Not sure what moved me to turn on the television this morning and dip in and out of the Whitney Houston funeral, but I did, televised celebrity funerals being potentially more soulful and spontaneous versions of awards ceremonies, but without the material award. Princess Diana’s funeral had something to do with this, as did Cher’s words at the interment of her former husband, Sonny. As did Michael Jackson’s funeral, with Cher’s highly-rated appearance afterwards on the Larry King Show, and then James Brown’s funeral, making the African-American celebrity funeral its own variant, a dipstick into U.S. culture, African-American culture in particular.
I remember the first time I saw Whitney Houston. I think it was an awards ceremony, or a tribute to Dionne Warwick, I am not sure. But there she was, on stage singing with Warwick (her aunt), and everyone was wowed by the power and intelligence of her voice. After the event, Warwick, Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) and Whitney were gathered on the sidewalk, where they were interviewed under L.A.’s silver glare. The interviewer had kind and respectful words for Warwick and Cissy, but then the topic turned to Whitney, who was bursting with unbridled energy, jumping up and down, more so after the interviewer’s praiseworthy words. When will we be hearing more from you? the interviewer asked, at which point Warwick and Cissy turned stern. Soon! Soon! said Whitney. But before she could say more, Warwick leaned forward and said something to the effect that the artist’s life requires maturity, and that Whitney was not quite there yet.
At the time I thought it a condescending, buzz-crushing comment, in the way expressions of love can sometimes appear. But I could also see something in Whitney’s eyes that told me Warwick was right, that Whitney, despite her vocal control, was not entirely in control of her life. Yes, that too might sound condescending, but I have seen that look before, just as I have seen where it can lead.
There was another look I saw this morning, and that was through the lens of CNN’s lone camera, stationed at the back of the church, zooming in and out on those speaking from the altar, such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Kevin Costner, or, in the case of Stevie Wonder and the most intriguing presence of the day, Alicia Keys, from the piano. What the camera gave us (besides a refreshing absence of cutaways) were two shots: master-shots of the church’s interior and middle-distance shots of those who spoke and sang. Which is to say no close-ups, nothing of anyone’s eyes.