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The Best of 2007

The 15-second syndrome: When fame meets ADD, nothing stays on top for long.

December 16, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Before he gunned down eight people in an Omaha mall Dec. 5, Robert A. Hawkins left a note explaining his actions: His life had been ruined by a break-up and job loss, but now at least he was going to be famous.

Except, of course, that he isn't.

The horror of a young man committing murder to achieve notoriety is twisted into grim irony by the fact that his story was soon lost in the frothing, sucking news churn, replaced by the Colorado shootings. If it hadn't been that, it would have been a break in the Stacy Peterson case, a political scandal or, more likely, a celebrity caught without panties or busting out of rehab. Hawkins inevitably will be returned to the anonymity he found so impossible to bear.

With a media metabolism jacked up to thyroid-busting levels, fame has become so ubiquitous and fleeting, it barely exists. One minute you're on the cover of Rolling Stone and People and InStyle and Newsweek and all the morning shows, the next you're yesterday's blog. It all comes down to simple math. Ratings, readership, website hits, box office returns -- everything and everyone needs to open big, stay high or, baby, you're bumped.

Sickeningly, even mass murderers live in the age of the opening weekend.

For years, the film studios have promulgated the big opening weekend mentality, pinning all their hopes and dreams, not to mention publicity dollars, on enormous numbers for two or three days. Too fearful to hope for slow and thoughtful audience growth, the marketing of most films follows the Attention Deficit Disorder plan: open big, hang on for a week or two, then vanish from screen and thought and conversation. (Which explains why so many Oscar hopefuls are opening mere weeks before year's end.)

Not surprisingly, that mentality has trickled down to television, where shows that don't post well in the first three weeks risk getting yanked midseason. CBS paid Katie Couric big bucks to guarantee a bump in ratings; analysts wrote her off as a flop mere weeks after her debut. Hit shows such as "House" and "Heroes" cycle in a cadre of new cast members just when viewers are able to remember the names of the old ones.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, or for that matter Sacha Baron Cohen? The face of Borat appeared Mao-like on seemingly every flat surface available for photo transference last year. Now he has vanished from the cultural conversation, taking all his much-mimicked idiosyncratic syntax with him. Name one Borat phrase. I dare you. Ditto other pop culture flash points such as "Kid Nation" child abuse allegations, LonelyGirl15, Daniel Craig as James Bond, Stephen Colbert as a presidential candidate, the plot twists on "Lost" and all those Wisteria Lane ladies.

Strangely enough, penguins, as in "March of the Penguins," "Madagascar" and "Happy Feet," seem to be hanging on. Perhaps they could offer a few tips to former "American Idol" darling Sanjaya, who was reduced to a has-been mere moments, it would seem, after the pinnacle of his fame.

Even book publishers eschew the slow build of a book tour in favor of the blitzkrieg of national publicity. Should a film or show or book actually buck the trend and find success through word of mouth -- Sara Gruen's novel "Water for Elephants," for example -- the media fall all over themselves reporting it as news, inevitably taking things meteoric until the fireball flames out.

Meanwhile, we get President Bush, at a dinner honoring Steve Martin, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney as a "wild and crazy guy." Those were the days, weren't they? Before cable, before the Internet, when shows such as "Saturday Night Live" still had teeth, when you could coin a phrase, create a character and expect it to hang around for a bit.

Lost amid shiny objects

We are a nation obsessed with fame. But as the poets have told us time and again, too much handling will destroy any object of desire. Fame, at least in the old-fashioned, stands-the-test-of-time sense, is now almost impossible to achieve and may in fact no longer exist. Andy Warhol once observed that fame was going so cheap everyone would have their 15 minutes. In today's world, Warhol himself probably couldn't have hung on for 15 seconds.

Part of this comes down to technology. Since Henry Ford created the assembly line, mass production has inevitably led to increased consumption and the desire for the next new thing. Who keeps a car for 10 years anymore? Technology has finally caught up with information; airport-sized 20-theater complexes, television with hundreds of stations, the infinite Internet clamor for our attention. Why wait for the news in tomorrow's paper when you can get it tonight on TV? Why wait for tonight on TV when you can get it right this minute online?

Those waiting for a saturation point should bring lots of snacks, because it isn't happening soon. The entertainment industry may be entering a writers strike-induced flash freeze, but that's only because the players are locked in a division over the spoils of new media.

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