Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Monster and The Machine...

A long time ago, on a campus far, far away (well relatively speaking) I wrote a college paper. It was 15 pages, double spaced, typed on an entry level Dell laptop. It was not, however, researched online but rather in a library and on a Lexis Nexis terminal (remember those?). I had a commentary I wanted to make on society and entertainment as I had spent a semester at USC and interned at a Hollywood agency, so I wrote it as part of a film and television final. It was called The Cult of Celebrity. I wish, oh how I wish that I still had that paper handy but it resides on an ancient relic known fondly only as the floppy disc, stuffed somewhere in an old box. But I clearly remember (and I remember maybe four papers that I wrote in college) that it was a paper themed around a topic of fascination for me- something not really in vogue for academic discussion- but none the less of sociological relevance- that of celebrity, and the impact of the television set and the movie screen on said social phenomenon. That topic has reared its fascinating but ugly head again so I must blog.

At the time, well besides ‘90210’ and George Clooney’s ‘ER’, I didn’t have an addiction to filmed entertainment. But I loved movies as art and was curious about how the world around me, for lack of a better term, felt they ‘knew’ Jennifer Aniston, simply because she showed up as Rachel on ‘Friends’ every Thursday evening in their television set (usually 25” and under). I kicked butt on the paper, especially considering I was throwing around phrases like para-social relationships and exploring the role of vintage movie stars as cultural icons and mythological demi-gods and this was before I had even read Joseph Campbell! I was fascinated how this ascension of the television actor to a household product had manifested and accelerated so quickly in the late 90’s. It didn’t seem normal that my contemporaries would converse about the characters and the actors that played them as if they were, well friends; it didn’t seem normal- ha! I didn’t have a clue how normal this was compared to these ‘friendships’ now. (Poor Jen...but she does look fab in a bikini). So now I ponder out loud.

I figure this paper was really before its time. It was written before Us Weekly veered away from it’s respectable ’People’ like tone, before Life and Style, Star and TMZ, and before, wait, what is that thing called- the Internet? Hold that thought, I’m having a Robert Pattinson craving. OK I’m back- thanks to a quick Google search which landed me on Scandal Sheet via Perez Hilton and (Canadians have the best gossip sites!) I found out that RPattz did a few open mic nights in London this weekend and was really good…sigh…even a few pics posted…double sigh. OK enough self-inflicted public embarrassment but obviously my little detour was to prove a point (though sadly genuine in the moment). At the time when I wrote the paper, I could not have popped onto my computer (or my phone for that matter) and found out what my celebrity crush had been up to in the past 24 hours. That sort of immediate access to semi- gratifying information was impossible. But now it’s not. Shoot, I really want to read my old paper and see if I am truly a soothsayer but regardless, I was on to something and am strangely piqued by my renewed interest in the phenomenon of celebrity, now in relation to the future of entertainment, web content and if it will or already has been the demise of the true movie star.

I just watched an interview with Laura Culpepper the other day on MTV’s movie website. Do you know who she is? She is the uber-Twilight fan who won a job as a guest blogger for MTV- she interviewed Robert a few times- was at the premiere, etc, etc. What was my point- oh right- she ‘hearted’ enough that she was able to cross the threshold from fan to ‘friend’. Access to a mythic realm was won because she proved herself the biggest fan, consumed by the fictional characters and story enough to gain short-lived access to the real people behind it. It’s as if she were in the Twilight version of 'Tron', sucked into the computer screen that she once watched. Now, trapped in the media player, she becomes part of the story, perpetuating the fantasy that the world of Twilight and Edward is actually real, instead of a clever ploy by the MTV marketing department to bring the massive Twilight fanbase to

In the hey day of the studio system, the only time you ever saw Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or even Steve McQueen was on the big screen. Perhaps the LA Times would run a picture from a premiere and there would be a Time magazine spread. These stars were talented, charismatic performers who commanded an audience from a 30 by 70 foot screen. These actors were larger than life as were the characters they often played. It didn't matter whether they were playing a part or simply being themselves because all the audience knew was that they were captivated, they didn't judge….they couldn't judge, because they didn’t know. The studios had found these magnetic performers through their scouted talent pool, shepared them up through the studio system (well until the 60’s when the studio system was turned on its head and bunch of rebels decided to make movies- read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls if you haven't already) and then controlled the filmed product that the star would headline. Sure you would see a picture of Gregory Peck on the cover of Life but you wouldn't see a picture of him shopping for groceries at Whole Foods with a week's worth of stubble.

As we now know, most of these said performers were often deeply troubled human beings. It was never much of a secret within Hollywood but the media kept a wrap on what was ‘real life’ for these stars. The media, in some strange marriage of convenience with the all powerful studio system, let the studios feed these stars to the public as they saw fit- usually as a piece of Chateaubriand. I heard a personal account from someone who used to see Steve McQueen get depressingly drunk every afternoon at the bar of a now famous Malibu restaurant.  No one wanted to see that side of McQueen, they wanted to see him romancing women or racing cars if they weren’t watching him save the day on screen. The studios took care of the messy stuff and just let the stars do their work in front of the camera and on the red carpet.

Television changed that paradigm. The TV set brought actors into the family rooms of every American household. The faces that filled the screen were almost the same size as the faces watching it. The elevated status of these actors began to morph. They seemed more accessible, attainable and available. Even the movie stars ventured into this realm, guesting on variety shows like the Ed Sullivan show to showcase their talents or plug their new movies. Televising the Academy Awards furthered this integration. This more casual access created a false sense of ‘knowing’ the star and is the basis for the term ‘para-social relationship’.

I could go on further, delve into the psychological elements behind para-social relationships, but really, you understand what I’m saying. You ‘know’ Katie Holmes right? You have an opinion about her cutting her hair, that she might not like Scientology as much as she purports, likes to wear Current/Elliott boyfriend jeans and wants to stay in NYC and not move back to LA even though her play is over. You ‘know’ a lot about her but she has no clue about you- talk about a one-sided relationship. Plus, I’m not writing this for a grade (though sometimes I have to remind myself of that!) so I won’t explore the roots of this phenomenon any further. But we have to acknowledge that the hunger for this ‘real life’ knowledge of our society’s celebrities exists and that it has created a monster that is now fed by the Internet. This monster threatens the very existence of the movie star but has birthed a new genus of ‘celebrity’.

Steve McQueen and Judy Garland couldn’t hack it in a YouTube world. Audrey Hepburn would have run off to help the African orphans way earlier if someone was always filming her with a camera phone. Movie stars are dropping like flies these days and declaring the end of their careers. They are speaking out about their inability to create mystery on the screen anymore because someone just posted a picture of them walking into a hair salon without makeup on and chewing with their mouth open (just read an article where either Kate and Cate stated as much but can't find it to link to for the life of me!). Society seems to want it both way- the demi-god on screen, and the fallible imperfect person on the street (as interpreted by 

So if the Internet will be the death of the movie star, who (or what) has it birthed? Personalities. Multi-hyphenates that are comfortable revealing every moment of their life and making it viral. People that dare you to unfollow them on Twitter. Most importantly, people who can be their own CEO’s. They are CEO, COO, CMO, CFO….they are a corporation and control the product that they produce. Look at Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht from Diggnation/ Revision 3, Julia Allison, Gary Vaynerchuck, Buck Hollywood. Ashton Kutcher is even getting web savvy with his new ventures. Barack Obama. Yes, him too. They are all comfortable enough to expose themselves to a mass audience, talk about what they are passionate about (whether it be wine, as in Gary’s case, or herself, when it comes to Julia) and have total transparency and accessibility- or at least the illusion of such, to satiate society’s appetite for a celebrity connection. 

Oh transparency…there’s that word again. Gone are the days of mystery. That’s a good thing when it comes to Wall Street but a sad thing when it comes to entertainment.  Access to web personalities is really only a few clicks away.  Barriers to entry have disappeared!  But is this really the case?  If Jimmy Fallon follows me back on Twitter does it mean that I’m his friend now? Of course not!  He clicked 'follow' so I feel included in his world and inclined to support his new late night show. The same would go for Kevin Rose. He may respond to something I ask him via his website but it doesn’t mean that I have a relationship with him. But, it does feel be acknowledged by someone you look up to. 

At the Diggnation Live Show last week, hundreds of screaming fans packed into the Knitting Factory to watch Kevin and Alex sit on a couch, drink beer and talk about all things cool on the web. Then the two guys would get up and throw t-shirts and mingle with the crowd. These web-celebs had leaped out of the proverbial screen and into your family room, or at least the metaphoric family room of the 500 fans who braved the long line.  The cycle was complete- access granted- and it was great. Perhaps that is what this whole quest for celebrity access and the explosion of the social media networks reflect- our desire to feel, well, liked and part of it all. As Facebook friends numbers rise, I stretch to think, where will it end? How many people can we actually 'know'?  When will it become too much to handle? When will we use our phone again to actually talk? 

There's so much to discuss on this topic as the proliferation of entertainment 'news' and social media sites hits new highs and the exploitation of celebrity mishaps hits new lows.  Can actors who become movie stars survive more than a few years before fleeing to a farm in Tennessee or bottoming out in Promises?  Will I try not to Twitter out what actors are in first class on my flight up to Vancouver anymore?  I will do my best because I would hate to be on the other end of it.  Unless my hair and makeup are done.  

Next post will look at Oscar noms and a few movies in development that I am excited about...and probably some random topic that pops into my head.  And I promise, it will be short(er)!  Be back soon, 

All Things T

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