A Manifesto of Meta
At the forefront of tabloid journalism for more than 60 years, the National Enquirer has left an indelible mark on American culture. Its brand of attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalistic coverage captivates curious readers even as it stretches the limits of truth. With his new documentary, Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, director Mark Landsman delves into the incredible yet accurate story of the most infamous newspaper in US history, detailing its wild history and its surprising, continuing role in shaping what the news has become and what the enquiring public wants to know. Helen Highly Recommends this film as the timely cure for what ails us all right now as a nation – just the right, ironic cocktail of sexy, smart and shocking, with a cancerous red-dye-number-2 maraschino-cherry garnish.
The film opens with direct commentary from the realest of the real journalists – Carl Bernstein, half of the famous, Pulitzer-Prize-winning duo who broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post – the monster of all real-news scandals (including the drama of Deep Throat – remember?), which resulted in the country’s astonishing presidential impeachment of Richard Nixon. Bernstein’s career continued to focus on daring, ground-breaking, investigative journalism, so it’s strangely, paradoxically appropriate that this ultra-respectable journalist appears to be the film’s designated spokesman/reporter for the country’s best-known, disreputable scandal-rag, the National Enquirer. The fact that Scandalous producers got him to be in this movie is part of the meta joke that makes this movie shine.
The fact that the film’s opening weekend happens to come at the end of the opening week of the country’s latest impeachment hearings – centering on President Donald Trump, long associated with the National Enquirer, and the fact that both Nixon and Trump once had the notorious Roy Cohn as their legal advisor, is some barely conceivable triple-down reality that seems to warrant a conspiracy theory of its own.
The film itself brings its story all the way up to the edge of current events, ending with the Trump-infested battle between Jeff Bezos, the most recent owner of the Washington Post, and David Pecker the most recent owner of the National Enquirer (until earlier this year, when he was forced to sell). The wacky story (wack as in crazy and also wack as in Mafia-hit) goes full circle and loops onto itself, making this movie a full-on Manifesto of Meta.
The opening credits of the film appear over a soundtrack singing, “I don’t want to set the world on fire; I just want to start a flame in your heart,” and the famed vintage sound sets the mood. Who better to understand that the opening moments of a film are the most important than the people making a film about the most successful tabloid of all time?
Is it a coincidence that the original National Enquirer owner, Generoso Pope Jr., is a former New Yorker who moved to Palm Beach, FL – just like our National-Enquirer-friendly President Donald Trump recently did? Hell no, I don’t think so – not in this movie, where all conspiracy theories are true. Is it surprising that National Enquirer creator Generoso Pope Jr. and his father were linked to the Italian Mafia in NYC (perhaps also like Donald Trump and his dad)? It was news to me but makes perfect sense.
“He was like family,” is the explanation we hear for Generoso’s literal godfather, Mafia-boss Frank Costello, giving him a “no-repayment loan” in 1952 in order to purchase a small, local, failing newspaper with a circulation of 17,000, called the New York Enquirer, so that he could revamp it into something better. But also it seems that Costello (who later became head of the Genovese crime family), provided Pope the money for the purchase in exchange for the Enquirer‘s promise to list (Mafia-run) lottery numbers and to refrain from any mention of Mafia activities. Pope would later add National to the name of the Enquirer, because he believed it sounded more patriotic and also opened it up for his broader aspirations.
Actually, the origin story is more interesting than just that shady tale. Generoso’s father, an Italian immigrant, was founder of Il Progresso, New York’s Italian language daily newspaper, which ultimately brought him political connections and made him a power player in Gotham. So, the National Enquirer was essentially the offspring of a real newspaper man and a real mobster – perfect. Pope changed both the name and the scope of the paper. He worked tirelessly in the 1950s and 60s to increase the circulation and broaden the paper’s appeal.
…and it all circles back to a Mafia-mentality with terms like “character assassination” and “hit pieces” and “catch n kill,” until the metaphorical and real-world references crash into themselves, and history and current events collide.
The National Enquirer became known for its gory and unsettling stories, such as “I Cut Out Her Heart and Stomped on It” (September 8, 1963). At this time the paper was sold on newsstands and in drugstores only. Pope stated he got the idea for the format and these gory stories from seeing people rubberneck on the highway to see auto accidents. He made a business of buying gory police photos, scooping “real” reporters. Pope didn’t care about journalism – only about “eyeballs” – more and more eyeballs, and selling papers. By 1966, circulation had risen to one million. Later, Pope would develop the ingenious idea of selling the tabloid in the suburbs at supermarket checkout counters. And, in order to entice this new market, he saw the necessity of switching from gore to sex, celebrity and scandal.
As the movie moves along, we are now hearing much of this historical narration from another highly reputable reporter. Wait, what? Is that Mike Wallace?! They got Bernstein but how did they get Wallace? He’s dead. (“Mike Wallace Brought Back to Life by National Enquirer!”) Aaaah… that’s Mike Wallace in some old footage from 60 Minutes when they did a story investigating the National Enquirer. And the filmmakers have spliced in bits and pieces so gracefully that it really seems like Mike Wallace is narrating this film. It’s Wallace talking about the National Enquirer talking about the National Enquirer. And that is just one more example of the entire meta affair that is this movie.
The filmmakers tell their story with all the color and excitement and sensation and temptation that the National Enquirer would use if they were making the movie. It’s exceedingly seductive. No matter how much you have learned to turn your nose up at the literal, physical, tabloid sheet at the checkout counter in today’s day, being far too sophisticated to fall for their cheap, sleazy tricks, this film transforms its audience into the tabloid’s enthralled reader during its heyday; you are a part of this movie.
The story of the development and evolution of the paper plays like a list of salacious headlines:
Highway Car Crash Transports Eyeballs: Gore Sells!
Enquirer Grabs Gruesome Police Picts
Gore Clashes with Green Grass: The Suburbs Change Everything!
Medical Oddities Appear at Every Single Checkout Counter in the Country!
The National Enquirer is Seduced by Celebrity Sex!
LSD Made Me a Prostitute! (That’s a real one.)
But then some parts of the story are so extraordinary, you have to go beyond the headline because it’s all so thrilling and amazing: Pope created an “idealized reader” and named her “Missy Smith from Kansas City.” She set the standard of the all-American woman who had family and values. And she earnestly “wanted to know that celebrities suffer too.” (ha) That was the audience. “I guess I’m a little bit nosey,” says Missy Smith. And Missy’s family was conservative; they were into Country and Flag and believed in the US government – fine people. Pope couldn’t have been more right in understanding the importance of having the word “National” in the title; it wasn’t just a definition of scope; it was a trigger for trust. “Pope understood the prototypical Enquirer reader in a way that was almost freakish,” director Landsman explained in an interview. “He knew what she talked about with her girlfriends at the beauty parlor and what she yelled across the living room to her husband as they sat leafing through their periodicals, and he designed content that fed right into that.”
At some point in the movie, grotesque, almost frightening photos of Elvis are splashed up on the screen, and really nothing else needs to be said. We are naturally drawn to the idea of Elvis’ demise – how the mighty have fallen. (Although more is said; the tale about getting the photo of Elvis in his coffin is downright depraved.) Then later it’s O.J. Simpson or Princess Diana who is splashed up on the screen, and each time you feel a visceral response. You get a rush of gestalt. It is somewhere in that rush that facts became less important. An ex-Enquirer reporter explains they actually called it “fake-ish.” The rule was, “You don’t change the facts, you just make them more interesting – make them better, more sensational.”
Part of the allure of the movie is hearing reporters and editors and photographers speak about all the adrenaline running around at the Enquirer offices; it was “a great vibe, so exciting that you wanted to be part of it.” Some people describe it as the best job they ever had. But there is really no need explaining at this point, because the film’s audience has already caught the spirit; we are all in for the great vibe and we’re loving it. It’s flashy and electric and irresistibly naughty.
My favorite part of the movie is not all the awesome archival footage and photos they use (to tremendous effect); the best part is the present-day interview scenes, with their extraordinary set-up locations. Each person is perfectly posed exactly center in a symmetrical setting, be it on a couch, behind a desk, at a bar, by the pool, whatever. And each location is deep – literally like a ten-foot deep shot in a real location – not some talking head against a flat screen, and each set is carefully painted in shadow and light and lurid color. It’s almost surreal. I don’t know if it’s a trick of aperture or lens length of what, but the depth of field is unbelievable; the shots are wide and deep and detailed and sharp and saturated in color and awash in texture.
It’s captivating. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen when these people were talking. I will say that these are probably the best, most intense interview shots I’ve ever seen. Director Landsman and cinematographer Michael Pessah have transformed the vibe of the paper into a cinematic extravaganza. (We didn’t get the best of the images for press; you will need to go see the movie to appreciate what I’m talking about.) But as they look bizarrely gorgeous, these people are telling you terrible things – revealing the most awful stories about the history of the paper and the people involved.
We hear about Gary Hart and how “you cannot understate his significance” in blurring the distinction between tabloid and real news. It was the National Enquirer who broke that sleazy and life-changing story, which got George Bush elected and changed the course of American history. And it didn’t just legitimize their ruthless and unsavory tactics; more important to them, they turned politicians into celebrities and opened up an entirely new market and revenue stream for tabloid press. For the country, however, the significance was that tabloid had beat out the legit news; tabloid got the big story and it mattered (and how they got it didn’t matter). Now, the point is made; all news is tabloid news and we are all implicated in being scandalous.
And that’s all part of the paradox; this is the art of trash, or is it trashy art? We are both repulsed and engrossed. But even though the movie is explaining it all to you – the dynamics and the psychology and the process, you don’t really need to hear it because you are experiencing it. And it’s tantalizing; it’s addictive. You want to stay in this world. You want every scene to take you to the next and the next. You can’t look away. You surrender your eyeballs. Well, I surrendered mine.
The story goes on, and I won’t detail it all here. There is much more to be told, and it never gets boring. They talk about the evolution toward competitiveness and aggressiveness and back-stabbing and brutality and then coercion and corruption, and it all circles back to a Mafia-mentality with terms like “character assassination” and “hit pieces” and “catch n kill,” until the metaphorical and real-world references crash into themselves, and history and current events collide, and there is Donald Trump and David Pecker taking each other down. Absolutely wild.
It’s the great American story. Donald Trump didn’t need to know who Andrew Jackson was, or all those old historical figures; he knew who was going to be next on the cover of the National Enquirer (and who wasn’t) and that was much more powerful information.
The film played at DOC NYC 2019 and opens in theaters this weekend. Go see it!
Also opening this weekend is another documentary that is equally terrific as a piece of contemporary American history with a political undertone (although this one is less depraved irony and more grim intellectualism). Still, Helen Highly Recommends Recorder: The Marion Stokes Story. Both films made it onto the list for Early Contenders for Documentary Feature for Academy Awards 2020.