Saturday, May 14, 2011

Star Images

As many people said, Elizabeth Taylor’s recent death seemed like the end of the line for classic Hollywood. She wasn’t literally the golden era’s last survivor, but she was the only one who retained a high degree of visibility (marriages; illnesses; Michael Jackson friendship) and relative relevance (AIDS activism) while remaining largely untouched by the texture of contemporary cinema: with the exception of Mike Nichols (for whom she won her second Oscar in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and, oddly enough, Nicolas Roeg (in a TV version of Sweet Bird of Youth) she didn’t work with a single important “modern” director. In contrast, to pick a couple of still-living stars of the same general era, Kirk Douglas soldiered purposefully on for far longer, and Doris Day simply disappeared from view altogether.

Elizabeth Taylor

I regularly return to classic cinema, trying to revisit all major corners of the library as often as I can, but I’d only watched two of Taylor’s films in the last eight years, Reflections of a Golden Eye and Secret Ceremony (I’ve seen just about all the other notable ones in the distant past). Coincidentally, they both came out in 1968, and form part of what might charitably be regarded as a brief experimental period (or as it’s more commonly described, a run of hopeless flops which killed off her momentum as a working actress). Although Reflections at least is a fascinating (and remarkably kinky) creation, it’s peripheral to how she was ultimately remembered.

But then, you could almost say that for everything she ever did. The concept of a celebrity (or at least visibility) existing largely independently of any ascertainable achievement has obviously received a boost from reality TV and social media and our overwhelming collective derangement. But there’s always been plenty of daylight between fame and its supposed drivers: most people can recognize Bogart and Cagney, but how many people below the age of 40 have seen more than a handful of their pictures? Maybe in that sentence I should change 40 to 60?

There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s only natural for phenomena to become dislocated from their origins. Most of us don’t know the derivations of words and phrases, or the origins of various customs, or (as newspaper stories seem to point out every few months) key facts in Canadian history, or – in many cases - even why the job we’re employed at has to be done the way it does (except that, you know, it’s always been that way). If we did have that knowledge, of course, our appreciation of language and social interaction might well be richer; you might crack the way to do the job better than it’s ever been done before and earn a promotion (or else it might get you fired for being high-maintenance). But that’s mainly the territory of eccentrics. Most of us just grab onto the rail and try not to lose our footing as the train rattles along.

Playing the Lottery

Compared with those other things I mentioned, having an inadequate grasp of the origins of star images is a pretty minor limitation of course. And unlike words or phrases which have active utility (even if not the one their origins might have suggested), those images, looked at logically, don’t have any value at all if they’re divorced from the activity and body of work that generated them. The problem phrase there, no doubt, is “looked at logically.” Logically, no one should play the lottery (and by the way, I never have) – the expected value (weighting all possible outcomes by the likelihood of them happening) of not playing and keeping the money far outweighs the expected value of the grand prize. But people put a greater weight of course on highly desirable outcomes, perhaps in large part because of the allure (indeed, the necessity) of waking dreams as a component of consciousness. Since cinema is so rooted in fantasy, I wonder if that doesn’t partly explain the mystique of star images long after their natural expiration dates; they carry the promise of lottery tickets, the hint of some form of transcendence, even if it’s entirely beyond our grasp to access it.

Of course, unlike lottery tickets, we all could explore the archives of the classic stars if we wanted to; but I doubt it seems necessary. How many people lapped up the coverage of Taylor’s death without ever feeling a serious impulse to revisit A Place in the Sun or Suddenly Last Summer or any of the others? Most people, no doubt. And indeed, beyond curiosity value, it’s hard to see the point of watching any one or two of her films in isolation, any more than you’d read a random chapter of a specific history book. What more would it really tell you about the nature of her legend?

Staying Power

In a way, the distance between ourselves and the work accentuates the value of her star image, in the same way age and rarity drive up the price of a painting; if we looked closer, we might see how ramshackle a creation it actually is. Nowadays, we’re invited – if not compelled – to look closer at everything and everyone, deconstructing it all to death (of course, it’s gauche to bring too much sincerity to that exercise; the correct tone is an ironic distance, if not a snide sneer). Accordingly, careers flare out with shocking speed, but without ever prompting much collective self-examination on why we ever acted as if we cared. A transient celebrity of today is probably photographed more in a week than Marilyn Monroe was in a year; only a remarkable few can survive such scrutiny (and even then, they likely need some good luck, for example in finding the right movie at the right time).

In a strange way, this all went off in my mind earlier this year when an actor called Alex Pettyfer was simultaneously starring in two Hollywood pictures, I Am Number Four and Beastly. It’s a remarkable achievement, and I was wondering why I never remembered hearing of him before. But then the films both flopped, and I already wonder how much he’ll be heard of again. As best as I can tell, those two movies are disposable even by prevailing standards, embodying the throwaway state of mainstream film culture. But I don’t know if the concept of being built to last has much currency there now, any more than people expect their tweets to have the staying power of poetry.

As I said, Elizabeth Taylor isn’t really central to my approach to cinema (which tends to revolve much more around directors); I don’t think I’ll be delving into her filmography in the near future. Anyway, it hardly seems necessary. Whatever you knew about her, it was plain to all a great star had died. And that we’re in an age where great stars die much more often than they’re born.

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