Indulgence: Madonna as Mirror

June 11, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Not that I have anything against Socrates. I agree with the wise Greek who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But he came up with that one-liner before the invention of film and videotape, all the paraphernalia of electronic recording.

Now I wonder if it's the over-examined life that isn't worth living. Or the inner life that is suffering from overexposure.

This highly un-Socratic notion first occurred to me at ''Eating,'' a kind of docu-drama about female eating disorders in which some L.A. women endlessly obsess about food at a birthday party. Midway through this movie -- which could serve as aversion therapy for the weight-fixated -- I wanted to scream: ''Shut up and send the cake to Bangladesh!''

The impulse recurred -- bigger and better -- during a scene in ''Truth or Dare.'' The camera which had been tracking Madonna day and night through her tour, plumbing her depths and shallows, now accompanied her to the throat doctor. And filmed everything but her larynx.

Until then, the audience had seen Madonna at her best with all her in-your-face outrageousness. They'd seen her at her worst with all her ''I have to protect my artistic integrity'' banality. But suddenly the voice of reason and sanity passed to none other than Warren Beatty.

The older star gasped at the younger's exhibitionism in its most literal form. In the line that's been snatched and repeated most from this movie, he offered a footnote of bewilderment: ''She doesn't want to be seen off camera, much less talk. Why would you say something off camera? What point is there in existing?''

But poor Warren was dating himself. There he was, tagged forever, as a member of a generation that actually draws a line, however often violated, however egotistically crossed, between life and art, between the private and public self.

Madonna, it seems from myriad interviews, regards life backstage and onstage as parts of the same body of work, which is herself. Her allegedly real life is actually and also a piece of her performance art.

She is always expressing and examining herself. And since that is true, even a throat exam is something to be captured for posterity. It is Madonna, therefore it is art.

The superstar may well be blazing the current hi-tech route to immortality. It's all rather like the post-mortem trial in ''Defending Your Life'' when Albert Brooks discovers that the ultimate jury has every minute of his life on tape. Such a conceit could only have been conjured up in post-video Los Angeles.

Shakespeare, Rembrandt and the boys wanted to beat oblivion in their days, I am sure. Plays and paints were the tools of their legacy. Only now, you don't have to leave work behind. You can leave yourself. Indeed, if you can find a filmmaker, you can deposit every day in the collective memory blank.

Most of us remember our great-grandparents through family stories, photographs, letters or snippets of memories. Our great-grandchildren will have us, live and in color, on reams of America's not-so-funny home videos. We won't have to worry about disappearing, though we may worry about getting erased.

I admit to a certain bias in my thinking. Writers, too, strut their stuff, but by and large their stuff is ideas. But with the camera, docu- and drama, we enter the culture of personality. Personality becomes our most important product. It spills over the edges of everything else, even the page.

What was it the author Amy Tan said at a recent book convention? ''Publishing is getting more like the entertainment world. You have to manufacture a personality.'' She added impishly, ''The person talking to you is not the person I am. In real life I wear glasses, I look different.''

In ''Truth or Dare,'' the director makes a visual line between person and performer. He uses black-and-white film for backstage, color for onstage. But Madonna crosses that line performing her role, play-acting real life. In the strikingly narrow world that she rules as a superstar, the projection of her personality is her greatest artistic achievement.

What a tool the camera is. We can examine a life from the pysche to the larynx. What would Socrates say about this? Fast-forward and pass the Hemlock.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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