"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 September 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Royal Icing



"A wink eventually becomes a twitch, a twitch the sign of some inner disturbance." - Frederick Exley


Brett Easton Ellis' tragedy of

manners, Less Than Zero,

climaxes - that is to say, ends

as the protagonist sits through

an anonymous snuff movie in some

vague bedroom at an indistinct

LA party.


While pretty much

indistinguishable from the lame,

trashy interactions he's had

throughout the novel, his

distant complicity in murder is

a signal to us that this is too

much. Too much? Too extreme? Too

cool. After all, it's hard to

know how to take this in a racy

work of fiction wrapped in a

chintzy paperback cover. You

could put the book down in

disgust, then pick it up an hour

later to see what happens next.

Riding a literary trend, the

novel was scarfed down as

brat-pack popcorn; its lame,

trashy, and distant quality was

mostly what stuck with readers.


As for the cinema of snuff: The

protests of police, FBI, and

Cecil Adams haven't convinced

the plain folks who stubbornly

insist that something must be

done about it. Thus do "Snuff

Movies" take their place with

"Political-Correctness," "Sex

Addiction," and "Postmodernism"

as Godzillas of bogus moral

panic, always threatening to

crush the nation in their jaws,

but never quite willing to take

the final step of biting down.




And yet. And yet. Maybe this

shadow, this whiff of a concept,

is in fact not so ghostly -

maybe in fact it's really

capable of crushing people. In

the experimentally pornographic

Crash, J. G. Ballard developed

an erotics of voyeurism,

masochism, and speed. David

Cronenberg's adaptation met with

audiences' prim dismissal that

they didn't find traffic

accidents sexy, but scary and

painful. Perhaps in its haste to

inject "palatable" elements of 9

1/2 Weeks-style heterosexual

character development, the film

Crash leaves out one crucial

component of Ballard's vision:

celebrity photos.


So let's cut to the fucking chase.


As usual, the faceless Greek

chorus of Usenet provides some

context for Diana's death:


"Huh. So, for five looooooong    
minutes before the ambulance and 
the Jaws o' Life, or whatever    
they call it in France, arrived,  
and realizing that her one true  
love at last was literally       
crushed, trying with every       
morsel of strength she could     
muster to keep herself alive,    
for her sake but more so for her 
children's, she heard,           
click-whirr click-whirr          
click-whirr click-whirr          
click-whirr click-whirr           
click-whirr click-whirr           
click-whirr click-whirr           
click-whirr click-whirr           
click-whirr click-whirr           
click-whirr click-whirr.          

And then, eventually, the sirens.
Evidently she was pried forth    


But most commentators stuck to a

familiar script: ain't-it-a-

shame-let's-see-that-again. It's

a scenario that goes further

back than Bronco chases.




Among the first motion pictures

ever made was an hour-long

documentary of people picking

through the rubble of a subway

disaster, looking for victims.

More quaintly, maybe worse,

another early exercise depicted

a captive elephant that had gone

bad and killed people: Dumbo is

made to wade into a pool of

water with electrical cables

sunk into it. The goofy moral

nightmare of snuff flicks has

always been just a dream about

the news.


In this suspended animation of

moral horror and itchy boredom,

rationalization is the first

choice: Princess Diana wasn't

wearing a seatbelt. Not only

that, her driver was drunk. Not

only that, she was going out at

midnight for illicit fun with a

rich Arab. Not only that, the

speedometer was stuck at 121

mph. The narrative begins to

racket apart at this velocity;

hungry for even more detailed

details, we speed up. A quick

jump-cut to bootlegged,

spy-camera footage of her

engaging in some humiliating

sex, but we don't even need that

anymore. A safe state of moral

ambiguity has been restored.


Because it wouldn't matter if

they were driving with shotguns

strapped into their open mouths.

No matter how or why Diana died,

you'd have been able, somehow,

to enjoy it. No matter how you

slice it, or them, the moral

quality of celebrity is best

understood as porn, and

newspaper reporting was always

our underlying psychological

model for snuff. The circularity

of reporting on her death makes

this sense even more acute: The

death provides a final orgy for

tabloids with more reporting

than even during her life. The

only qualitative difference is

that the reporting now pops up a

couple of levels to become

metareporting, thus filling

space in the parts of a

newspaper that stuff like this

normally does not penetrate. As

an event gets more perverse,

more holes are filled - and it

doesn't even cost extra.


Following Foucault or something a

lot like him and always

anxiously looking over his

shoulder, the crackerbarrel

philosophers might scramble for

neutral ground. Anything that

looks like a moral stand, a

gesture more fixed than a shrug,

isn't too smart, they think,

because it isn't self-conscious.

After all, they're writing about

it ... reading about it ...

complicity ... fodder for

another piece ... the need for

new meat. Yes. We're pinned

down, pegged, sized up, doomed.

Fuck you. Next paragraph.


In an elaborately illustrated New

York Times Magazine

retrospective piece some time

back, one of the

reporters who overran

the small town where the

Jessica-in-a-well story took

place mused on how unexpected

fame had provoked the lone

heroic rescuer to destroy his

own life a few years later.

Exquisitely self-aware of (if

not very thoughtful or

articulate about) how she had

participated in ripping apart an

average individual's moorings,

the reporter reflected: "If I

took responsibility for the

results of my stories, I

wouldn't be able to do my job."


Remember that morality is

ambivalent, complex - a question

of what you can get away with.

You're definitely too smart to

be told anything else; there's

no time for it. Telephoto lenses

are delicate. When people follow

their outrage and rejection,

throwing rocks at reporters and

photographers, they should be

informed by a responsible and

sympathetic media commentator

(who could perhaps speak to them

from behind some sort of

amplification system) that their

sticks and stones are useless.

The reporters, who are (like

bureaucrats, secret police, or

your mom) delicate people just

trying to get by in the same

market economy you are, will

come right back. A futile

outburst will not change the

market - it is not delicate but

bigger and wiser than people and

will thrive, reporting and

selling their rage back

to them. It's a market that

will, in the end, fuck their

corpses too, if they're

lucky. They need someone to

remind them that outrage and

rejection are weak and will

fade. Like love, like hope.

courtesy of Hypatia Sanders

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