JOHN OSTRANDER: The headline quartet
You’ve done this on tests. Which of the following doesn’t fit?
- Celeb fashion flops
- Crafting the perfect lawn
- Man films own death by meth
- Clearing home clutter
If you picked “Man films own death by meth” then give yourself an A. I plucked this quartet as is from my MS Hotmail account; after I sent off an e-mail, a screen popped up asking me if I wanted to go back to the message or to the inbox. In the left margin, there were also some news stories that I might want to pick. These were the four headlines to choose from. Three innocuous bits of news fluff and one fairly grotesque news item.
Each headline had equal value. The type sizes were all the same size. Suicide is given the same value as “Crafting the perfect lawn.” They’re all just newsy bits, one no more important than the next. In a list we sometimes assume that the top or the bottom items have the most impact but not so here. Exchange the top two items and nothing really has changed. Put the suicide item at the top or the bottom and the list changes but nestle it in the middle and it’s just one more bit of fluff.
I’ve been looking at our little headline quartet and reacting several different ways. In this context, with everything being the same, death has no more importance than crafting the perfect lawn. It’s just another widget headline. If everything has the same value, then what has meaning? “Man films own death by meth” is grotesque, it should horrify. The quartet suggests otherwise to me. There is no sense of priority here, that this one thing is more important than this other thing. The context of its appearance in this quartet suggests that the death is mundane.
Which might raise the question – is it more important? An unknown man films his own death by meth. Should his death mean anything more to me than celeb fashion flops? Is his death noteworthy or the fact that he filmed it? If there wasn’t video, we wouldn’t care. Just another meth user screwing up his life. I’m not going to pretend that I care deeply about every person who dies; I don’t. The deceased may have family and friends who will mourn him; I hope he does. Me? I’m mostly appalled but that’s about it. Maybe for me it IS just another widget headline.
Perhaps the person who grouped those four headlines did so intentionally with the third headline meant to stand out, to startle, to shock. In that case, it could be a form of art. It makes a comment on our modern life by the very grouping of these events and in the order presented. Death treated as another newsy item is itself the commentary.
Read the quartet over again a few times. It could be a poem. The images it creates are ambiguous. The last line, “Clearing home clutter,” could be commenting on the line just above it. What has perfect lawns? Could the line be referring to cemeteries? The first line refers to failures that even our cultural leaders make; is the man who films his own death by meth trying to break into the celebrity circle with his own snuff film? The irony then is the celebrity culture into which the man is literally dying to gain admittance is itself flawed and prone to “flubs.” Oh, the humanity.
It is more likely is that these are four headlines came together by accident; whoever was putting together these marginal headlines just threw four things together. If there’s no intentionality, it’s not art, so far as I’m concerned. The Grand Canyon is a beautiful hole in the ground but it ain’t art. Sometimes when we are struck by something we experience, we try to describe it in artistic terms, as I did by trying to make our headline quartet into a poem. That sensibility is something we bring to the piece, not necessarily something that is inherently a part of it. We impose an order, a meaning, on something that neither has one nor, in some cases, needs one. The Mona Lisa is intentional; a rainbow, however beautiful, is not. Sometimes, a widget is just a widget.
Possibly, just possibly, our little headline quartet is something that caught my eye and at which I have been staring for waaaaay too long.
Oh well. It beats working.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at https://web.archive.org/web/20160318163624/http://www.comicscommunity.com:80/boards/ostrander/