For sale: Bridge to Brooklyn – cheap

November 10, 2010


I’ve been meaning to write about the supposed phenomenon of the woman with the cell phone in the extras for the DVD of the Charlie Chaplin film “The Circus” for a couple weeks, since I first heard about it and then watched it on a website. But then I’ve also been meaning to write about the fact that someone is about to teach a college course on the subject of Lady Gaga. (Suggested title: “Understanding Madonna.”) Ain’t it funny how time slips away.


And what I wanted to say about the whole Chaplin thing was this: Lord, what fools these mortals be. OK, so someone else said that first and better. Or perhaps this: There’s a sucker born every minute. Again, not mine, but apt.


I don’t know whether the Irishman who posted the original video was indeed serious. In his post, he blabbed on and on about how he was convinced that this was, in fact, footage of a woman talking on a cell phone, captured on film in 1928. He shows it over and over, in slow motion and close-up, among other things. I’d like to think it was an elaborate prank, just to see how many gullible people he could suck in to his little mind-game. The answer is: a lot. And they couldn’t all be Michelle Bachmann voters.


The point is, I guess, that a lot of people were, at a minimum, convinced that they were seeing a woman talking on a cell phone in 1928 footage. Once you swallow that part, then the next step is simple: How did it get there? Only one possible answer, right? Yes, I’m talking about time travel. Gotta be.


Sure – and you can start a war, cut taxes and suffer absolutely no ill effects on the national economy. Tell me another.


I watched his little display once and came to the conclusion that, while the woman was holding something up to her face, it obviously wasn’t a cell phone. Why obviously? Because cell phones didn’t exist then. Neither did walkie-talkies or any of the other science-fiction communication devices that have become commonplace in our modern world.


More likely, the woman was suffering from a toothache and holding her hand to her face, in the same posture that we now assume when we’re using a cell phone. Perhaps there was a palliative device – an ice-pack or some such – that she was holding to said tooth. Maybe she saw the camera and held her hand up to keep from being photographed. Perhaps she was simply warm and was holding a handkerchief, to catch a drop of feminine perspiration. Or, as someone on Cinematical suggested, she was holding an ear trumpet, a forerunner of the hearing aid.


Really, I can’t believe that I’m devoting space to this. I can’t believe that people even consider believing something like this. This kind of credulity borders on the feeble-minded. On the other hand, Tea Party candidates won by telling the kind of whoppers that would have gotten them laughed out of any literate room. But then again, it was the Tea Party. I guess you believe what you want to, no matter what the evidence.


It reminds me of something that happened when I was still working for a newspaper, about 15 years ago, in the pre-Internet era. (Pre-Internet in the sense that society had not yet decided to believe everything it read online.)


A rumor started that, if you watched closely, in one scene of “The Wizard of Oz,” you could see a midget – one of the Munchkins, supposedly – committing suicide in the background of a specific scene.


Keep in mind that this was more than 50 years after the film’s release. Yet this rumor gained credence, gained momentum, gained gravity – to the point that my sheep-like editor at the time heard it and said, “You have to check this out.” Never mind that the notion of a secret of this sort actually lasting undiscovered for all this time was patently absurd.


As it happened, the 50th-anniversary edition of “The Wizard of Oz” – on VHS tape – was a well-worn part of my older son’s video collection. So I went home and spent about 20 minutes scanning the scene, playing and replaying it to figure out exactly what it was I was seeing. There was something in the background – and people had convinced themselves that it was a little person hanging himself. Yet, somehow, no one involved in making the original film had noticed it when it was happening – or perhaps had hushed it up so that it was part of the film in its original and all subsequent releases.


The moment in “The Wizard of Oz” comes after the Dorothy and the Scarecrow have revived the Tin Man with his oilcan. The Tin Man sings, “If I Only Had a Brain” and then the Wicked Witch of the West appears in a cloud of red smoke and threatens them all. She throws a ball of fire at the Scarecrow, then disappears in another plume of red smoke. The threesome summon their courage and decide to go on. “To Oz?” “To Oz! Weeee’re off to see the Wizard…” and they dance off down the yellow brick road.


And, in the background in the upper left corner of the frame, in the foreshortened distance of the soundstage forest, seen in silhouette, a large bird – a pelican or an egret brought in to give the scene a little extra color – stretches, spreads its wings, then tucks them back and resumes sitting on a tree stump. No hanging midget.


But watching it made me wonder: Who would want to believe a rumor like this? “The Wizard of Oz” is a treasured movie classic, an all-time great, a touchstone of childhood fantasy for generations. Never mind why someone started the rumor; someone started the rumor that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. There’s always a gullible audience. But who would want to give it credence?


Yet many people did. Similarly, many apparently believed that the woman in the Chaplin clip was talking on a cell phone. And was a time traveler.


Someone else started the rumor that President Obama’s trip to India was costing $200 million a day – and everyone from Michelle Bachmann to Glenn Beck kept repeating that “fact,” even though it had been roundly debunked. Oh yeah – and then there was the one about the death panels. And President Obama’s birth certificate.


As the saying goes, there’s no lie like the Big Lie. It gets them every time. It’s easier to swallow silly horseshit than to actually think for yourself.


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