I live in New York City now, which means that I have access to all kinds of things that those poor souls in the boonies just have no chance to see. I can go to art gallery openings and pay $20 for a ticket to a first run film and stare at James Franco as he crosses the street. And I can go watch a movie star sit in a cinema for three days, watching himself.
Or not. Because when I headed to downtown Manhatten to the Angelika Film Center to watch Shia LaBeouf watch all his movies (and livestream himself doing it), I was faced with a line that stretched out the door, down the block, and almost around the corner. As I stood there, watching young women in knee-high boots and vintage scarves, young men in lenseless glasses recording the ordeal on their iPhones, I paused. It wasn’t just the length of the line that daunted me – it was the fact that in joining it, I was giving credence to what LaBeouf was doing. And I didn’t know how I felt about that.
It all felt faintly ridiculous to me. I’ve been open about my ironic love-hatred for LaBeouf; I felt I’d lose face if I didn’t join that line. But even that couldn’t quite prompt me to follow through on my design. I walked down the street – the Angelika is in my old neighborhood, so I knew where to go to have a think – and sat down at a café, and starting writing this. I tried to determine where my excitement turned to disgust, and why that line prompted it.
LaBeouf long ago became a divisive figure. His public antics, that he puts forward as art projects, have grown increasingly weird and self-indulgent. Every time he jams a paper bag on his head, or stands immovable in a room, willingly subject to abuse, he garners media attention and debates about whether or not what he’s doing is “art” or simple attention-seeking…or, potentially, the slightly deranged ego of a star who hasn’t done anything of note since he stopped fighting gigantic robots. LaBeouf has claimed that he’s a Method actor, apparently with little knowledge of what Method is, and used it as an excuse for self-indulgence and public violence (Have we forgotten that he threatened to kill his girlfriend?). His behavior in anyone who wasn’t a celebrity would be madness – we’d look on him as we do on the man wandering aimlessly down the street shouting about the End of Days. So where do we draw the line? Where does ego and potential mental illness become art?
But it wasn’t even the nebulous question of art that threw me off on Wednesday. The fact is, I was tired of bullshit. I was tired of the ironic indulgence of celebrity ego. I was tired of participating in a culture that celebrates excess and collapse, that willingly participates in a person’s self-centered destruction and gives credence to it. LaBeouf was making watching into a reflexive spectator sport; as a friend of mine put it “a recursive loop of self-absorption.” Consciously or not, he was selling us his ego as entertainment. We might not have paid the Angelika for the privilege, but we were paying LaBeouf in what he craves most: attention. Validation. There is nothing post-modern or deep about watching a celebrity watch themselves. There is nothing deep even in the acknowledgement of shallowness. It’s just…stupid.
That was it. It’s stupid. It’s posteuring, it’s voyeurism, it’s the offshoot of a culture obsessed with photographing food and sharing it, with airing every little experience online for public consumption. I do it it too – don’t think that I’m not as much of a hypocrite as 90% of my generation. We sell ourselves, just like LaBeouf. We watch ourselves, just like him. We just can’t call it art.
So maybe that was LaBeouf’s point, after all. Maybe that’s the idea he was trying to hammer home: that we’re all like him. In watching his livestream or in standing in that line, waiting to watch him and record ourselves doing it – taking a selfie in a movie theater while we watch a celebrity watch himself – or live-tweeting the experience and then writing an article about it, we’re all part of the same reflexively voyeuristic system. Perhaps we’ve even killed art in doing it. But I don’t want to be a part of that, not anymore. That doesn’t mean I’ll delete my Facebook profile, or my Twitter page, or stop posting on Tumblr. It just means that maybe I’ll stop heroizing my ironic hatred of an actor who is more like me than not. You’ve lost my attention, Mr. LaBeouf. I wonder if that’s what you wanted all along.