Monday, September 27, 2010

You Never Left

The most recent The Film Talk podcast discusses I'm Still Here, the Casey Affleck / Joaquin Phoenix vanity project that's soon to land in the discount DVD bins. Jett Loe considers the film a timely satire of the "dehumanizing" nature of a ruthless "celebrity system" that "depends ... on the exploitation of others."

I don't see exploitation as much as manipulation. People are manipulated, through non-stop propaganda, into thinking celebrities are to be loved, adored, admired, emulated, and whatever people want to believe about their fierce independent-mindedness, the methods of modern manipulation-- advertising, marketing, public relations, etc.-- work, and work brilliantly. They tell us what to think about celebrities and we dutifully think it.

When was the last time you read, saw, or heard anything that didn't cast Tom Hanks as a hero? Well, is he really a hero? In truth, we know Tom Hanks from his public appearances, on-screen roles, and from the image that "his people" have helped to cultivate. For all we know, he eats puppy-kitten stew in private, hires people to write computer viruses, and is secretly bankrolling the Fred Phelps "god hates fags" church.

Or people are manipulated into thinking something closer to the opposite -- we all know the script we're supposed to recite at the mention of, say, Tom Cruise. He has weird beliefs! Maybe his marriage isn't authentic! He's desperate to keep certain things hidden! He bullies people into silence! Or whatever. What if, in private, Tom Cruise is the only thing standing between us and the evil depredations of Tom Hanks?

Loe declares that the most vocal critics of this film exude a whiff of "defensiveness" in their reception it, and he could well be right. That's different from saying they're wrong. How should people react to being told, at film length, that their opinions have been shaped by efforts consciously designed to shape them?

What's the alternative?

We could, I suppose, refuse to draw any conclusions about celebrities until we know them as human beings. That would help us cut through the P.R. -- and yet, there are a few basic impracticalities to this. Does Tom Hanks want to hang out with the millions who watch his films? We've been led to believe he's very genuine and friendly, but there are limits, and as I outlined above, maybe he's too busy gathering up puppies and kittens to spend time befriending millions of people.

Perhaps we should ignore all celebrities? Do Affleck and Phoenix truly want that world --- the one in which the public simply tunes out celebrities? If this is their plaint, it strikes me as prima facie bad faith. Under that scenario, they go back to working some crap job in crap-town like the rest of us, and if they don't already know it, the life of obscurity comes with its own shortcomings. Perhaps they would be interested to learn that while, yes, we regular Joes and Josephinas don't have to expend any energy evading paparazzi, we are almost never approached or contacted by people who love us for what we consider to be only our below-average work. We are never invited to sexy Hollywood parties. No one points when we walk into a room, unless to indicate our fly is unbuttoned, and the only hush that falls over a room in our presence is the awkward kind.

In short, this satire seems to be riding on the back of exactly that which it is supposedly satirizing.

The singer of Iron Maiden is now a marketing executive for a rather unexciting company in England -- that, it seems to me, is what you do when you think the celebrity life is silly, phony, dull, dishonest, or what have you. You don't cut another record in which all the lyrics are about how stupid rock stardom, or even "the system of rock stardom," is.


Mike said...

Dale, I think it's worth noting that both Affleck and Phoenix were exposed to the Hollywood "system" at young ages, and also have/had famous siblings that enhanced that exposure. Having the the only life you've really known deteriorate around you would be depressing to say the least, although I'm not sure what their exact complaint is since both seem to be working more or less steadily.

Still, I hope they have the sense to realize that their residual fame allows them to continue to do things like that project. If not, a week working at fast food or a hog farm would provide some needed perspective.

Sheldon said...

It is obvious that Tom Hanks is really a decent, nice, and good guy. What? You haven't seen Forest Gump, or The Green Mile, his endorsment of electric cars on Letterman, or Saving Private Ryan. And the latter of course makes him hero extrordinaire! Come on Dale, get with the program. Tom Hanks rocks, and he would love to hang out with you. That is just so obvious.

Tom Cruise on the other hand, don't even think about letting him near your furniture.

Dale said...

@Mike, hog farm. Yes! Or how about a life insurance sales office licking envelopes for a week or two? The list never ends.

@Sheldon, I realize I'm skirting the edges of heresy here.