Jared Loughner is ready for his photo op.

Media criticism.
Jan. 11 2011 2:10 PM

Jared Loughner, Ready for His Photo Op

The bald head. The calculated zombie grin. The living avatar of evil.

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Jared Lee Loughner. Click image to expand.
Jared Lee Loughner

Having not included an escape route or a suicide option in his alleged assault, I assume Jared Loughner planned to be captured, jailed, and photographed by police in his skinhead-and-grin pose. If Loughner is crazy—his ramblings about "lucid dreaming," his belief in grammatical reality-manipulation, and his campus outbursts suggest an alternative relationship with rationality—he's still proved himself rational enough to have groomed himself into a modified Travis Bickle in expectation of Saturday's arrest and yesterday's arraignment. The alleged assassin definitely wanted a part of the assassin's look.

Shaved heads once signified induction into the military, a religious or an ascetic statement, a dramatic surrender to premature baldness, the losing of a bet, or a desperate attempt to defeat head lice. But for the past few decades, Hollywood has frequently cast shaved heads in lead roles—Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix series, Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta, Edward Norton in American History X, and all the rest, especially Uncle Fester, the comic angel of death—to telegraph that their characters are crazy-awesome-dangerous-self-sacrificing human torpedoes capable of chaos, magic, bedlam, and sometimes sequels.

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But in recent decades, reaching for the razor has become a way to broadcast the shakiness or the intensity of one's psychological state. By the time Britney Spears did it, shaving your noggin had become such a standard part of our vocabulary that we knew Spears was disturbed—and that she wanted us to be disturbed about her being disturbed. The same goes for non-celebrities like Loughner, who appears to have deleted his eyebrows, too. He wants to poke us in the eye with his creepiness.

When you shave your head, people interpret it as an invitation to get all phrenological on your ass. Measuring the bumps on your head with their eyes, observers speculate about whether you are insane, a rebel, engaged in a purification ritual, or just a crazed skinhead. But as the movies illustrate, while going naked up top can establish a character in a drama, it's never enough to carry the role. Loughner knows that, which is why he added the Hare Krishna smile  and the glazed eyes—eyes that have drifted just a couple of degrees from direct contact with the camera lens—to his horror portrait. It's a look so dumb he must have  rehearsed it in his bathroom mirror since middle school. If Richard Avedon had shot color film inside a Supermax prison for In the American West, he would have hoped to come back with a shot like this.

The shaved character in the movies is almost never happy. Nobody tapping the primal forces he's tapping could ever be happy. But being angry is too clichéd to be accepted. Hence Loughner's bent smile, which recycles Jack Nicholson's psycho grin from The Shiningand any number of Bruce Dern and Jack Palance grimaces. Loughner won't be content until people understand that he's a sadistic bastard capable of greater transgressions than shooting innocent people at point-blank range and that killing a 9-year-old only hints at the monster inside him.

Loughner has consciously sculpted himself into a modern computer-game avatar in his photo. By this evening we'll have seen the shot so many times that its silhouette will be etched into our brains, and a glance of it will be enough to remind us of where we were when we first heard about the Giffords shooting, what we felt, and how we reacted to the debates about politics, violence, and media that immediately followed. It ranks with the mug shots of Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Timothy McVeigh. Somewhere, musicians are appropriating his name for their punk band, others are printing T-shirts, somebody is writing an instant-book about him, and somebody has made it their Twitter icon.

Some assassins die along with their victims by design, confident that the press will tell their story faithfully. Others, like Arthur Bremer and Sirhan Sirhan, allow themselves to be captured.  Do they hope that once the press feeds on their personal histories, they'll get a clue as to what they were all about?

Given his beliefs, I suspect that Loughner is less interested in learning more about his own motives (Politics? Metaphysics? Madness?) than he is in inserting his image into our dream pools where it can fester. You can't be much of a nightmare if you're dead.

******

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