Bad Boys

As the pollsters and politicos lurch their way towards the New Hampshire
primary, the steady rumbling of early campaign spin has sent us back down
memory lane to our video scrapbook from the 92 election. And particularly
to one “cult classic” from that year: the early November MTV Interview with
then-President George Bush, conducted entirely in the back of a caboose,
ambling Truman-style across a vacant midwest landscape. Bush’s withering
exchange with Tabitha Soren probably stands as the ex-President’s most
revealing moment on camera, if you don’t count the time he told a gathering
of startled reporters that he and Ronald Reagan had sex together (he meant
to say “successes”). Bush’s hard-wired WASP politesse had been beaten down
into a prickly, Strindbergian hostility by that late point in the campaign,
and his usually endearing borderline-aphasia syntax came across more
spiteful than anything else. Why should I bother putting the nouns and
verbs in the right order, he seemed to say, when I’m only talking to this
little GenX whippersnapper?

So our expectations were high for last week’s MTV Interview, an hour-long
triad featuring Tabitha duking it out with three “bad boys” — Tupac
Shakur, Sean Penn, and, drumroll please, Yasser Arafat. Don’t get us wrong
on this one: it’s not like we have any fondness for Tabitha, who makes
Deborah Norville look like H.L. Mencken, but the fact is we take a slightly
twisted pleasure in personality profiles where the personalities are
themselves genuinely mortified by the ordeal. And that pleasure is more
than just campy, it’s-so-bad-it’s-good irony. From our vantage point here
in the Filter, any message that points to the absurdity of the medium is
doing a service to the public at large. So if Bush’s poorly concealed
disdain for Tabitha Soren reminds us of how ridiculous it is that Tabitha
Soren is conducting the interview in the first place — then, hey, it’s a
“site of resistance,” as our academic friends like to say. Every time we
see a genuinely significant person humiliated by some inane TV cattle-call
our faith in civil society is renewed. That’s why the Bush interview was so
captivating, and why we assumed that the sight of Arafat sandwiched
between a gangsta rapper and Jeff Spicoli would deliver a comparable
package of self-loathing delight.

But it is a measure of our age’s collective delirium that the guy squirming
in his seat during the MTV “Bad Boys” special was Madonna’s ex-husband and
not the Nobel Prize-winning terrorist/freedom fighter. Arafat himself
beamed throughout the interview, waxing nostalgic about his “swinging
bachelor” days and confessing his love for American cartoons. That chipper,
I’m-a-lucky-guy smile was so insistent throughout Tabitha’s grueling assault
(“What do you do to relax?” she asked at one point), that if you turned the
sound down you might have thought it was a certain look-alike drummer on a
bad turban day, blissfully recounting the afternoon that John and Paul let
him sing lead on “Yellow Submarine.” And leave it to MTV to spice up its
Arafat interview with a steady stream of unmotivated jump cuts, albeit at
a slower pace than usual (presumably as a tribute to the solemnity of the
occasion). Perhaps intentionally, the visuals left us with a newfound
empathy for Sean Penn — after twenty minutes of epileptic editing, we too
wanted to punch out a few cameramen just for the hell of it.

We’re always happy to see Sean Penn’s wary and wise demeanor onscreen, his
eyes darting back and forth between his interlocutor and the nearest exit,
cigarette smoke wafting throughout the conversation (can you name another
actor or actress who smokes in public anymore?). In the MTV special,
however, our favorite exchange came during Penn’s automotive tour of his
childhood neighborhood in L.A., after the conversation had turned to his
now-legendary “thirst”:

Point well taken, Sean — but the problem with a spectacle like the MTV
Interview is precisely that there’s too much balance going around, the sort
you get when the camera hops blithely from Tupac to Yasser to Sean without
registering any shift in magnitude between them. The last thing this breed
of personality-driven journalism needs is more balance; what it really
needs is a sense of proportion. It used to be that you could tell the
difference between the people who were on TV because they were important,
and the ones who were important because they were on TV. No longer.
Television as a medium has always trended towards a kind of flattening-out
of experience, making it harder and harder to distinguish between real
events and their pseudo equivalents. That’s why we find ourselves rooting
for George Bush as he snarls his responses to Tabitha’s pseudo-journalist
questions, and why our hearts sink at the sight of Arafat gleefully
discussing his sports cars as if he were jockeying for a guest host gig on
the Tonight Show. Anything that disrupts the great balancing act of
televised celebritydom gets two thumbs up here, even if it means taking
pleasure in other people’s misfortune. That’s what we do to relax, Tabitha.
And thanks for asking.

— S.J. (December, 1995)

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