Thursday, December 12, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
The review was in German, but the critic wanted to make himself heard around the world so he wrote one line in English, a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous moment at the Berlin Wall: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this bullshit.”
He wasn’t being nostalgic. He wasn’t even talking geopolitics. He was reviewing a television show, but that’s putting it kindly.
The critic Reinhard Mohr, writing for Der Spiegel, reacted with horror, exasperation and disbelief to last night’s two-hour television special commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall on the German network ZDF. Hosted by veteran media personality Thomas Gottschalk, the show wrapped itself in so much glitz and glam that from a distance the Brandenburg Gate resembled a gigantic truffle wrapped in colored cellophane.
Yesterday, I checked out the final ten minutes of the show here on YouTube. Today I can’t find it, but to my eyes, the footage looked predictably kitschy, no worse than a hundred variety shows of the kind that were still common on German television back when I lived in Berlin in the early 1990’s and certainly comparable to other recent televised spectaculars, like the Michael Jackson funeral or the spectacle that preceded the Beijing Olympics. If anything, this sort of bombast and camp only proves how normal Germany has become by western media standards, and wasn’t that always the goal of German leaders during the Cold War? Normalisierung?
If you ask me, by the astonishing standards of the Jackson funeral and the Olympics, Thomas Gottschalk and company showed admirable restraint. I especially liked the men wrapped in silver jumpsuits, the ones who ran beside the falling Berlin Wall dominoes like futuristic pizza delivery boys.
The problem for the critic may simply be that the evening’s entertainment wasn’t Stevie Wonder or a thousand, under-age Chinese acrobats, but a guy who once labeled himself the German David Letterman. In his curly golden locks and tangerine jackets, Gottschalk has always symbolized everything about German culture that doesn’t translate beyond the borders, chief among these being a sense of humor. He’s the human equivalent of the banana peel joke, and maybe not the best choice for such an august occasion. On the other hand, who really cares?
If we want millions of people to watch anything now, and five million Germans evidently did, we bust out the kitsch. It’s what makes us western these days. We go big. We go camp. We blow the joint up.
If the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall had been staged in America, we’d have seen Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers singing “God Bless America” in a hot air balloon, an undead Ray Charles hologrammed into the hell of a Las Vegas chorus line, Joan Rivers dropping ropes of flesh on a red carpet, and Tim Gunn commenting on the horrible fashion choices of people in bygone historical moments. That’s how we’d roll. Believe it.
When the 20th Anniversary of 9-11 rolls around, for instance, see if we don’t spin everything into sequins, glitter and bathtubs of embarrassing emotion. See if we don’t let movie stars tell us about their outfits while standing near Ground Zero. It’s how we as a civilization now deal with the great vistas of pain and change and conflict. It’s how we spin our history into syrup and money. It’s the weird, wild, warped fruit of worldwide media culture.
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