Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 5, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
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Mark Goldfarb
Phil Nixon
Bernard Dubé
Robert Rotondo
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Emanuel Pordes
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Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein




It seems we’re always reading or talking about them. They disproportionately occupy our wall space, fantasies and daydreams. We write to them, worry about them when they fall ill, and like those special people whom we have felt close to, we weep when they pass on. And yet we don’t know them, have never met them, which makes all of the above quite astonishing, and the subject of this inquiry.

Michelle PfeifferWho are these exceptional people, these strangers who are anything but strangers, and what enables them to exercise such an effect on our collective imaginations? To the first part of the question, they are the stars and starlets of the silver screen and television. The manner in which they so compellingly engage us is directly related to the way we have come to know them: by looking directly at them as they make their appearance on the screen. As we gaze into their faces, a very particular one-way relationship develops, which endears them to us even more than some people we know and see on a regular basis, but with whom we ‘do not’, and ‘can not’ sustain direct eye contact. In the real world the only persons we can stare at are our intimates: husband and wife, boy and girl-friend, parents and children, and only after the highly charged emotional reciprocities that link two people have been sufficiently accumulated and singularized. In our love relationships, we will have already submitted to the rites of courtship over a period of time in order to nurture and develop those exclusive bonds which, when established, grant the right to look into the other’s eyes.

On the silver screen, all the rules of intimacy are violated. We purchase our admission and minutes later we find ourselves leisurely staring into the eyes of our favourite actors and actresses, into the eyes of personages we don't know, haven't met, and with whom we are not bonded, total strangers that in a matter of minutes have become so familiar they would leave us breathless if we were to meet them in real life. That the bond is one-directional and has no real terminus doesn’t seem to matter. What does matter is that the medium of cinema permits us to observe and interact with an incredible range of personalities that we then begin to think of as people we know, to the effect that the promise or expectation of feeling intimately connected to a film’s star or character may prove more important than any film’s content. Or, to parrot Marshal McLuhan: the medium is indeed the message.

Consider the staggering fact that star culture employs hundreds of thousands of people -- scriptwriters, gossip columnists, journalists, photographers, fan club operators -- and generates billions of dollars because it permits us, its subscribers and partakers, to feel intimate with and completed by people we don’t know. Bonding with our favourite actors, or any celebrity we have come to know through visual media (rock star, athlete, talk show host, news anchor), requires no effort: we simply tune in and gaze into their eyes and they magically become part of that privileged constellation of people whom we care about, who share the same orbit as the people we know. Like watching pornography, it’s so easily done (they can’t stare back, reject, criticize), some of us might be tempted not to bother with the real rites and risks involved in real relationships.

Because intimacy is such a basic need and nature’s way of providing both a purpose and protection against an indifferent and sometimes hostile world, when it's left wanting, an existential void develops and quickly fills with dread and longing. As we begin to feel at home in the 21st century, more of us are turning to the ersatz world of cinema to fill that void, convinced the path of least resistance is its own reward. Which means we needn’t bother asking what happens to longing and desire when the mental powers required to answer to them begin to atrophy. Norman Mailer reminds us that “a drug which offers peace to a pain may dull the nerve which could have taught the mind how to carry that pain.”

If we are to set ourselves on the path to better understand both the psychological and philosophical consequences of becoming emotionally engaged with media stars, we must first admit that ‘who we are’ is inescapably defined by what we are doing at any given moment. By recognizing myself as that person in a dark theater trying to recreate the intimacy, intensity or drama that is lacking in my life, I may become sufficiently unsettled to want to resituate my real needs in the real world.

Less than that, another perfect Sunday in the cinema with ‘my Michelle.’

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