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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.
At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.
Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.
Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”
John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.
Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.
Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.
Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).
Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.
The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).
Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.
Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.
Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.
When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.
In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?
Where does society end and the rights of the individual begin? That is the true question that lies at the bottom of the Israel Folau controversy. The courts have been given the unenvious task of determining whether an organisation has the right to punish those members who don’t share its views, or if the rights of the individual should be upheld.
Former rugby player, Israel Folau and his lawyers are seeking up to AuS$15 million (including Aus$5m for the irreparable damage done to Folau’s reputation) from Rugby Australia. Folau had had his contract with Rugby Australia terminated after he was found guilty of a high-level breach (the only kind that can result in termination) of their code of conduct. This high-level breach came from Folau’s decision to post a picture on Instagram stating that hell awaited “drunks, homosexuals, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters.”
Having failed to reach a settlement with Rugby Australia at a Fair Work hearing, Folau and his lawyers have moved their case on to the Federal Court. Folau himself has merely expressed his desire for Rugby Australia to admit they terminated his contract because of his religious beliefs. In a video, Folau stated: “Hopefully, Rugby Australia will accept that my termination was unlawful and we can reach an agreement about how they can fix that mistake. First and foremost, I am hoping for an apology from Rugby Australia and an acknowledgement that even if they disagree with my views, I should be free to peacefully express my religious beliefs without fear of retribution or punishment.”
According to Rugby Australia’s, Folau’s contract was terminated on the basis that he had violated their requirement to “treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability.”
Of course, what really lies at the centre of the Folau case is not homophobia, but freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It is really a question of whether Israel Folau should be allowed to express his religious views without suffering economic or judicial penalty.
Both the US Supreme Court and the Australian Law Reform Commission have placed a special emphasis on freedom of speech. The US Supreme Court has noted that all other rights and freedoms are put in peril when freedom of speech is not protected. Similarly, the Australian Law Reform Commission has stated: “freedom of speech is a fundamental common law right. It has been described as the ‘freedom part excellence: for without it, no other freedom can survive.’
Likewise, the Australian Magna Carta Institute stated:
“Freedom of speech is an essential aspect of the rule of law and ensures there is accountability in government. People must be free to express their opinion about the content of laws, as well as the decisions of government or accountability is greatly reduced. Freedom of expression is a boarder term which incorporates free speech, the right to assemble, and other important ways of expressing ideas and opinions. The balance the law of Australia strikes between protecting and restricting freedom expression generally is very important to understand the health of the rule of law in Australia.”
It is remarkable to note, however, that freedom of speech is protected by neither the Constitution of Australia nor by Federal Legislation. In fact, there is a wide array of laws and regulations that place legal restrictions on expression. One cannot publish military secrets, incite criminal activity, or defame or libel another person.
Rather, freedom of speech is considered a common-law right adopted from the Westminster system. It is a feature of our political and legal traditions. The Australian High Court has stated that there is an implied right to freedom of expression embedded in the Australian Constitution (they did not say anything, however, about non-political expression). Likewise, Australia is also a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which lists freedom of expression as a fundamental right.
Freedom of religion is a natural extension of freedom of speech, expression, and association. It is derived from the simple fact that the government has no right to dictate what my beliefs should be. The government has no right to force me, a Christian, to accept gay marriage, abortion, or anything else I find incompatible with my beliefs.
Unlike freedom of speech, freedom of religion is a right guaranteed by the Australian Constitution. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution reads:
Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
Similarly, freedom of religion is protected by Australian case law. In the case of Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner for Payroll Tax (Vic), the Judges Mason ACJ and Brennan J. commented: “freedom of religion, the paradigm freedom of conscience, is the essence of a free society.” Similarly, in the case of Evans v. New South Wales, the Federal Court decreed that religious freedom as an “important freedom generally accepted in society.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A decision that favours Rugby Australia will give large organisations the legal mandate to bully and intimidate those that don’t agree with their views. If Australia’s Federal Court truly believes in freedom, it will uphold Israel Folau’s right to freedom of speech and religion, and rule against Rugby Australia.
It is a great pity that the Latin language is now considered dead. Through its death, we have lost many of the Latin words, expressions, and maxims that provided us with great wisdom and poetry. Among these is the phrase, “Panem et circenses”, or, in English, “bread and circuses.”
Panem et circenses refers to a society that uses food and mindless entertainment to keep control of its people. Such a culture does not encourage deep thought, nor does it encourage any search for meaningful or consequential in life.
What an excellent way to describe modern society and the culture that it has produced. No longer does our culture celebrate those with intelligence, moral piety, or depth of character. Instead, society has chosen to celebrate exhibitionism and licentiousness as the height of moral fortitude.
And no other family has demonstrated this fact more than the Kardashian-Jenner family. And modern culture has seen fit to reward them handsomely for it! In 2016, Forbes Magazine listed the Kardashian-Jenner family as the highest earning reality TV Stars. As of 2017, Kendall Jenner had a net worth of approximately US$18 million, Kourtney Kardashian had an approximate net worth of US$35 million, Khloe Kardashian had a net worth of US$40 million, Kylie Jenner, only twenty-years-old, had a net worth of US$50 million, Kris Kenner had a net worth of US$60 million, and Kim Kardashian had a net worth of US$175 million (she made $45.5 million in 2016/2017 alone).
But it’s hardly fair to criticise them. They have merely capitalised on the desire many people have to live a life of glamour and luxury. The Kardashians have been able to make tens-of-millions-of-dollars through their various reality TV shows, various business ventures, modelling, product endorsements, clothing lines, and more.
Of course, all this is not to say that the Kardashian-Jenner family is blameless. Years ago, a family as egotistical, petty, and immoral (what is Kim Kardashian, after all, other than a glorified porn star?) as the Kardashian family would have been treated with absolute disdain.
Not today, though. Today, the Kardashians have been able to build their empire, and it is an empire, upon shameless exploitation, self-aggrandisement, and self-promotion. They are able to reach nearly a billion people through social media and have been frequent guests on television talk shows.
What the Kardashian-Jenner phenomenon reveals is just how shallow our society has become. People have come to treat supermodels, reality TV stars, and sport’s stars as though they are royalty. The problem with this is that it encourages people to do whatever they like for a little bit of attention.
What all this boils down to is a loss of virtue. We have replaced the old heroes, the ones who encouraged courage and chivalry, with new Gods that encourage self-centredness and licentiousness. Self-expression is no longer to be expressed through the sweat of one’s brow, the depth of his character, or the faculties of his reason. Instead, it can be gained, quite easily, by posting a selfie on Instagram or Facebook.
St. Augustine defined virtue as ‘ordo amoris’ (yet another beautiful Latin maxim), or ‘order of love.’ It was his belief that every object and entity was accorded the level of love and affection that was appropriate for it to receive.
What we have today is a society that has gotten that order wrong. When people no longer honour Kings, they worship movie stars, musicians, models, reality TV stars, prostitutes, scoundrels, and gangsters instead. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
The gunman opened fire from his thirty-second-floor hotel room during a performance by country music star, Jason Aldean, at the three-day Route 91 Harvest Festival – an event attended by twenty-five thousand people. Witness reports suggest that the gunman used at least one automatic weapon in the attack. Fifty-four-year-old Steve Smith of Phoenix commented that the gunfire “just kept going on.”
It took an hour for Las Vegas police to break into the gunman’s hotel room after being alerted to the attack. There they found an arsenal of weapons, including ten rifles, and the gunman dead from a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The gunman responsible has been identified as sixty-four-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada. While police are yet to finalise a background check on Mr. Paddock, it is known that he was a wealthy property owner who resided in the local retirement community. A regular at Las Vegas casinos, Mr. Paddock possessed no significant criminal record and was not known to have links to any militant group.
Mr. Paddock’s brother, Eric, told the Daily Mail that his family was “shocked” by the action’s of his brother and there had been “absolutely no indication” of what he was capable of. “Something happened, he snapped or something”, Eric Paddock commented.
Reactions to the mass shooting have been quick and immense. Jason Aldean stated on Instagram:
“Tonight has been beyond horrific. I still dont [sic] know what to say but wanted to let everyone know that Me and my Crew are safe. My Thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved tonight. It hurts my heart that this would happen to anyone who was just coming out to enjoy what should have been a fun night. #heartbroken #stopthehate.”