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Book Review : On the Uses and Abuses of Celebrity

March 11, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity by Richard Schickel (Doubleday & Co. $16.95)

For the last 20 years, Schickel has been one of America's busiest and most respected film critics and trend watchers, an ideal position from which to ponder the impact of celebrity upon our national life. Now ranging beyond the world of entertainment to a more general investigation of celebrity as "the principle source of motive power in putting across ideas of every kind--social, political, aesthetic and moral," "Intimate Strangers" enlarges and expands upon themes familiar to readers of his previous books.

Although the connections have been explored by other social critics, Schickel takes the broadest and most pessimistic view of the matter, finding pernicious effects of celebrity-infatuation in every aspect of American life; government even more susceptible to abuse than the fine and lively arts. "Various institutions have found it convenient to play up and play off these figures--and not for something as simple as advertising a product." The famous thus become the repositories and symbols not only for our relatively innocuous material desires but for more profound and less wholesome fantasies. Transformed into metaphors, dehumanized and exploited, these eminent personalities are victimized by a society in which they are easily accessible and pathetically vulnerable.

Schickel is convinced that our recent grim history of assassinations and suicides among the celebrated is the inevitable result of a communications system gone awry; of natural barriers broken down and essential perceptions of distance destroyed. Attempting to compete with television's unique power to create a dangerous sense of intimacy between the famous few and the obscure many, newspapers and magazines have adopted similar techniques; trivializing issues, diminishing ideas, discouraging rational thought.

A Sweeping Indictment

Emotionally overstimulated and intellectually undernourished by vulgar sensationalism and crude simplification, the social order and the democratic political system eventually collapse, a process the author finds already well under way. The mass media haven't been so sweepingly indicted since Mr. Agnew was returned to the private sector.

Though Schickel is supremely articulate and well informed about the way the celebrity system operates in the case of movie stars, he is most unsettling and provocative when he leaves the theater for the political arena. In the chapter called, with terrifying aptness, "Magic Bullets," he applies his theories to the relationship between Presidents and their assassins, presenting persuasive evidence that television's illusion of intimacy distorts normal reality, an effect all the more insidious for being unmeasurable and imperceptible.

Schickel contends that when the traditional boundaries between the well-known and the unknown are breached, the result is terrorism in its protean forms; hijacking, bombing, kidnaping, rape and murder; all acts of intimacy perverted. Seizing the fantasy of connection provided by the TV screen, the unstable person may attempt to turn the image into an actuality.

Bizarre Association

When a Lee Harvey Oswald, a John Hinckley succeeds in establishing this bizarre association, he fuses himself with another's glory and forces the entire world to take notice, a possibility undreamt of in the pre-electronic age. What Asian, African or European villager could name the man who tried to kill Franklin Roosevelt? What demented fan could insinuate himself into a star's bedroom before the era of listening devices and miniature cameras? "Take pictures," the new outlaws demand. "Are we on TV?" The prisoner negotiates with his agent from his cell; the movie coincides with his release.

As technologically sophisticated and ethically irresponsible journalism has altered our perception of prominent people, the actual roles of these people have subtly changed to suit the requirements of the media. "Personality is used to defuse and deflect ideological complexities." Ignored and disregarded, non-telegenic issues do not vanish but continue to see the beneath the surface, erupting at the first sign of weakness in the social fabric. When the cult of personality substitutes for "organization, purpose and stability" in national life, the entire culture is imperiled.

"Intimate Strangers" examines the implications of this depressing thesis from assorted social, philosophical and aesthetic angles, summoning some of the world's most thoughtful observers to the seminar. Closely reasoned and often corrosively witty, in the end the book becomes yet another anti-media diatribe, a deftly guided journey through the trampled fields of the Vast Wasteland.

Though Schickel hasn't broken new trails, he offers numerous alluring side trips to sites not included on the standard tourist route. The company is distinguished; the conversation lively if seldom merry.

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