I Watched Shia LaBeouf Watch His Own Movie Marathon, So Was It Art?
The lines between art and nonsense, performance and reality, spectator and artist are thin. In today’s culture of viral sensations, where the monikers of celebrity and performance artist are seemingly interchangeable, it feels like everything is imploding in on itself. Jay Z imitated Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present with his six hour “Picasso Baby” rap. Tilda Swinton sporadically napped in the MoMA. Even prominent names in the art world like Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons have embraced social media and hashtag culture. The one similar thread through all of these examples is the commercialization of the art, where the work becomes a cultural event. No longer merely a performance or installation in a gallery, the works instantly go viral with the help of a customized hashtag or the status of the famed figure at its center.
The latest celeb to dip his toes into the art world is Shia LaBeouf, first with a public apology via intimate performance art, then with an absurd viral video and now with a 72-hour public marathon of his own movies. #ALLMYMOVIES, the latest performance piece from LaBeouf and collaborators Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, whom he worked with on his #IAMSORRY project and the recent #Introductions video, is an exercise in egotism. Or is it? On Tuesday at noon, LaBeouf began watching a marathon of his films in reverse chronological order where his reactions will be live-streamed from the Angelika Film Center online for three days. Viewers can watch online while those in New York can join him in the theater (for free). From his most recent film Man Down all the way to his first feature film Holes, the Transformers star will watch his career reverse-Boyhood-style.
Already trending on Facebook and Twitter just hours after it kicked off, this was an event in every sense of the word. As philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek describes it, "an event is the effect that seems to exceed its causes," in which the space of an event is "the distance of an effect from its causes." LaBeouf's movies paired with his penchant for creating art based off his career inspired this spectacle of a movie marathon, but what exactly would the effects of it be, on both viewers and LaBeouf himself? Unable to resist the curiosities of what the actual hell this all meant, whether it was merely a masturbatory display worthy of eye rolls and what it's like watching LaBeouf watch his movies, I decided to find out for myself. Needless to say, my brief detour from a normal rainy Tuesday into the LaBeoufathon was a bizarre one.
I arrived at the Angelika with a friend around 2:30 p.m., just in time to catch the second half of Fury and grab a seat. (By 7:00 p.m. a line of nearly 100 people had already formed in the theater’s lobby, and it wasn’t moving one bit.) After having my ID checked — remember, Nymphomanic nudity — being scanned by a security wand and told that we’d be promptly removed from the theater if we took any photos or used our phones (totally not true), we entered a small theater with about 30 people scattered throughout. At first, a lot of the theater was made up of film journalists, from Entertainment Weekly‘s Ariana Bacle who sat next to LaBeouf to BuzzFeed's Alison Willmore, among others who dropped in and out. And there was LaBeouf, about five rows from the screen with a camera clamped to the chair in front of him. An intense scene with some moments of humor from the Brad Pitt–led war film played and LaBeouf did not hold back his very boisterous laughter. My friend and I looked at each other with cocked eyebrows at how weird it all was.
Was LaBeouf genuinely laughing at this scene, or was this another level of performance? Performing in front of a showcase of his performances. Good god, how meta was this going to get? And if it was a performance for the audience, that seemed incredibly exhausting to keep up for three days. Would this marathon end in LaBeouf once again rapturously clapping at a mockery of his own work? Or maybe the dude just really wanted to watch his movies and thought, Hey, I’ll just rent out the Angelika for a few days, hang out with fans and get some free publicity.
But the actor was not interested in any level of interaction. After the lights came on during Fury‘s credits he rushed to the bathroom. When he got back to his seat a woman stopped in the aisle and asked, “Have you seen all of these?” He gave her a slight affirmative nod. A few seconds later a guy approached and congratulated him on his work. LaBeouf gave a forced smile but still said nothing. A group sitting around him chatted and tried to predict what would play next, hoping to see his stint in Sia’s “Elastic Heart” (same), talking about him in the third person as he sat looking down into his lap (texting, perhaps?). I thought maybe this would make him uncomfortable or that in the most normal of human reactions, he’d respond, obviously knowing the answer to their questions. Maybe he’d give us some information, or stand up, whip out a paper bag and pull some kind of shocking stunt. Nope. Nothing.
What happened to the guy who cried and held hands with people at his last art show? Or the guy who screamed “JUST DO IT” over and over or who spit freestyles raps in a YouTube video? As I looked over to watch LaBeouf during Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, mostly since I just had to know what it was like for an actor surrounded by strangers watch himself in the most vulgar of sex scenes, I noticed nothing spectacular. A big smile beamed across his face at the start of the film, clearly as excited as the rest of us to see the Lars von Trier's sex epic up on the big screen again. But nothing else remarkable happened. He watched the film intently, leaned forward with his face in his hands at a few moments, leaned back, readjusted himself in his seat. Earlier in the afternoon I'd caught him crying on the live-stream during the end of Man Down, but saw no such expressions in person. Maybe it was just Nymphomaniac, maybe he'll cry or laugh again later.
But the anticipation and excitement of watching LaBeouf's movies alongside him was one that quickly faded. It was when people first took their seats and when they exited that this movie screening suddenly felt climactic. As people craned their necks to look at LaBeouf upon first entering, a fevered curiosity filled the air, as if everyone at once was reminded they were in on something special, catching a celeb appearance, rubbernecking past an accident. But then they passed; the thrill dissipated and everyone went back to watching the movie. I even eventually got bored of watching LaBeouf's reactions. So fixated by Charlotte Gainsbourg's horrendous sexual torture I nearly forgot I was watching the film 10 feet from one of the stars.
As narcissistic as #ALLMYMOVIES seems to be, appearing to be a modest version of a James Franco vanity project, it surprisingly became more disconnected from LaBeouf as I experienced it. The spectacle of sitting near a spectacle-causing celebrity quelled as LaBeouf offered us nothing more interesting than his onscreen characters. If anything, the project merely titillates a voyeuristic impulse, for us and for LaBeouf. He spends three days watching himself, and probably observing those around him do the same, while we, the spectators watching the spectator, sit and wait for something to happen. He cries. He eats his popcorn. We make GIFs of him eating his popcorn. We write articles about what it's like to experience this. Yet it seems LaBeouf's little marathon has simply created an effect in us far larger than its initial cause, as so much viral art has today. Watching Tilda Swinton sleep or Jay Z rap becomes such a huge occurrence that the act of seeing it, of being there in the flesh and sharing your experience thereafter, trumps the thing itself.
Maybe that was the point of it all for LaBeouf, to escape fame and scrutiny in a dark theater of interchanging strangers. Oddly enough, he's probably left alone more by sitting in his own art installation than he would be walking down the street. Perhaps putting the camera literally on his face was the only way to make himself less of an exposition and actually force us to care about the work at the center of it all, his movies. Or maybe I'm overanalyzing everything and the guy just wanted an excuse to watch Holes on the big screen again. I wouldn't blame him.