the mythical “I”

If you’ve been driving around Los Angeles recently, or probably anywhere for that matter, you have no doubt seen the huge billboards that read, CAMERON VS ASHTON. And they have a little sliver that reveals the eyes of both movie stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. It’s an ad campaign for WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, a surely shitty Hollywood rom-com (that’s insider speak for romantic comedy – get in the know!), but I found the billboard to be somewhat interesting. Not interesting in the SARAH MARSHALL kind of way, which was actually more obnoxious to me than anything – not only does it sort of indulge and validate by its mere existence (with its spray-paint, home-made design) that immature desire to tear down the person who broke up with you, but there’s supposed to be a comma between “My mom always hated you” and “Sarah Marshall” to separate the name as a direct address. I’m not fucking around here. Without that comma, the sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense. Seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read screenplays where the dialogue runs together like a herd of rampaging elephants slamming into a brick wall. “Take this woman” has a whole different meaning than, “Take this, woman.” Come on, people! Take some pride in your writing!

Alright, I rantingly digress*. Back to Cameron and Ashton. What strikes me as interesting about the ad campaign is not just the focus on the stars superseding that of their characters – that shit’s been around for centuries (in fact, the only current realm of advertising that focuses exclusively on characters is that for animated films). Rather, it’s the idea of these two stars, or rather star personas, going against each other as if we won’t be watching a contrived plot with fabricated characters enacting premeditated behavior. No, we’re watching Cameron Diaz spar with Ashton Kutcher. Live. In the flesh.

It’s an interesting statement on the audience’s at least partial desire to feel like the work of fiction is, temporarily, a potential fact; that this faulty, (purportedly) humorous but ultimately passionate relationship that Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz will be getting themselves into on screen may have actually happened to the actors themselves, and that the film crew was just lucky enough to catch it. I’m not talking about cinema verite/documentary style – that’s a totally different animal more reserved for “heavier” fare, where the filmmakers want the audience to believe that what they’re watching is actually happening. No, this is almost the opposite: it’s the audience hoping that the escapist fantasy they’re watching has actually come true for someone… and potentially might come true for them by extension.

It’s that sort of displaced, wishful thinking that makes the “I” in a novel work: the idea that perhaps “I” doesn’t just refer to the central character, but the author as well. That, perhaps, this story really did happen to the man/woman behind the pen. That, perhaps, these stories we tell ourselves really are a physical part of this world.

And, of course, they are. Stories are the way we make sense of our surroundings. They not only give us alternate points of view on both mundane and seminal moments in life, but they also allow us, through the help of an avatar, to experience and purge emotions that might otherwise be unhealthy to act upon. We not only want to believe that the character is actually the author, but by extension we want to believe the character is us. While we do need to know that the work is a contained fiction in order to leave our emotions in the theater (since we don’t sacrifice goats after plays anymore), we also want to believe that we are not the only flesh-and-blood person who has felt these things. For, in the end, isn’t all fiction just a form of emotional autobiography?

Dennis Potter tackles this concept in his television miniseries masterpiece “The Singing Detective”. It’s not only about an author who imagines himself as the lead character in his book, thereby having his real life coexist with his fantasy life, but it has a meta-side to it in that this author character suffers from the same rare disease that Potter himself suffered from: psoriatic arthropathy, a disease in which the body loses all control of temperature and the skin breaks out into rashes, burns, and flakes. In giving his character this identical disease, Potter essentially challenged his audience to consider, “perhaps this is an autobiography cloaked in a fiction. Perhaps this is truly who Dennis Potter is. And if so, perhaps I’m not alone in these feelings that I’m relating to on screen.”

It’s interesting – though not surprising – that, despite the example above, this type of connection in visual dramatic media happens more often with the stars themselves; despite what anybody says about the “auteur” theory, it’s more difficult for an audience to accurately and immediately identify the author of a film/television show/theater play than the author of a novel. It’s why the star system worked – and still works – so well, and why Julia Roberts can continually play slight variations on her star persona. (Because who here knows what she’s like at home?)

Anyway, all that said, there is no fucking way I’m seeing VEGAS. If at least part of me is going to believe that I’m watching real people go through real experiences, I at least want to like the people I’m watching. And who wants to identify with Cameron, Ashton, and that situation, anyway?

*rantingly” is not a real word. I made it up.

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 11:51 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. First of all, Garry is rolling in his grave from happiness due to the fact that you are obsessed with commas.

    Second of all, advertising for animated films have almost completely ceased being about characters and are nine times out of ten ABOUT THE STARS DOING THE VOICES. I don’t know what Horton Hears The Who is about, but I know it has Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell in it. I don’t know what Ice Age 6: Face Down, Ice Up is about but I know Ray Romano can’t pay his mortgage without it existing.

    Third of all, while I’ve never agreed with “auteur theory” it’s not to say that marketing departments haven’t stuck their deathgripping talons into it and figured out ways to choose a name from the credits of a movie and brand it to the hide of a feature or TV show or album or commercial based on “market research.” That’s how we get “JJ Abrams presents Cloverfield,” when all he did was get a contractually obligated producer/company credit. Cloverfield is a good example because JJ Abrams has experienced a rather quick rise into the spotlight of the hard-to-reach spot of high-profile behind-the-scenes person. We never saw a Cloverfield commercial touting “produced by the writer of Armageddon,” no, because we know now that people respond to “JJ Abrams,” “Lost,” and not having a title for an original movie.

    Whoever is marketing Vegas knows that two pictures and the words, “What happens in Vegas” are no match for “CAMERON” and “ASHTON.” It’s more sloppy than anything, as it tells us they AREN’T EVEN MARKETING THE MOVIE. Just people in the movie.

    …I just got a great idea for a short story. I’m going to go sit out this heat in the comfort of my ball-sterilizing laptop radiation.

  2. to respond to your comments in the order received:

    1) In order to roll in his grave, Garry would have to be dead first. I’m not making any suggestions, but I am saying I have next weekend free.

    2) I’d say animation advertising is more of a 50/50 split between stars/characters (for every HORTON, there’s a SURF’S UP), but while I agree with you in that posters advertise the celebrity voices in any way possible, my point was that character advertising is almost exclusively done for animated movies, not that it is the exclusive advertising choice of animated movies. That said, while HORTON heavily relied upon its celebrity voices, it also had several posters of either individual characters (Horton as “gynormous”, Mayor as “Who-larious”, etc.) or grouping characters into the “good” guys or the “bad and ugly”. Yes, each had the Jim Carrey/Steve Carrel tagged at the top, but you don’t see multiple posters for live-action movies like BABY MAMA with either Tina Fey or Amy Poehler accompanied by an individualized tag line (though SPEED RACER is doing this – interesting that it looks practically like an animated movie). I guarantee, each of the ICE AGE 3: THE RECKONING will have his/her own poster with his/her own characterologically pertinent tag line.

    3) Yeah, I agree – marketers will always look for ways to brand a movie, whether that’s through the recognizability of its stars or its talent behind the camera. That said, it’s generally easier to fill seats based on who is in the movie as opposed to who is making the movie, even when the person behind the camera is well known – not always, just generally. As far as VEGAS having a sloppy marketing plan – Jesus, yes, absolutely. The title isn’t even on the billboard for crying out loud, just the one word “VEGAS” in little black letters hidden in the corner. But the thing I found interesting about it was that normally, when a movie specifically advertises its star, say, Julia Roberts, the implicit statement is “come see Julia Roberts play this character in this movie”. There’s no further action implied to Ms. Robert’s intentions other than to act opposite Hugh Grant – the ads don’t say “Julia loves Hugh”. But with VEGAS, they are taking it a step further by implying action not to the characters but the actors themselves. It’s “Cameron fights Ashton”, as opposed to “come see Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher in this funny movie about two characters who fight each other”. Granted, both methods ultimately achieve the same goal, but ideologically I’m given license by the former to really disregard characters and plot, because all I’m here to see (as told to me by the advertisers) is Cameron vs. Asthon. That’s who I’m identifying with, not a fictional character played by a highly recognizable someone. Fuck, I don’t even really need to know the title, except to be more specific when I buy my ticket. Of course, I’m using the editorial “I” here – there’s no way on God’s green earth that I would ever give my money to that movie (please don’t say “cut to three months from now”; you’ll jinx me.)

    All that said, what I’m really concerned about is the safety of your balls. Maybe that will be the topic of my next blog.

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