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$ellebrity (2012): A SXSW Review


By Jacob Mertens.

The concept of celebrity and fame has existed for ages. As a society, we seek to hold individuals up as an ideal, something tangible and attainable. We try to live vicariously through another’s natural talent and beauty, we construct an image of grace and vulnerability, and we do so fully aware of the fictional implications. We do not often seek cinema or television for an honest representation of reality, we seek these mediums for escape, and unfortunately that need has grown insatiable. In ancient times, Greeks and Romans created gods to build shrines for, in order to put a human face to the ideals of courage or sexuality or grace. Appropriately, these creations remained outside the sphere or human influence, because any direct interaction would destroy the myth. Now, however, we worship at the altar of celebrity and our obsession with a fictional escape has carried over to the real lives of the actors and actresses that act as avatars for our impossible idyllic creations.

It is within this context that the film $ellebrity, directed by Kevin Mazur, begins its examination of the culture of tabloid photojournalism. Immediately, it becomes apparent that the moral dilemma of the commodification of stars offers more questions than answers:

  • Do stars make a pact with the devil for their celebrity, thereby excusing any breach of privacy on the part of the paparazzi?
  • Is there any way new legislation could impact the current deluge of celebrity media coverage?
  • How has our new internet culture, in which individuals can follow a star’s every move via twitter exacerbated our shallow preoccupations with stardom?

It is a testament to the film that days after viewing, I still find myself infuriated that we as a culture can casually dehumanize another individual, based solely on a superficial understanding of their artistic or aesthetic persona.  I find myself branching from the line of dialogue the film suggests, questioning how the environment of fame creates a caustic living situation that can gradually strip men and women of everything that makes them unique. However, when I move to praise the film I have to hesitate and ask myself what the film truly accomplishes, and what I bring to the discussion on my own.

It is not enough for a film to simply suggest a line of dialogue that the audience can swiftly move through, offering their own impressions of celebrity and privacy in turn. The film must anticipate the audience’s line of thought and help to give nuance and complexity to the ethical and philosophical issues that arise. In many ways, the film succeeds admirably. It features intimate interviews from the stars who have been subjected to the intense scrutiny of tabloid journalism, and strengthens the viewer’s empathy and identification, deconstructing the stubborn partitions of fame. The film primarily uses anecdotal asides to accomplish this identification, and while we hear the typical outrage of the paparazzi barging on a couple’s private wedding or the paparazzi being held responsible for a series of car crashes, the real weight of these anecdotes lie in the star’s need to protect their children.

The most harrowing moment of the film comes from an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker, who tells of a story when she was pregnant and the paparazzi pursued her so relentlessly that she feared for the life of her unborn child. She escaped the paparazzi in a parking garage and broke down sobbing, unable and unwilling to face the throngs of the shallow photo journalists on the street above her, shouting her name and obscenities as the mechanic staccato of flash bulbs filled the street. All the interviews feel candid and raw, but this instance strikes a nerve because it reminds the audience of the actress’ vulnerability in a way that obliterates the notion of inaccessible stardom. After all, anyone can relate to a woman who carries life and seeks to protect that life at all cost; the act touches on something primal and unequivocal.

While these insider perspectives of the issue give the film its weight, I also found the expert interviews of scholars provided a nice touch, as they broke down the social implications of stardom and commodification into tiny bite-size portions. However, the fact that these interviews could only graze the real troubling issues presented in the film, such as why our society has established a pattern of setting celebrities up on an alter and then seeks to destroy them, ultimately hurts the final product. The viewer gets the sense that the commentary has been culled in a way that will not isolate anyone who could not otherwise follow the greater complexities at play, but in so doing the film loses a lot of its impact.

My greatest example of what the film loses because of this approach comes from a Q & A I witnessed at the film’s premiere at SXSW. The producer stood in front of the audience and boldly claimed that we as a society hate women, and after careful consideration I find that I agree. But this statement did not make it into the film, and its implications are only briefly alluded to in stories of how the media can turn on a star, leading to a carnivalesque glee when the star finally breaks (read: the famous Brittany Spears shaved head fiasco). In fact, I would love not only to have seen this abhorrent practice discussed in greater detail but for the film to branch out into a more extensive consideration of the way our society exhibits prejudice through stardom and commodification.

After all, it’s not just women we turn on, remolding them into a debased sexualized commodity and discarding them as if they were nothing. We do the same to anyone who denies or threatens the status quo established by the traditional white male. Look no further than how the media instantly turned on Dave Chappelle after he quit The Chappelle Show and went to Africa, branding him as crazy and trivializing him as human being the moment he pulled away from making old white men rich. In a revealing interview with James Lipton following his media fallout, Chappelle addressed the media coverage and spoke out on another highly publicized mental breakdown: Martin Lawrence waving a gun in the air in downtown Los Angeles, reportedly shouting “They are trying to kill me!” As Chappelle says of Lipton’s former guest,

A weak person cannot get to sit here and talk to you. Ain’t no weak people talking to you. So what is happening in Hollywood? Nobody knows. The worst thing to call somebody is crazy, it’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy…these people are not crazy, they’re strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.[1]

$ellebrity asks enough questions to begin a dialogue, but it never provides tangible answers and only scratches the surface on a critique of why our culture has adopted this miserable practice to begin with. More importantly, the film never cuts deep enough to address the very real and very sinister presence of prejudice and hatred that has manifested as an unspoken, caustic environmental agent that only reveals itself in its tabloid-frenzied wake. And ultimately, that is the movie that needs to be made, because there’s little in $ellebrity that cries out for drastic social change and there should be.

Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer. His report from the SXSW film festival can be read here.

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[1] http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/11259024/ns/today-entertainment/t/chappelle-bares-all-inside-actors-studio/

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