And other pressing questions that should have matter-of-fact answers but do not
When I feel overwhelmed by the world, I take comfort in the knowledge that, for just about any controversial topic, there is a fact of the matter. As I’m buffeted by opposing op-eds, rival theories, and barroom debates, the fact of the matter waits patiently, biding its time beneath tectonic layers of invective and argument and confusion. Unfortunately, discovering the fact of the matter can drive one to the limits of sanity, as I learned when I tried to glean some vital information about the actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
I recently watched Gyllenhaal in the transdimensional, train-based thriller Source Code. The movie left me in a state of befuddlement. I wasn’t confused about how a Marine could be forcibly transposed into a dead man’s body to defuse a bomb that had already exploded—any fool could figure that out, especially with Vera Farmiga calmly explaining it 100 times. No, I was confused about how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is.
There were moments in Source Code when Gyllenhaal seemed to tower over everyone on the train he was trapped on for eight minutes at a time. In other scenes, he looked positively diminutive—a doe-eyed homunculus lost amid explosions and time warps and Michelle Monaghan’s caresses.
I’m not the sort of person who thinks much about the height of celebrities. (I’ve always assumed most famous people are about seven feet tall.) The fact that I caught myself wondering about Gyllenhaal’s height suggested there was something uncanny about it, in the way an unsettlingly warm afternoon can bend one’s conversation toward the topic of global warming.
As soon as I got home, I typed “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal” into my web browser’s search box. The internet deposited me at CelebHeights.com, “an Entertainment site estimating the heights of famous people, including fan photos and celebrity quotations about their own height.” Bingo. Surely CelebHeights would provide the concise, definitive answer to my question!
Friends, the CelebHeights entry on Jake Gyllenhaal runs to 11 printed pages. It spans 21 months. It is the Infinite Jest of Jake Gyllenhaal–height-related discourse: a maelstrom of heated debate, contested recollections, and esoteric theories of mind-numbing potency.
The entry begins with a quote from Jake Gyllenhaal's website: “I’m happily 6 feet tall.” What would seem a benign proclamation is actually the fuse to a powder keg. Before I knew it, a message-board user had whisked me away to an exclusive party for the express purpose of witnessing Gyllenhaal’s towering ... mendacity:
“Met Jake at the Weinstein Oscar Party. We were both wearing dress shoes, and standing 4 inches away from him, I was looking him in the eye. I had no need to even slightly angle my eyes upward. I’m 5’8”, and Jake was an inch taller than me, period. He has a pretty tall cranium, which gave him the extra inch over me.” —Anonymous\n
This should have been my signal to close my computer and await the release of Jake Gyllenhaal’s medical records. Anonymous was accusing Gyllenhaal of adding three full inches to his height! I already suspected my quest for the facts would be a thorny one, but I couldn’t help myself; I read on:
“Wasn’t he considered for the role of the Joker a few years back (which eventually did not work out). The Joker is 6'3".” —don23\n
This is one of the craziest things I’ve read on the internet, and I’ve read my share of crazy things on the internet. Reverse engineering an actor’s height via the height of a fictional character he was slated to portray is less than foolproof, right? (Can we safely assume the actor who donned a rubber suit to play Godzilla was not as tall as the actual Godzilla?)
I still hadn’t found an authority I could trust.
“wow... I thought you’re 6'5 above jake... but that’s okay.. as long as you’re good in acting. i love your movie. prince of persia.” —jude villz\n
It’s not unusual for our opinion of a public figure to affect our perception of that person’s physical characteristics. (In my mind, George W. Bush’s eyes are so squinty and close together they’re basically a pair of Grape-Nuts in an empty bowl.) But jude villz had gone overboard: 6'5" or above for Jake Gyllenhaal? That would make him taller than Liam Neeson and Jeff Goldblum! (Not if they were stacked on top of each other, but still.) It’s important to ground one’s theories in testable data. You may love Rush Limbaugh’s voice because it sounds like a perpetually rising loaf of bread, but that’s no reason to swallow his conspiracy theories about climate-change hoaxes.
I had just started researching, and already I was dealing with a spread of at least eight inches. I tried to comfort myself: Don’t worry, there is a fact of the matter as to how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is. You’ll figure out that fact.
One page ... two pages ... three pages ... four pages ...
Why is there so much online debate about celebrity heights? My friend suspected most of the people debating Jake Gyllenhaal’s height were fellow actors, because actors are self-conscious about their stature. (Apparently, many film and television actors are on the short side; it has to do with fitting them in a camera lens, or the golden rectangle, or something.) What if most
of the people arguing about Gyllenhaal’s height had a professional interest in the subject? They were sizing up the competition. Their very livelihoods—perhaps their very lives—depended on it.
When it comes to data, context is key. A datum that seems insignificant to you might be the most important information in my life. This is why reading message-board arguments about topics you know nothing about is so heart expanding—there is no person for whom some fact of the matter is not vitally important.
The frustrating thing is when there’s a piece of data you think should be vitally important to everyone, and not enough people seem to care. For instance:
“The climate crisis ... is getting a lot worse—much more quickly than predicted. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more—if more should be required—the future of human civilization is at stake.” —Al Gore\n
Maybe people don’t recognize the data as a settled fact of the matter—they see it as a conspiracy, or a fiction, or, most frustrating, they “need to see more evidence first.” (The Jake Gyllenhaal–height equivalent would be something like, “I won’t be convinced by the data on his height until we cryogenically freeze him beside fifty yardsticks in an oxygenless laboratory for 10,000 years.”)
The CelebHeights.com discussion of Jake Gyllenhaal goes quiet for weeks at a time. Then someone posts an account of a recent sighting, or a photo of Gyllenhaal standing beside a celebrity of quantifiable tallness (like Xzibit), and then someone else counters that Gyllenhaal’s height is hard to calculate because “his body is like a peruvian guy (large oblong head, short neck),” adding “I should see him shaven” (?!?), and the whole thing flares up again. Any new piece of data, in the hands of the right maniac, can help a fact of the matter remain perpetually contested. This debate has been going strong for almost two years; is it any wonder that issues of slightly graver import—climate change, the theory of evolution, President Obama’s citizenship—are usually 5,000 percent overdebated?
“The ... half dozen or so posts, which seem to have a heavy emphasis on homosexual behavior etc. ... have no redeeming value and will probably not be posted.” —Climate Change Message Board Moderator\n
Five pages ... six pages ... seven pages ...
At some point I realized that what had begun as idle curiosity (“I wonder how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is?”) and developed into a quest (“I’ve gotta know how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is!”) was now a high-stakes emotional journey (“Dear God, when will I uncover the truth about Jake Gyllenhaal’s height?”). I longed for closure.
A mysterious user named Bradi finally dropped the hammer:
“I see a 5'11" maxed morning height guy in those pictures” —Bradi\n
I was struck by Bradi’s tone of authority. His (her?) refusal to issue a straightforward proclamation, referring instead to his own perception (“I see”) only made him seem more objective. Bradi sounded like a true authority on celebrity heights who was demeaning his expertise by even participating in the debate. Even the term “maxed morning height” (new to me) felt solid; it makes sense that Jake Gyllenhaal is tallest before getting beaten down by an unforgiving world all day.
Whereas I imagined the guy who met Jake Gyllenhaal at the Weinstein party was compromised by self-inflicted cataracts of cologne, and the guy who wrote about the Joker was a bong-lunged sociopath, Bradi struck me as unimpeachable: He lived in a clean house and went duck hunting with a dog named Thucydides. I just knew it. The debate was settled for me: Jake Gyllenhaal has a maxed morning height of 5'11".
Surely climate scientists could benefit from studying Bradi’s balance of understatement and screw-you confidence: I see an atmosphere that is changing radically due to carbon emissions in those graphs. If you disagree, you’re an idiot. The problem, of course, is convincing those people who either don’t trust any data about climate change because of Al Gore being a fat blowhard or don’t believe said data are relevant to them. Maybe it would help if Jake Gyllenhaal made a public- service announcement about climate change after sleeping for a month straight, so he’s at a maxed morning height of 11'3".