Abstract: This article approaches the relationship between the celebrities North American culture fawns over and the fans who do the fawning. By examining the modes by which fans incorporate the biographies of the celebrities they adore into their own lives, I argue that on some level the social distance between fans and celebrities is reduced in two ways: first, on a symbolic level through the fans’ use of the everyday lives of celebrities as a way of understanding their own lives; and second, on an experiential level, as fans mark their own autobiographies in terms of the experience of observing the everyday lives of celebrities.
We begin early in the morning, September 1, 1997, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A young boulevardier returns home early from an uninspiring night of carousing. Not yet ready for bed, he switches on the telly and settles in for an electronic sleeping pill. After flicking around the dial, he settles on CNN, almost out of habit. There is breaking news, shocking news. Princess Diana and her paramour, Dodi Fayed, have died in a car crash after being pursued by a posse of rabid tabloid photographers into a Paris tunnel. Some thirty-five years after Fellini presented the world with his Paparazzo, an effervescent scamp clicking away at Anita Eckberg in La Dolce Vita, reality proved itself, once again, stranger and darker than fiction. Big game means big money for the paparazzi and the distance between camera and celebrity is inverse to the money value of the shot. “Up close and personal” describes both an ideal and a nightmare.
After listening to actor Tom Cruise engage the wooden anchor in a self-promoting “phone-in” diatribe against ruthlessly intrusive shutterbugs, our man in Rio shuts off the television in disgust and retreats to bed. “Just another Global Village idiocy,” he mutters as he flops onto his futon. “More hysteria for the masses.”
Yet come later that morning, tens of millions of people would be getting out their handkerchiefs and keeping them out. “The People’s Princess” was sadly and truly gone forever, cruelly stolen from her public by circumstances beyond her control and perhaps beyond the pale of irony. Her life, it would seem, had come to an end.
But what about her biographical life in popular culture – the formal and ephemeral writing and reading of her life narrative by her public? Surely it would go on.
Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, for example, toys with the “future” of the star, a counterfeit, “what if” autobiography of the posthumous Elvis Presley as he circulates throughout the various popular cultures of America. A sarcastic, defiant play is at work on Baudrilliard’s simulacra. The alleged entropy of the sliding signifier is trumped by the fan’s desire for meaning. Marcus argues that Elvis continues to live, continues to inscribe and be inscribed into narratives of stardom because there are those who continue to believe in his stardom – a belief so strong that for them, he lives. Without faith in the ability to know the true star, there can be no ideology of authenticity. And so in this strange life/death, Elvis Presley has become an entire solar system of stars. Each star’s light passes through the psycho-cultural prism of the fan, producing great variations on the theme, all of which become part and parcel of the ongoing narrativity of Presley’s stardom.
So imagine yourself a star or celebrity. Imagine your life and your lifeworld coveted and in some cases, resented by millions of anonymous people. Imagine them scripting your life as their life. Or scripting themselves into your life, even when it’s over.
This essay concerns itself with the authoring strategies of (auto)biography of stars/celebrities by fans in a variety of mediated environments. How and what do we, the anonymous, write about stars and celebrities in the context of our own life stories? And more importantly, how does this writing negotiate the social distance between us and them?
Speculation and Power
What a curious thing, that title, “The People’s Princess.” Although a royal, she was only so through marriage and thus was an outsider, a situation that the public read progressively from “fairytale” to “nightmare” as details of her life inside the royal family emerged. The conditional tense of vicarious experience for her public switched keys from major to minor: “If only it were me” eventually became “Thank God, it’s not me.” Although she could look regal, she had a populist touch, which the British tabloids exploited as a means to taking on the royal family for their traditional aloofness and tendency towards staid anachronism. She lived in luxury but had an acute sense of noblesse oblige that took her into AIDS clinics, leper colonies and hostels for the homeless. In a family notorious for its reluctance to engage the press in anything other than highly scripted encounters, Di came forth with confessionals about her struggles with marriage, eating disorders and sundry other topics more suited to a coffee klatch or Oprah than royal protocol. Unlike, say, Clint Eastwood whose rugged private iconography is tied to his film roles as existential cowboy and vigilante cop, Di’s iconography was tied entirely to her life role as long-suffering wife and finally martyr. The public and private seem indistinguishable. Courtesy of the rabid British tabloids and their attendant television counterparts in the United States (Entertainment Tonight et al), we watched her and embraced her for letting us look in when she was and more importantly, was not, at her best.
Indeed, the life of Di, on the one hand, was very much part of a specific culture’s historical moment. Her celebrity was (and is) a “social text,” reflecting and incorporating the country’s spirit of the times; a signifying power that is in no small part iconic, inextricably linked to the circulating myths of British Royalty/nationhood. On the other, she was supra-cultural, supra-temporal universally recognized for her ability “to shimmer and glow” as the wife of a powerful man, articulating the retrograde ideal of womanhood within that “fairytale” role.
But, for her, the role itself didn’t live up to its billing. She came to realize that the only way out of predicaments of domestic strife and repression of individual desire (the ideal wife constructed as it was by those outdated gendered behaviors and patriarchal proscriptions on sexuality) was to apply shock therapy to her iconography. And hence to her biographies. Getting out invariably meant gambling on public opinion.
After divorcing Charles, Di found herself caught between two conflicting roles, being a down-to-earth mother to her sons while pursuing a life as a single woman that was not supposed to reflect badly on her ex-in-laws. Her doomed affair with Dodi, the swarthy playboy on a perpetual cruise to nowhere (whose Anglophilic father was unable to break into the British upper classes because of his ethnicity and their reactionary embrace of pre-WWII, pre immigration, notions of brahmin “Britishness” – white, homogeneous, xenophobically cosmopolitan) could be seen as an attempt to exit from the particular symbolic tensions of her celebrity iconography by polluting the signifying system to the point where she could set her own agenda of “who she was” and what she could do as that self-determined person.
Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis in part to break free of her iconography as the widow Kennedy. The American public was duly angered and gave her iconography a savage rebuff. The continued sales of books such Kitty Kelley’s scathing biography of Jackie O along with the appearance of outlandish conspiracy tomes like Oh No…Jackie O (black widow Jackie O had JFK killed in order to hook up with the sinister Onassis) signals an enduring hostility out there to be mined. Sweet Jackie Kennedy, a demure and stylish homemaker at the world’s foremost address, would become the plotting courtesan, Jackie O, brazenly sunning herself on the fantail of an “ethnic” billionaire’s yacht as it slipped between tony islands of the decadent Continent. To extrapolate conversely, we could say that Di, in death, exists in a truly harmonious totemic system in which her celebrity status relates directly to the public’s valuing of her celebrity narrative in relation to their own life narrative. She is their idol of apocalyptic romantic dysfunction – the girl who had everything but love and when love was found, death snatched it away.
Fast forward to August 31, 1998 – the first anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. As the year passed, focus shifted back and forth between the death of Princess Di and the circumstances surrounding that death; until today when the two elements came together in heightened confluence.
When the French judge presiding over the case hands down a report about that fateful car crash, it will serve as the official, actionable “biography” of Di’s death, just as Judge Earl Warren’s report did for JFK’s assassination (or Ken Starr’s for Bill Clinton’s sex scandal). Wherever there is an authorized document, we have learned, doubtless there will be unauthorized counter-documents. One need only take a brief surf on the Internet to discover the many different versions of Di’s death in circulation, particularly regarding the circumstances of it – the impossibly high level of carbon monoxide in driver Henri Paul’s blood, the inattention to Di’s wounds on the accident scene, the dastardly paparazzi snapping photos as she slipped away, not to mention the mysterious disappearance of the white Fiat Uno involved in the crash. Some of the theories:
As Di would have eventually become the future Queen Mother of England, she needed to be eliminated, lest her pacifist views be passed on to her sons.
Di strayed from England and onto the Continent where she was seen to be meddling in the delicate centuries-old balance between the aristocracies of Europe and Britain .
Di and Dodi faked their own deaths to escape publicity and now live blissfully together in cognito
Ludicrous details and theories are purposefully released onto the Internet to throw conspiracy theorists off the trail of the real conspiracy.
Certainly as one surveys the theories, the common motif, as is the wont of conspiracy theories, is the individual victimized by a nefarious system.
Simon Regan titles his book Who Killed Diana? in order that we don’t miss the point: Di died for a reason at the hands of persons yet unknown but out there to be discovered. Here is where the conspiracy theorists have the jump on the weeping masses. The mourners tend towards deification of Di precisely because in the realm of the sacred, explanations for the inexplicable are more easily sought and found. Little wonder the Church of England takes a dim view of Di’s changing public status from secular martyr towards sainthood — celebrity and theology are not a match made in the heaven of the church. In contrast, the conspiracy theorists embrace a more rational, profane approach, parsing the information that emerges, assessing it for plausibility against the tenets of their own gesalts. They then link up the credible elements into a theory or theories while weeding out red herrings and contrarian evidence. The goal is to bring the broken ellipses of possibility into a full circle of explanation that fits nicely into the ideological square of the conspiracy theorists (e.g. Anti-Monarchists).
Paradoxically, conspiracy theorists resist closure of the narrative for it is in the eternal “unsolvability” of the case that the often macabre jouissance of speculation arises and gives fuel for resistance to dominant ideologies and their institutional agents (e.g. The European Union, The Federal Government, Big Business, The United Nations). Indeed, this is an extreme variation of all celebrity-audience relations: a playful speculation through gossip, innuendo and trivia fetishism about what happened or is happening to whom. Rational explanation might be the goal “in theory” but in practice it is a necessary impossibility.
Ordinariness is the conceit of the star/celebrity (auto)biography at the turn of the millennium. America, as much as it loves an idol, loves a fallen idol more. And, in the case of Bill Clinton, we also love to watch the Comeback Kid dust himself off and get back into the saddle to once again put the wood to those who would bring him down. When it comes to the stars, we want their rides on the surf of life to be larger and wilder than life.
Writing Infamy, Writing Anonymity
Fame is not just about recognition of positive character and charisma. Tragedy and evil find their own fan base.
When stars or celebrities die unexpectedly under suspect conditions, they throw their audience-subject into the grandest crisis of them all. What was already a volatile relationship between sign and reader becomes even more so.
Suicide is particularly troubling. Albert Camus referred to suicide as “the solution to the absurd.” Life is essentially meaningless and insignificant, forcing one either to check out or, like Sisyphus, to keep rolling the stone up the hill for its own sake. The material world is as indifferent to human beings as it is to bunny rabbits – we exist in the midst of its perils and eventually we will succumb to one or another of these perils. The challenge of life, then, is working through, nay enjoying, the paradox of knowing how the material world really is while constructing an on-going dramatic and romantic illusion that ennobles one to carry on. For some, including the star, the illusion falls short of the mark.
Writing on Elvis Presley (whom Albert [Goldman, 1981 #178] eventually suggested committed suicide), Linda Ray Pratt (49,54) observes that “the fascination was the reality showing through the illusion – the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos… Elvis had all the freedom in the world and could escape nothing.”
This is not something that a fan would want to hear, for stars and celebrities function as mediators between mortality and immortality. Part of the value of a star/ celebrity is that they have done something of value or achieved enough recognition that when they die the achievement will live on favorably in public consciousness. Also there is the illusion that the star/celebrity has somehow managed to master the intricacies of life, give or take a few hitches here and there. Aren’t fame and fortune supposed to make you happy? A large part of Liz Taylor’s iconography lies in the wide perception that she is the ultimate survivor of Stardom, having endured all sundry catastrophes and calamities that appear in the generic “plot” of Stardom (which she helped to write and maintain). Likewise, Marilyn Monroe (or her black counterpart Dorothy Dandridge) appears in the popular imagination as the ultimate victim of Stardom, exploited sexually by various men, thwarted in her career ambitions and then left to a bon voyage dose of pills in a tawdry bungalow. No matter how positive a spin is put upon her career, including her proto-feminist fights for career control, her suicide looms large in the wings, waiting to bring the curtain down on her life in a sustained minor key. Even the A&E Network’s series, Biography, notorious for hiding warts and smoothing out wrinkles, is compelled to deal with the “facts” of the subject’s life, including a suicide, if it is to be a credible enterprise.
Murder is another matter, especially a star murder at the hand of a fan. In our age of pop psychology, it is all too tempting to code a fan’s admiration as pathology when we read about celebrity stalkers and killers. Yet all biographies of John Lennon must deal with Mark David Chapman. Chapman, by killing Lennon, injected himself into the Lennon narrative of stardom and hence, the subsequent writing/recording of that stardom. Chapman wrote through the barrel of a gun, as it were. And, lest we forget, an intertextual circuit was made complete. Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s idealistic avenging imp, escapes the spine of a book and in the diseased mind of Chapman, becomes the neutralizer of the evil phony, Lennon. Fiction acted as the psychic transport from anonymity to infamy, allowing a lacklustre biography to impose itself upon an extraordinary one, thus merging them for all time. Veteran crime writer Jack Jones focuses on Chapman’s unhappy childhood in Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon, portraying him as a neglected kid who sought refuge in make-believe. Armed with this book and Albert Goldman’s anti-hagiography of Lennon, an unsympathetic reader can pull back from that awful moment of violence in front of the Dakota and chart the life paths of Chapman and Lennon as if they were fated to that moment — two damaged individuals, one a success, the other a failure, yet both caught up in fantasy lives that culminated in a nightmarish rendezvous between a man running from fame and one running towards infamy at the crossroads of fate.
Indeed, such rendezvous of divergent paths lead to interesting albeit disturbing excursions into biography. Compare Death of the Unicorn by Peter Bogdanovich to Bob Fosse’s biopic Star 80. The book and film both cover the same story but from radicically different vantage points. While Bogdanovich identifies with his murdered betrothed, Fosse identifies with her killer, Paul Snider. Bogdanovich, disillusioned with the sinister caprices of Hollywood that had marginalized his own career, saw Dorothy Stratten as a divine innocent in need of saving from the wolves. Fosse identifies with Snider, the outsider who only wanted to get inside fame but didn’t make it. By casting his lot with Snider, Star 80 appears to be a highly personal cautionary tale for Fosse, articulating how close to infamy he himself might have come if things had no gone so well in his career. Likewise, Unicorn is less about Stratten than about her survivor — a man angry at the crooked system that denied him personal salvation in the arms of a blond goddess.
Both works contain explicit criticisms of the entertainment industries, particularly the carnal patriarchy of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire. How many Paul Sniders, pimped out in garish hustler duds, are left to stew in their own toxic juices at the gates of the Playboy Mansion while their meal tickets frolic in the jacuzzi grotto with Hef and his party crew? How many Dorothy Strattens, fresh in from Oblivionville, USA, fail to make Hef’s A-list and end up further down the pornography food chain, much like Savannah, the celebrated porn actress who, losing favor with producers tired of her prima donna antics, fellated a shotgun because she couldn’t stand to fellate anything else anymore?
Consider the current debates about “Son of Sam” laws, intended to prevent serial killers and their ilk from profiting from their “memoirs.” If killers’ stories are suppressed, the logic goes, the glamour “hysteria” of serial/mass murder will die down. Proponents of this stance suggest that serial/mass killers are particularly susceptible to a lurid mimesis in which other miscreants, often graced with the same pathology and freakish delusions, copy the successful strategies of crime from previous “stars.” By following a veteran’s MO, they believe they too can make it to the bright lights and banner headlines. But without game plans, so the logic goes, there can be no game.
Describing America as a wound culture, Seltzer (1998) offers serial and mass murderers as the epitome of the “non-personality”, the most psychologically damaged of a damaged population. Moreover, their acts “have come to function as a way of imagining the relations of private bodies and private persons to public spaces.”(228) In short, the spectacle of public killing drives one from anonymity into infamy, not fame, at a highly accelerated rate.
We can see an interesting paradox here. The famous star/celebrity is valued for their persona and the narrative of that persona’s evolution. The serial/mass killer achieves infamy through a complete lack of personality, in life narratives characterised by hapless crudity until these spectacles of mayhem catapult them into the spotlight; overnight sensations, indeed.
In this parallel universe, fear equals admiration, death equals life, depravity equals esteemed character. These killers are volatile existential entities, functioning as death stars — active, powerful, awful. Ordinarily, we think of celebrities or stars as benign objects/subjects, out there to be “thought of” and desired. The sociopath and their attendant narrative poses a shocking reversal of power; we are what he or she desires, the victims he/she needs to break through their anonymity and become a “star.” The tension between Specialness and Ordinariness collapses into a symbolic black hole and into this void, we project our fear of the savage Other/Nobody.
Elliott Leyton’s landmark book, Hunting Humans, asks to be read as a straightforward psycho-anthropological inquiry into mass and serial murder. Yet, because of its focus on the biographies of various killers, how they came to star in their own killing “productions” and how these productions came to be known to a wide and rapt audience, the book can also be seen as the ultimate in “unauthorized” biography of murdering “stars.” Culled from confessions, court transcripts, prison interviews, and most significantly, diaries and notebooks (chronicling the killer’s interior life of desire and violence), the stories of these killers present us with a worst case scenario of anonymity. The unknown, the forgotten, the psychically wounded take out their revenge on other anonymous beings. We marvel darkly at the twisted life path of someone like Ted Bundy precisely because of his absence of personality. His pitifully low index of authenticity frees him from the moral and communal ties that make fame work as a symbolic construct and socializing force. We read the (auto)biographies of serial and mass killers in hopes that some sort of order can be brought by us, the readers, to the inscribed chaos, that ultimately sense will prevail over senselessness, even when the text taunts us with its pornographic detail of primal depravities. A certain psychic brinkmanship is involved. We must rise above what we are reading lest we fall into its trap and find ourselves empathising with the killer or worse, revelling in the carnage.
Worthy of note here are the diaries of would-be assassin Artie Bremer. A two-time loser with the pistol, first botching an attempt on Nixon and then paralysing George Wallace instead of killing him, Bremer openly courted infamy. Once captured, he sold his handwritten diairies to the highest media bidder. If nothing else, Bremer possessed an innate understanding of what we saw in Warhol’s diary project — private writing intended for public consumption.
Much has been written about how Bremer inspired the character of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver. Although clearly a dangerous sociopath who stalks a presidential candidate, we find Travis at the end of the film basking in glory after he rescues a 13-year old hooker (played by Jodie Foster) from a den of inequity deep in the bowels of Hades, otherwise known as New York City. As viewers privileged to his shabby life leading up to that inglorious moment of vigilante justice, Scorsese challenges us to see Travis for what he really is rather than what the press makes him out to be. We must not let his “fame” blind us to his “authentic” self, Scorsese demands. Five years after the release of the film, John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan as a valentine to his obsession, Jodie Foster. From fact to fiction back to fact, Bremer drove the circle whole.
A further extrapolation on Bremer can be found in James Benning’s cine-essay, American Dreams. Benning, best known for his impressionist explorations of the not-altogether-sunny dialogue between the American landscape the American psyche (Landscape Suicide, Deseret) took a different tact in this work. The film offers a sort of biographical tapestry, created by weaving three strands of personal history together — those of himself, Bremer and baseball legend Hank Aaron. Benning hails from the same working class district in Milwaukee as Bremer, the very city in which Aaron spent much of his career. Benning further articulates his affinity to Bremer by transcribing Bremer’s diaries into his own handwriting, thus putting his sane literacy into dialogue with Bremer’s psychotic subliteracy. As pictures of Aaron memorabilia come and go, the Benning/Bremer scrawl scrolls along the bottom of the frame at a considerable pace. The audio track consists of various political speeches, hit songs and sundry pop culture noise spanning the two decades of Aaron’s career. The overall effect is sensory overload, similar to that of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, leaving the viewer adrift in a sort of charged ether of sensation. Three discrete biographies dissolve and coalesce into an alchemic flood that resonates beyond the frame of the particular to the general. Scott McDonald, in a compelling essay on American Dreams, contends that what the Bremer/Aaron contrast does is critique American machismo, born of a corrupt system.
On one level, Aaron’s successful pursuit of Ruth’s record is the precise opposite of Bremer’s partially “successful” attempt to kill a political figure: Aaron’s achievement is the quintessential American success story, and a heartening demonstration of the poverty of those racial assumptions that kept African Americans out of the major leagues. Bremer’s crime is a quintessential American nightmare. But on another level, the two narratives contain a significant parallel: Both reveal American males relentlessly, even obsessively pursuing goals that, in the end, mean not only culture-wide fame…The obsessive need to win, to dominate another, is the epitome of macho, and both Aaron and Bremer fit the pattern perfectly (1993:99).
At its outer limits, fame slides easily into infamy and vice-versa. There is pollution and leakage between the two. This is the breeding ground of sensationalism and hyper-scepticism. Woe to the mainstream star/celebrity who finds their way to this border swamp. Michael Jackson did and it cost him $10 million dollars for a flight out of the area. OJ Simpson, once a sport superstar and B-movie fixture, lives as a pariah in the twilight fen of fame/infamy, banned from the entertainment industry and even the worst of public golf courses in southern California.
Deconstructing Fame, Minimizing Social Distance
Thanks to mass-mediated popular culture which continually puts old wine in new bottles, we live an ironic, tired spectatorship characterized by a schizophrenic disposition towards the entertainment industries that is at once cynical and sympathetic. The Potemkin Village of image and glamour that the famous and their agents construct entice yet repel. We have been to Oz, peeked behind the curtain and found the wizard wanting. We want to believe in the empowering nature of fame and its personalities although we have our doubts. Yet, we have a need to believe because we have little else left to us in the metaphysical wasteland of the fin de siecle.
The wizards of the entertainment industrial complex conspire to exploit these collective vibes. Auto-parodic fare such as This is Spinal Tap, The Player and Pret-a-Porter are the result. Apocryphal stories abound of stars and celebrities who fight tooth and nail for cameos in such productions so that they can be “in” on the joke rather than on the end of it. These films, Sunset Boulevard reduxes one and all, are a disingenuous yet necessary deployment of self-critique in order to short-circuit any real criticism of the operations of the industries and their attendant products. If the industry is poking fun at itself, why should anyone else bother, right? Audiences are invited into a passive, jaded sense of superiority: “Good for you. Now you know the tricks of the trade.” Tricks of what, though? How celebrities are manufactured and artificially differentiated (a/k/a branded) like beer or how the industry thrives behind self-serving and carefully managed revelations of its processes? The goal is to leave the system unquestioned, unchallenged while indulging audiences’ vanities, allowing them to think they are privy to what’s really going on in the lives of the stars and the industry.
Joshua Gamson observes that:
contemporary texts promoting the story of artificial production do not simply tell that though: they luxuriate in it. The irony is more than defensive: it is proud. These texts offer telling new resolutions to the underlying cultural tensions. The anxiety about public selves, for example, is no longer met only with continual promise of personal revelation. The private self is no longer the ultimate truth. Instead, what is most true, most real, most trustworthy, is precisely the relentlessly performing self. New sorts of relations are offered; the details of how and when and by whom the public self is constructed. Ubiquitous Barnums reappears, and with them the fascination with the mechanics of manipulation (1994:54).
If authentic private selves are no longer the ultimate truth, does this mean the private selves of the famous are, by their dubious nature, inaccessible? Does this ideology of inauthenticity make star/celebrity (auto)biography a worthless enterprise?
Conversely, what of the authentic self in real life? Neal Gabler does not fancy the lay of the land. The entertainment business has been so successful in colonizing the mass media and the mass psyche, that people now live “lifies”, quixotic attempts at auto-dramaturgy — self-styled biographies to emulated the Dramatic Reality featured in show business products. Gabler himself seems uncertain about his discussion of “postreality”, perhaps because everyone else is equally so. Countless theorists have countless theories about what exactly to call the experience we are living. Even if the global economy is Post-Fordist, relying on highly-skilled, highly-educated free agents flitting from job to job, we nonetheless still cling to modernist conceptions of consensual reality, hence the more compelling model of a Postmodern Condition. Perhaps fantasy, with its liminal powers of role-playing and provisional identities, can facilitate the resolution of individual conflicts and anxieties in such a fast-moving, hyper-mediated reality. The problem, as Gabler sees it, is that the American public is lost in the throes of the narcissistic frenzy against which Christopher Lasch so compellingly warned. They are Method actors performing in a show that ends only when the pine box is lowered into the turf. Never out of character, they achieve a sort of anti-Zen consciousness — always thinking about past or future performances without ever occupying the moment of the authentic self. As intoxicating as fame can be, it is equally fleeting; indeed for most people it lasts far less than Warhol’s fifteen minutes. An appearance on Jerry Springer does not a career make. The vertiginous fall from fame back into dreaded anonymity is just too much for some poor souls, Gabler laments, and their lives end in ruin or worse, in suicide. Absurdity wins the day.
Nowhere is the cult of celebrity, this embrace of the “lifie”, more feral than in the American youth cultures of the late twentieth century. Stardom and fame have always been the province of youth but now more so than ever, thanks to ruthless and exacting use of demographics and pseudo-ethnographic research to pin down the capricious tastes and needs of youth audiences.
I am reminded of the last chapter in Polaroids from the Dead, a collection of meditations on popular culture by Douglas Coupland, erstwhile guru of the so-called Generation X. In this particular essay, Coupland tools aimlessly about the “non-place” of Brentwood to reflect upon the ironic co-incidence that Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered just a few blocks from where Marilyn Monroe took her soft ride into oblivion. Coupland’s writing voice is comparable to the singing voice of fellow Gen-X idol, REM’s Michael Stipe – affectedly effeminate and sensitive; gendered male yet decidedly feminine in its dramatized embrace of emotionality and vulnerability. Indeed, the Coupland persona marries a middle-class passive androgyny onto a neurotic fetishization of popular culture to produce prose that drips with facile irony, tepid self-righteousness and a proclivity for melodrama. In Freudian terms, he presents himself as conspicuously “undefended.” Francis Fukuyama might describe him as isothymic, the embodiment of Nietzsche’s “last man” — complacent, uncommitted and unhappy.
Coupland hails from a non-descript white middle-class suburb in Vancouver, where he grew up in the late sixties and the seventies. This key biographical fact provides the hook upon which he has hung his trademark generational angst, rooted in knowing far too much about television and pop culture junk and not enough about real life. Alas, blaming the suburbs for disenfranchised naivete is like shooting fish in a barrel. Just ask painter Eric Fischl (Sleepwalker) who made an entire early career out of this one tired motif. One senses a quixotic desperation for some sort, any sort of “authenticity” of experience outside of mass mediation and marketing. With prescient cunning, Coupland has cultivated a “pure audience”, a generation of youth beholden to a psychic desperation to have their wounded condition acknowledged and catered to via a sneering mix of nostalgia/irony. Hence the popularity of his work, along with that of Quentin Tarantino (the avatar of pop culture shut-ins — hyperactive, barely literate and obsessed with pop culture arcana), et al. His visit to Brentwood is, at its essence, a pilgrimage to an internal psychic site in which Marilyn and Nicole function as powerful fetish objects of “real life”, women who lived and suffered through “denarration in Post-Fame.” This is Coupland’s highfalutin way of phrasing his desire to be a part of the glamor of their lost lives while commenting on the emptiness of the pursuit of fame and fortune. At least, he silently laments, something was at stake in their lives.
More importantly, Coupland illuminates the spiritual crisis in which the youth of America currently finds itself. His monograph previous to Polaroids was entitled Life after God. It dealt with the problem of growing up without any contact with religious institutions other than what comes through the TV and the VCR. There were their baby boomer parents’ experiments in alternative religions. Yet as American society continues to move away from the traditional urban environments, which historically served as centers of social interaction, into gated, “mallified”, wired tracts of suburbs (e.g. Orange County, California), youth appear to becoming more and more distanced from the biographical and moral infrastructures of a “real life.” This phenomenon gives further credence to John Kenneth Galbraith’s sour prophesy of private opulence, public squalor in American life. Habermas would be none-too-pleased with this situation either. His ideal of democratic spaces that could foster democratic communities of informed and progressive citizens seems more and more a pipe dream each time a new gate is erected, a new satellite dish purchased and a new modem plugged in. Fears of losing privacy to the tyranny of technocratic surveillance are somewhat misplaced. We should be worrying about the loss of public life instead. To paraphrase Neil Postman, we are cocooning ourselves to death. The American Dream of success, the touchstone of the fame par excellence, arises from not just capitalism but capitalism with democracy – material ambition balanced with communal spirit or, in the words of Shakespeare, fellowfeeling. As the importance of democracy as a collective ideal diminishes, so too will the idea of the star/celebrity as agent of social transformation for the fan. Stars and celebrities will become figures solely of narcissistic consumer fetishism – how much and what they consume and thus, how they can be consumed as impotent models of empty consumption.
An intriguing and more substantial riff on the Coupland mode of social alienation and fame fetish can be found in David Shields’ autobiography, Remote. The title itself contains a multivalence of ironies. One is indeed remote to the stars, even a published author such as Shields, who chronicles his brushes and obsessions with minor celebrities, including one with O.J. Simpson in a Brentwood (?!) Baskin-Robbins. The television remote is the beloved toy of many a channel-surfer who clicks between programs on dozens of stations, searching for the right image, the right frame, the right moment, producing a scan of the televisual world. Form triumphs over content to become content itself.
Shields presents himself as a lifelong scanner. He takes the disparate fragments of the Celebrity world he has culled from personal experience (including a three-page listing of close encounters of the insignificant kind with near-celebrities and the description of a high school accident on the beach while playing football as “how Kennedy-esque!”). This is combined with an irony-laden spectatorship (wry commentary on middling TV shows and their not-so-famous stars) and then drawn through the camel’s eye of his autobiographical frame. To know David Shields up close is to know Celebrity in America at a distance — his distance. That Shields is both somewhat emasculated and neurotic seem less like personal facts than strategic registers for his “revelations.” He is inviting the reader to guess whether he is inventing himself through a parody of these social types (a personality) or is actually giving us the “real” David Shields (a person). By living in a culture obsessed and saturated in Fame/Celebrity/Stardom, he implies, one can’t help but cultivate delusions of a public “celebrity” self, ready for the camera when it at last swings your way. To live your life waiting only for that moment, one either ends up as the creepy wannabe star Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s King of Comedy, or conversely as Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, who first fails to recognize a cynical simulacra of suburban bliss standing in for a real life and then tries to escape it. But escape to what? Reality-based shows such as Big Brother (Holland) and Survivor (United States), pornographic compilations of indiscretions captured by surveillance cameras, along with countless video-cam sites showcasing the mundane existence of nameless souls, suggest that sensationalistic voyeurism of the anonymous is a negotiated stand-in for fame not-yet achieved. If fame is conferred on these participants, it is in large part because they, like Pammy and Tommy Lee, are willing to give up their privacy to the camera and to viewers.
Shields aggressively foregrounds Edgar Morin’s crucial insight that the private life of the star/celebrity is a mere construction, a naturalized illusion produced through extra-textual materials of the industry and its attendant agents. There is a provocative and unsettling ludic element at work here. We can read Shields as he has written himself, but can we really know him? — especially since he articulates himself through a celebrity biographical mode that is suspect. Tricky, tricky, indeed.
Two of the almost fifty epigrammatic chapters are particularly chilling. In one, Shields offers a number of transcripts from various individuals asked to relate their dreams of the aforementioned martyr of disaffected youth, Kurt Cobain. This seems fitting as Shields lives and works in Seattle, thus locating Cobain and himself on the same radar screen of cultural enterprise. While none of the entries merit mention on their own, in sum they resonate with a nihilistic narcissism that speaks at once of spiritual vapidity and, conversely, lust. Cobain appears less like a real person than a psychic rubbish bin cum idol for various projections of need, desire and pain of loss. With inarticulate articulation, the kids talk of themselves living through Cobain’s narrative. It’s as if their own lives, the horrifying anonymity of their lives, can be negated and overcome by connecting with him in that most powerful signifying act of them all, death. They are uber-groupies who, like all suicides, want to be noticed if only for having left the building.
Another provocative sequence is a profile of “Stutterin’ John” Melendez, a speech-impaired sad-sack sent out to do the biding of the mad anti-genius of vulgarity, Howard Stern. Melendez’s MO involves accosting celebrities and hustling an interview out of them because they feel sorry for him. Stern gets double kicks, Shields implies, belittling Melendez with insults and then watching the celebrity belittled by the handicap of the interviewer. Shields explains:
If Melendez’s stutter expresses the perfect mix of rage and awe we feel before celebrity, the entire operation is an exact mathematical equation of absolute paradox: Melendez doesn’t write the questions he asks and often is unaware of the allusions they make to the celebrity’s personal problems (thus, even when Melendez is asking the questions, Stern keeps him out of the loop) (1996:122).
What makes this discussion particularly intriguing is the connection to the author’s autobiography. Shields reveals that he had a stuttering problem as a child, which in turn led him to experiments in language allowing him to turn a negative into a positive. One can imagine both the pain and the wry amusement that Shields felt as he wrote about Melendez, a man who, unlike Shields, is not able to master language and thus is at the mercy of those who have. Moreover, Shields suggests that the banality of middle class life offers the entertainment industries a built-in shill. They use the same laconic economy of language (e.g. Dead Reckoning) that Shields once retreated into as a stuttering boy to tempt audiences into thinking that “life…has hidden reservoirs of excitement and terror.”
This discussion leads me to an autobiographical question – what do I consider to be the prime star/celebrity narratives that I can “script” into my own lifeworld?
For example, there’s Iron Mike Tyson. He’s recently sprung from jail after serving a sentence for assault. To quote Karl Marx, first time tragedy, second time farce. As a relatively white, relatively upper middle class gent, I would seem to have very little in common with Tyson in terms of background and upbringing. Yet living in an age in which heterogeneity and multiculturalism are aggressively foregrounded at both the informal (popular culture) and formal (institutional) levels of American society, one has many opportunities (and challenges) to engage the “other” without falling victim to white guilt or, conversely, “compassion fatigue”, as Robert Stam puts it.
Indeed, this is the challenge of liking Mike Tyson. As a privileged white spectator, I could easily subscribe to the dominant racist understanding of Tyson as a thuggish madman who turns a boxing ring into a zoo cage. If Ali was a noble “savage” embodying Civil Rights, Black Power and the arid beauty of Islam, Tyson is an uncivilized beast broadcasting an irascible negritude that articulates the nihilism of inner city America and the aesthetization of that misery into the vulgar consumer culture of hip-hop and Black Entertainment Television. Ali, once rabidly articulate, is now mute from taking too much punishment for too long. Tyson remains silent because when he does open his mouth, he says things like “Fuck Holyfield” on the Today Show, in that quaint Marilyn Monroe lisp of his. Ali’s biographers have plenty of sympathetic material from which to work: Thomas Hauser (Ali) focuses on his naïve generosity; David Remnick (King of the World: The Creation of Muhammad Ali) writes about the nobility of his activist Muslim faith, Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) profiles Ali’s pan-African spiritual connection to the long-suffering people of Zaire, where the Rumble in the Jungle was staged, much to the dubious benefit of Don King and the tyrant Mobuto. Tyson’s have none.
Before every fight, sportswriters and broadcasters trot out Tyson’s biographical data set as a means to both “explaining” his wildness (the ghetto made him a monster) and humanizing him (poor orphan boy who became a student of boxing with the help of kind white foster fathers). These conflicting modalities ultimately render Tyson an unknowable and hence threatening paradox: a deeply wounded yet physically powerful black man. This is an especially piquant image in middle and upper class America where premium is put on the genealogy of an individual’s psychological damage and subsequent search for a “cure”. Tyson at once enjoys fame and infamy.
What excites me then most about Tyson is that he and his unsavory biography are beyond the pale of public relations and its project of making people and things more palatable and thus more easily consumable. What a package to promote — the dreamy-eyed, gold tooth sneer, the jail-house tattoos of Mao and Che that adorn a rippling physique, a sterling reputation for episodes of psychotic behavior in (ear-biting) and out (spousal abuse/rape) of the ring plus a long affiliation with ultra-nefarious impresario, Don King. Tyson is the bad black boy that Dennis Rodman only wishes he could be. Boxing has struggled for decades to simultaneously parlay and whitewash its dodgy image into respectable, big money entertainment. Tyson is a problem because as good as he can be in the ring, where savagery often wins the day, he can be equally dreadful out of it. Short of locking him up in a dungeon, Tyson’s handlers and investors have had to keep him on a very tight leash as he prowls the finest strip clubs of America. How often they have failed! And now, after the Holyfield ear-biting debacle and subsequent 18 months in the suspension wilderness, he is on his own, free of King, free of expectations yet still fighting the good fight, even if it is behind bars.
I am also a devoted fan and critic of the works of Greek composer Vangelis Papathannassiou, best known by scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. His unauthorized biography, The Unknown Man, written by Mark Griffin, co-founder of the Vangelis website, Direct, fits perfectly into my own biographical construction of him. First, the book contains almost no biographical information or personal gossip. Vangelis as he emerges from this text, is a cosmopolitan recluse who shuttles between a studio in Paris and a beach-house on a Greek isle. He guards his privacy religiously although he is welcomed at many European music festivals as a high brow celebrity and is worshipped by continental techno and trance artists as an eminense gris of electronic music. Interviews are rarely conceded and when they are, the topic is his music and the relationship of his art to the cynical machinations of music industry. Through his brother, Nico, who has direct contact with the webmaster of the Direct site, Vangelis has expressed the sincere wish that his fans concentrate on his music rather than his private life in their discussions. After a short debate, subscribers agreed, more out of default than anything else, to indeed focus on the music. Vangelis has successfully set the agenda for how he is discussed, how he is to be admired. And accordingly, his fans have accepted that this posture is part and parcel of his work methodology. In order to compose freely, he must be left in peace — physically as well as psychically. For the fans, his musical output is much more important than biographical information. In fact, lack of this information allows for an enjoyable mystique to be maintained: What kind of man could create music like this? I can speculate about his life, its ups and downs. Yet the music holds sway over these musings.
Consequently, there is also a positive Orson Welles-like quality to Vangelis that adds to his mystique. Because he composes and orchestrates directly to recording tape, he has produced an enormous amount of work that, due to the limitations of the marketplace and the music industry, has yet to be or never will be released. As a fan, I know this treasure trove lies in wait somewhere in a vault – a private collection. And because his private self is so hidden, this bounty of music takes on a particularly strong metaphoric quality. One suspects that if only one could hear it, one could gain more insight into who is Vangelis, the real Vangelis, not the one who engages the market now and again with “accessible” product.
In short, I find pleasure in a comfortable stability of my star’s biographical life maintained across three different axes – the star, the industry and the audience. Vangelis is, in a word, remote, blissfully so. I might at some moment in listening to his music imagine the circumstances of its creation but I have no desire whatsoever to impose myself upon his life narrative or to resent his life narrative because of the possible inadequacies of my own. To achieve psychic and symbolic peace with your star or celebrity is to be able to say: “I’m okay, you’re okay where we are.” And in an age in which confession, anger and envy govern celebrity culture, that is quite a feat.
1 In her work on instances of modern hysteria, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, recovered memory and alien abductions, Elaine Showalter (1997:17) contends that “redefining hysteria as a universal human response to emotional conflict is a better course than evading, denying, or projecting its realities.” In the case of Di’s death, the collective outcry of grief, particularly from women, should be seen as a collective response worthy not of clinical derision but of anthropological praise. Here is an exemplar of Levi-Strauss’ “savage mind” at work. An over-mediated age, in which information is fragmentary and identity is a disjunctive process of neurotic self-checking, requires special ways of thinking. The circumstances of Di’s life and death escape rational explanation and hence, elicit a turbo-charged emotional response bordering on the quasi-religious in which faith and fate predominate.
2 I am using James Monaco’s taxonomy of star, celebrity and quasar for the purpose of this essay, although I am also employing many of the ideological critiques contained with the work of Richard Dyer. Apologies for any conflations that might offend.
3 The re-activation by Elton John of his chestnut “Candle in the Wind” for Di’s funeral spoke of the social distance that fans at once want and conversely want to breach between themselves and the star. John’s image of himself sitting in a darkened theater admiring Marilyn Monroe on the screen was perfect for transposition to Lady Di and her public. Why? First, the original Monroe infatuation was radically de-eroticized in part because of the crucial lyric “who sees you as something more than sexual”, a tip of the hat perhaps to John’s hitherto closeted homosexuality. Also, the original carried within it a few jibes at the tabloids (“oh, the press still hounded you”) which would play nicely into the anti-paparazzi mood of the moment. Not that the new version re-iterated that line but rather the listener, through intertextual comparison, brings the line into phantom play across the decades, setting Marilyn into action with Di to produce a weak and no doubt temporary resistance to the tabloids.
4 The “girl power” of the Spice Girls can be seen as a logical extension of Di’s assertion of “feminist” will, post-divorce, (even though the Queen Mother was graced with the moniker of “the original spice girl” by one of the group’s more unctuous members). “We shan’t be making the same mistakes,” the girls tell us in so many words, “because we’ve seen how it all works.” Or in another of their bon mots “If you want my future, you have to forget my past”. Moreover, Di’s divorce dovetailed with the move of Britain away from uncritical integration into the EEC and the wholesale rejection of the monarchy-friendly Conservative Party. This ideological shift can be found most shamelessly in the mock-jingoistic marketing phenomenon of “Cool Britannia”, which harks back to the Swinging London of the 60s (a chronotope also realized during a period of rule by the Labor Party). Little surprise then, that it was Tony Blair, a male contemporary of Di, who acted as mediator between the British public and the royal family, orchestrating Di’s funeral as symbolic delivery of her “back” to the public and an olive branch to the public from the royal family. .
5 One is struck at the symbolic cunning of Jackie O. After the death of Bobby Kennedy, she had clearly had enough of both the Kennedy’s micro-management of her personal life and the diminishing safety of and respect for public figures in American life. Onassis, the dodgy shipping magnate, symbolized everything that the Kennedy clan had fought so hard to negate, hide and expunge from their own dubious history of social mobility. By marrying Onassis with “up yours” brinkmanship, Jackie O invited the public to not just re-assess who she was but also who the Kennedys were. Likewise, for Di when she finally shoved off from Buckingham Palace. “Who’s it going to be, the Tudors or me?” And away she went, right into the arms of Dodi.
6 In what must be the most bizarre celebrity interview in history, one can purchase the Grand Jury testimony of Bill Clinton to a panel of inquisitors. The relationship between interviewers/interviewees is clearly strained over the four hours of testimony. They want to do damage to his “star” persona by getting him to admit to conduct unbecoming to his image. He refuses, recognizing the “perjury trap” for what it is. The broadcast of the tape functioned as a struggle for meaning, highly reminiscent of stardom/celebrity Clinton fought to keep his private life private while Ken Starr tried bring it out in public under the pretense of proving perjury in the Paula Jones deposition. Clinton’s performance was masterful in the sense he was able to articulate the boundaries of his “autobiography” and keep the inquisitors at the edge of these boundaries. It might well be that Clinton knew the tape would eventually be seen by the public and contoured his performance for such an inevitability. One is reminded of Michael Jackson’s interview with Barbara Walters after his sexual misconduct suit in which tried to come clean while at the same time set boundaries as to how far he was willing to let his dirty laundry be aired. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, in contrast, delivered a no-holds barred mea culpa, re-coding his moral hypocrisy as the forthright confession of a sinner, about to be cleansed through the humiliation of the votive camera lens.
7 A program such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous implicitly suggested that the material order and opulence of mansions, redoubts and aeries signified a deeper spiritual “life narrative” order. The smarmy self-parodying prattle of the host, former tabloid writer Robin Leach, cues the viewer to an ironic position yet the visuals cut against this. Here we can situation ourselves in the interpretive position of stardom/celebrity at the millineum par excellence: cynical of publicity trickery yet envious all the same of celebrity, each emotion feeding on the other to produce a sour emotional state. Mark Crispin Miller (1989) notes that the ritual of the Barbara Walters “interview” includes two dynamic parts – first a tour through the palatial appointments of the star/celebrity home and then a brief chat in the living room during which Walters confronts the star/celebrity with boorish questions (To Liz Taylor: “Are you afraid of getting fat?”) Miller suggests that Walter’s authority to ask such questions comes from the audience’s conflicted relationship to Celebrity – envy for its material rewards and resentment that they themselves are not enjoying it. Walters is merely acting as our agent, showing us what the star/celebrity has and then reminding us (and the star/celebrity) that we, the audience “gave” them what they have.
8 The opening sequence of the film Seven (lifted from the underground films of 50’s New York filmmakers Stan Brahkage and Hollis Frampton amongst others) gives us a riveting introduction into the significance of the writing in the serial killer’s identity. We watch the mystery killer remove his fingerprints with a razor blade, truly rendering him a John Doe. At the same time, we catch glimpses of him obsessively writing in notebooks, notebooks full of nihilistic musings on the brute chaos of his everyday life that, later in the film, will be discovered by the detectives. Again we can see how in the infamy seeker what is alleged the most private and narcissistic of writing – the diary – is in fact intended to be very public, part and parcel of the madman persona.
9 The swimming pool is a tragic sign in American celebrity culture – people drowning in ambition. The pool is leisure incarnate, emblematic of free time and easy living. As such, in Puritan terms, it is also a site for temptation and hubris. Idle hands, wrapped around a martini glass on a chaise lounge are the devil’s playground. See Springboard in the Pond by Thomas Van Leeuwen (1998) for a thorough discussion of the pool as cultural trope.
10 The cover photo of the book features a muted glossy of Sharon Tate, the “polaroid” that invites into the text. The Tate photo can read as a gratuity only if one is not willing to assume or be sympathetic to Coupland’s psychic frame, which is to revel in the dark side of popular culture (e.g. The Manson Murders). Of course, this frolic takes place from a safe, ironic distance that does not require any sort of emotional involvement but allows for a personalized fetish of Tate as doomed celebrity and hence the malevolence of celebrity. This is her star cache, after all, being more famous dead than alive. At the same time, her victim status plays nicely to Coupland’s “wounded” writing persona – victims together.
11 Canadian poetess Lynn Crosbie attempted to portray what sort of young adult is produced from these conditions. Paul’s Case: The Kingston Letters offers a psychological speculative biography of Canadian serial rapist and sex killer, Paul Bernardo. Our Paul lives his entire life through the illusions of the entertainment industry. This, in turn, robs him of a moral center, allowing him to embark on a rampage of rape and murder in the vast suburban wasteland surrounding Toronto. Along with his starry-eyed blond accomplice, Karla Homolka, Bernardo builds himself up into a narcissistic monster, wanting to “live large” as a white rap star. We follow the grisly duo as they kidnap, sexually torture and kill a trio of young women, including Karla’s younger sister. The narrative voice belongs to a crazed female fan, writing from the same mindset of suburban Siberia that gave birth to her heroes. Crosbie’s book caused considerable public distress because of its explicit descriptions of the various acts. Far more disturbing was what wasn’t discussed: that Bernardo was a social prototype, a nihilist born of the primacy of “star” illusion in lieu of a non-existent meaningful reality. No surprise that one of the two books found in his home was Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, the story of a young automaton obsessed with brand name accoutrements of success, bad 80’s pop music and serial murder.
12 Black entertainment stars, particularly rap/R&B artists are constructed along these lines. The musical form itself requires a minimum amount of pure talent, suggesting a quasi-democratic element of access. As such, the rapper’s consuming personality takes precedent over musical performance. The expression of that personality is through consumer goods – expensive sedans, cigars, silk pyjamas, pneumatic paramours in skimpy day-glo bikinis, champagne, ultramarine pools etc. In music videos, the rap/hiphop artist is the central character in a three minute installment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. We see the American Dream achieved but have little idea of how it is accomplished as the music does not appear to be the key, as it were, to success. Yet one could argue that is exactly the appeal of rap/hiphop: to exploit the conditions of the market so that image is talent. This is the true dialogue between the star and the audience, with the music itself acting as a secondary tool to accomplish the image. The true value of the star arises from the star’s scamming of the white-dominated system, including its Caucasian suburban customers, hungry for easily purchased tropes of oppositionality and “otherness”.
13 Pity Robert DeNiro. Such is his iconography of the intense brooder that he appears not just as the deeply troubled Travis in Taxi Driver but the crazed stalker of an arrogant baseball player in The Fan.
14 We would do well to pay attention to the recent works of British trickster-cum-guerilla filmmaker Nick Broomfield. His latest exercise, Kurt and Courtney, starts out as a straight-forward, good-hearted survey of the various weirdos, crackpots and anguished fans who believe Kurt Cobain actually was murdered. Broomfield’s investigating “register” is a beguiling combination of the innocent naif of Michael Moore (best seen in Roger and Me) minus the self-righteousness and the knowing British tourist skeptical of American celebrity culture but intrigued nonetheless. Eventually, the film shifts gear and focus on Cobain’s widow and her attempts to block his “investigation” through her influence over potential sources. Broomfield tries to make an end run around this “chill” and in doing so, lays bare the apparatus of the “chill”. On the surface, Broomfield appears to delight in what a freak show celebrity culture has become. Yet on another level, he cunningly articulates just how short (and exposed) is the terrain between fame and infamy and how fractious the crosstalk between the center and margins of American celebrity culture can be. See also his previous outing on Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
15 We crave celebrity, a quasi-religion unto itself. If there is no heaven or no God, perhaps the stars can guide us to something else. Stars/celebrities know this and use their visibility to promote their various crackpot allegiances to swamis, gurus, channelers and purveyors of crystals and pyramids. More often than not, they have found spiritual enlightenment just at the nadir of personal crisis. A marriage busted up or their career was on the skids or cocaine was making tracks into their bank account. This process of spiritual rebirth plays to the ideology of authenticity, articulating the star’s ordinariness – their travails are not much different than your travails. They’re searching for the same answers you’re searching for in life’s journey. But unlike us, they have special access to the mediums, as it were, of publicity. With Phenomenon, for instance, one has the unsettling sense that the film is little more than a Scientology propaganda film with John Travolta as an American everyman imbued with the kind of super enlightenment that only the sophistry of science fiction cum religion can provide. Indeed, until the five hanky, Love Story conclusion, it’s a full court press for cosmic serenity, complete with ancient trees rocking in gentle breezes, Windham Hill noodlings and perpetual golden light. “Some things in life just can’t be explained” the promotion posters told us. No kidding.
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Author: Timothy Dugdale teaches communication studies and anthropology at the University of Windsor. He is the author of two novels and is putting the finishing touches on a novella set in a Brazilian fishing village turned jet-set tourist trap. This summer he begins work on a cine-essay about the search for spiritual peace in an age of hypermedia and global culture. Also on the agenda is a novella which revisits the first episodes of Hawaii Five-O via Jean Pierre Melville’s film, Le Samourai.