Garbage culture is so pervasive that we can’t escape being involved in it somehow. It doesn’t matter if you don’t watch television or follow celebrity news, it will eventually catch up with you. Despite actively trying to avoid it for years, it sought me out, held me down, and had its way with me earlier this week.
It all started with an invitation to the cinema. New York City is kind of a hot bed for underground films and they often have screenings where someone from the project is good enough to come by and say a few words about it after the show. It’s one of the perks of living here that you trade for your peace of mind. That night’s film was the slasher classic, Sleepaway Camp. The film combines goofy humor with genuine horror and they sort of serve to exacerbate the other’s effectiveness. The final five minutes of the film has the biggest laugh followed immediately by the film’s utterly disturbing ending.
The entire audience was comprised of dressed down members of Generation X and slightly older members of whatever you call the people that are too young for Generation X but too old to be a Millennial and don’t identify with either. The exception were the people sitting in the reserved section near the front. They were all overly tan and impeccably dressed. Most impressive was the amount of time each person must have spent on their ridiculous hair. Had they not all been over thirty, I would have hedged a bet that they were on their way to prom.
After the film there was an exceptionally brief Q&A that included the films writer/director (Robert Hiltzik), a principal male role (Paul De Angelo), and an exceptionally small role played by Frank Sorrentino (also known as “Frankie Stylze”). If you are as unfamiliar with Frank as I was, he is the brother of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore fame. Of course I did know that at the time. None of us did. All we knew was that a camera crew had set up to film everything and assumed it was going to end up as a DVD extra for the next film in the series or just extra coverage for Fangoria magazine (who had sponsored the event).
Hiltzik was wearing a tasteful blazer and good enough to answer any questions about the film’s direction and script. Paul De Angelo, still appearing fairly muscular, reminisced on how much he enjoyed working on the film. Frank Sorrentino’s unnaturally tanned body showed up in a purple silk shirt and silver vest with his receding hairline gelled to a point so he resembled Burt, from Sesame Street, if he were addicted to coke and sexually harassing women in clubs. And it was when Frank was passed the microphone that the entire thing became insane. He began with talking about what a wonderful experience it was and then triumphantly announced his return to acting after a thirty year hiatus. There was also some muddled talk of a documentary about his family entitled “The Sorrentinos.” When I returned home and researched him, I learned that his acting career began in 1983, when he appeared in Sleepaway Camp, and included no mention of any other work with the exception of a footnote that he began taking acting courses in NYC last year. Despite that lengthy period off, he has kept busy during the last thirty years as an accountant, clothing store employee, and occasionally appearing on The Jersey Shore as somebody I don’t care about’s brother.
But at the theater, I was still deep in the middle of having absolutely no idea of who this man was. Most of what he said yielded a few slow claps from a jaded and perplexed audience. A pattern was established as the moderator tried to avoid giving Frank the microphone, knowing full well that his answer would inevitably turn into some weird rambling story about his family and growing up Italian or pointing out his brother Mike “The Situation” in the third row who was probably chewing gum with his mouth open. Being eight at the time, Frankie would have been much younger than the rest of the cast. His brief time on the screen also never required him to interact with the primary cast. So every mention of how close he felt to everyone during filming felt as overcompensating and fake as his Rolex. At one point someone in the audience asked about a hilarious discrepancy with a character’s mustache and Frankie used it as an opportunity to make an important announcement.
He then took a long pause and smiled until people in the back frustratedly yelled out, “Just tell us!”
One deep breath later and he hit us with, “I’m going to be changing my name to Maximo John Franco Sorrentino!”
There was another very long pause while everyone looked confusedly around the theater in silence and a few cameras turned to face the audience. All I could do was tilt my head like a dog trying to make some sense of an unfamiliar sound. None of us had any idea of what was happening but the rape had clearly begun. Maximo explained that by keeping Frank as sort of a middle name he felt comfortable enough to change the rest of it, as if that somehow cleared things up. He went on to say that he felt that this was the right time to make the change. By now I was literally asking the people around me what the fuck was going on, like many others in the crowd.
I don’t know if that was a bit to make him seem stupid for the sake of the show or if he genuinely thought to himself that forty was the right age for a ridiculous name change. Either way, it made all of us cringe as he laughed and clapped before us. The moderator thanked everyone for coming and a young woman jumped up and yelled out that, by occupying that space, we had given our consent to be filmed. If we didn’t want our faces in the twenty-eight minutes of digital brain damage that would be airing on (I’m assuming) MTV to help sell garbage to children and young adults too stupid to realize they don’t need it, we had to come up front and notify them directly before they hurried us out of the building. But none of us did. We just walked out discussing how weird the entire experience was. Upon exiting, I could see the white limousine waiting on 12th Street and I felt simultaneously angry and sad. The Sorrentino brothers exemplify a flashy, fake persona obsessed with silk shirts, expensive accessories, next-level grooming, and masculinity that somehow ends up crossing over into near homoeroticism.
The entire family seemed proud of the fact that they’ll spend the next two to six years functioning as a public joke. Reality TV is obsessed with championing the absolute worst examples of humanity so we can feel a bit more normal by comparison. But that’s kind of like measuring your penis with a miniature ruler just to make yourself feel better. I get humiliation as entertainment but not when someone is being paid top-dollar for deliberately staged antics. It’s too phony and absurd and when you’re a part of it the only acceptable response is utter bewilderment. We walked out of that theater as if Will Smith himself had given us all a white hot blast from his neuralizer stick.
While that is probably the one and only time I will make a Men In Black reference, I plan on routinely complaining about trash culture until I am a suicidal old man. As for Reality Television, I am at a bit of a loss. It all seems to function somewhere between silly planned events and the genuine stupidity we assumed it was all based upon. They seemed that normal kind of stupid that sits a few cubicles down from you. They feel the standard type of greasy that you’ll find hanging out at the bar in most restaurants. The most remarkable thing about them is that they’re not particularly remarkable. There isn’t much to do but shake my head sadly and slowly. America bought into this nonsense and let it become a prevalent part of our society. But I’m still left thinking that the seemingly pathetic clowns on the screen might not actually be quite so dumb as the people sitting in front of it.
*UPDATE: I looked into it and the show does indeed look to be airing on MTV sometime in the future. I guess you can consider this stupid story breaking news or a major spoiler then. You heard it here first, some stupid Italian stereotype that resembles a silk-laden muppet changed his name to something stupid. See if you can spot my confused face in the crowd.