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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

PERSONAL NOTE: YouTube Killed the Movie Star

Marilyn Monroe: The last movie star and the only performer
who could inspire a 52-foot replica of herself in Time Square.

I'm calm, okay? But... has the world gone mad?!?! Too often of late, I have gone to the movies, more out of habit than out of actual inclination, only to be disappointed. Dismally. Do I care about what I'm watching? No. Am I interested in what's happening? No. Do I relate to the actors on the screen? No, no, no. There is much flash, but little substance. Much "pretty," but no gritty. Recycled stories and themes and modus operandi have left me feeling like Malcolm MaDowell in A Clockwork Orange, with wires holding my eyes open while a series of the usual images plays on a loop: fire, tits, and spaceships. Riveting. It seems ironic that in the days since we liberated ourselves from the manufacturing mania of the Studio System, our films, stories, and celebrities seem to be more contrived, convoluted, and schmaltzy than ever. How did this happen, and why God why do we keep continuing the madness instead of nipping it in the bud? Pardon me while I ruminate:

The movies are based upon one thing: communication. As an early art form, the excitement of cinema was its availability. Unlike the Mona Lisa, a piece of legendary art that sits forlornly at the Louvre in Paris-- where sadly the majority of the world will never go-- the movies are not, nor have they ever been, elusive. Every class, every color, every creed, every language in every region of the world had access to a moving piece of the human discussion. For a nickel (Man, those were the days), even the most impoverished American could afford a seat in a world that offered limitless possibilities and continuous entertainment. As a nation, as a species, we were all invited to bask in our dreams, which the movies taught us that we all shared. Cinema thus became the great unifier--a small innovation of science that slowly grew into a medium through which art could recreate man in the flickering image of himself.

Man's first Trip to the Moon in 1902.

We chose early on those few reappearing faces that we would trust with such a responsibility-- those who did it better than anyone else and spoke to us and for us with an ease we could depend on and luxuriate in. And they were real people, just like us-- most of whom were inexperienced nobodies simply looking for a job and willing to make buffoons of themselves for the latest quack invention. So, out of nameless faces were born Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, William S. Hart, and Rin Tin Tin. For a decade or so, we tinkered with the camera until we developed ways to tell compelling and cohesive stories. D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning, and King Vidor were but a few of the pioneers guiding us to an authentic and emotional world. But always, there was an underlying truth. As the studios developed and moguls started building corporations out of the little art-form-that-could, things changed. The system was manipulated but still remained grand. With the talkie revolution, we latched onto newer stars, manufactured though they may be-- less real than those with whom we began. Hollywood's world became a little more glamorous. But, while we got to lavish in the splendor of the movie musical or the beauty of Ann Sheridan (right), still there was a gravity beneath the facade. While the publicity boys cranked out fake stories about the histories and present lives of a new breed of star, we were able to forgive the inaccurate polish of the film magazine covers, because we knew, once again, that the stars were just like us. Though, perhaps a little bit bigger and a little bit better. The performances we saw on the screen too echoed our own sentiments, apprehensions, and angers. Watching Clark Gable or James Cagney elbow their way through their film scripts as tough guys, bruisers, and sometimes overgrown children, permitted a mass of trampled on and confused people to exhale in a universal catharsis.

As WWII waged on, films, particularly those coming from MGM, started to become a little too predictable-- a little too sweet, a little too perfect. While, during the war years, these films served their purpose, a post-war return to normalcy required film personalities who better resembled the normal, average American. The pristine image of the nuclear family and the whistling down the apple blossomed streets of Andy Hardy weren't going to cut it anymore. Once again, we cried out for realism. Our prayers were answered by the Method actor: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Kim Hunter, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, (both left) etc, etc, etc. The rise of the "true" actor over the "movie star" came right at the collapse of the studio system and acted as a bridge to carry us over into a new generation of cinema; a new generation of human interpretation. Suddenly, a great divide between old-Hollywood and new-Hollywood took shape. The raw ferocity of the modern actor, devoted to telling the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, had to contend with the much adored yet fading alumni of the nostalgic studio era. Those who were most beloved could make it over the hurdle, either because they were naturally ahead of their time in terms of characterization-- like Katharine Hepburn or Gary Cooper-- or because they were willing to unlearn their old tricks for the new game of authenticity, like Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe is the last great movie star. The biggest movie star. She represents both the heights of studio produced star power and the transition to the actor star. She stands too as the greatest sacrifice of such an alteration, falling into the strange and indescribable black abyss between the "movie personality" and the "true artist." Though there were large names and memorable faces to follow hers, Marilyn alone stands as our great Christ symbol: she paid the price of stardom and sacrificed herself for our love and respect. What we responded to in Marilyn was not just her beauty but her genuineness. When people describe her as being likable for her vulnerability or her innocence, what they are truly referring to is her humanity. We loved her because she was larger than life and real-- a goddess you could reach out and touch. Marilyn's sadness was somehow always palpable, always present (as seen right). Whereas I am always in awe of the way Rita Hayworth could draw the shade and hide her inner sorrow from her screen performances, Marilyn could not do the same. Initially, she made a concerted effort to mask her complex nature behind her star-making doe-eyed stares, the sensuous movements of her mouth, or her infamous walk, but despite this, little Norma Jean was always there. Later, she used her personal torments and fears, the things that she had originally fought to disguise, to deepen her acting and her performances. She became the star who could act, and our love of her only increased when the little girl she had kept masked behind her caricatured performances was let loose into more complicated and interesting roles. The full-fledged, unadulterated, massively contrived, and absolutely magnificent movie star, thus, died when she did.

And where are we now? We never truly re-embraced the movie star. The Method actor film identity pretty well carried itself through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The personified bridges of John Garfield and Marilyn led to Brando and Clift, to De Niro and Streep (in Sophie's Choice, left). Bold films, soul-searching work, and socially provocative filmmaking enjoyed a hey-day. There were always the little token candy films, but they were overshadowed by Baby Doll, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, etc. In a society undergoing such turmoil as HUAC, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Kent State shootings, there were plenty of questions to ask, plenty of statements to make, and plenty of Hell to raise. Our movies were reflections of our own rebellion, our own quest for truth, deliverance, and maybe even peace-- learning to love, or learning to fight. Then, under the overly optimistic period of the 80s and the 90s, we were at peace enough in ourselves to let go of this angst. Again, we shunned truth and started asking for, at long last, a respite: entertainment. Thus the birth of the action star-- Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford-- the comedy star-- Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts-- and the provocative star-- William Hurt, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, etc. There was a bonus, because not only were these names and faces huge, inspiring us and taking us on journeys of imagination and heart, but the majority of them could act. Win-Win, as they say.

Now, as these names and faces age and our stars become relics or shocking jokes-- ah, Mel, why'd ya do it?-- we are left in a kind of artistic limbo. Predicting the next societal trend on the tried and true taste cycle of authenticity-glamour-authenticity-glamour, it appears that we are due for another bout of authenticity. Our solution? Reality Television. Our fault as a creative society is that we have failed to find a new way to push the envelope. How much better can acting get than what it has become? Can you beat Marlon? No, but you can find him in Daniel Day-Lewis. Aesthetically we are at a stalemate as well. How many new ways can you find to blow something up? Not many. The car chase was doomed after Steve McQueen rocked our world in Bullitt. Our solution to our thumb-twiddling in conjunction with the corporate "more is more" mentality is to just make... more: more of the same things that make money and more of everything in general. More graphics, more special effects, more sex, bigger guns, thinner women, bigger boobs, etc. (I mean, don't even get me started on that topic. The mere fact that a woman's body has become little more than an apology, tits on sticks if you will, is enough to make me rant on in a blog marathon). More, more, more. Forgive me Avatar fans, but though the movie had its merits, it was in the end just a giant visual experiment. Like too many films today, art was the excuse and not the agenda. It was a mind-blowing aesthetic achievement with a green story tagged on. But what else could Cameron do? He literally had to create a new world because this one is tired. How else could he expand on old methods? We're stuck my friends. Stuck.

Avatar: box-office bonanza starring... technology.

Thus, we have no one to look up to. So many faces, so many names, and none of them stick. No one matters. There are too many venues! This isn't the silent era: one theater in town and one or two releases a week, presenting a minimal chance at seeing a familiar face on the screen. This is YouTube, and NetFlix, and reality TV, and every schmo with a camera making a movie and posting it online. "Movies" are everywhere and made by everyone. Some angst ridden teen can post a ranting monologue about their day and how much homework "sucks" and get 5 million hits. We live in a world where someone named Snookie, Snookie for Chrissakes, gets more press than rising stars like Olivia Wilde or Andrew Garfield. In effect, modern narcissism has killed the movie star. We don't want to worship anyone, because we want to be worshipped. And we can be. Got a camera on your Mac? Record yourself, upload, done. You can sit back and watch yourself all day. Lucky you. Lucky universe. And don't even get me started on Facebook. Geez. I mean, I'm as guilty as anyone, uploading pictures, updating my status, but does anyone really care where I am at this second? Am I that important? Maybe I should Twitter that I'm eating a muffin right now. That's sure to impact a lot of lives. How important can one person be? And if I see one more teenage girl holding her camera at arms length and taking a picture of herself in sexy face, I'm going to scream. Or punch her. (Again, win-win). Don't worry sweetie, you're profile pic is super hot. Now, can you put your vanity away long enough to read a book? We are sick. As a society, as an industry, we're sick. If The Social Network-- the only socially significant movie made this year-- doesn't win the Academy Award for Best Picture then, well, I don't know what. I will probably tear my eyes out like Oedipus and throw myself down the Santa Monica steps.

Of course, this modern self-absorption all stems from insecurity. In comparing ourselves with the stars we (used to) adore, we fall short. We're too short, in fact; too fat, too ordinary. We feel compelled to become the images we see; to make the two-dimensional image in the mirror reflect the two-dimensional images on the magazine rack. Newsflash: that makes you two-dimensional too. Pretty, but pretty lifeless. When did it became a crime to be a human being? Aging is criminal. Flaws are criminal. We want to be stars! And guess what, now we are. We've turned the cameras around on ourselves to capture the purest brand of realism, feeding our insatiable need for glamour by becoming our own glamour-pusses. But everyone can't be a star, for the very idea makes such a thing obsolete, which leaves us with one conclusion: there are none. Not even the ones on TV or in the movies. There is no idolatry. There are occassional adolescent crushes, (Twilight, right) but there is no life in the movies, only death-- the decay of a once proud frontier. We continue perpetuating the issue instead of diagnosing the disease and curing it. I don't even go to the movies anymore because I want to. I go out of habit. Me. The lover of all things celluloid. Things are bad, people. Bad. Movies aren't magic anymore; they're manic, because studios are too desperate to sell, and we're so desperate we'll buy anything.

I used to think that movies were things of beauty. Now they're just things. This isn't about wanting to return to the perfect illusion/delusion of the studio days, but moreso to reconnect with the integrity of the human race. Nothing is being said anymore, because we have nothing to rebel against, rally for, fight for. Perhaps we're too safe. Our economic "depression" is nothing in comparison to the depression of the '30s. The dark, tormented characters that once reflected our own paranoid and conflicted natures are not present in today's cinema. Our ongoing "war" overseas is not one that unifies the community nor is it one that anyone seems to comprehend. There is no finite goal-- stop Hitler and his madness!-- and a call to arms is likewise vacant in movie theaters. In essence, it seems that nothing is really going on, and what is going on no one understands. So the questions is, is there too much chaos to sift through and we've given up, or are we actually sitting pretty and have no need to communicate the same angst as our forefathers and mothers? The suffragist movement, segregation, and genocide are at least hypothetically problems of the past. We're more concerned with waistlines, cup sizes, and the accumulation of stuff. If cinema is a reflection of its current society, it is no wonder that today projects a mish mash of blah blah blah. We're brain dead. We're in serious need of a wake-up call. It's literally raining dead birds on us, but meh... whatevs. The result of this is our need to invent cataclysmic conflicts via ad nauseum zombie movies, alien invasion movies, or the invasive 3D movies of late (barf aka please make this gimmick stop). We are desperate to be shaken up before our intellects forever pay the forfeit. Why not take this confusing and deceptively unproblematic time to push ourselves artistically? Why read US Magazine when you can read poetry? Why write smut when you can write prose? Why rehash the usual visual stimuli when you can provide an accurate description of our current world? Have we truly run out of things to say?

All I can say is, I'm sad. And I must admit that I am scared too. This Hollywood is not the same one I signed up for nearly six years ago when I made the voyage from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. Something has changed. I don't think we should have to sacrifice beauty, nor controversy, nor conversation to make a buck, particularly when the, I'm sorry, but "crap" I see being made doesn't compel me in the slightest to throw down $12 for a movie ticket. And, oh boy, trying to be an actress in this industry right now is like trying to swim in the Sahara. We're worth more than this. So, what are we afraid of? If Hollywood knew what was good for it, it would take itself apart brick by brick and start over. Return to the simplicity of the human heart, the human soul, and human nature in general. I feel like the Hollywood Wendell Berry, and it says alot when someone like me would rather churn butter than go to the damn theater. We're trying too hard. You don't have to search for intrigue; you don't have to use a lot of flash to gain attention. Today's directors are making a mistake. They aren't so much filmmakers as they are master manipulators, working out their own fantasies and obsessions on the screen, thus committing the ultimate betrayal: instead of holding a mirror up to society, they hold one up to their own egos. Insightful directors with distinct visions and voice-- the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Boyle-- are too few and far between. Self-absorption has killed unity. Has killed community. Not only are we cut off from our own humanity-- apologizing for ourselves with plastic surgery-- but we're cut off from each other-- texting and not speaking. How do we expect the movies to talk to us if we can't even talk to each other?

In Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino shows his love of film by paying tribute to and 
expanding upon multiple genres, such as Japanese Samurai films, 
Westerns, and even Anime.  

I don't know how the future generation will evolve and grow, how the industry will change in the coming years, but I pray for a renaissance. I hope to one day go to the theater and find myself so moved by what I see that I start applauding as the credits roll. Maybe I can clap myself back to life like Tinker Bell. Maybe we all can. While celebrity is a killer, it also serves a purpose. Our film and our stars didn't just give us something to look up to or aspire to, but they taught us to relate-- to look outside ourselves and find the beauty in others. I was not alive when Marilyn was. But I still miss her. And I'm angry that she's gone because, in some ways, I feel that the things that killed her are the very things currently controlling us. Excess. Politics. Desperation. Corruption. Abuse. Bull sh*t. Instead of drowning in pity for our departed martyrs, we should recognize the things that ended them. We should find a way to make an old thing new. We will never run out of stories, so let's stop telling the same ones over and over again. Let's stop selling ourselves short. Or selling ourselves period. Is this a completely outlandish concept? Am I alone? Am I the only person at the parade who notices that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes? And who the Hell do I text "STOP" to to get out of here?

A rock and a hard place: Marilyn is bookended by history's King of the Studio
 era, Clark Gable, and the Prince of the new Method, Monty Clift, in The Misfits.


  1. And I am glad! Meredith, you've said a mouthful and as usual you have done so beautifully. You are an enviable wordsmith and a wise, wise woman. I think this trend we have been moving towards is why I have gotten more involved with classic film. I don't need gratuitous sex scenes, special effects or 3D to be entertained. All I want is someone who is more interested in getting a good story across and not how this movie is going to help propel them to the next level. I applaud this entry, Meredith. Kudos!

  2. MovieNut: Yes, sorry. At least I got it out of my system, haha!
    Sarah: Glad you agree. I too am stuck looking for inspiration in the past as opposed to the present. At least I'm not alone. ;)

  3. This is.. by far.. one of the best blogs I have ever read in my life. Well done. I would like to repost this, if you don't mind?

    1. Jen, thank you so much! Of course, share away! I am glad that I have found another like-minded soul :)

  4. Well said!! "We don't want to worship anyone, because we want to be worshipped. And we can be." That part especially rings true. I found myself getting sucked in to the selfishness & vanity that encompasses social media - and when I realized it, I left - Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram - all of it (save Pinterest, because I actually use that personally - without the issues of social networking). Although I was never the type to take the picture of myself with the smartphone (I could never get myself to look great from the perspective anyway), I started thinking - hmmm...why am I so interested in telling all of these "friends" or "followers" what I'm doing or thinking or making sure I've got a great-looking profile pic? I am much happier without it all, able to retreat back to my books (I wonder how much reading I missed out on in the hours spent trying to keep up on Facebook?) and my beloved classic movies. Maybe I live in a bubble - oh, well. Until the rest of the world becomes more interesting than my bubble, I'll be fine! And I'll continue to read this blog. :)

    1. Oh, trust me, I get sucked into it to. I have started playing a game with myself in terms of economizing on FB time. There is such a fine line between sharing and oversharing, hahaha. Thanks.

  5. This is a great read! Thank you for posting this; I had the idea of writing a screenplay, and after reading this, I feel I better have a deeper understanding of the world of movies, and what effect they have on people and our world.

    1. Thank you so much for that comment. It is always nice to hear a positive reaction to my work. I am flattered that I have further compelled you in your filmmaking! I am so excited for you and happy that you take such a responsibility seriously, which is a promise that whatever your project is, you will do an incredible job. You have the mark of a true artist and storyteller. :) Good luck with it, and thanks for reading.