Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Celebrity Pastiche

Recently, no less than three glossy magazines published photo serials which reenact earlier high points of visual culture:

(Please note, that the last two links contain nudity.)

While the timing may be coincidental, it is surely symptomatic of celebrity culture today. As Amy Henderson points out, celebrity culture has always been part of a culture's self-definition ("Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture"). By this logic, celebrity culture seems to be looking backwards as much as being interested in the current celebrities. With George Clooney on the cover of TIME Magazine with the caption "The Last Movie Star", there definitely seems to be some sort of eschatology at work in these photo shoots.

The religious connotations of eschatology are not coincidental, as celebrities generate a distinct cultish aspect through their relationship with the fans. Many celebrities, if not all, function as idols worthy of worship, and the films they star in, the music they produce, the clothes they wear, all have a distinct aura which is desireable for the followers. Yet, for many of the newer celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba, they have little in the way of proper cultural production to enforce their celebrity status. Whatever one might feel about Herbie or Flipper as cultural entertainment products, these are not exactly productions that build long-lasting acting careers.

These new celebrities end up in a particular relation with their followers; they become celebrities based on a certain shared experience for some of them - they became stars when they were young, and in productions aimed at people their same age. Therefore, a kinship can be said to exist between teen celebrity and teen follower, since they have been part of each others lives for a long time.

Also, they become celebrities in the newer sense of the word that Joseph Epstein traces to Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream ("The Culture of Celebrity"): "a person who is well-known for his well-knownness". Lohan and Alba are famous because they have always been famous, and part of their followers' lives. The same goes for a number of other celebrities, who are still too young to be considered true stars, in the original sense of having proven themselves somehow "worthy" of worship.

This is where the past enters the stage, for what can be more worthy of worship than classic Hollywood culture? Hitchcock and Monroe can serve as master-icons, lending their glamour to the new, upcoming celebrities, thus creating a strange feedback, where the old icons are revived because new celebrities reenact their original iconic status, while the new celebrities can obtain more celebrity status by serving at the alter of the old masters (male and female).

It is this relationship between the old and new celebrity icons which is interesting. There is no parodic thrust to any of these shoots, but rather a desire to recreate, perhaps even channel or ressurect, the old icons. Margaret Rose refers to pastiche as reviving things from the past, without parody's incongruous structure or comic effect (Rose, Parody). This seems to be a perfect description of these shoots, which also overlaps with Gerard Genette's understanding of pastiche as imitative (Genette, Palimpsests).

Working from Genette's definition, Linda Hutcheon points to the fact that pastiche functions as the desire for similarity rather than difference. (Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody). This is perfectly clear in the different shoots, as their main purpose is to draw a parallel between the new celebrity and the old, establishing a connection meant to increase the celebrity capital of the new icon.

This desire is most obvious in the case of Lindsay Lohan's recreation of Monroe's "Last Sitting". Monroe's shoot for the Look Magazine has been called "The Last Sitting" because it was her last photo shoot. Already here, the religious connotations are clear, the name echoing "The Last Supper of Christ". In the case of Monroe, the parallel to Christ seems to come from the sacrifice that happened to them both; Monroe's death has always been seen as tragic and as a response to the surrounding pressure of her life. Connecting her death to that of Christ also shows that not only is celebrity partly defined as cultish, but also that celebrity status is always bound up in some form of referral to an earlier icon.

Lohan's pastiche of Monroe is as full as possible, recreating both hair, make-up and poses. The intention is clear: Lohan is the Monroe of our time and these photos establish that. From a critical point of view, the situation is somewhat different: Lohan wants to be the Monroe of our time, and so imitates one of the most famous photo sessions Monroe ever did. Through this recreation, Lohan hopes to gain celebrity capital by attempting to reproduce a similarity with Monroe, rather than a difference.

Many of Lohan's followers might not be aware of the original which is being imitated here, but the poses remain a significant part of American culture, and it is likely that they are known by people who do not know who Marilyn Monroe was. The iconocity of her poses extends beyond the historical knowledge of Monroe. Lohan's photos would still strike a familiar note and provide her with a degree of validity and celebrity capital.

The case of Vanity Fair's Hitchcock tribute is slightly different. There is no particular reason for why Vanity Fair would do these Hitchcock stills now, other than the fact that this is the Oscar season and all forms of film and film history are more interesting right now. This is further emphasized by the fact that many of the actors used are nominated this year (Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard) or have won in the past (Jodie Foster, Renée Zellwegger). Most others have made significant and artistic films, rather than simply popular films.

In other words, there is less a desire for borrowing celebrity capital from Hitchcock and his classic films. Instead, I would argue, the point is to establish that these celebrities are worthy of recreating such classic moments. They have proved their worth in the Hollywood industry and can be permitted to take on the old master. Rather than an attempt to increase their celebrity capital, it is matter of the celebrity culture industry - of which Vanity Fair is certainly one of the leading producers - "knighting" these celebrities, by allowing them to imitate Hitchcock.

Here it is the industry itself which stands to gain from this imitation. By using currently popular icons to recreate classics, they establish that current celebrity culture is just as vibrant, significant and accomplished as old celebrity culture - nothing has been lost. While there is nostalgia at work in these photos, it is a double-coded nostalgia meant to reinforce current culture as much as past culture. The imitation is thus still used to emphasize similarity over difference.

Which only leaves Jessica Alba's recreations, which is an interesting case of similarity. Alba's photos come from Latina Magazine which obviously caters to the Latino population in USA. Alba is a Latino star, because she has gained celebrity status in spite of this Latino heritage. Allowing her to recreate classic film moments, is thus to emphasize her status in Hollywood and celebrate that her difference has not inhibited her career. However, there is a certain irony in the choice of films.

All of the films Alba imitates star white females: Scream, Psycho, The Birds, Rosemary's Baby and The Ring (this is assuming that we are talking about the Hollywood remake of The Ring rather than the Japanese original, something I consider a safe bet). In other words, Alba can only obtain celebrity status by imitating white female icons. We end up being back at similarity rather than difference. Alba is not a celebrity because she is a Latino, she is a celebrity because she can imitate being white. I'm sure there are Latinos that will disagree with me, in fact I hope so, but this does not change the fact that the stars Alba imitates are all white. White is the original celebrity icon, and this has not yet changed, unfortunately.

The final point to be made here, is about celebrity culture as a whole. It seems to me that celebrity culture is turning into a pastiche itself. As Tom Mole points out, the classic understanding of celebrity culture is "structuring the production, distribution and reception of texts around the mystique of a particularly fascinating individual" (Mole, "Hypertrophic Celebrity"). As these photo shoots show us, there is also a new emergent behavior where production, distribution and reception is not structured around the mystique of a fascinating individual, but rather the mystique of the history of celebrity culture itself. Celebrity culture no longer has icons, but imitations of older icons.

As I briefly mentioned in relation to Marilyn Monroe, this has always been the case, but the difference now is that the feedback loop between historical celebrity culture and contemporary celebrity culture is ever decreasing. The Ring was (re)made in 2002 but is already a classic in the vein of Psycho and The Birds. The production of celebrity culture is now as much the imitation of the production of celebrity culture.

Epstein, Joseph. "The Culture of Celebrity". The Weekly Standard, volume 11, issue 5.
Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests.
Henderson, Amy. "Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture". OAH Magazine of History
6 (Spring 1992).
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody
Mole, Tom. "Hypertrophic Celebrity." M/C Journal 7.5 (2004). 25 Feb. 2008 .
Rose, Margaret A. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern.
Stein, Joel. "Guess Who Came to Dinner?", TIME Magazine, vol 171, no. 9, March 2008.