Culture Warrior

A few weeks ago, as the indie group Here We Go Magic traveled through Ohio, they encountered a tall, skinny hitchhiker who they quickly recognized to be the inimitable filmmaker/public personality/pencil-thin mustache enthusiast John Waters. The band members took pictures of themselves with Waters and sent them out to the twittersphere. John Waters’s presence in their van did not transform into a difficult-to-believe apocryphal story between friends over drinks, nor did it grow into the stuff of urban legend, but instead became a certified true web event simultaneous to the band’s immediate experience of it. For any fan of the ever-captivating and unique Waters, this unlikely scenario which was still somehow consistent with Waters’s personality was truly bizarre, interesting, funny, and perhaps even enviable. But Mr. Waters’s is simply the most recent in a string of out-of-the-ordinary celebrity encounters.

Celebrity has changed greatly over the past few decades. Whereas stars of film, television, and popular music formerly dominated the imaginations of their public through their creative output and carefully orchestrated public personae (through interviews, red carpet appearances, etc.), today’s celebrities are characterized more by their public personae than any output to warrant it. The Kardashians, the Hiltons, and the VH1 reality stars of the world are simply famous for being famous (or, more accurately, for being born into incredible wealth).

There is no longer a sense that one earns fame through creating something or contributing to culture.

One no longer even needs to make shitty entertainment to be stratospherically famous. Fame is simply a state of being, and there is no “bad” way of achieving it. This aggravating truth is supported by the depressing fact that young people in greater and greater numbers say that their life goal is to “become famous” without identifying what for.

But there’s a flip side to this coin. The traditionally famous are now enjoying a new way of experiencing, toying with, and even taking advantage of their fame.

And this new form of fame has led to some fascinating scenarios that would be difficult to believe if they weren’t true. If the already famous are going to continue to enjoy fame despite – or no matter – their particular cultural output (in other words, if fame now exists completely independently of what one does and makes), then a few stars have decided they might as well have some fun with whatever the hell celebrity means in the 21st century.

Even though scenarios like the John Waters one came with empirical proof of its occurrence, it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether or not several recent celebrity stories actually occurred – or, if they did, whether they were spontaneous or calculated (assuming there’s a mutual exclusion between the two). However, as stardom scholar Richard Dyer argues, such a distinction rarely matters. Questionable rumors to substantiated events to fansites all make up what Dyer terms “star discourse,” or the scenarios which surround the star that determine how we perceive the star to be outside her or his own decisive output. Whether or not all events associated with a given star actually happened, or were intended, all instances of star discourse has a role in shaping the way we think of a star.

Case #1: Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling with Nicolas Winding Refn

Despite his impressive turns in darker fare like The Believer, Blue Valentine, and Drive, Ryan Gosling will seemingly forever be associated with the heartthrob from The Notebook. And everything about Gosling’s persona outside of his movie roles suggests that he’s nothing less than this impossibly perfect dream man. Whether stopping a fight at an intersection in SoHo or saving a woman from getting hit by an NYC cab, Gosling has basically become the unofficial superhero of downtown Manhattan. Except instead of a costume, he dons an impeccable metro wardrobe and a Mets hat. Is this calculated or genuine? Does Gosling know these actions feed into his overall persona, or does he care at all? When the effect is ultimately more interest in his star image, do these things even matter?

Gosling is completely open about how much his persona is constructed and in-genuine. Though Canadian-born, Gosling speaks like a combination between late-50s Brando and early-70s Pacino, an accent that he admits he forced in order to come across as a tough guy. Though he’s got his brooding stare-walk down in films like Drive and The Ides of March, “toughness” is not what his persona demonstrates if the insanely multifaceted Hey Girl meme (and his earnest appreciation of it) is any indication.

However, none of this has translated into greater box-office for Gosling, whose aforementioned one-two punch last fall did not prove especially successful despite the strong critical reactions to the films. This is not indication that Gosling’s star is falling. It simply exists independently of his actual career.

Case #2: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

Thanks to the work of documentarian Les Blank, for some time Werner Herzog’s eccentric personality has been well-known amongst cinephiles despite the fact that the man’s actual filmography consists of the prolific work he’s done behind the camera. We know that the man is as obsessive as he is poetic thanks to the brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams, and we know that the German New Wave pioneer sticks to his promises and is capable of digesting at least part of a shoe thanks to the accurately-titled short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

But Herzog’s unique image has only become more accelerated and exaggerated within the past decade or so, not only because of the continued success of his non-fiction work (which he narrates with strange poignancy, wit, and frankness), but because of the myth/cult of Herzog that has been tracked via the Internet.

From the Joaquin Phoenix car crash story (which makes Herzog sound like a reluctant savior) to his self-funded Rogue Film School (whose mission statement flies blissfully in the face of legality and institutional responsibility) to this decontextualized video of Herzog declaring unwavering eternal truths about the intelligence of chickens (which makes him sound insane), Herzog’s star image proves than the director can sometimes become much, much bigger than the movies they make, even if they’re brilliant and as big as a boat on a mountain.

Case #3: Bill Murray

Bill Murray at Cannes 2012

Of all the celebrities experiencing new appreciation of their star image, Bill Murray no doubt seems to be having the most fun with it. Though the sixty-something Hollywood veteran continues to put out good work, he’s managed to turn his already-revered name into an institution all its own. It’s as if Murray one day realized all the amazing things that only somebody like Bill Murray could get away with.

Rumors have been a major part of film stardom since the first movie stars. Movie fans seem to never get enough speculation about what movie stars are like amongst “other people” in the “real world.” But Bill Murray has succeeded at making even the most batshit rumors sound likely to be true.

A few years back, I read a story about a college kid who was tackled to the ground in Washington Square Park. One he turned around, he saw that, standing above him, was none other than Bill Murray who pointed down and stated, “nobody will ever believe you.” There are various versions of this story available on the ‘net, which suggests that either A) this story is making the variations that any untrue or partially true rumor would, B) Murray has done this multiple times, or C) both. Either way, it’s a funny story regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to it, and Murray himself seems to appreciate its existence. But when Bill Murray started showing up at karaoke bars, doing dishes at hipsters’ parties, and voluntarily tending bar at Austin’s Shangri-La during SXSW (he reportedly served patrons shots of whiskey no matter what they ordered), Murray has proved that he doesn’t need to make movies to continue being the subject of conversation (even though he continues to put out good work). No wonder Bill Ghostbustin’-ass Murray has had cameos as himself in Coffee and Cigarettes and Zombieland.

Murray is notoriously reclusive amongst the Hollywood community. He chooses his roles quite selectively, and he rarely even answers his phone (even if the call comes from Robert Downey Jr.). So it’s even more incredible, then, that he’s created such legendary and erratic presence amongst the non-famous community (i.e., everyone else). And it seems that Murray has an uncanny ability to find his proper fans when they least expect it.

I’m not saying Bill Murray is making these appearances to market himself (he seems to care little about selling himself beyond getting roles he enjoys, thank goodness), but Murray’s current stardom indicates, perhaps more than anyone else’s in recent memory, that the true benefits of stardom are not money and fame, but having the opportunity to play with the strange position of ubiquitous popularity that stardom puts one in. And if the actual movies one makes has little relationship to today’s fame, why not play instead?

As John Waters, Ryan Gosling, Werner Herzog, and Bill Murray have demonstrated, movies aren’t the only place one can perform.

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