Some Incomplete Musings on Celebrity Culture vs. Film Culture.
I don’t watch as many documentaries as I should, so I’m constantly surprised by how much I enjoy them. When I actually find the time to watch one of the big titles from the past year, I’m struck by how creative the genre has become and how delicately they toe the line between fact and fiction. This past weekend, for example, I sat down to watch Weiner, this year’s breakout hit that followed the 2013 mayoral election and the complete collapse of Anthony Weiner as a politician. Weiner had granted his former chief-of-staff nearly unrestricted access to both he and his family during the campaign; as a result, Weiner gets shockingly up close and personal with its subject during the height of Weiner’s phone sex scandals.
And while there’s a lot to unpack about Weiner the man and Weiner the documentary, it also served as perfect background material for one of this week’s most interesting celebrity profiles. On Tuesday, Variety published a profile of Shia LaBeouf that included some pretty candid words from the actor about his public self-destruction and his road to recovery. While Weiner and LaBeouf were subject to very different kinds of meltdowns, the documentary and interview both highlight the way the two men exist at the intersection of performance and authenticity as well as the public’s desire to watch them ruin their lives in the most public display possible.
A lot has been written about our society’s fascination with the self-destruction of stars. In July of 2015 – a few months before the film Amy won the Academy Award for Best Documentary – MTV published an article on our collective love-hate relationship with celebrities. The article argues that people like Amy Winehouse serve as both role model and uncomfortable reminder of our own flawed lives; watching their lives collapse, then, collapse becomes an important part of keeping our own dreams of instant celebrity alive. We enjoy watching someone like Winehouse rise to prominence in the recording industry because everyone loves a comeback story, but we enjoy the narrative more if she also falls from the top. This way we aren’t made to feel inadequate in the face of her success.
The Universal Truth Known to Both Star Wars Fans and Shia LaBeouf
The same is true of politicians like Wiener and actors like LaBeouf. Both were fast-rising wunderkinds, darlings of politics and the entertainment industry who have entertained even more people in their failure than they ever did in their successes. Weiner often gets himself into trouble when he reacts to things as If he were a private citizen rather than a politician; in one particularly revealing moment in the documentary, he describes his scandals as if they were part of some online roleplaying game and he was merely playing the role of someone else. Meanwhile, LaBeouf has blurred the line between his personal life and a series of bizarre performance pieces meant to call attention to our own fascination with celebrity culture. Both men are conscious of the fact that their profession requires them to always be performing; this recognition is often part of what gets them into so much trouble.
While Weiner may be shockingly candid in its depiction of a public man’s dissolving private life, LaBeouf’s Variety interview is no less upfront about the actor’s public collapse and ongoing attempts to revitalize his own persona as a leading man. LaBeouf recounts his own history with substance abuse and his ability to recognize the long road he has left to climb before he can be considered a commercially viable movie star. The article – which is timed to the Toronto Film Festival premiere of his newest movie, American Honey — is focused on the possibility that LaBeouf might be turning his career around. He no long drinks, no longer participates in hyper-aggressive performance pieces, and generally seems to be a man on the mend.
And that leads to the key difference between Anthony Weiner and Shia LaBeouf: there’s still the possibility for the latter to bounce back. If the MTV article is correct and celebrity culture does indeed have self-destruction as its endgame, then film culture is considerably more conflicted in what it hopes to accomplish. It’s not a coincidence that the recent news cycle has been dominated by names like Nate Parker and Mel Gibson, artists with tremendous works to their name who may never come fully back from the actions they committed in their personal lives. It is not for me to say whether Parker and Gibson deserve our forgiveness – they need to answer to victims of sexual assault and the Jewish community – but the fact that forgiveness is on the table at all speaks to our desire to have a little bit of separation between the art and the artist.
Does Shia LaBeouf deserve a comeback? Perhaps. Others may disagree, but movies like Fury and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is proof enough to me that he has the capacity for great performances in him. Unlike Parker or Gibson, his action seem only to have hurt himself rather than others; that certainly makes it easier to root for him to find a place as an idiosyncratic Hollywood leading man. Much like Anthony Weiner, however, there will always be people rooting for LaBeouf to slip back up and fall apart in the public eye. How he manages his public and private lives going forward will play a key role in whether he is accepted back into film culture or simply becomes a celebrity culture punchline.