult-Contemporary heartthrob Josh Groban).

The producers’ decision to serve up “Al Otro Lado del Rio” with extra cheese also rankled the star of The Motorcycle Diaries, the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who had been scheduled to introduce the performance of “Al Otro Lado del Rio,” but who instead boycotted the ceremony entirely. Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of the film,  issued a press release  calling the choice of Banderas “not only ethically, but aesthetically unacceptable.” There’s a long tradition of Oscar winners using the bully pulpit to espouse one cause or another, but Drexler’s musical protest was unusual in its objection to the purely aesthetic crime that is the Oscar ceremony itself. … 10:04 a.m.