[10 February 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Your sick fucking country make him hate hisself, just like you hate the Arab and the children you bomb.
—Captain Said, Three Kings (David O. Russell 1999)
He’s a really wonderful, loving, caring man. And he’s not portrayed as he really is and it really [bleep] me off.
—Debbie Rowe, Interview with GMTV (6 February 2003)
And now he’s got the stubble. I mean, last night was totally disgusting. And it’s actually amazing that 27 million people watched, but only two million Americans bought the album, the last, when it came out. So clearly, we want to watch this car crash as it goes along, but we don’t want to listen to his music anymore.
—Touré, Hardball (6 February 2003)
Maybe they’re not ready for his consciousness.
—Jermaine Jackson, The Big Story (8 February 2003)
For once, ABC appeared to play its cards absolutely right. When word leaked that NBC was airing a special on Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeries, Michael Jackson Unmasked, for sweeps, the mousy network dug deep into its pockets. A winning bid of $5 million ensured the right to air Granada Television’s Living with Michael Jackson. And what a prize it was: assembled by British journalist Martin Bashir after a reported eight months spent with his subject, the documentary went beyond experts’ speculating on the nose and the chin. It boasted actual conversations with the King of Pop.
Given that Jackson’s previous tv jamborees, with Oprah (1993) and Diane Sawyer (1995, with then-wife Lisa Marie Presley), had scored huge numbers and revealed predictable oddness, the latest version didn’t promise anything new. Indeed, it delivered more of the same, more of what Rolling Stone‘s Touré calls the continual “car crash” of MJ’s life. It’s simultaneously alarming and unsurprising, titillating and depressing. And it always attracts a frenzy of responses.
ABC’s version of Living with Michael Jackson, which aired in the U.S. on 6 February, delivered to expectations. Most important for ABC, it scored some 27 million viewers, the network’s best “non-sports numbers” in the time slot since a 1991 Primetime Live. Not only that, but the Primetime that followed the Jackson piece, which featured an interview with Bashir as well as a mini-doc on the nose, “The Many Faces of Michael Jackson: Deconstructing the Reconstructions,” was watched by 23.6 million lingerers—those who just can’t get enough of the wreck. Take that, Must-See TV.
While Bashir’s piece really only needed to show up to get this kind of attention, it also offers its share of peculiar, chatter-worthy moments. Each comes packaged with editorial comment, hardly subtle and hardly necessary. Following a tour of Neverland, during which the camera’s sharp angles make the carousel horse-heads look creepy, Bashir presses Jackson for his writing process. Jackson takes Bashir to his favorite, “secret” tree, which he says inspires him. He confesses that climbing trees and having water balloon fights are his “favorite things to do.” Bashir is taken aback, and shows it, asking, “Don’t you prefer making love or going to a concert…?” You know, Mike, like normal people? Weirdly, Bashir pretends not to know that Jackson is weird. He also acts as if he’s forgotten that his career (he made his name interviewing Princess Di) depends on sensationalizing just such weirdness.
But Jackson, never earthbound, doesn’t take Bashir’s tone for disapproval. Rather, he invites his guest to join in the tree climbing fun. The camera peers up at Jackson as he scampers up the branches, then cuts to look at Bashir, awkward in the limbs below, worried about his slippery shoes. Cut to another view, looking down on Jackson and Bashir—apparently, the cameraperson found a way to get up the tree, with city shoes and gear. The wacky part of this scene would be what, exactly?
“And now he’s got the stubble.”
Is there anyone who on the planet surprised to learn that Michael Jackson thinks of himself as Peter Pan, “in my heart”? That he proclaims, in all “honesty,” that he’s had only two operations on his nose, to help him “hit higher notes”? That he was scared when Tatum O’Neal invited him over—at age 12—to have sex? (And let’s take a moment to commend the doughty reporters who tracked down Tatum to get her take on this memory, one that has been trotted out perennially, noticeably, in Jackson’s autobiography, Moonwalk, back in 1988; as usual, O’Neal noted her former paramour’s vivid “imagination.”)
Such stories are old news. The Michael Machine has been perpetrating them for years: the hyperbaric chamber, the Elephant Man’s bones, Macaulay, Bubbles, Liz, Emmanuel Lewis, and for god’s sake, the “Thriller” and “Black or White” videos, ingeniously conjured by Jackson and John Landis to make visual the star’s deeply felt alienation and will to transformation. See also, “Leave Me Alone” or “Scream” if you have any doubt that Jackson and “his people” have some sense, however tenuous, of the commercial benefits of bizarro behavior.
And yet, the documentary, refitted for the 20/20 format—that is, with Barbara Walters inserting judgments over top of Bashir’s judgments—presented Jackson’s twitching and tittering as if they were news. Walters’ script, for a minute observational, quickly turned as scandalized as Bashir’s own. As Jermaine Jackson pointed out on the 8 February installment of Fox’s The Big Story, Walters’ comments were plainly designed to fire up viewer interest. (Mo Rocca’s incisive morning-after remarks for CNN made much the same point: he was just so grateful to have Walters tell him how to feel about what he was watching.)
The Babawawa-Bashir double-teaming worked like this: returning from one commercial break, Walters says, “Michael Jackson is more than a superstar, he is one of the most recognizable faces in the world. As we pick up our story, he is turning heads at a mall in Las Vegas. But what about that face?” Then comes Bashir’s voice-over: “As news spread, crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of Michael Jackson. It’s been the same since he was a boy. And what happened then sparked a lifelong obsession with his face.”
Newsflash. Jackson’s face is a subject not only of his own obsession, but also of the international press (hence the scramble to get the plastic surgery docs on air). Jackson knows how to answer the question about plastic surgeries, as he’s done it repeatedly. But Bashir sees a psychological-depth moment, and bears down. In a Las Vegas hotel room, where he’s interviewing Jackson in front of a gathering of life-size models—the Jolly Green Giant being the most immediately recognizable—he asks, “Is it true that your father used to say you had a fat nose?”
Aha! Jackson admits (again) that his father was mean, that he beat the Jackson 5 with a belt to make them learn their dance steps. (SNL took on this topic during its 8 February episode, with Tracy Morgan as Joe Jackson, threatening Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon with a belt during “Weekend Update.”) Michael tears up when recalling the cruelty: “If you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you.” Bashir (and the viewers for whom he is supposedly sitting in) leans closer, dying to hear more.
On the abuse tip, there are various schools of thought. One argument has it that the child Michael was so deeply traumatized that he is now unable to function. Or, as Black Elegance magazine’s Flo Anthony told Fox News’ Rita Cosby, there is a grain of salt aspect to the story, which has been told and refuted and told again and again over the years, by most members of the Jackson clan at some time or another. Anthony submits that MJ’s case is not so much individually deviant as it is cultural condition: “Those of us born in the ‘50s were whipped,” she observed.
But this sort of absolution by way of generational, class, and cultural circumstance doesn’t wash with a lot of Michael consumers: for them, he’s special. Even his abuse is special. As voiced by Anthony’s fellow guests on 7 February’s The Big Story, Michael Musto and Ted Casablanca (supposedly invited because they are “friends of” Jackson), Jacko is definitively wacko. Musto sees “honest” moments of the documentary, “not manipulated,” but divulging Jackson’s pitiable abuse. Casablanca sees it less kindly: “We’ve got Frankenstein here. Dr. Frankenstein is Joe Jackson.”
It could be that climbing trees at 44 (his age a measure of his eccentricity underlined repeatedly, in the documentary and in subsequent commentary) is a sign of trauma. So too, is turning white, whittling your nose to nothing (a plastic surgeon on Primetime identified sufferers of this syndrome as “nasal cripples”), or having sleepovers with little boys (Kieren Culkin, Jordy Chandler, now Gavin) when you’re a black-or-white manchild. And so what if everyone knows this story already? Michael Jackson is a freak. Consumers need to hear it again and then worry about it from time to time to take their minds off impending wars, orange level terror alerts, and distressed economies. When Michael Jackson calls Tony Mottola “devilish” or dangles his baby, the media grind into high gear for weeks.
But for all the hype generated for this episode of the Michael Show, it does appear to be winding down some. This too is not news. Jackson still attracts onlookers at malls and the mini-mob of kids eating sno-cones at Neverland looks happy enough to be in his presence. But Michael’s not the super-innovator and must-have record-maker he used to be. This is not because he’s no longer brilliant or even because he replays the same basic moves in any new dance performance. It’s because of passing time, or, what Michael Jordan has recently called the “chain of change.”
This chain dictates that new kids will come on the block. One symptom in Jackson’s case is that, while talk-newsers fretted over the doc all through 7 February, that day’s TRL kids barely registered a response when asked by one of the four-peppy-hosts-who-are-not-Carson if they had seen MJ on tv. Jackson, because of his due respect and his nut-jobiness, remains something special to see and even, for cameras, someone to scream over (as the documentary’s repeated shots of screaming throngs at various European pit stops). But he’s no longer death-gripping the dedication of pop music fans like Jackson’s descendents, from Justin to Usher to B2K.
Indeed, these days, it’s the so-called adults who are having public heart attacks over Michael. The tabloid and talk-news reporters take it on themselves to mull over—and over and over—any and all tidbits of information, new or not, true or not. And Living with Michael Jackson spews much grist for this particular mill, complete with how-to responses by Bashir:
Bashir gasps when he hears that Michael recalls when, apparently with doctors’ approval, he grabbed up just-born Paris and carried her home, placenta still sliming to her. He tries to pull a coverlet off the head of little Prince Michael II (a.k.a. Blanket), being furiously jiggled on his father’s knee.
Bashir tags along as Michael “goes shopping” in a Vegas mall, buying up every ghastly urn, globe, and table in sight, and instructing the store manager to get out his pen and mark it all down, so he won’t forget. (On the way to commercial, Walters/ABC estimates that Jackson has spent some $1 million on that trip, assuming that the camera crew traipsing along with him had nothing to do with his performances.) And Bashir proclaims it is he who takes Prince Michael’s hand at the Berlin Zoo, when a crush of reporters and fans seem about to trample him - all as Jackson strides ahead, unaware of his baby’s danger.
Most damning, of course, Bashir hears Michael say he sleeps in the same bedroom as Gavin, the 12-year-old “cancer boy” (so termed by the ever overeager Ms. Cosby). This is the part that really gets Bashir’s goat. Or so he performs. In voice-over, he says, prior to their final meeting in Miami, that he has decided he just “had to” say something about his concerns: “There were unanswered questions, lots of them. Areas of his life about which I felt he’d been less than honest. His face, his denials about plastic surgery, his relationship with Blanket’s mother. And, of course, I also wanted to return to the Neverland sleepovers. Confronting him wouldn’t be easy, but now it had to happen.”
Clearly, this is a man out of control. Being questioned by another.
And clearly, whether you take the answers Bashir elicits and edits into the documentary as honest or not, documentation, in any traditional sense, is not the goal here. The object with all things MJ is to defend or condemn. Above all—to know.
Why Michael elicits such a passion for knowing—for possessing knowledge as if it connotes access to him personally—has to do, as everything else in the U.S. (and for Jackson, global entity that he is, extending to everywhere else), with race. Jackson is horrifying or defensible, depending on how you read his relationship to blackness: he’s rejected his blackness or embracing it, he’s suffering from vitiligo or he’s a victim of self-hate induced by a racist culture: in any case, he’s changed the ways that black culture is absorbed into white culture, and to an extent, vice versa, forever. And in any case, he continues to solicit desire for knowledge. If you can know him, you can position yourself in relation to his shifting, enigmatic figure. You can know yourself if you can determine Michael. In the U.S., at least, it’s a national pastime.
In the name of knowing, some viewers, like Slate‘s Virginia Heffernan, have noted that “Bashir’s blundering misunderstandings of Jackson’s idiom, and impositions of his own, force scandal even where there is none.” Flo Anthony calls out the documentary and Bashir as well: “Michael has been made a target; it was a public lynching, he was totally pimped.” Surely, there’s something to this idea that Jackson, like other public figures, especially black male ones, are traditionally victims of press excesses, not to mention their own bad instincts when it comes to said press. Many celebrities, over-yessed every day of their moneymaking lives, believe they might control or remake their on-the-skids images with just one more, “good” interview. (Three words on this point: “Crack is whack!”)
Other viewers see Jackson as the culprit, whether conscious or insensible. “I think,” mused Dr. Drew on Hardball (7 February), “we’re finally coming to terms with the depth of the pathology we’re talking about here… Celebrities surround themselves with sycophants.” No doubt. That’s what it means to be a celebrity in this culture—people line up to be your friends. And to cover your ass: Brother Jermaine Jackson (The Big Story with Rita Cosby, on 8 February) and Psychic Uri Geller (on The Big Story, with John Gibson, and Donahue, both 7 February) have done their Michael Duty over the past few days, testifying to his “purity of heart,” not to mention, in Geller’s words, “the honesty, the fairness, maybe a streak of naïveté.”
In both cases, judgment is all knowing. Few respondents have suggested that maybe there’s not enough information to allow accurate reading. But the reading is relentless. The critics, of course, are everywhere, some wanting him investigated. And newsfolk are talking to people who’ve even thought about having a conversation with Jackson. The O’Reilly Factor interviewed his “friends” Bryan Michael Stoller (with whom the star is ostensibly “making a documentary”) and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who proclaims, “I was sickened and nauseated by what I saw, because that’s not the man that I recognize.”
Why would Jackson agree to make such a documentary, wonders Mike Barnicle. Comes Stoller’s answer: “First of all, he trusted Martin, and that’s been the problem with Michael, is that he’s often betrayed by people. And [that’s] another reason why he spends a lot of time with children, because he can trust children.” Indeed, distrust seems a reasonable bottom line lesson to be learned from Michael Jackson’s life. For those who wonder why he doesn’t take advice from people around him, who must be telling him to temper his self-performance: why would he? Who has ever looked out for him, at least that anyone on the outside might be able to see?
Bashir valiantly takes on this role, observing, “I felt very uneasy after this conversation. I knew I had to confronted Jackson about what I thought was an obsession with children. It just couldn’t be avoided.” This cry of conscience comes after he has spent months with Jackson, getting enough material to make this documentary. Now, he decides, is the time to sever trust. And so, he sits on the beach, pondering in the most picturesque way possible. What to do? What to do? Why, go gunning for his subject, of course. And so, the documentary ends, another judgment passed on Michael Jackson.
It’s likely true—strange, perhaps, but true—that Jackson is being misinterpreted by most everyone. The same string of little, black, wide-nosed Michael Jacksons that has followed him throughout his lifetime is now being hauled out for more gaping, to accompany every discussion. In his own emotional and moral environment, he makes sense. You may believe his danglings and his sleepovers are instances of innocent affection, poor judgment, pedophilia, or some other pathology. Jackson seems oblivious to the fact that he has been and will be read so harshly, and it’s hard to tell if his ignorance is willful, ingenuous, or a function of genuine emotional deficiency. Still, you try to tell.
Jackson’s own telling is, more often than not, defensive. He now charges that Living with Michael Jackson is “tawdry.” On 8 February, he was reportedly in talks with 60 Minutes to present “his side.” Following his lawyers’ failed efforts to stop the broadcast, and complaints filed with the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission, Jackson issued a statement: “Today I feel more betrayed than perhaps ever before, that someone who had got to know my children, my staff and me, whom I let into my heart and told the truth, could then sacrifice the trust I placed in him and produce this terrible and unfair program.”
For Jackson, everything is unfair. And for his readers, everything is evident, transparent, ascertainable. Almost. “Looking at Michael Jackson,” intones Barbara Walters following his claim to only two nose surgeries, “you can draw your own conclusions.” This is one of the few stories about Michael Jackson that is patently not true. He never comes without a context, a set of expectations, and a pack of interpreters—all telling you what you know, already.
Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.