catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 11 :: 2008.05.30 — 2008.06.13


Fame on film

Many of the pieces in this issue of catapult on “Fame and Fortune” revolve around or refer to the kind of fame brought on by television and film.  We viewers get caught up in the personal lives of actors and actresses when they serve as characters in public stories.  In press photos, their faces are as familiar as family members as we come to feel we know them, even if they don’t know us.  We tend to be jealous of them, even if we don’t want to be them.

Appropriately, some films take on fame as an integral part of their stories in a kind of meta-critique of the celebrity industry.  But they do so necessarily with one foot on each side of the fence—the system such films are hostile toward is the very system that makes their production and success a possibility.  Regardless of this dilemma, I do think films are capable of commenting wisely on fame from within. The following is a short list of those I’ve encountered again or for the first time within the past year.

Network is a 1976 classic that I’d recommend to any student, official or otherwise, of media, culture and systems.  In 1976, it was a prophetic satire; today, it’s eerily close to reality.  The film follows the story of Howard Beale, a newscaster who has an on-air breakdown and rants against television media.  When the ratings for his network unexpectedly soar, the door is opened for his exploitation as well as the exploitation of other kinds of fears and perversions.  Network emphasizes fame as a barometer of consumer interest and when the almighty Corporation is the idol of the people, whether they know it or not, the tools of the Corporation better attract the right kind of fame or they’re useless—or even worse: dangerous, especially when consumers awaken to the possibility that they’re “mad as hell” and they’re “not gonna take it anymore.” 

Another film about a particular media system, Boogie Nights, explores fame and fortune through the lens of the newly decadent 70s porn industry.  A twist on the typical discussion about how pornography objectifies women, Boogie Nights follows the rise and fall of a male star who makes it big for being extremely well-endowed. The main characters of the film form a dysfunctional family, each member wrestling in his or her own way with identity, addiction, desire, despair, love, loneliness and loss.  Boogie Nights is about the blind pursuit of pleasure, but it’s also about the isolating ends of seeking celebrity above anything else.

In contrast to the marginalization of the porn industry, The Queen takes on a much more socially acceptable realm of fame, telling the story of Princess Diana’s death from the perspective of the royal family and the British Parliament, namely Tony Blair.  Even those who are not drawn to the royal family’s celebrity will be interested in the well-acted story of the family’s rejection of the fallen-from-grace “People’s Princess,” even as people around the world call the family to public mourning at the loss of someone so spectacularly adored.  In The Queen, the objectifying nature of fame is intertwined in very complex ways with the tenacity of our humanity.

Scaling back the level of fame from Di’s worldwide recognition, Margot at the Wedding is a dark film without much, if any, hope, but hope is not its purpose.  Its purpose is to create a character sketch of someone who’s entirely narcissistic, incapable of loving anyone except for her own pleasure and incapable of being without seeing herself from the outside, always making choices that will become the best storyline for her next piece.  Margot is a writer and, having achieved some celebrity for short stories that were modeled on her family, she becomes trapped in her own story, which must be tragic if it’s to be any good.  Against the simple backdrop of her sister’s wedding, Margot draws everyone around her into a vortex of doubt, mistrust, absurdity and shame, until she’s forced to choose between claiming her identity and sacrificing her self to her story.

Charlie Wilson’s War, in some ways, looks at the breakdown of narcissism and the blossoming of ambiguous selflessness as the outgoing Texas state representative is distracted from his partying ways to save the Afghan people from Soviet occupation during the Cold War.  Though Charlie Wilson’s fame was very limited in scope (the war he waged in Afghanistan nearly single-handedly was, after all, covert), the film displays the double-edged sword of recognition and the self-doubt that necessarily comes with being communally honored for an achievement.  As a metaphor for being able to see inside one’s self to perceive questionable motives and the potential for future destruction, the film alludes to the formation of the Taliban in the wake of Afghanistan’s victory, led by the CIA-trained Osama bin Laden—another person who, we might say, is world famous.

While diverse in subject matter and time period, all of these films offer worthy critical insights about fame, celebrity and personal achievement.  Even as we gobble up the latest gossip, those of us living in the televised culture of the 21st century intuitively understand fame’s corrosive effects—after all, they’re spilled all over screens and magazines almost everywhere we look. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether there’s anything normative about fame.  These films are all cautionary tales, to some degree, but is there anything good about fame?  I mean really good, not just in a what-not-to-do kind of way.  Like money and power, I think fame is a gift that comes with great responsibility and an obligation to stewardship.  And it emerges out of our God-given tendency to commune with one another—to tell stories, to know and be known, to connect.  Margot’s reputation as a writer gathers a crowd in a small-town bookshop for a conversation.  Princess Di’s death unites a country and a world in mourning.  Howard Beale uses his fifteen minutes to turn his listeners away from the television, toward one another and out into the cultural storm they didn’t even know was raging right outside their windows.  Can we dismiss fame without throwing out a whole lot of good things with it?

Was Jesus famous?  Is Jesus famous? I want to say yes, but can’t resist the urge to qualify it. Jesus was born to be famous, to be known to the ends of the earth in all generations, but his fame is not just for our entertainment at his public failures and successes.  Rather, Christ’s fame is for our transformation that is revealed in the victory of his public suffering and resurrection, motivated ultimately by love. And if even faith without a foundation of love is a useless idol, how much more so is fame?  We might do well then to attempt to discern where fame—its cultivation, stewardship and recognition—is motivated by love and where it’s motivated by other forces.  Art forms like film can help us do that as they tell true stories, real and imagined, about the ripple effects of fame that reflect both light and shadow.

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