Welcome back to The Third Meaning. I’ve been on hiatus here after a long and busy year, but now it’s summertime and the bloggin’ is easy. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up regular posting for a bit.
On to today’s subject: This is the first part of what will be another Third Meaning two-part series, this one on the entertainment industry’s promotion of behind-the-scenes and off-set social interactions. Part Two, coming next week, will be by Friend of the Blog Jo Murphy, current Ph.D candidate at Monash University.
I’m no celebrity scholar, but one particular facet of star culture has always fascinated me- as something to think about, sure, but also just as a media consumer and a fan. It’s a fantasy that has always had a deep appeal to me. And that is the idea that everyone I like likes everyone else I like.
This is an insupportable fantasy on several levels. For one, “liking someone” for me is first and foremost about the work by these people, not necessarily their social personae. Why, then, would I expect them to be likable individually, let alone as one big group? That said, I do have a particular emotional investment in those artists who also seem like Real Cool People To Hang With: Joss Whedon, Ira Glass, and Steven Soderbergh top that list, but I would happily spend a night in the company of, oh, Aaron Sorkin (if I was on some sort of upper), David Fincher, Neil Gaiman (very much Neil Gaiman, in fact- but maybe not Alan Moore), Grant Morrison (how long I’d want to hang with him likely depending on the particular hallucinogen we’d ingested), Edgar Wright (and Pegg and Frost), people like that.
Not necessarily everyone I like, though. I love Michael Mann, but I can’t see chillaxing with him: I have a feeling it’d be like a live performance of one of his commentary tracks, not a conversation. And while Declan McManus is a firm yes, Morrissey… well, no- he seems self-righteous and narcissistic to a point that would be intensely irritating on a personal level.
Thus, it provides me a great deal of pleasure when I hear one artist I like singing the praises of another. Whedon is quite vocal and generous towards others in film, TV, and comics; as is Glass, towards all sorts of people (and Gaiman too, but a lot of the time to people who write things I’m actually not that invested in, like YA novels). But it’s not like it’s my fantasy alone. For one, it underpins the lasting appeal of the Algonquin Round Table for literati, that “Vicious Circle” of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and others that Alan Rudolph commemorated in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). History has commemorated that crowd in lots of forms, in fact: in 1996, Friends of Libraries USA designated the Algonquin Hotel a national literary landmark. Books, documentaries, paintings and more have romanticized the wits of the round table, though Parker herself was dismissive of the group she of whom she herself was the most renowned. Some have perceived them as “famous for being famous” far more than for their work, a familiar phenomenon in modern celebrity culture.
In making his film, Rudolph was somewhat returning to the sort of topic that had he explored in his biggest previous arthouse hit, The Moderns (1988) (best line, Stein to Hemingway: “The sun also sets, you know!”).
Though less chummy, the artists and writers who gathered in Paris in the 1920s were also a far more accomplished group: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali, etc. The idea of the most revolutionary artistes of their period all gathered in more or less one place at more or less one time is undeniably alluring, and one that, via A Moveable Feast, Hemingway himself went some way towards enshrining. If The Moderns pokes holes in the myth even as it lights incense to its memory, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is both more self-conscious about Paris in the ‘20s as a myth, even as it romantically, albeit playfully, spins it out yet again.
The pop music industry has its own versions, too, and for all tastes: there are places/times like Sun Studios in the ‘50s and Motown and Muscle Shoals in the ‘60s; there’s the Factory scene around Andy Warhol, starring the Velvet Underground; there’s the CBGB scene in New York in the mid to late ‘70s; and slightly later, the punk scene in England, where there’s always a frisson for fans when one sees photos of any sort of group combination of J. Rotten, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, and an extra hit when one spots Adam Ant or Shane McGowan in photos (the stars of the then-tomorrow!). On the other side of the coin, there’s the celebrities hanging out together at the height of disco in places like Studio 54.
Best of all, because linked to artistic and personal affinities rather than a scene as such, the idea of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed hanging out in the mid-‘70s. Todd Haynes played with this idea in Velvet Goldmine (1998). But if Hollywood gets a bit swoony over literary versions of the Clubhouse idea, it is second to no other medium in creating and marketing their own equivalents.
In Hollywood, the idea of the stars as Godlike figures has always had a Grecian dimension: the stables of performers under contract at classical-era studios were imagined to interact constantly and collegially, as in some sort of Mount Olympus, but perhaps with less intra-office drama. MGM, “the Rolls Royce of studios,” basing much of its identity in the marketplace on having “more stars than there in Heaven,” advertised this in photo shoots bringing them all together in massive, staged photographic constellations.
At another point in the classical star galaxy, there’s the oddly literal version of the clubhouse idea represented by “The Puppets.” According to Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, this was a group of young, relatively obscure East Coast actors and actresses who had moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s, and who rented what functioned as a literal clubhouse at 2107 Beechwood Drive to maintain some sense of fraternity by putting on musical shows for their own amusement. Willson wrote about them in places like The New Movie Magazine: “Anita Brown and Tom Brown decided, one bright day, that it would be a swell idea if all the ‘kids,’ like themselves, who knew each other back East, could get together, form a club, rent a clubhouse, give shows and have a good time. It would keep them all together and give them a place to go in the evenings after work, and during the days when they weren’t busy on a picture.” The Puppets had some 22 members, including forgotten names like Junior Durkin, Maurice Murphy, Tex Brodus, Pat Ziegfeld, Ben Alexander, Billy Janney, Earl Blackwell, Bob Horner, Patricia Ellis, and Gertrude and Grace Durkin. Hofler calls this “America’s first cult of youth,” thanks in part to Willson’s attempts to glorify these “new faces” hanging out at “kid parties,” but claiming “firsts” is usually to be avoided. Certainly, though, it was a strikingly on-the-nose, real-life version of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”
Fantasies of classical Hollywood as a whole, in both movies and the publicity around Hollywood, CA itself as an industry town, cathected on nightclubs and studio commissaries and parties where all the stars supposedly mingled.
Places like the Trocadero and Ciro’s are enshrined in Hollywood history as a consequence, and had such cultural currency that Looney Tunes could use them as a jumping-off point for cartoons like “Hollywood Steps Out” (1941), set in Ciro’s.
These were golden gods collectively basking in the perfection of their lives, one big, outlandishly beautiful family. So even after the breakup of the studio system, when there was no longer an economic imperative to glorify your stars by showing them interacting with great jollity, the fantasy lived on in myriad forms in ancillary industries like gossip, entertainment journalism, and biographies highlighting stars’ interactions with each other. Oral histories are part of this, too. I’ll get to television in a moment, but certainly how the stars interacted is the main focus of books like Tom Shales’ Live from New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live. Or, more recently, take Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches with Orson. The book as a whole is appealing mainly for its sense of being let in on the private, uncensored Welles, but highlights include both his snubbing of Burton and Taylor (to paraphrase, “Can’t you see I’m eating here?”), and his joyous greeting of Jack Lemmon (“THERE HE IS!”). Celebrities hanging out together are a reliable magnet for paparazzi, columnists, TMZ, and various others in the beast that is the infotainment machine. Every issue of Vanity Fair seems to find some occasion to show pictures of The Beautiful People together at parties, especially come awards season. Indeed, some of the most reader-pleasing coverage of the Oscars are the multi-page spreads of after-parties in VF and other publications. The entire publicity machine around the Golden Globes, forever the Jan Brady to the Oscars’ Marcia, is that the Globes is where the stars “let their hair down”: ie., get tipsy and reveal themselves at a ceremony that is, we are told, one big party.
Then, too, every year VF does a Hollywood issue, including massive Annie Leibovitz group shots bringing together otherwise seemingly disparate groups of actors: but look, here they are, ALL TOGETHER! Like they’re friends! Moreover, these issues always include behind-the-scenes features on the photo shoots, often focusing on things the stars said to each other on the day.
Gossip media and entertainment journalism both feed on and publicize the entertainment industry they cover, and if they have played a huge role in keeping this fantasy construction of a world made up of stars alive, it’s not as if Hollywood itself hasn’t continued to fan its flames. Ensemble films, for instance, frequently appeal based on the notion of the stars interacting on set as much as in the films themselves. This was the basic selling-point for the Rat Pack films of the 1960s, most notably the first Ocean’s Eleven. The most recent version of this is this year’s This Is the End, elaborating on the comedy value of stars acting like asshole versions of themselves. I give a lot of credit for that trend to Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras pushed this about as far as it could go, with Sex Fiend Wannabe-Writer Patrick Stewart, Filthy Kate Winslet, Spoiled Daniel Radcliffe, and Unaccountably Cruel David Bowie (it was at that point I quit watching), among others. This Is the End gives us Pretentious James Franco, Unctuous Jonah Hill, Whiny Jay Baruchel, Slightly-Weaselly Seth Rogen, Predictably-Obnoxious Danny McBride, and, um, Pretty-Normal-Actually Craig Robinson. One high point of the film, and in fact a high point of the Asshole-In-Real-Life character type is Michael Cera as an arrogant, entitled, druggie, misogynist counter to his nebbish-y nice-guy persona. As always, there is a somewhat complicated operation going on here: on the one hand, the stars are “debunking” themselves, “making fun of themselves,” but in doing so in such an exaggerated way, they are actually assuring us that they are down-to-earth folks who are so cool that they are down with poking holes in their own egos. At this point, the surest ways for a star to tell us they are Jes’ Folks are either to get involved in disaster relief efforts, or to make fun of themselves in the broadest possible strokes. But in This Is the End, all this is layered on top of the foundation of “These guys actually do hang together!” This is widely assumed already, given the history of collaborations between various combinations of Rogen, Hill, Franco, Baruchel, McBride, and Robinson. The movie not only builds on that while milking it for comedy, it updates the Trocadero/Ciro’s fantasy for an era in which Hollywood clublife has been devalued by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton; instead, then, we have a house party including, besides all the above, Rihanna, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholz, Martin Starr, Kevin Hart, Jason Segal… etc.
Films like This Is the End (from Sony, by the way, the same company responsible for Superbad and Pineapple Express) remind us that the Everyone I Like Likes Everyone Else I Like fantasy can still be fuel for corporate product. In the post-1948 era of (mostly) independently-financed, package-unit production, there is generally little sense of film studios as anything other than the banking and distribution concerns that they are, with none of the specific cultural identities that adhered in the classical era. And with films financed and produced on a case-by-case basis, apart from franchises (consider the way Marvel Studios distinguished itself from DC adaptations by grouping various heroes together, right from the first appearance of Nick Fury in the end credits of Iron Man), there’s no real motivation to invest heavily in publicizing an entire slate of films, as MGM accomplished with its group photos of contract players. But let’s not forget that TV production concerns and networks are inseparably bound to the film studios in contemporary entertainment conglomerates, and networks do have an investment in publicizing their entire product lines at any given time. There are lots of instances of this sort of thing, like the Showtime ad that featured Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy, from Weeds, kvetching with Laura Linney’s Cathy, from The Big C. Still, for this media consumer’s dollar, the best of these was the brilliant “Oh, What a Night” ad for The WB’s Fall 2000 season, a perfect expression of the net’s self-branding as a youth-oriented channel. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
Otherwise, industrial uses of the Clubhouse fantasy are largely a case of assuring us that everyone on a given film or TV series got along famously, the implication being that this translated to the final product in some way. This is how they function as promotion: If they had fun making it, you will have fun watching it; or, at the very least, that behind-the-cameras energy will seep into the work in some way. Perhaps for some consumers, it is the opposite: it’s possible to imagine those for whom the text is a kind of memorabilia for the fantasy about the stars. DVD featurettes for shows from Arrested Development to Doctor Who, and movies from Fast and Furious entries to indie dramas, lavish time on the cast members joking around. Cast commentary tracks become opportunities for demonstrative bonding (and, at their worst, fawning and ego-tripping). In the case of comedies, they also become forums for extra improvisatory comedy, widely understood to be essentially a group endeavor, and so again pointing to behind-the-scenes bonding + collaboration. Sometimes, too, producers will go to fairly elaborate lengths to facilitate this impression. One striking example was the commentary track to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 “remake.” Jerry Weintraub, after all, knows him a Rat Pack, and the notion that all the cast members loved being together was one of the engines powering the sequels. So for the cast commentary track, even though careful listening makes it apparent that the participants were in a couple separate, small groups, and that Andy Garcia was taped by himself, their comments are carefully edited together so that they sound as if they were all in the same room, hanging out and chatting. At one point, in fact, Garcia’s laughter is edited in such a way as to create the impression that he is laughing at a joke made by someone being recorded at an entirely separate time in an entirely separate space.
Meanwhile, social media users and online fan communities will never let the Clubhouse, Everyone I Like Likes Everyone Else I Like fantasy go, in part doing the entertainment industry’s self-promotional work for them. The thing that finally made me write this blog, in fact, was having my attention brought to the Tumblr Awesome People Hanging Out Together. And really, who doesn’t want to be part of a club like that?
UPDATE: Thanks to Dorinda Hartmann for pointing me to this NBC promo for the 2002 Upfronts.
UPDATE 2: Again thanks to Dorinda Hartmann, I’ve added a paragraph on “The Puppets,” an obscure but quite literal iteration of this idea from early ’30s Hollywood.
Too, according to Hartmann, there’s this: writers on TV shows who Tweet jokes back and forth with each other, transplanting the clubhouse into the Twittersphere. She mentions Sleepy Hollow and Elementary. Which reminded me that cast-members do the same, as with a recent back-and-forth between Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, of House of Lies, tweeting gags back and forth after a report of gunfire near the HoL set this last November.
UPDATE 3: This.