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High Fidelity*

I find it an interesting but somewhat disquieting phenomenon that High Fidelity, like two highly successful recent movies--The Sixth Sense and American Beauty--should be primarily a showcase for performers, and this phenomenon  has prompted the following prefatory reflections. (To go directly to the review of High Fidelity, click here.)  The traces of this phenomenon--of a basic split between vehicle and talent--can be detected  everywhere in commercial film production in the United States today, but they are far more painfully evident in "serious" films like The Sixth Sense or American Beauty than in blatantly macho displays of ego on celluloid. Actually I am by no means sure that the average Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme movie would look any worse minus its star, but I have little doubt the two films I just mentioned would collapse like a house of cards minus their leads. The question of the relation between performers and the movies in which they act is in no way an obvious one, and broad generalizations are of little help in addressing it. But looking over the history of movies in this country, it is possible to make a few observations. In the silent period and up to nearly the end of the 1940's, the personae of many great stars were as much a fictional creation as any of the characters they portrayed. In his biography Garbo, John Bainbridge relates that even before meeting Greta Gustafsson,  Mauritz Stiller already had "a name and a plan" for the still to be discovered actress he intended to promote to stardom. No small part of the charm of viewing an MGMediocrity like Mata Hari or As You Desire Me lies in watching the seductive interaction of two beings who seem to be perpetually exchanging roles. Is it  the "real" Garbo playing a once "real" Mata Hari or an "imaginary" Mata Hari imitating an equally "imaginary" Hollywood icon?  However, the alchemical operations which transformed an ordinary mortal into a Garbo, a Norma Shearer, or a Joan Crawford took place behind the walls of studios, far from the prying eyes of the public, the result of skilled collaboration between studio bosses, directors, cinematographers, makeup artists,  and costume designers, not to mention the elaborate machinery of studio publicity departments. Where Eighteenth century philosophes had sought to demystify religion by tracing the origin of the gods back to superstitious fear and the posthumous deification of human heroes, the studios--certainly without the help of the Enlightenment--sought to reverse the process. Mystification typified the cinematic cult of personality in which everything served to make screen luminaries into deities who looked down upon their fans from a height to which the latter could never hope to attain.

This situation began to change radically in the 1950's, most obviously as a result of the gradual decline of the traditional studio system. But it is also possible to discern two other, less obvious if not more potent forces at work. The first of these is the massive shift away from stylization in the direction of "realism" at all levels--subject matter, visual style, but certainly acting--in commercial motion picture production after the end of World II. Not that stars themselves became more "ordinary" and less charismatic than in the old days--Marlon Brando, a crucial agent in the transition from stylization to "realism,"  who made a point of contemptuously rejecting all the industry's usual tricks for wooing the public's favor, never could have been confused with the guy next door, no matter how much he seemed to have carried the traits of Stanley Kowalski into his  life offstage. But performers first of all needed to be credible in a role, even if changes in movie financing ultimately enabled the actors and actresses most in demand to pick and choose their projects in a way undreamed of in the days of Louis B. Mayer, Jack L.Warner, or Darryl F. Zanuck. Few movies any longer can serve simply as vehicles for expensive talent as they often did in the studio period,  and although some action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme still wield a strongly iconic appeal for their devoted followers, only someone with a monstrously bloated  ego like Kevin Costner would imagine making a career out of playing himself on screen. The era of John Wayne--not to mention that of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.--is long past, and today actors have to walk a thin line between bending to a role and keeping their image visible. Bruce Willis, who certainly does possess iconic power, does not play Malcom Crowe in The Sixth Sense as John T. McClane any more than Tom Cruise plays Frank T.J. Mackie in Magnolia as Maverick. But this shift, which already had the effect of somewhat bringing stars down from their pedestals, and which was not without its positive side, converged with another, more dubious and thoroughgoing change, one in the way stars were presented to the public by the media. 

Charisma in the old days of Hollywood was a function of distance, which became more intense the farther removed audiences were from its source. Practically speaking, things are not so different today--superstars have their own personal security guards who do just as effective a job of keeping unwanted interlopers away as studio lackeys did in the past. Nevertheless, owing to the national obsession with peeping through keyholes, pandered to by a host of publications from People down to The National Inquirer and its ilk, as well as assorted "investigative" television programs--all dedicated to destroying the last vestiges of privacy in the country--any celebrity is subjected to more public scrutiny of his or her private life than ever before. But it is figures from the entertainment industry who are the prey of preference for the media predators. Even in the "golden age" of American movies,  the attraction of fans to their idols had a highly ambivalent quality, as readers of Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust are well aware. On the one hand, the infatuation of fans could extend to a demand to take physical possession of stars; on the other, the fundamentally aggressive component of this demand revealed itself and became openly  murderous when the fans felt rejected, or when they sensed a star was on his or her way down from Olympus. Today, when the media have brought the stars down to earth, even if they haven't succeeded in bodily transporting the public into their front rooms, the destructive side of the cult of personality has emerged far more starkly than its mystifying one. Sometimes it is difficult to resist the impression that nothing would delight the segment of the population fascinated with prying into the lives of the rich and famous more than if one of its favorite leading men was caught exhibiting himself on the nearest street corner in broad daylight. And wouldn't it be a stroke of luck if someone armed with a camcorder happened along and recorded the moment for posterity?

Instead of simply demystifying stars, this double process has a seemingly contradictory effect. While the ever growing power of the media has the power to cast a speciously charismatic aura about whomever it chooses, regardless whether that happens to be a great actor, a notorious criminal, or a piece of human flotsam and jetsam it capriciously decides to elevate to the momentary status of celebrity, at the same time what fuels the light to attract moths in that same aura is not the idealized image of a star but primarily a stream of vicious gossip. All the rumors about a performer's life off screen down to the most intimate details of his or her sexual behavior, or even penile endowments in the case of males, all the rumors that studio flacks once hastened to keep as invisible as possible now quickly find their way into the tabloids or onto the Internet.  To be sure, the great organs of public opinion like television networks do not themselves usually deign to purvey these rumors, but once rumors gain currency they become newsworthy--and who would want to stand in the way of the public's right to know? How apt that one of the leading figures in the battle to carry snooping to new and greater heights should bear the name Drudge! Dryden and Swift would have been elated to find a target for their satire bearing such a cognomen. But how can this not affect the way audiences see stars?  The stars are no longer ornamental decorations in the facade of a great studio, but isolated "personalities" whose life off  screen becomes not only fused with but confused with that on--and  just as Brando is the outstanding representative of the rise of realistic acting in the modern American cinema, the paradigmatic figure here is Marilyn Monroe, who combined a disastrously unhappy and well-publicized private life with a masochistic capacity for exhibitionism. 

But the changes wrought by marketing  which aim at bringing entertainment "personalities" ever closer to the public only serve to bring to the surface a far deeper problem, and one with a far longer and more complex history. It is highly unlikely, I think, that many people today believe in a Platonic realm of ideas existing apart from experience, yet when these same people start to look at movies they reason like the most intransigent idealist as if movies were only--or should be only--the imaginary double of "the real world."  But to take "reality" as  a standard of aesthetic judgment--even if this "real world" is conceived of in the most narrowly positivistic and anti-"metaphysical" fashion of "the facts, and nothing but the facts"--is no less ontological than appealing to Plato's world of pure mental forms. The belief that art and "reality" can be neatly separated and compared with one another is a mirage which has its origins in both theo-ontology and ideology. Nonetheless, this mirage continues to exercise its sway over both audiences and reviewers as the recent success of High Fidelity with both groups attests. In a quote  from a review in the Chicago-Sun Times used as advertising for the picture, Roger Ebert states that "Watching 'High Fidelity,' I had the feeling I could walk out of the theater and meet the same people on the street--and want to, which is an even higher compliment." With all due respects to Ebert, I find this a fairly dubious compliment, as if the highest a movie could aim for would be a literalistic replication of life outside the theater. There would be a good deal to say about both the stultifying philosophical and aesthetic implications of Ebert's statement, but the worst thing that can be probably said about it is that it makes all too clear the main attraction of High Fidelity, which I now turn to.

Click here to go to Dave's review of High Fidelity

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net