The Imus inquisition

Peter Bart: The Back Lot

Ok, one more time — Imus.

The post-firing literary outpouring has become a genre unto itself — one that is at once instructive and disturbing.

On display is guilt: “Among the hypocrites surrounding Imus I’ll include myself,” wrote Frank Rich. There is nervousness: Bill Maher wonders if he could be next on the hit list. There is smugness: PBS’ Gwen Ifill stands ready to sanitize Borat along with Imus and his ilk. There is indignation: Larry Elder demands that, amid these “confusing rules,” Al Sharpton should have been fired, not Imus.

Then there is Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik, whose cover story starts by posing the question, “Where’s the line?” and ends by stating that this is “a misleading question” — the relevant point is that “there are as many lines as there are people.”

The insufferably civil tone of this week’s “Meet the Press” signaled the ominous subtext of the Imus incident. Here were four gurus of journalism politely agreeing with one another that “the marketplace” had rid itself of the “pollution” that Imus embodied and that this was a good thing.

The well-intentioned Tim Russert seemed discomfited by his uniquely tedious broadcast. Surely he understands that “the marketplace” as such may not be the most trustworthy monitor of a pop culture.

It’s clear why the Imus imbroglio has gotten under the skin of the media community. Top politicians (including Clinton and Cheney) have faithfully paraded before Imus, as have the most prominent journalists, when they had books to sell. It was Imus, like Oprah, who broke the New York Times chokehold on book sales. “As a book author, I could always use the publicity,” acknowledges Frank Rich, who himself once held a chokehold on theater criticism. But Rich warns: “Liberals are kidding themselves if they think the Imus firing won’t have a potentially chilling effect on comics who push the line.”

Les Moonves may earnestly suggest that his network is helping to change the culture by firing Imus, but will our pop culture be suffocated by its own self-conscious civility?

A generation ago, CBS’ father figure, William Paley, wrestled with whether to put on a show from Norman Lear called “All in the Family.” ABC had passed because it was “too vulgar.” His network’s standards and practices bureaucrats were antsy because Archie Bunker was grumpy and sounded racist. In his autobiography, Paley admits he wavered but finally decided to give the show a chance because “it was time to catch up with the developments taking place in this country.”

Would Archie Bunker have a shot today, or would the show be buried by the wave of political correctness?

Old man Paley had a point.

Finding an audience for a foreign-made film has become a challenge in this country, so why do distributors put such dopey titles on their offerings? “The Fourth Piece of the Woman Sliced in Three” from France is not going to grab filmgoers, and just because “Wild Hogs” was a hit doesn’t mean “Long Pigs” will work (that film’s from Canada).

Why bother asking the question?

Because every once in a while, it’s useful to line up trivial questions like this in the hope of finding some trivial explanations.

Herewith, a few more examples:

  • Why do filmmakers put ego instead of discipline on display in editing their movies? Worthy but self-indulgent films like “Zodiac” or “The Good Shepherd” could have reached vastly wider audiences, and filmgoers clearly aren’t lining up to wallow in the three-hour-plus “Grindhouse.” What ever happened to the precept of “less is more”?

  • Why don’t Bob Shaye and Peter Jackson ask a cool-headed arbiter like Don Imus to resolve their quarrel and then wander off into the wilderness to make “The Hobbit”? That would make Leo the Lion (he co-owns the rights) happy, along with several hundred million fans. Not to mention all those exhibitors who would savor another billion-dollar blockbuster. And it would give Imus something to occupy himself.

  • If Larry King is really intent on celebrating 50 more years in broadcasting, why doesn’t he finally tell CNN that he’s done his last Anna Nicole Smith “exclusive” and his final “American Idol” suck-up interview? After 50 years, he’s earned the right to be liberated.

  • Just when he’s succeeding in polishing his image, is Tom Cruise really spearheading a Scientology-inspired detox project for 9/11 rescue workers, as the New York Post reported last week? You’re a studio chief now, Tom, so the only cause you’re allowed to support is Barack Obama.

  • Why don’t Jim Carrey, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler acknowledge that comedy is king, after all? We all appreciate that actors have to “stretch” but they also have a subconscious need for rejection. How much rejection can anyone handle?

  • Why doesn’t the Los Angeles Times finally calm down and publish Brian Grazer’s Sunday section after all? Who really cares who’s dated which publicist? The Times has a new owner who likely will have less patience for these fratricidal rituals.

  • Does an old pro like John Wells really believe his heralded new “writers company” is workable when the idea has failed several times in the past? It’s fine to offer writers a piece of the gross, but everyone knows it’s in a writer’s DNA to grab the first big paycheck that comes along. Instant gratification always triumphs over literary ideals.

  • Why do people believe that the death of Premiere magazine demonstrates that readers only want to read about movies online? The basic problem with Premiere in its later years was that it had become as engrossing as the Yellow Pages.

  • Why did absolutely no filmgoer in the U.S. pay to see “Perfume”? Here was a non-odoriferous movie that grossed $130 million overseas but couldn”t get arrested here. Are European and American tastes that divergent?

  • Since festival directors supposedly get to see every good (and bad) movie made anywhere in the world, how come every festival last year turned thumbs down on “The Lives of Others”? In the end, even the Academy signaled its admiration for the movie, and its members famously disdain subtitled movies.

  • Can’t critics ever learn to control their urge to supply that “top of the ad” rave? I’m glad Richard Roeper liked “The Lookout,” but does he really want to call it “a masterpiece”? Stick to your thumbs, Richard. Did Peter Travers of Rolling Stone really get “high on movies again” after sitting (and sitting and sitting) through “Grindhouse”? What was he smoking during his sit? And while we all admire “The Sopranos” (by God, we have to), didn’t Vanity Fair soil its panties by calling it “The Greatest Show in Television History”?

OK, I’ve run out of questions for a while. A short while.

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