If you want to wrap your head around the absurdity of celebrity in 2013, the New York Times Magazine's recent profile of Stalker Sarah is a good place to start. Sarah, 17, spends 40 hours a week hunting down celebrities so she can take pictures with them for little to no monetary profit on her end. From the profile:
The fans had come to meet the band, but for some, a photo with someone who had met them (multiple times) before was almost as exciting. When One Direction performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show a month earlier, Sarah was mobbed by dozens of the band’s fans; some tore at her clothes. At LAX, a girl approached her nervously. “Hi, Sarah?” she said. “Could I get a picture with you?” Then another.
On the one hand, our culture takes fame deathly serious: fame consumes consumers; it shapes the dreams of children (a.k.a. our future, according to at least one celebrity); it eats holes through the lives of those who experience it and are desperate to maintain it. On the other hand, fame's elasticity—the loose rules for what constitutes it, the ever-evolving requirements for achieving it, the democratization the Internet has visited on it—suggests that at the same time we don't take it seriously at all. Anything goes! Anyone can be a star with the right angle and marketing and also if there's no angle or marketing at all. Celebrity today can come from standing next famous people. #YOLO!
The whole thing is chaos. To watch fame play out can feel euphoric or like a bad trip, or both simultaneously. The unending saga of Amanda Bynes is reminiscent of Britney Spears in 2008: a dark, dark time for that mentally ill girl made darker by the fact that almost everyone sort of just laughed at her while she crumbled and surrendered to the public, in public. Bynes' crash is just as disturbing, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't giggle at her outlandish wig and conversational peculiarities ("You're ugly!" is her go-to comeback). What an amazing specimen of extreme human behavior. Does it matter that, unlike other beleaguered starlets we've ogled, she's writing her own narrative (literally – most of the action is happening on Twitter)? That this could all be Joaquin Phoenix-styled performance art, calculated to draw attention? Or is that just the comforting veneer of control for a child star who never really had a shot at owning her own life, anyway?
Through the corroded lives we ogle, we have enough evidence to suggest that aspiring to fame for the sake of fame is idiotic. That is why there is a perverse pleasure in watching the self-entitled little shits get their comeuppance in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring. The film portrays a group of teenagers from Calabasas, California, who rubbed elbows with the stars at Hollywood clubs, and were so obsessed with celebrity that they robbed the houses of stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson and Megan Fox/Brian Austin Green in 2008 and 2009. The story, which lingers on unlocked doors in the visually metaphoric glass homes of stars, and on those stars' failure to engage their home security systems, would be impossible to believe if it weren't true.
The movie plays like living parody. Its driving force, Rebecca (a thinly veiled version of Rachel Lee played by Katie Chang) is cartoonishly obsessed with stars to the point of toying with the idea of attending the Fashion Institute of Design because "it's where all the Hills girls went." When she is finally apprehended by the police, she compulsively asks the officer who's questioning her, "Did you speak to any of the victims?" He spoke with all of them. "Really? What did Lindsay say?"
That last sentence is quoted verbatim from Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article, "The Suspects Wore Louboutins," on which Coppola's movie is based. While that article reads like a true-crime short story—low on the mystery, heavy on the intrigue and read-between-the-lines armchair sociology—Coppola's film unfolds like a horror movie with bludgeoning repetition as the Ring's numerous robberies are recreated.
The editorializing is apparent, too, in Emma Watson's brilliant performance as Nicki (based on Alexis Neiers, whose E! reality show Pretty Wild is occasionally recreated in Bling Ring scenes but never referenced directly). Watson plays Nicki with mercurial affect, able to turn on earnestness at a moment's notice and, with an impenetrable straight face, say ridiculous things: "I am a firm believer in karma...I wanna lead a charity organization. I wanna lead a country one day for all I know!" Sales is also fictionalized for the big screen as a Vanity Fair writer named "Kate," who is far more openly skeptical of Nicki than Sales seemed to be of Neiers when she appeared on Pretty Wild. Sales poured on the counterfeit sympathy, at one point even hugging Neiers. Her piece ended up leading to one of the most hilarious meltdowns in the history of reality TV, a culmination of the entire affair's absurdity and the pettiness of other people's problems.
The Bling Ring attempts to solve our culture's fame problem by casting those who seek it as criminals. When the Nick Prugo character, Marc (Israel Broussard), tells the Sales character how his clique's misdeeds against the rich and famous scored them their own fame, it plays like a punch line but feels like a punch in the gut. Chaos.
A much gentler managing of fame, this time from the inside out, comes via another movie released this week, This Is the End. It is co-directed, co-written and co-starring Seth Rogen, who plays himself. Everyone in the movie does: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Mindy Kaling, Emma Watson (funnily enough), and an unsurprisingly movie-stealing Danny McBride, all play versions of themselves alongside high-profile cameos from Rihanna (who gets to slap Michael Cera) and Michael Cera (who gets to do blow and have his ass eaten).
Armageddon strikes and the movie turns into a big, bro-y sleepover that is occasionally grumpy and frequently hilarious. As if to reclaim the indignities of Ricky Gervais awards show monologues, we watch celebrities take no-risk shots at each other's and their own images. There are jokes about the shittiness of flops like The Green Hornet and Your Highness, as well as James Franco's ambiguous sexuality. Jonah Hill begins a prayer, "It's me, Jonah Hill. From Moneyball." James Franco talks about fucking Lindsay Lohan: "She was fucked up, she was high. She kept calling me Jake Gyllenhaal."
These celebrities speak about themselves in the very same language that we do when we talk about them, and so it’s not surprising when, discussing the possibility of eternal damnation, James Franco says earnestly, "We're good people. We bring joy to people's lives." There is nothing mercurial in his affect at all. He is as deep and sincere as he always wants you to think he is, even when he isn't in this movie.
(Spoiler: Most of his peers end up in heaven.)
While the jokes are good and McBride's improvisational prowess is always incredible to behold, the movie is fundamentally self-serving. The desired reaction seems to be, “Wow, they're multi-talented and they don't take themselves too seriously? These must be the good guys.” Channing Tatum's 11th hour cameo is a self-degradation of the reigning Sexiest Man Alive unlike any we've ever seen before. This guy is a hero. Relatively, at least.
While This Is The End wants to soften the perception of celebrity, The Bling Ring is mesmerizing hate-watching fare, plain and simple. Coppola's method is disciplinarian. Despite using the actual Bling Ring's words verbatim, she opted to change the convicts' names in her movie "so that those young people don't become more well known" (as if Google won't lead you to them). She and Sales profit from these kids and their disdain for them. In multiple profiles and the introduction to Sales' Bling Ring book, Coppola has distanced herself from relating to the fame-centric, Hollywood world of her subjects, despite her own charmed, Hollywood upbringing. Maybe she can't relate because she never had to want fame – it was always there waiting for her.