Dispatches > The Buzz

Murphy's pithy fatalism

Murphy's Law reissued, the Hollywood Ten falls down to its last one, and Oprah finds a new niche

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

Computer-age Murphy
"If anything can go wrong, it will." Fifty years after Capt. Edward A. Murphy at Edwards Air Force Base purportedly coined the phrase, Murphy's Law is making a comeback. Arthur Bloch, who started compiling fatalistic sayings in 1975, now has Murphy's Law 2000 (Price Stern Sloan). In addition to the usual addendum like Leahy's Law (If a thing is done often enough, it becomes right), this volume now includes axioms about PCs, computer viruses, and the Internet. Thus we have Thorson's Law (The greater the emergency, the lower the charge in your cell phone battery) and Petzen's Internet Law (The most promising result from a search engine query will lead to a dead link). Taken on their own, these sayings are cute bits of office humor and so-so sermon filler. As a whole, they seem ominous and doom-laden. You can't win, you can't overcome, so don't even try. That Murphy's Law surged to prominence with Mr. Bloch's books in the 1970s makes things worse. It became America's national excuse, an ancestor to "stuff happens," and other cop-outs. Murphy's Law dug deep into the American psyche-in the place that tells people that when they are about to succeed, fate will jump on them and throw them flat on the canvas. What began as good humor (taking Capt. Murphy out of context) has become the mantra of a society drunk on cynicism and sarcasm. Since everybody is a failure, why worry when you make a mistake? Life becomes both chaotic and deadly deterministic. As Melnick's Law says, If at first you do succeed, try not to look too astonished. Thus a society that won't accept that God controls our ups and downs is left imbibing a collection of satirical sayings. This $6.99 suggested retail book of philosophy is back again before a culture that will fight to the teeth over its belief in "free will," yet has the Gothic fear that the Boogey Man is about to strike. Hollywood Ten down to one
With the passing of movie director Edward Dmytryk, the Hollywood Ten is down to just the Hollywood One. In his heyday, Mr. Dmytryk helped invent film noir cinema and worked with the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and even Jane Fonda. While he was rising up the ranks at RKO Pictures in 1945 he joined the Communist Party. Mr. Dmytryk said he only stayed with the Reds a few months, yet he was convicted of contempt and sentenced to a year in federal prison for refusing to answer a House committee's questions. At the time he was fired by RKO and later had to move to England to rebuild his career. Like his nine cohorts, he slowly became a martyr to the cause of the Hollywood Left, which ever after became more open and self-righteous about its views. When Mr. Dmytryk was released, he confessed his membership and eventually identified 26 others as communists. For this he, like Elia Kazan, was never forgiven. In 1988, two former blacklisted colleagues refused to share the stage with him at the Barcelona Film Festival, calling him "scum," "Judas," and "informer." Mr. Dmytryk's death leaves only screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., whose credits include M*A*S*H, Semi-Tough, and the once-scandalous Forever Amber. Yet the movie industry still digs out its saber to wave it at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hollywood's commie connections, like its organized crime connections, were not supposed to be known by the general public. The cat was out of the bag and Hollywood decided to show pride in its heritage. Movies began to take the tone of what Richard Grenier calls the "soft left." Various causes are not avowed openly, but are woven into the fabric of the movie. Environmentalists, vegetarians, and anti-nuke activists become love interests. Characters yearn for the good old days of the 1960s student protests. Good-guy lawyers yearn to be Alan Dershowitz or Ralph Nader. Over the last half century, the bright red flags have been replaced by light green. Oprah the magazine
Oprah, Inc. keeps growing and growing. The Queen of Television's next imperial force is a new magazine produced with the Hearst Corporation that will launch next spring with an 850,000-copy press run. "Winfrey's extraordinary ability to connect with women and relate to their own lives is at the heart of the new magazine," says the PR statement from Hearst, whose titles like Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and Harper's Bazaar already reach almost half the women in America. What this really means is that Oprah Winfrey is her own niche market. Her pseudo-spiritual worldview (see WORLD, Jan. 30) is a hit with millions. With 13 years of TV success, she is one of America's few remaining gatekeepers. In order to keep that role, she's expanded the Oprah brand to ancillary products. That means things like the as-yet-untitled Oprah magazine, the Oprah.com website and the Oprah Book Club, which generates bestsellers in ways unseen since the heyday of the Book of the Month Club. Oprah is even starting her own cable channel called Oxygen next February. And Oprah isn't alone in this. One-person brand names from Howard Stern to Martha Stewart have put their names to an assortment of cross-pollinated media projects. It makes more money and it's a way to survive in today's marketplace. In a world where the audience is scattered across numerous media from pay TV to books to Internet radio stations, the best strategy is ubiquity. Go where your followers are and they will stay with you. Of course this can lead to imperial overreach. (How much Howard Stern can one person take in a lifetime?) Still, Oprah is a brand just like Coca-Cola, Crisco, and Crest. She needs to keep her 33 million watching every week and keep her name around in case that number starts dropping.

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