Monday, May 18, 2015

film art and the culture of celebrity

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett after the Cannes premire of Carol
I've been thinking a lot about the culture of celebrity. I discuss it in one of my courses at Humber on visual culture, through the lens of philosophers and cultural critics like Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. Watching the red carpet footage from Cannes this week, I've been vividly aware of how much nicer it must be to do the press conference, photocall and carpet routine after your film has already been pronounced a masterpiece, as was the case with Sunday's screening of Todd Haynes' Carol. And how awful it must be to do all of the above when, as happened with Gus van Sant's Sea of Trees, there has already been a universally declared disappointment. When press screenings precede the official openings in the digital age, the verdict is out within seconds of the movie's final frames and before the creators have had a chance to put on their opening night gowns.  

As if it wasn't bizarre enough that one room filled with a couple of hundred people determines the general fate of a film, the predatory way that the culture of celebrity continues to force actors and directors to be present and accountable isolates the makers of art from the art itself, by separating out the identity of being an artist from the identity of being a celebrity. In other eras, an artist could sneak out the back door of his failed effort. Not so now. Whether booed or cheered, the way out of the building at Cannes is still down those red steps surrounded by paparazzi. Celebrity culture frames how we receive high profile art and therefore leaves no room for ambiguity and careful reflection on how the work participates in an artist's ongoing development. Only the strongest critics who attend and write about festivals carefully are able to manage it. 

I was lucky enough to learn very early on by living in California that celebrity is by and large a nightmare. As someone who spent my youth obsessing on my favourite celebrities, being in Los Angeles and working for famous people allowed a massive awakening to its realities. It was brought home to me especially also in the last twelve months by the death of an actor I had known for a brief period of time. Celebrity is ten percent a healthy source of fulfilment as an artist and ninety percent very hard work, with a constant vulnerability and exposure that most people would not comfortably survive. I wouldn't wish it on those dear to me for all the world, though I would wish them good art, and open and appreciative reception to their work.

Todd Haynes (director) and Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter) at left; and
Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen and (partially hidden)
Christine Vachon (all producers, at right) flank and give way to Mara
and Blanchett as the real stars of the red carpet after the Cannes 

premiere of Carol. This is exactly what celebrity culture demands.
The first four images I've included capture all this for me. The first two pictures are good examples of everything that feeds our celebrity obsession, through the way that they capture the "essence" (to use a Barthes term) of the intersection between the art (in this case a love story between women in Carol) and "real life" (seemingly intimate moments among the actors Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett). The images themselves are also compositionally stunning, with splashes of dress colour framed by the shadows of palm trees. Separated out from the rest of the red carpet footage (which is what photography does), they allow room for us to project an emotional narrative. I fully confess to having been drawn to them in just that way, as this is the movie I am most anticipating seeing this year. The creative team are people whose previous work I have much admired.


On the other hand, the third and fourth pictures suggest how formal, isolating, fragmenting and disorienting these rituals may be for those involved. The culture of celebrity treats actors like theatrical objects, while the other main creators of the work stand on the sidelines out of their light. The director and screenwriter (to the left) and the film's producers (on the right) have moments when they are on camera but not for long: our tunnel-vision is on the faces whose names are known and bankable through reproduction. Every half-second of an actor's personal appearance at a Cannes (or any high profile) premiere is digitally captured, marked by Getty Images, sold at high prices and deconstructed on blogs like this one, and in more high-profile reviews and feature articles, closely examined for everything from make-up and clothing to relational chemistry of the celebrities involved. This deconstruction becomes a side-product of the main work of art and in some cases more profitable than the work itself. The circular cunning of its nature is to distract from the actual declared source of interest: the ongoing career of the artist(s) and how it is going. 

This is the thing we lose track of: there is absolutely no relationship at all between a film made by a team of very talented people, and some of those same people standing in elegant outfits on a red carpet. To invoke Walter Benjamin, the real moments of collaborative authenticity and beauty occurred on set, with all or most of the creators present, and perhaps also in the editing room. These are highly protected private spaces - which is what they must be in order for that 'aura' to take place. Therefore these original moments are experienced by a very very few number of people. Somehow sensing we've missed something, consumers of celebrity culture rush to accumulate evidence that brings them closer to those lost moments. The fallacy is that we will never achieve it: the moments are gone; they were never ours to have. They belong to the artists.


In this more balanced image of some of the main creative team, 
the actors (celebrities) blend in. Shot in daytime without special 
lighting or a red carpet, everyone appears less glamorous,
but all of these people become of interest to us, as they should be.
We love celebrity culture, but like everything else in our highly consumerist lifestyles, we fail to see what it costs us. (And costs the artists too, but that's another matter.) The more that actors and artists are venerated for simply being famous, the less we will start to care about the work itself, and the less attention we will pay to it. We will be able to talk in an informed way about what an artist has done recently but not have seen the movies or the work itself. By making the artists the commodity rather than the art, we diminish the role that art plays, and exhibiting and distributing movies on Amazon Prime and Netflix will only assist that process. Celebrity culture asserts that art is no longer the main event. It's the red carpet and the photocall and the press conference which decide for us if we are interested.