Friday, August 10, 2012

Two for Tea

My brain is doing weird things again. Weird academic things. Well, it's always doing weird academic things, relentlessly, to the point of me wondering if I'm not actually becoming some sort of Sherlock-esque blogger who sees their work everywhere and never can get their brain to take a day off. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just... weird.

Especially when I'm sitting in class, talking about the distinctions between elite, mass, and popular culture and a quote from Robert Downey Jr. pops into my head (which I'm remembering from this Tumblr post):
“This is probably going to get quoted in every publication just because I said it. And I’m not even saying anything. I’m not talking about my films, I’m not talking about my life, and I’m not talking about the world. And yet, the media will print it simply because I said it. And at this moment in time, I bet there is an artist around the corner of this hotel, on the street, with a mind far beyond ours, but we will never listen to him simply because he has not appeared in a movie. And that is what is fucked up about our culture.
(Okay, so I feel kind of weird quoting RD Jr on a quote in which he says, "Everyone's going to quote me on this." But he said it and I didn't so... gotta give cred, bro. Otherwise it's plagiarism... right?)

I thought of this because we were discussing how films fit different categories of culture - elite and mass. Mass culture is what we usually call pop culture (though popular culture is actually, according to cultural studies terms, not common and probably non-existent thanks to the existence of Ideology) and comprised of things like Hollywood blockbusters, prime time television,  and Furbys.
So I don't know if these were sold anywhere outside of the United States, but these creepy little toys are called Furbys and they were, for some godforsaken reason, very popular in the 1990s. I never had one because I thought it looked like a soul-stealing gremlin but a bunch of people had them at my school. Did I mention that they were supposed to echo your speech and learn phrases from you, like a furry little robot that was going to take over the world? Man, the 90s were weird...

But back to culture distinctions. Mass culture is pretty straightforward. Elite considers itself "high art for an enlightened minority." Think art house films, certain kinds of modern art, and yuppies eating muffins and drinking organic coffee while watching art house films and looking at certain kinds of modern art (FYI, this is me way more often then I'd like to admit).

Most of the time, we're caught between making art that's considered elite or mass. Popular art is very hard to make (and like I said before, probably impossible to get at due to Ideology) because it requires people to just make art, not because they need to for money and not as a hobby (as that implies they have a "real" job that earns them money), to not distinguish between producer and consumer, and to avoid defining people by what they do - instead, they just do it.

We were discussing how certain films (The Battle of Algiers was the one we watched) uses non-professional actors to keep the focus on the issues the film deals with rather than on celebrity associations with big-named actors. This got us into a conversation, stemming from discussions of mass culture, about why we use big-name actors in the first place. And thus my brain went instantly to Robert Downey Jr's quote.
Acting is very, very strange. Think about it - a bunch of people pretend to be other people (something, it could be argued, people do regardless, everyday) and some people are in the news all the time for acting, while others will never be recognized for it. Acting, at its core, is very, very simple. I mean, as a little kid, I used to play make-believe and dress-up all the time (admittedly by myself because I'm an only child and rarely lived in neighborhoods with kids my own age). But I think my mind approached things very differently as a kid interested in writing than perhaps a kid who would go on to do acting (not that it kept me from trying; I once thought I was destined to be an actress - maybe it's better for the world that didn't work out). I was always better at describing things in my head with words and images and ideas whereas acting requires that sort of description to come through in voice and actions and body language. To me, acting has always followed a parallel with writing, which makes sense - in our way of making films and plays and shows, writers and actors work off of each other. And yet I have favorite actors, but I can't say I have a favorite screenwriter. Even novelists, who tend to be the most noticed writers usually don't have the same fame that actors have. Generally they can leave the house to buy an avocado without being bombarded by a swarm of screaming fans.

Which then caused me to arrive at a different idea: why do we hold actors in such esteem? I mean, obviously what they do does take a lot of skill and its mind-blowingly impressive. But why do we have favorite actors? I mean, it's not like I write blog posts about my favorite plumber (but man, I should. Plumbers are AMAZING). The whole fascination with acting is bizarre. Especially the stratification that come with it. In what other career (except in probably music) do people regard you as a higher being, better than the common person, like gentry amongst the peasantry? I've described it before as actors taking the place for this sort of yearning we have for royalty in America and, perhaps in some ways, a desire to marry royalty. But really, what does it all come down to? Money.

I am of the sound mind that money is an entirely ridiculous concept. Little pieces of paper that are worth certain amounts based on current exchange rates based on our economy compared to others, all which only has meaning because we decided that this shiny stuff called gold was worth some serious value? Absurd. However, I also know too well that I need money in order to have any sort of perceived success in life and, more importantly, to keep from starving and freezing to death. I want to not care about money, but that's utterly impossible. And thus, like many other twenty-somethings, I find myself thinking about wealth. And wealth and fame - as the two are often described as going hand in hand.
This is all very interesting after having just finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. A beautiful little book focused more on characterization than plot, it follows the storyline of two characters - Renée, the concierge of a wealthy Parisian apartment building, and Paloma, a twelve-year old genius who lives there with her family. Renée has tried for years to conceal the fact that she reads Tolstoy and is very intelligent from her high class tenants, afraid that destroying their perceptions of a typical concierge will cause hostility from them. The tenants ignore her and "when people walk by her, all they see is a void, because she is not from their world" (145). It surprised me how prevalent the divisions between class were in this book, given it was published in France in 2006. Perhaps France really is that divided by class; I don't know, I've sadly never been there. But at least to me as an American who's  aware of class here in the States even though it's much more muted, I found it really poignant and yet distressing. Renée is reluctant to begin a friendship/relationship with the new tenant in her building, a man named Kakuro. Though they have much in common, Renée feels they cannot truly be friends because too much divides them - she is low-class, he is wealthy. They are from two different spheres in her mind and this cannot be changed.

As my brain's been doing weird things, I began thinking about this in terms of celebrity culture. This is generally the vibe I get from people talking about celebrities - that they're in another sphere from them, they could never, ever meet them because there's 7 billion people in the world and they don't inhabit the same locales they do. Which reminded me of this Tumblr post:

I can understand this, to a point. I grew up in Indiana. The coolest thing there, aside from Indianapolis and the universities, are a lot of cornfields. A LOT. (Indiana, I love you, but you used a cornfield as the background of your license plates for cars. You're playing up your own stereotype; c'mon guys.) But on the other hand, I feel like this comes from a sense that some places are prioritized over others. I've lived in the Midwestern United States my entire life and am no stranger to the concept of "flyover country," the idea that everything between LA and New York doesn't matter. Most of the time, this is an unfair stereotype of East and West Coasters. Sometimes, people actually act like everyone not from New York or LA is uncivilized. And because this exists, people start worrying that the Midwest is actually that uncool.

Which is total crap. Minnesota is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Wisconsin's great too (especially around the Great Lakes). Missouri is wonderful (especially the Hill District). But LA does have the film industry and that's why actors are there and not out here. There are certain places to work to make it big, and those places happen to be LA and New York, and thus actors aren't here because the work is different - there's less money to be had.

Of course, we're thinking about certain kinds of actors - famous ones, the recognized ones RD Jr is referring to. There are a lot of actors in the Midwest, especially in Minneapolis and Chicago. There are a lot of community theaters here too and I've seen some really wonderful productions from them. But that's the point RD Jr is making - these aren't the sort of actors we think of. We respect and admire famous actors more than the people in our local communities. Why that is comes from a lot of things. Famous actors make more money, appear more successful, are perhaps more talented. They are under certified scrutiny and have thus succeeded in a way unknown actors haven't because they have been weighed and measured and found promising by the media. And thus they find a sort of success others don't.

This puts me in a very complicated as a fansquee (yes, I'm adopting this word now. The more I use this term, the more I like it and, for the greater good of the world, I'm using it. Reasons for why can be found here. Any confusion that arises from using it... Oh well. Confusion can be good). I really, really like famous actors. If it's not apparent by now that I really admire Cumberbatch and Freeman, you must be new here (and hello!). And I feel I have every reason to admire these two, along with a gaggle of others: they're clever, hard-working, humble, talented... I could go on, but I'll refrain from the long list of praising attributes I could come up with.

But then there's people like Kristen Stewart.
I confess: I cannot stand her. Not because she was in Twilight (that's just unfortunate). Not because I know anything about her personally (I really don't know a thing; I haven't seen much in the way of interviews with her and the ones I have seen have been... let's go with unhelpful). Not even because she cheated on Robert Pattinson (although, Mr. Pattinson, that totally sucks. I'm sorry). No, I don't like Kristen Stewart because I hate her style of acting.

One could argue that she isn't actually acting. But, because I don't know anything about her other than what I see onscreen, I can't make that claim. All I know is that when I see her assume a character, I can clearly tell she's acting. Not in a "I'm non-professional and haven't done this before" kind of way but more like I can see all the director's instructions written across her face, like she's been told what to do but it doesn't sink in any deeper. It's like looking at the floor of a theater and seeing all the marks used to show actors where to stand, and not because she wants us to know she's acting but more out of carelessness. This probably sounds uncommonly cruel and I don't mean it to be. It's perhaps a matter of taste. But she is also the most highly paid actress in Hollywood. And as I happen to find her style far less satisfactory and achievement-worthy than say someone like Mr. Cumberbatch or Mr. Downey Jr., Ms. Stewart continues to bother me.

And since this post is meandering on forever and I haven't even gotten to the stream of thought that prompted the title, I might as well take another detour. Who's to say that one form of acting is better than another? Who is allowed to have that authority? Theater critics? Other actors? Viewers? Peanut galleries such as myself? Do I perceive Kristen Stewart as a bad actress because she actually is bad or because we have a certain idea of what good is and she simply doesn't fit my definition of if? Is acting all a matter of taste or is there really a proper way to do it? Does bad acting remind us more that we're simply watching a representation of a character onscreen more? Can this be better achieved by good acting? Is it up to acting to remind us that we're watching a film? What IS the goal of acting?

I need to bring this gif back...


Before I get too far down the dark, scary road of metaphysics and phenomenology or anything of that nature (which is currently where I feel like I'm headed), I'm going to reroute myself to "simpler" thing. Meaning things I could at least discuss without my head exploding.

Amongst all of this thinking about acting, fame, and money, I began contemplating a very strange thing: how isolating fame can be. The general line of thought is that because one is famous, everyone knows and loves you. That's generally why most people want to be famous. It is, of course, not so simple. And this really came to light when I read a Franz Kafka story for class last spring.
The story in question happens to be "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk." It's a fantastic little tale about Josephine, a singer (obviously) amongst a society of mice. She's the quintessential diva, expecting all mice to stop their work and pay attention when she sings. And if they don't, she has a little hissy fit and stamps her feet until they do as bid. She sees herself as separate from the rest of the mice, too frail to do work and unable to, as it will damage her art. While the other mice "pipe" and it is considered common place, what she does she marks as far different, a higher art form, music as apposed to common noise. Most of all, what she wants is "public, ambiguous, permanent recognition of her art, going far beyond any precedent so far known" (246). Her music is meant to bring the community together. But as an artists, she separates herself from the community, standing "almost outside the law, that she can do what she pleases, at the risk of actually endangering the community, and will be forgiven for everything" (244). While separating herself seems to give her a greater power, it comes with the price of distancing herself from her own fans, her own people.

Sound familiar?

I've prattled on before about the distancing that comes from being a celebrity. I mean, when our magazines come up with stories like this, we sort of have a problem:

(Ok, so you should check out the Tumblr post this comes from because the gifs someone added in as a reaction are fantastic.) Wow... celebrities use baskets. This just in: celebrities breath oxygen and eat food too.
I know, Sherlock it's totally mind-blowing! Actors are human beings? My God, I thought they were dinosaurs.

Sarcasm aside, this really bothers me. A lot. Way more than it should for a random, blogging college student who has had zero interaction with celebrities. But it does. People who meet celebrities apparently get criticized for not being their biggest fans and having conversations with them (so what, she's a Twilight fan and therefore isn't allowed to hang out with Cumberbatch? What crap. I would hang out with Robert Pattinson if I had the chance. He makes fun of himself for playing Edward Cullen. And saves snails (Snail talk begins around 3:11, if you watch the video). Therefore he is awesome.) (And honestly, I will pretty much talk to anyone these days. I listened to someone talk about cement dome houses for over an hour at a wedding reception. Not to impugn Robert Pattinson as an interesting conversationalist; I guarantee he is far more interesting than cement domes.) Despite my fansquee nature, I'd like to think I could revere an actor and yet still talk to them without treating them like a rare breed of Alaskan muskrat or something.

But then I remember what, in part, freaks people out about celebrities: money. Because people with high levels of wealth get treated differently. And lots of money tends to freak people out.

Example: I was at the Mall of America with my friend Kevin a couple of weeks ago. We were in Nordstroms, looking at clothing we could not possibly afford. I found a woman's leather jacket I thought was cool and pulled the hanger out to get a look at it. And then I saw the price tag and almost died.

So you can't see the jacket in these photos Kevin took, but that's irrelevant. What you can see is me holding the price tag and trying not to freak out (especially as a clerk had just come by moments before and asked if we needed any help). $995 for a coat. From a girl who shops at H&M and Target and at second hand boutiques, and, when she's being spendy, Macy's, this is an unfathomable amount of money. 

And a few days later I saw this Tumblr post about a jacket Senore Cumberbatch has been known to wear. Someone tracked it down, found out it was Westwood, and decided to share the price with the Tumblr fandom. In case, you know, you feel like dressing yourself or someone you know like Benedict Cumberbatch (maybe kind of creepy but that's a topic for another time). 

But it's £817 ($1,094).
Goddammit. All my good intentions of thinking I wouldn't be freaking out are gone. Because if someone is standing next to me wearing a coat that costs more than the monthly rent of my apartment, I'm going to be freaking out. Not because they're a famous celebrity, not because I'm shocked that, somehow, out of the 7 billion people in the world, I'm fortunate enough to encounter them, but because I'm astonished that people can walk around in a coat that price and not be terrified of getting anything on it or having it destroyed or ripped off their back and sold on eBay.

Which is really a rather silly thing to be worried about. Because I didn't care until I knew how much the coat costs. Which seems like a pointless thing to care about. If appearances don't matter and I don't care about money, then clearly I shouldn't care about the price of someone's clothing. And yet once I know, things are suddenly more complicated. And hence my weird feelings about money.
I think this is what really drives our division between celebrities and everyone else, between famous actors and unknowns, between people we'd hang out with and people we'd freak out upon meeting: money. Money and the acquisition of it, along with fame, changes everything.

I don't know what I'm prattling on about here. I only have thoughts, not answers. I'm not calling for the dissolution of a monetary society or anything like that. Our idea of earnings go much deeper than just paper and gold. It's an idea of having earnings that we cling to and one that can't just be easily erased. As long as we see work being worth something, and certain types of work worth more than others, then this is how things are. It's not the most terrible, awful thing in existence, but it's rather bad at times. In short, it's complicated.

So of course I have no answer to this predicament. Nor should I; it's not something easily solved and I'm not authority on the matter. I'm not a political science major or an economist or a philosopher or a Marxist; I'm just a bizarre fangirl making things awfully complicated and confusing. Yay!
But this whole post began with one initial thought surrounding the RD Jr quote - there are actors that are famous and there are those that are not. But I'd like to treat them the same, with equal respect that they deserve, that anyone deserves. I'd like to be the sort of person who'd have coffee with any sort of artist - Richard Branson, the beat poet next door, U2, that person who knits little scarfs for the lampposts around campus, the guy who plays the violin on the Washington Avenue bridge every fall; seriously, anyone. But then I decided that "having coffee" didn't fit the right connotations to me (mainly because I was still thinking of yuppies eating muffins, drinking coffee and watching art house films). So then I thought about my preferred beverage: tea. I've just finished reading Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett and I came across this quote in it: "Tea was an amazingly useful thing. It gave you an excuse to talk to anyone" (235). And I realized, that was it. Tea. Tea is an amazingly universal beverage. Not everyone may like it, but it serves some important function in most cultures. And these days, it seems rather simple and humble compared to coffee (especially compared to those complicated concoctions you can get from Starbucks).

I'd like to be able to invite artist to tea, regardless of career, status, intellect, etc. I'd like to be able to invite Academy-award winning actors to tea without having to worry about not being impressive enough or interesting enough. I'd like to actually believe that we as a society can treat celebrities as equal instead of putting them at a lofty height and isolating them at the same time. I'd like to think that thinking this way would start to ease some pretty big divides. Because it's just two people, having a chat over tea. What's more simple than that? 

Citations from:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Translated by Alison Anderson. Europa Editions 2008.
"Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" by Franz Kafka. Unknown Edition.
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins 2003.

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