July 10, 2002
Cult of Personality

I've always been something of an iconoclast at heart. I've never respected someone just because I was told to respect them, or because they expected it, or society expected it. I respect people who can do things I can't, or who do things I can but better than me, or who try really hard to learn to do new things, or do things well that I already know are hard. I also know from my own humbling experiences that just because you know a lot about one thing doesn't mean you know a lot about everything (also known as the "engineer's disease").

So I've always found fame a bit of a puzzle. If I'm interested in knowing how to create, produce, and promote a blockbuster music album, then Madonna is obviously someone I should try to talk to. But why should I give what she thinks about, say, the President any more weight than I would give to any other person on the street? Who cares what Michael Jordan's cologne is? Why should I care who Julia Roberts married this week, or who Tom Cruise happens to be boinking this month?

But on some level I do. And I'll wager you do too, about some celebrity. I almost hate to admit it, but I find it interesting that Harrison Ford is smooching Callista Flockheart. I'll bet you've mentioned something gossipy to someone else this month about one celebrity or another. True Hollywood Stories and Behind the Music are big hits, and everyone I know has seen at least one episode of each at some point. It's like watching a fish tank... you just can't stop yourself. I bet every one of you has glanced through a People or an US or an Entertainment Weekly some time in the past six weeks. People who say they don't read such trash are like anyone over 40 who says they never went near a disco (somebody out there was buying all those Abba and Bee Gees albums, it wasn't just one psycho family in Portland). But why?

A lot of celebrities, the ones who have brains to go along with their talent at least, are puzzled by it all too. Creating entertainment in this industrialized age is an extremely artificial process. It's not until you are forced to step through the various histrionics involved in getting a motion picture, music album, Broadway production, or sporting event made that it really sinks in how fake it all is. The gun is made of rubber, the orchestra lives in a machine, and it all stops for a TV time-out every time you go to commercial.

Many of them don't understand why we care what they think about things outside their craft either. And yet we do. And even they do... celebrities are still people. Bill Clinton got in a little hot water for a while because he found out that as president you could just phone up Barbara Streisand and damned if she didn't come over to your house right away.

Fame as we know it, the screaming hysterical sort that makes politicians pay attention and teenage girls do unnatural things with trout, is in fact largely a modern invention. Ancient examples do exist, but they are remarkable for their rarity. What, exactly, is it about celebrity that makes people who control nuclear arsenals and clone the dark dreams of lonely Scottish shepherds care if Britney Spears's boobs are fake? What makes otherwise intelligent, well educated people-in-the-street read the headlines of tabloids in the checkout lane and speculate seriously on how true they are?

They key lies in an unexpected direction... the movie close-up. It took nearly sixty years for scientists to come up with a name for what D.W. Griffith did to turn Lillian Gish into one of the first movie stars. E.T. Hall's "proxemics", a term he coined in 1963, codifies the distances which delineate our own public, social, personal, and intimate spaces. These spaces form "spheres" around us. People are allowed comfortably closer only if we feel they belong in a given space. If they're not, we take steps to cope with it, from simply staring intently at elevator numbers to punching someone in the nose.

The distances these zones take up vary from culture to culture. Americans have relatively large zones, while, to pick a random example, Turks have relatively small ones. Which is why a US tourist tends to think Turks are really friendly and why Turks tend to think we're kind of stand-offish. The distances themselves vary all over the world, but they do exist, everywhere.

What movies do is manipulate these spheres for emotional effect. By zooming in to the face of an actor as they portray a powerful emotion, we are on a subconscious level forced into accepting this person as an intimate associate. The fact that the image on the screen is usually many times larger than a real face merely serves to magnify the effect. But because it is an image on a screen, the non-visual cues that would accompany an actual confrontation aren't there, and so we're able to accept this sudden forced intimacy without it overtly disturbing us.

A skillful actor can portray a wide variety of emotional states in an extremely convincing fashion. When coupled with the forced intimacy and emotional manipulation of a director's camera shots, the effect is to force us subconsciously to accept their character not only as real but as an intimate personality. Deep down, we begin to think of this person as a very close friend, or sometimes an extremely dangerous enemy (because they make us feel fear at such very close range). It is from this psychological effect the motion picture derives its enormous power.

But what happens is some of this artificial familiarity "bleeds over" in to real life. Because it's all happening on a subconscious level, most of us are hardly aware of it at all. So an actor in a successful movie will suddenly be confronted with thousands, sometimes millions, of people who just assume they are intimate associates when they have never in fact met.

Since the actor didn't get to experience us in such a safe yet intimate fashion they often, not surprisingly, feel extremely uncomfortable when confronted by their "fans" in unstructured situations. Such discomfort is very often interpreted by the fans as cold, dismissive, sometimes even mysterious, when in fact it is just a simple, natural human reaction to strangers literally getting too close.

Television, and to a somewhat lesser extent radio before it, relies on the somewhat different proxemic of territoriality to foment its magic. Because televisions are placed in our homes, we are on a subconscious level allowing total strangers into our most intimate of spaces.

Actors who "cross over" from television to movies, or visa-versa, often comment that the fans of one medium are very different from fans of the other. Movie fans often treat the actor in a near worshipful way, in no small part because they experience their performance in what amounts to a temple of popular entertainment. The fans of television programs usually treat the actor like a long lost friend, a "buddy" with whom they can shake hands, tell their life stories to, or gripe out in the most personal of detail.

Since we obviously can't all get to know this new "friend" we've made in person, we get proxies, the media, to know them for us. Because we feel we "know" this person on the most intimate level, we think nothing of having our proxies go to the most extreme lengths to find the intimate details in their lives which we require to fill out our internal portrait. Of course this only serves to make our real-life encounters even more surreal for the celebrity involved, because now not only are they confronted with people who think they know them, they actually do know things about them only their own intimate friends should have ever found out about.

We're often uncomfortable standing in an elevator with someone who is just a bit too close. When you try to imagine what it must be like to have thousands, even millions of complete strangers who know your life in amazing detail constantly trying to get this close to you, it becomes obvious why so many celebrities turn to drugs or alcohol, if nothing else just to escape from the desperate crush of well-intentioned others they constantly find themselves surrounded by. Couple that with the fact that, historically, humanity's most artistically talented individuals have been what can only charitably be described as extremely weird, and Mariah Carey suddenly starts making a lot more sense.

So the next time you're in a diner, or a pub, or a restaurant, or just walking down the street and see someone "famous", step back for a second. Realize that in spite of the fact that you know them, they don't have any idea who you are. Try to put yourself in their shoes... how would you like to be approached by a total stranger? When would you consider it appropriate? What would you want to talk about?

And then be sure to get their autograph for me.

Posted by scott at July 10, 2002 11:48 PM

eMail this entry!

I find out everything I need to know in the "Enquirer" ROTFLMAOPIMP

Posted by: Pat on July 10, 2002 08:28 PM

I think your article was great, lots of facts, unfortunately everyone cant realize that a celebrity is a human too. If people would spend less time, gossiping about a celebrities life and just look in the mirror and see their own life, i wonder how the world would be.

Posted by: Jan on February 10, 2005 05:06 PM
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