Confessional interviews are the celebrity culture's equivalent of the perp walk, ceremonies of humiliation that we'd all be better off without.
In the news media, as in life, the response to an indecent demand is usually some fresh indecency. Thus we have ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer's two-part interview with the anti-Semitic actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson, which this week managed the neat trick of making an extraordinarily distasteful series of events still more unsavory. (And who says network television news no longer has a role to play?)
Gibson, of course has been in the obligatory rehab program since July, when he was stopped for drunk driving and unleashed an anti-Semitic tirade against the arresting sheriff's deputy. "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," Gibson said, apropos of nothing beyond free-floating paranoia. "Are you a Jew?"
The filmmaker, of course, made the equally obligatory and well-rehearsed apology: "Let me be clear here, in sobriety, sitting here in front of you on national television," Gibson said to Sawyer, "I don't believe that Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. I mean, that's an outrageous drunken statement."
Yes, but no less outrageous than some of the explanations Gibson offered about why such sentiments might have been in his mind that night on Pacific Coast Highway. Some of them, he told his interviewer, might have been the consequence of resentments he felt over the controversy surrounding his film "The Passion of the Christ."
"Now even before anyone saw a frame of film, for an entire year, I was subjected to a pretty brutal sort of public beating," Gibson said. "And, during the course of that, I think I probably had my rights violated in many different ways as an American, as an artist, as a Christian, just as a human being."
There you have it: He's a victim -- but of whom? Some of those who raised questions about whether material as historically combustible as the Passion narrative ought to be in hands as unstable as Gibson's were Jewish, many were not. Others can judge whether these subsequent events have shown whether their apprehensions were justified, but why did the filmmaker's animosity center so firmly on his Jewish critics?
You don't need a psychology degree to answer that one.
Similarly, Gibson told Sawyer that he might have been overly upset that night over the Israeli incursion into Lebanon: "I remember thinking when I was 20, man, that place is going to drag us all into the black hole, you know, just the difficulty over there." Asked by Sawyer what in these events Jews are responsible for, Gibson said: "What are they responsible for? I think that they're not blameless in the conflict. There's been aggression and retaliation and aggression. It's just part of being in conflict and being at war. So, they're not blameless."
Note the progression from Israel to Jews. Whatever else Gibson may have gleaned from the so-called traditional Catholicism he practices, a continued belief in collective guilt, particularly as applied to Jews, seems to be one of his autonomic reflexes.
In his chat with Sawyer, Gibson added, "When you're loaded, you know, the balance of how you see things -- it comes out the wrong way. I know that it's not as black and white as that. I know that you just can't, you know, roar about things like that."
In other words, the problem with being drunk is that it robs you of the ability to balance your anti-Semitic convictions against the potential effect of their disclosure. It's a novel argument for moderation, but somehow the suggestion that bigotry can be expressed sotto voce leaves one rather cold and -- more to the point -- doesn't seem to give much evidence of a credible contrition.
So what was this voyeuristic exercise in celebrity pandering -- which is what "Good Morning America's" highly promoted two-part interview amounted to -- really all about?
Well, let's start with the fact that "GMA," as it's known in the trade, is ABC's signature morning show and the television network is owned by Disney, which has the unenviable task of marketing Gibson's next film, "Apocalypto," apparently another of his peculiarly gruesome historical epics.
As the Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson wrote Friday, "Even before Gibson's arrest, 'Apocalypto' posed a tough marketing challenge. Cast with unknowns, the viscerally graphic action movie is told in the Mayan language with subtitles. Gibson ... had been expected to be the movie's biggest selling point, but after all the attention paid to his Pacific Coast Highway outburst, separating Gibson's personal baggage from his achievements as a filmmaker also became necessary before the $50 million movie could be released."
Her appraisal was seconded by Gibson's longtime press spokesman, Alan Nierob, who said, "The movie needs to be sold properly. It couldn't have been sold properly if he didn't do this."
Ah, now we're getting somewhere: None of this has much at all to do with regret for anything but being caught and for that event's interruption of the normal process of buying and selling, which is what the culture of celebrity is all about. What was required, from a marketing standpoint, was not just rehab but rehabilitation in the celebrity sense -- and not since the Second Great Awakening has there been a venue so hospitable to the justified sinner as our contemporary culture of celebrity.
What Gibson and his business associates needed in this case was a tough but sympathetic hearing. Did they get it?
As Nierob crowed to Thompson on Friday, he's now fielding interview requests from all over the map. "Everyone wants to talk to him, which is a nice place to be," he said, though "anyone who wants to talk to him about issues surrounding his DUI will be referred to ABC for transcripts."
Nierob's been around the block a couple of times, so he's probably right in thinking that -- in Hollywood, at least -- the term "press corps" is elastic enough to encompass a sufficient number of celebrity-besotted lap dogs to make such a publicity campaign feasible. Still referring people to the transcripts of this week's interview may not be the world's best marketing strategy.
What any honest reader will find there is a self-pitying series of rationalizations for inexcusable conduct. This time around, we can presume only that they were soberly conveyed. So, at the end of the day, what you've got is a guy whose anti-Semitic attitudes are so deeply ingrained and unexamined that he cannot control them even when his career is on the line.
If Gibson's employees and business associates really believe that nobody else is going to notice this, that these interviews "put the issue behind us," then the filmmaker is, in fact, enmeshed in a conspiracy. Its actors, however, are not Jews or Zionists or Masons or international bankers or any of the other phantoms pulled from his rat bag of paranoid bigotries. No, to the extent Mel Gibson has a problem beyond being Mel Gibson, it's that he's surrounded by a venal cabal of the clueless.
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