Film Studies: Martha, Michael and the miracle of digital enhancement

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At this stage of the game, there are legal pundits who reckon that Michael Jackson's only real chance of winning his case is if Martha Stewart comes to his aid with what is called a "make-over".

At this stage of the game, there are legal pundits who reckon that Michael Jackson's only real chance of winning his case is if Martha Stewart comes to his aid with what is called a "make-over". You may be inclined to ask, well, what has this got to do with movies, let alone Film Studies? To which I would only reply, wait around a few moments. What Martha Stewart signifies is the degree to which the right moving imagery, properly presented in prime time, can make (or remake) you in this country which would just as soon break you.

You must recall Martha Stewart. For a couple of decades she was the empress and the household goddess of an enterprise and a philosophy called "Martha Stewart Living". This was a way of life which argued that if you look after the doilies, the herbaceous borders and your lovable smile, then all other things in the kingdom will fall into place. So it was for Martha. By recommending menus, garden plans and entertaining strategies for America, she became her own corporation, a millionaire, a recognisable figure on television - blonde, engaging, human, slimmish and an ordinary star.

Naturally enough, as this star ascended, a kind of counterweight theory grew that that was not her own blonde hair, that she was bitchy, patronising and utterly uninterested in the non-Marthas of the world. This is the harnessing of the available and automatic critical energy that any star brings into being (Einstein had an equation for it, but space is limited). Let me just say that, with Diana and Camilla as stars, you know what I mean. That energy expanded geometrically a few years ago when Stewart was charged with unfair and insider trading on stocks. She had heeded injudicious advice and sold a friend's stock when it was about to plummet. Of course, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the guardian of the Stock Exchange) knows such things happen. But it is not good for them to be seen happening. And Martha was very visible and so plainly silly or marginal that a good deal of animosity fell on her fair head.

There was a movie for television (Martha is not quite a theatrical-level person) and Cybill Shepherd enjoyed herself doing the bitch in Ms Stewart. The trial came at last and the Court TV channel bemoaned her defence (it can't be long by the way before some adjunct - Diagnosis TV? - openly challenges the treatment being given to celebrity patients). Martha was found guilty, which meant a few months in prison. At that point, no magazine or TV show could find a grim enough picture of Ms Stewart - she aged, she put on weight, she was sad. I do not mean that those actual things befell her. They may have done. More important, that's what the imagery suggested.

At which point, Martha Stewart herself stood up, told herself not to be an idiot or a stooge and reasoned that she had come from nothing once. So she elected not to wait for further appeals but to go to her West Virginia prison as quickly as possible. The press ran stories about no doilies or finger sandwiches in prison, but Martha knew her public well enough to trust their instinct for courage and common sense. She held to her guns: the charges were stupid; the jail time was punitive; but she was a grown-up American success.

In prison, she coped; she advised other prisoners without her money or lawyers; she mixed in and behaved herself. And now she is out, and much more than back. On the cover of Newsweek, there is a new picture of her - "radiant" would cover it - with the text: "Martha's Last Laugh: After Prison, She's Thinner, Wealthier & Ready for Prime Time." All of this is true, or "true" (as we say in the US, knowing that truth is a genre, like "reality"). As for thinner, well prison can do that for you. Richer - to be sure: shares in Martha Stewart Living have risen fourfold since last summer. As for TV, Martha is set for two prime-time shows. I have more than a hunch that she is about to become an earnest spokesman for improving prison conditions. I don't think she knows him yet, but I predict the day will come when she is the all-American mother who will get Michael Jackson to "pull himself together again".

I won't go in to Michael's current case. It is, as they say, sub judice, and in this country we try to aspire to the possibility that jurors might read newspapers. In truth, Michael is in serious trouble, especially as his alleged offence is the kind that fellow prisoners are inclined to treat with unkind prejudice. If guilty, Michael will get a much bigger sentence and he has a lot farther to go in the general area of taking it all like a grown up.

But wait a minute. Michael Jackson, you may say, has been modifying his image for years - I refer to the scarcely avoidable evidence of surgical procedures, all of which seem calculated to make him look like a facial/sexual type not otherwise identified on the planet. And Michael is mocked for that search - even if 10 years ago and more, a similar enquiry in his music videos was taken as a kind of art.

Martha is too apple-cheeked to go in for that sort of thing, isn't she? She's a healthy woman, and happy to be one. Except that now it is revealed that she is not quite as healthy as Newsweek wanted to suggest. That cover picture of her is her face blended with a model's body. Which means, I think, that the real pictures of Martha made her just a little fuller or plumper than suited the magazine's spin - prison food can do that for you, too.

Newsweek blundered about with apologies and explanations and Janice Castro, director of graduate journalism at Northwestern University, opined that it was not a serious ethical lapse - not like the time when the same Ms Castro was at Time magazine when it darkened the hue of OJ Simpson's face.

All these manoeuvres are possible because of a thing called Photoshop; a way of changing every photograph to what you want. Photographers say it enhances their art. Others argue that the factual core of their art - that photographs reproduce a reality - is now available for purchase. And that, I venture to suggest is a very suitable topic for Film Studies - which has always been an enquiry into the ways we like to use and abuse film. You don't remember film? It's the old name for digital.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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