For four months beginning this April and running until July, the circus has come to town. Titled “Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Kurios: Cabinet of Curiousities,’’' the show is a splendid display of strange clowns and juggling acts, people suspended in space while building a tower of chairs as their mirror opposites, hanging upside down, create the same that meets halfway; a young blonde woman rides a bike through the air in dizzying circles and acrobatics, pedaling while upside down. A little woman, paraded out as though the circus’s long history of showcasing freaks is irrelevant at best, talks on the phone from within a massive moving, mechanical skirt, and of course, trapeze artists fly through the air in muscular synchronicity. In one particular mesmerizing display, a set of hands recreate various vignettes that project onto a large screen where so much is depicted with intricate hand gestures. Between yoyo acts, three young women, possibly triplets who bend and contort into human pretzels, and wild pageantry, to enter this world is to enter into magic and whimsy, to leave not entirely certainly if gravity exists, or in fact, if it even should. How much more thrilling to fly through the air than walk on cold, hard ground. The main character of this elaborate stagecraft is a “Seeker” who is certain a hidden world exists in his curio cabinet, and proven right when straight from his imagination emerges a dazzling cast of wild characters, all intriguing in their own, mystical and theatrical way. But perhaps the most touching of all while war rages is the ‘banquine,'' a group of gymnastics from Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine who support one another, big sturdy men as thick as tree trunks, holding up lighter and more agile one as they are tossed and tumble into air, only to land graciously and lightly on yet another set of athletic shoulders. While some acts are plainly mesmerizing, particularly ones that seem to defy the scientific rules of bodies in motion, others seem to push boundaries of publically acknowledged sexual boundaries, the young woman, for instance, brought on set to be romanced by a clown, who then proceeds to drink himself to inebriation and turn into a cat coughing up a fur ball in the process while a laser beam dances across her chest; an irresistible temptation to any feline. Still, despite some weaker characters or acts, to experience “Kurios' ' is to inhibit, albeit briefly, a strange, unreal world of outlandish, exotic characters, an atmosphere of a macabre freak show permeating throughout this wildly entertaining show.
Currently, in Fairfax County, Virginia, a high profile, celebrity court case, Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard, is being streamed live as the two previous spouses face each other in this notorious defamation trial, Depp suing Heard for 50 million, Heard counter suing for 100 million. In broad strokes, Heard has accused Depp of various incidents of domestic violence over the course of their relationship and their brief 15 month marriage which culminated in an Op-Ed. piece written by Heard for the Washington Post in 2018 in which she defines herself as ‘a public figure representing domestic abuse,” this after the public divorce two years prior in which she brought forth abuse allegations and received a temporary restraining order against Depp. While Depp is not directly mentioned in this particular article, Depp and his legal team have taken extraordinary measures to prove in court, based on the dates and timeline provided in the article, that the inferred, unnamed abuser could only be Depp, causing him to lose, in his own words, “nothing short of everything.”
To watch these court proceedings in real time is to walk into a different spectacle, one at times that has its own particular oddities, another veritable tableaux of human eccentricities, interesting characters and outlandish behaviors; in many ways, a “legal” carnival. To most of us in our quiet, quotidian lives, the broken relationship of Hollywood celebrities matters little, yet millions are watching, eagerly anticipating the next live stream, a new witness, someone’s testimony. And perhaps this is its very point. To step outside our quiet desperation in Thoreau’s evocation, the mundane sameness of our every lives and quite literally enter this minute by minute, word by word courtroom drama offers a dazzling mixture of escapism, excitement, as well as schadenfreude. Certainly, to be caught staring at a circus freak may feel shameful, but the human propulsion to look away feels too defeatist, less entertaining, while simultaneously validating our typical, human “normalcy.” The trial is currently entering its sixth and last week.
Over the course of these past five weeks, very private video and audio recordings of the actor and his then wife Heard are played, a curious and strange arrangement between spouses in their private life, but which now, in retrospect, seem to favour Depp as the long suffering partner Still, they are heard hurling expletives at each other, in one memorable event of many, for instance, secretly recorded by Heard as Depp pours himself what is later described in court as a “mega pint of wine”, and to listen in is to feel similar humiliation approaching dread, the sense we should somehow be looking away from the most intimate of details, but despite our best attempts, cannot. By intention and design, the private has become public, a reality show with its own peculiarities replete with foul language, drama, chaos, rising actions, climactic moments but no real, easy denouement.
Depp himself requested the cameras capture these sordid details live, and in many ways, it can be understood why the actor made that request. Throughout the proceedings, Depp appears to have more credible testimony, particularly when compared to a previous deposition given several years ago; words and actions remaining consistent over time, and true to his acting credentials and talents, proves a very ingenious, engaging storyteller. His many witnesses, from his bodyguard, his older sister, numerous friends, to business associates all attest to his calm demeanor both while sober and under the influence of alcohol and an impressive variety of drugs, his giving and loving nature, and despite his star power, his deep humility. Furthermore, Depp’s team of lawyers, led by Benjamin Chew, Camille Vasquez as a prominent player, as well as six other junior lawyers, have developed a formidable fortress around Depp, at times joking, showing frequent physical affection, bringing in and sharing gummy candies during the proceedings. Heard, in almost stark contrast, discusses interminable details, some rather sexually horrific in nature, as if by rote. Very few friends have personally appeared in court to testify on her behalf, her sister only providing evidence of a staircase scene that seems to directly contradict Heard’s own, and some quite colourful expert characters, all paid to testify. Furthermore, she seems to implicate herself as an instigator in many of these video and audio clips, ironically ones she agreed to have recorded, going so far in several to actually admit to, if not punching, then certainly hitting, as she clarifies, as though there is some differentiation in the act, a peculiar play on semantics, while arguing in another instance, that the words “pledge” and “donation” are in fact synonymous to justify her never having given the 7 million she received as divorce settlement from Depp to her allotted charities, the ACLU and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. This odd distinction is one she continued to maintain throughout a tiresome volley of questions and maddening assertions back and forth.
Of course, Heard goading Depp to “ tell them, I Johnny Depp, I’m a victim of domestic abuse…and see how many people believe or side with you,” and Depp responding, “Yes, I am” should be admission enough of something far more sinister and calculated at play, that the trial is now just continuing pro forma, but like the “Kirkus” Seer opening up his cabinet of curiosities, a litany of bizarre behaviours is constantly exposed, layer upon layer of unending sophistries: defecating on one spouse’s side of the bed, for example, then claiming said act was done by a tiny Yorkie, buying as a gift a massive knife for the same person being now accused of physical and sexual violence then attempting to desperately, and illogically justify under such allegedly violent condition, this odd purchase, to say nothing of contradictions in testimony, word slips ups, ploys, awkward emotional expressions and outbursts. To watch this all unfold is to feel unmoored in a sea of red herrings. One of Heard’s lawyers, Ben Rottenborn whose surname seems to be almost playfully and languorously pronounced by Depp, objecting to the very question he himself has asked, while her primary lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, in a moment of complete exasperation during redirect, shaking her head, and muttering: “I’m trying, I’m trying,” all seem just further validation of unending buffooneries and bungles, nothing really seemingly out of palace in this theater of the absurd. It would not seem odd then if a mistrial had been called early in this case. So each day of this wearing trial promises an admixture of pathos, pain, and silliness, as millions clamor to see whether Heard will ever eventually appear, in their eyes at least, truthfully pink eyed and lachrymose, what surreptitious, intimate details revealed, what clothes will be worn, how hair will be coiffed, what body language or more Freudian slips might expose. If nothing else, what becomes appalling clear here, to borrow from Woody Allen, and uttered by Lou Costello to Marjory Main’s character in “The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap” (1947), is that “marriage is a three ring circus, engagement ring, wedding ring and suffering.”
To be invited now into this courtroom is to essentially give the illusion that the audience is now part of the jury as people throughout the world observe what the jury is witnessing in real time. But this delusory sense that you, the jury members are us, and we are you, has had various consequences in our digitally connected world. In our brave, new postmodern age when the individual’s goals and desires assume centrality, self-reliance and independence supersede identification and allegiance to any group or state apparatus. Almost immediately, and with alarming speed and imitation, anyone with access to computer and internet, YouTubers of every ilk, some with legal understanding, many with not, provide their own interpretation and emotional reactions, their opinions and judgements, vying to rack up the most viewers as information is discussed and analyzed, testimony mocked and ridiculed, their agendas mostly driven by the inchoate yearning for recognition and popularity, the most likes, many new subscribers to their various platforms. Of course, for these denizens of the virtual world, this drive for avowal and acclaim, the exploitative urge to capitalize on the biggest show in town, is not limited to this sole platform. Similarly, on Twitch, a service that allows for interactive livestream, the court proceedings are played while the broadcaster responds to selective comments and questions from the viewers as a bewildering stream flashes across the screen. It is so ironic it hardly bears mentioning, Twitch is a platform predominately created and used as a community for on-line gamers. This propensity to engage in such reductive logic, over simplistic and at times, ribald, entertaining commentary, is to participate in the argument at its most basic, coarse level.
To most of us who live out our lives adrift in moral uncertainties, the very basis of the #MeToo Movement, a term coined by women’s advocate Tarana Burke in 2006 to provide support for women victims of domestic and sexual violence had, from its very inception, a noble but flawed determinism. In rapid succession, other political slogans, “Believe all Women” for instance, ushered in a similar auspicious, supportive platform, but which threatened to crack under the immense weight of its own absolutism. To acknowledge that many women, statistically more than men, have been subjected to various forms of aggression and violence both at home and in the workplace, may be an irrefutable assertion, but so too is the reality that other women have not. Problematizing such dichotomous thinking and certainly challenged by dictates of postmodernism, is the view that power, and in fact, our very own identities, are never not static and unchanging, but rather fissile and shifting. To set up such categorical dictates, and then simply slot each individual into one camp or the other is to deny entirely the complexity of our messy natures, the altering dynamics shaping our social and professional lives. To easily package human relations based solely on gender, is nothing but a chimeric act.
Another victim here is language and its many nuanced interpretations. Certainly, since time immemorial, powerful men have used their financial, social and capital power to undermine and coerce, principally but not exclusively, young, attractive women. Egregious acts performed by such men as Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose, to name but a few, who may have acted with impunity prior to such public naming, justly faced legal reparations. But under such broad and easy classification any act, however innocuous, a misinterpreted look or lingering gaze, for instance, is given similar handling and anticipated response to far more injurious acts. Under such swift and impetuous conditions, a free for all if you will, aspersions are cast and circulated with lightning speed, reminiscent of Salem witch trials, but now in the virtual agora. The language of specificity disappears and instead, what shockingly permeates the entire movement is a tendency toward the general, and the all encompassing, an astonishing simplicity of puritanism. A past slight needs only to resurface in the form of an accusation, however menial or perjurious, names of men to avoid need only to start circulating in various industries and professions, then begin spreading like fungi online, for lives to rapidly unravel.
Overnight, it seemed, with one hashtag and the birth of a socially constructed movement, the basic tenets of liberal democracy with origins dating back to 18th century Europe and the Age of Enlightenment, with carefully defined human rights and freedoms as enshrined in nation’s constitutions, seemed to evaporate into finger pointing, and unchecked vilification. This grave imposition of guilt without due process, the rendering of accusations and verdicts obliterating the basic right to trial by jury, was mind-blowing in the extreme, creating in the process some imagined predatory, villainous male who has already committed some crime, however fallacious, but who is only yet to be named.
Furthermore, this propensity to revert to tired tropes has characterized this trial from the very beginning. Most evidently, there is the cult of celebrity lifting this case into complete sensationalism, as throngs of fans camp out at early hours hoping to land a cherished seat in the courtroom’s gallery, while at day’s ends, many line up outside, eagerly waiting for any glimpse, any wave by Depp from his moving, chauffeured vehicle. What underlies this craze, the shrieking females chasing behind cars, several women spending large sums of money to attend in person, one purportedly going so far as to pay 10,000 dollars to watch the trial, end her 12 year relationship, and move her things into storage, the young fan appearing with Alpacas in tow harkening back to Depp’s statement that he would not appear in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise which made him uber famous, not for “$300 million and a million alpacas,” is of course, the assumption that the magnificence of work is reflected in its creator: the artwork is the painter, the poem is the poet, the actor, the man. During this particular trial, this familiar and basic concept seemed to gain further traction, Depp’s testimony of abuse at the hands of Heard and his many travails lifting this further into hagiography. #JusticeForJohnny is now currently one of the world’s most popular, trendy hashtags.
There are other overworked clichés. As noted earlier, there is the most obvious, the young, sultry and mostly unknown actress who, perhaps by deliberate design and irresistible manipulation, seduces a much older, established Hollywood scion, notably in a shower scene during the filming of “The Rum Diary.” It is this very scene, the real and passionate kiss that in hindsight, seems to lift the story into apologue. In another, eerily foreshadowing their real relationship, Depp’s character is driving a convertible as Heard’s places her hand on his knee, as she continues to squeeze, challenging him to go fast, then faster in seductive rapture and glee, till their car comes to a screeching halt, stopped suddenly and precariously at a cliff’s precipice. Beware the seductress with the apple, this serpent in the grass, a Delilah sent by the Philistines to deceive and betray, as she too annihilates in shattered ruins; the takedown of a powerful man but ultimately leading to mutual self-destruction: “That is why I wrote the Op-Ed” an exasperated Heard finally blurts out during cross examination: “He is a very powerful man, and people love currying favour for powerful men;” seemingly then, in these dramatic sentences, undermining her previous claims, the very basis of defamation case, that this article she had written was never about Johnny Depp.
But there are yet other victims here. According to Dr. Shannon Curry, called on to provide her psychological observations and assessment of Amber Heard, her dual diagnoses of Heard suffering from Borderline Personality disorder and Histrionic Disorder, a complex compilation of quick silver moods, fractured, unstable self-identity and overly dramatic, impulsive behaviors, amongst others symptoms, not only corroborated much of the evidence that followed, but spawned countless memes and tik tok videos: “Gone Girl,” “ Crazy Girl, You’re Crazy Girl” an eerie, haunting voice is heard saying over Heard’s testimony, thousands of comments declaring this “chick as unhinged, bat shit crazy,” while #AmberTurd, #AmberHeardisanAbuser, #AmberAlert, a troubling evocation itself, and many other similar hashtags, metastasize all over the internet. Similarly then, in one fell swoop, whatever deeper understandings and sympathies we might have ever reached on a societal level, funds invested in mental health, and more open discussions aiming to dismantle previous taboos, disappeared into a vortex of vicious judgements. Seen in this light, Heard is not a woman suffering from crippling diagnoses severely affecting the quality of her life and relationships, but rather a vindictive bitch, a conniving liar, a shameless gold-digger who deserves all the world’s wrath. Conversely, the opposite is true. If Amber Heard is in fact exploiting the basic principle of the #MeToo Movement for personal and financial gain, she is not only mocking real victims of domestic and sexual violence, but in fact, others with same or similar mental diagnoses, many of whom suffer immeasurably without committing aggressive acts. In this weird carnival hall of trick mirrors, Heard is ridiculed while also herself scorning others. At heart, this could be anyone’s siege of pain and sorrow and barely suppressed memories; anyone’s cross to bear, but what is reflected back from the courtroom seems disingenuous at best, emotionally triggering and personally harmful, at worst.
Almost immediately then, the tendency toward dichotomous thinking took root. You were either for #TeamHeard or #TeamJohnny. There was room for no other nuanced perspectives. Similarly, the portrayal of women into distinct categories also instantly materialized: Dr. Shannon Curry, for example, described as calm, articulate, professional and beautiful, as well as Camille Vasquez, Depp’s equally impressive young, pretty female lawyer portrayed in similar terms, were the icons of beauty and brains come to vindicate the man from the insane other woman. In one particularly interesting moment, one which was obviously seen as deeply symbolic, Vasquez, standing at the lectern, is blinded by the day’s sun streaming through the courtroom window, as though bathed in heavenly light, the pious and virtuous woman juxtaposed with the maniacal, hysterical, and absolutely crazed one: Ariadne to Heard’s femme fatale, Medea. In rapidity itself so blinding, countless videos followed: “Camille Vasquez Lights up Like the Goddess she Is,” was titled one of many, as though a lawyer’s job defending her client, however repugnant or virtuous a client may seem, imputes the same moral qualities on that defending lawyer, undercutting the reality that some jobs just seem more herculean in effort, or that next week, that same heavenly lawyer might be tasked with an impossible burden of defending someone equally or perhaps even more, repugnant, turning instantly abhorrent herself. But that rarely fits into the fairy tale narrative. And so, YouTube videos, and memes spread, as do suspicions and gossip. Is Johnny Depp dating his attractive, young female lawyer? If he is not, he most certainly should, many believe, as he absolutely deserves, after such malicious, toxic relations, the love of a good woman. Even the highly sensationalist, universally watched drama of the OJ Simpson trial back in January 1995 seemed now too pedestrian in comparison, too dreary and stale, no nascent, clandestine love story promising to rise from the ashes of horror there.
With so much vitriol heaped onto Heard, some of her very abusive behaviours indeed substantiated by audio, video evidence, while Depp’s character as loving and loyal corroborated by a long line of friends, family, business associates, and even one ex-lover of Depp’s from decades earlier, #mentoo surfaced as a almost a new idea, something novel and unconsidered before this trial. But if Johnny Depp is a victim of abuse and intimate partner violence, as much of this evidence seems to suggest, then he is most definitely not the first, nor sadly, the last. In other words, the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial need not have taken place for this one painful, very tortuous a priori understanding to have always existed: Men, women and children can either be victims or perpetrators in varying degrees and in differing situations. But equally troubling are the questions, ones brought up by both Chew and Vasquez during closing arguments asking the jury to consider the implications if Johnny himself had outright confessed to physical violence as had Heard in several audio clips, or this one left unspoken, but requiring no huge deductive leap of reasoning: If, as Chew stated, “this is #metoo without a #metoo,” or in Vasquez’ words, the abuse, a reality for “far too many women,” but as “the overwhelming evidence and weight of that evidence shows it’s not her story, it’s not Miss Heard’s story” then what does this really suggest of this brave movement, or more simply stated, how many men prior have been wrongfully accused to have then had their entire lives destroyed? In other words, lacking the immense wealth and power of a Johnny Depp, who himself had to go to quite extraordinary lengths to prove these allegations false, how many men prior have suffered tremendous losses but who lacked the resources for due process? Which man similarly accused then, really stands a chance? Conversely, based on such universal scorn and condemnation of Heard, what women dares now come forward? Whatever the final verdict, this may only be a pyrrhic victory.
Echoing Tolstoy, unhappy marriages so resemble each other and this one was no exception. There was jealousy, insecurity, mental and emotional cruelty, physical violence, hints of extramarital affairs, drug and alcohol fueled-fights, the same script with altering characters. The court proceedings have now ended while the jury begins its deliberations, a final verdict to be announced in a few short days. But this now seems almost perfunctory, besides the point. As Depp himself conceded at the beginning of the case: “I’ve lost everything. No matter the outcome of this trial, I’ve already lost,” but which can be extrapolated to so much else besides. We have certainly lost time, both personally and collectively, a spectacular investment of legal expertise to this one specific case, resources expended and certainly massive amounts of money paid by each party fighting this out in court, attention drawn elsewhere from raging wars, environment and economic collapses, to name but a few, as we all await a final rendering that may or may not have any real significant consequence. Perhaps this is yet another mirage, some phantasmagoria of violence and greed, of mental and emotional instability, of doomed love, but with no neat conclusions or deeper understandings as the story will undoubtedly play out at some later time with different characters, a similar narrative, as it has for ages. Regardless of who “wins”, what might be actual vindication? Perhaps closer to the truth is that despite the ultimate verdict, we will all have lost. Furthermore, it is near impossible to tease what we have done to our culture, as opposed to what it has done to us, what the cause and what the effect. But there are some certainties here. Soon, the courtroom will shutter its doors until the next thrilling case grabs international attention, just as the circus Seer will close his cabinet of curiosities and end his final act, and the extraordinary spectacle of the Cirque du Soleil’s “Kurios'' will travel to the next stop in search of a new, hungry audience. Once the verdict is rendered, we too will then return to the drudgery and unspoken monotony of our everyday lives as we wait for the next thrilling show to come to town to shock, confuse and bewilder, but ultimately, to entertain.