There is an early David Foster Wallace story called “My Appearance” about an actress whose “face and attitudes are known to something over half of the measurable population of the United States, whose name is on lips and covers and screens.” The story centers on an appearance of hers on Late Night with David Letterman. Mostly it’s just an excuse for Wallace to riff on a few favored subjects: the place of sincerity in an age of overwhelming irony; the difficulty of saying things that don’t already come packaged in the kind of quotation marks that basically disavow what you’re saying even as you’re saying it.
“Sincerity is out,” says the creepy television executive who has taken it upon himself to coach the actress in advance of her appearance. “The joke is now on people who’re sincere.” Letterman’s show is an “anti-show,” one that feeds off its evident amusement at itself and its withering, disingenuously friendly host. Our heroine aces the interview by in turn playing an idealized, self-mocking version of herself; it's only at the end of the story, when she asks someone close to her what they “really” think, that she finally slips up and plunges into the trap that was lurking beneath her the entire time.
“My Appearance” (then titled “Late Night”) was first published in Playboy in 1988. Kristen Stewart’s famous and very real appearance on Letterman came 20 years later, in 2008, when she was promoting the first Twilight movie, and basically validated every fear Wallace had. She was mumbly and weird and she fidgeted; Letterman, sensing something human on the other side of his desk, went in for blood. He asked her if vampires were vegetarians and how she felt about bats. He questioned her about her lack of a high school education. When she confessed to being unprepared, to being boring, to not really knowing how to play the game — “I was like, what am I going to talk about on Letterman, I have no idea” — he did a kind of comic double take. “Did you — did you tell somebody that?” he asked, overwhelmed with mock concern. The audience roared.
On Friday, Memorial Day weekend will begin, Diddy and his family will commence another long summer of wearing nothing but white, and Men in Black III will arrive in theaters, marking the true beginning of Hollywood’s blockbuster season. After the catastrophic gambles, mild misfires, and historically overwhelming successes of, respectively, John Carter, Battleship, and The Avengers, we’ve finally made it to the months where nearly every movie has franchise aspirations and a genuine movie star (it’s not your fault, Taylor Kitsch!) in a lead role. It’s the moment when studios stop giving us what they think we want and start giving us what they hope we’ll tolerate.
By now, viewers who’ve been following Sacha Baron Cohen’s career over the past decade probably have a feel for his newest, The Dictator, sight unseen. Admiral General Aladeen — perhaps you’ve seen him dumping “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest, or holding the mother of Extra movie-doll Ben Lyons hostage? — as a child, with fulsome pubic hair and a glorious beard. The autocrat Olympics he stages, in which the finish line runs toward him. The first of many celebrity cameos: Megan Fox in the palace of the Mad Dog of Wadiya, hastily putting her clothes back on. (“Katy Perry said she got a diamond Rolex,” Fox says, rummaging through her blood-money sack.)
Fox’s presence is a clue that at least one thing about The Dictator is different. Baron Cohen’s newest is also his first entirely fictional film since the 2002 false start Ali G Indahouse — the one that begins with Baron Cohen’s Ali G break-dancing his way out of a hail of bullets and sort of deteriorates from there. The Dictator is not quite in that zone of B-movie unease, but it’s not Baron Cohen’s best effort, either. It’s funny, but cheap and thin and ultimately not that different than any number of other movies in which Anna Faris plays a slightly dim ingenue, albeit with way more jokes about rape and torture and 9/11. It should do fine, though probably not any better than fine.
This Friday, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows will open at every single theater near you. Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a vampire from the 18th century who returns from the grave to meet his descendants living in the early 1970s. I haven’t seen Dark Shadows, but I know (from commercials airing wall-to-wall during the NBA playoffs) that there’s a not-terribly-funny scene where Depp stares quizzically at the TV as The Carpenters perform “Top of the World.” I assume there are other scenarios playing on the culture shock experienced by the immortal undead during the Nixon administration, so if that’s your thing, enjoy. It also helps if you are still buying what Burton and Depp are selling, as they’ve been selling the same thing for quite a while.