Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Prestige

Given the nature of this post and my appreciation of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I feel the need to discuss his recent passing. I deeply admire Hoffman's work and, upon hearing about his death on Sunday, I was shocked and saddened. The shock has not worn off yet, nor has the sadness and I debated whether or not I should write something other than this post, perhaps a discussion of Hoffman's amazing career or the difficulties that come in hearing about death of someone you admire yet have never met. Instead, I've decided to push this all aside at least for now, as I feel I have nothing to say of any real substance, and will share NPR's reflection on his career and this article from Esquire, which are better written and more poignant pieces than anything I could write about Hoffman write now.

I will, however, turn to celebrity culture and back to what this post was originally going to be on, though with an added layer I was not expecting to write. While in London, my friend Anna mentioned a talk Jack Gleeson (who plays Joffrey on Game of Thrones) gave on celebrity culture to Oxford Union. Very curious about the video, I happily watched it upon my return - and I was not disappointed. It's around thirty minutes long and well worth a watch. 


I love how Mr. Gleeson discusses this issue with frankness and insight. It marvels me to think he's being boring while I'm watching the video saying, "Yes! This! Exactly! I was exactly thinking that very thing!" The mentions of Baudrillard, Max Weber, explaining three different theories on celebrity culture - it all makes the academic in me fist pump the air. And having just seen my favorite actor/celebrity perform in person, there seems a no more relevant time than now to consider these issues.

Gleeson's first remark on how "people call me Jack on the street" instantly walloped me due to an occurrence in London. When I went to the stage door of Coriolanus on the second attempt and a man wearing a suit and an ear piece informed the fans that "Tom isn't doing signings anymore," a fan came up to me after this announcement, having been unable to hear the man. I parroted back the response then felt suddenly odd. Had I just called Tom Hiddleston simply "Tom?" Was that acceptable? What was I supposed to call an actor I'd never met? Was using a first name too familiar?

That aside, there is something about hearing a celebrity reflect on celebrity culture not just from personal experience but from an academic standpoint that is widely illuminating and admirable. The producing versus consuming  - that we are consuming content and perhaps the very people who make the content - is an important and powerful one. In a twisted sort of way, we consume people, and based on the media's fascination with stories such as Lindsey Lohan's and Justin Bieber's, there is a greater consumption and fondness of people who fall apart in the public and under the eye of the media.

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Something I think Gleeson does marvelously in this talk is balancing the privileged of being so acclaimed and recognizing that there is talent involved while also expressing humility at his abilities and still showing how being famous is highly problematic. His emphasis on the dangers of failing to look back on those that look at you, the exclusion from everyday life, and the problems with privacy being treated as ordinary and abstracted at once are wonderfully expressed and explained. Something that occurred to me while watching this was whether it was wrong to extol his thoughts because he was a celebrity and whether that was just adding to the vicious cycle. But that's not the point at all. Perhaps he has a larger audience because he is a celebrity, but his ideas are damn good - and that's why they're worth listening to.

Watching this shortly after the recent Justin Bieber shenanigans were spread across the four winds, and the entire talk seemed to smack of Bieber, consideration as to why we continue to give him such attention when he's really not that great of a person and probably needs some reflection on his personal life, not the scope of paparazzi cameras watching him around every corner. While I think that Bieber is a bit of an asshat, I also wondered if some of his problems come less from his privilege and affluence allowing him to become spoiled and more from being extolled as this deified, god-like thing whom people adore even when he does shitty things. I live in a society in which being a "special snowflake" is both mocked and vied for, where being unknown is feared by those who want to be famous or be recognized and yet longed for by those who distrust organizations who can monitor their internet activity. I feel great comfort in songs like Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes in which being unique may not being the most important thing, but the world is still strange and baffling and the contradictions make it hard to know what to think.

All of this coming on top of my trip to London makes it incredibly relevant and personal to me. I learned uncomfortably that I'm not the sort who should go to stage doors after shows - I find that while I deeply want to share my thanks with the actors, I have no idea how to do so without wanting to talk about the show for the next two hours. After seeing such a dark show and then demanding that a very exhausted and very human actor sign something and perhaps take a photo just seemed wrong. But I also still feel a lot of stigma about being a fan who studies fans and something about standing out there not exactly wanting autographs or photos but a discussion just felt weird. And after coming across this article on Tumblr, I feel even weirder and twisted about it. The author describes how upon seeing Coriolanus, he saw a very negative side of fandom in the group of people that arrived anticipating Tom Hiddleston coming out. I am now sensing why we were told that Hiddleston no longer does signings. Someone who had reblogged this post on Tumblr described how one of their friends, who is a fan and had been stage dooring, came back with terrible stories of what the fans had been doing. This saddens me deeply to hear that apparently the fans had been a problem, and maybe on some small level I'm upset that the one opportunity that I might have had at stage dooring and maybe finding I wouldn't have to feel weird about it seems to have been made impossible by a select group.

But I have to admit that even some of the fannish things I did before seem wrong to me. I was reblogging some photos sets of Hiddleston on Tumblr and I felt immensely weird doing so. After seeing the actor perform in person it felt sort of inappropriate somehow. I felt no issue seeing the posts and didn't mind if other people posted or reblogged them, but I felt personally weird doing it. Maybe this is a stranger form of fannishness, in which adoration and deification has become dangerously pronounced, but it doesn't feel like it. If anything, I feel more aware of how celebrities are deified.

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Gleeson mentions the dangerousness of doing this and I upon watching the video wondered how often I have done this. A while back, I wrote a post about my admiration of Tom Hiddleston. I received a comment and, though this was a minor point in it, the commenter said they didn't use Hiddleston as a source of strength and encouragement as their faith did that. I had a utterly bizarre moment of feeling that I had conflated fandom and religion and that perhaps, in some ways, I felt the way about Hiddleston that some people do about Jesus or other gods and prophets they follow. To say this was tremendously disconcerting is an understatement and upon rereading the comment, I still don't know what this stuck out to me so much - the rest of the comment was sweet and more important than that section. But I'd managed to send myself into a swirl of worry that I'd managed to do the very thing I so deeply didn't want to do - forget that the people I admire are in fact people relatively the same as me.

The prestige of being a celebrity perhaps was once a blessing but is becoming more and more of a curse. With social media and the speed of information, it's easier to hear their opinions and see them as ordinary and also easier to esteem them to a separate level and dissociate them from the rest of the world. With Philip Seymour Hoffman's sudden death, I heard a news report that evening discussing heroin use and I cringed to think that it was the first thing people discussed. Yes, he had drug addiction issues - but it felt as if somehow this was seen as sacrilegious, as if a renown actor and esteemed person couldn't have real problems.

There was a section of the Esquire article I rather liked, this paragraph to pull it out:
We live in the golden age of character actors — in an age when actors who have done their time in character roles are frequently asked to carry dark movies and complicated television dramas. The line between character actors and movie stars is being erased — in art, anyway, if not in life. In life, it’s different, because the “movie star” remains not just the product of looks and charm, but also a kind of social construct, with very distinct social obligations. Character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini have found themselves getting more and more leading roles because they are permitted to behave onscreen in ways that George Clooney and Matt Damon never could. But the same permission extends offscreen, and that’s where we see the cost; indeed, we pay to look at men who look like us only when they convince us that that they live in psychic spaces that we could never endure…unless, of course, we happen to be enduring them.
I often wonder about what sort of toll acting takes on the people who do it. I pondered this with Tyler our last night in London was we wandered around near the British Museum. How, at the end of the day, do you escape the dark mind of the character you inhabit onscreen? Perhaps because I'm a writer and I'm never really off-work that this concerns me so much. I can't just push my ideas away at the end of the day and often the characters I create inhabit my mind as much as I do. Often I face a certain reluctance to write horror or darker works than I've created before because when I write such things, I lose sleep and feel unsettled by the ideas that manifest themselves. It baffles me how someone can physically embody characters that either I'm afraid to write or have to push out of my mind at times because their view makes me so uncomfortable. 

It's conversations like these that take me back to my deep regard for Heath Ledger and how infinitely impressed I am at his performance in The Dark Knight. However, I also feel a sort of uneasiness at admiring this role so much as it seems to be the one that was his undoing. In thoughts on method acting, it concerns me how deep actors will get in their rolls, such as living as their characters for certain periods of times and going to bodily extremes to look like them. As discussed before, I happen to not understand the physical aspects of acting as writing just doesn't have that edge. But failing to understand these physical aspects has rough repercussions - we criticize actors because they "don't look their best" or they changed their appearance for a role. We encourage them to really get into their characters but fail to empathize with them when it is a struggle. We expect them to be perfect yet watching their failings with rapture. And when actors are faced with serious, controversial struggles, we often turn to either pitying or scandalizing because we have put them as this contradictory level of ordinary yet extraordinary.

I am truly saddened by Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death as I was by Heath Ledger's. And yet, how do I mourn for someone I never even knew? What right do I have to feel sad by their absence when there are people out there who truly miss them?

There is a prestige for actors because of what they can do - they're a bit like shape-shifters; they can be people they aren't and we could never be. But the magic they create is not beyond us all and does not make them anything other than human. There is a strong difference between admiring and deifying and, while I take certain precaution because I don't always recognize the difference, I think most people can know the difference and I wish that there was more of an urgency to identify this. Instead, the media continues to consume the people we adore and I sit, anxiously worrying that one day I will find out that something terrible has happened to another of my favorite actors, either due to the dark side of fandom or because of the dark side of art. I love what's being created but worry about what it's being created in.

There's no neat way to end this post and thus I must leave it here with an unclosed end. But this is an unclosed problem and one I know I will continue to write about as time goes on. 

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