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Shia LaBeouf was about two-thirds of the way through “Fury” when we brushed shoulders in the aisle. Bearded and in black, he blended into the Angelika Film Center’s shadowy theater, yet his presence dominated the room. Just a few hours into his #ALLMYMOVIES experiment, in which the actor took in his entire filmography in reverse for 72 hours, LaBeouf stared ahead with laser focus; in front of him, a camera gazed back, live-streaming every expression for the world to see. So we watched him, in the theater and on screens around the world, as he watched himself.
While LaBeouf (along with artists Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö) engineered this project to baffle, it’s not without precedent. As the collective LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, the trio previously organized LaBeouf’s #IAMSORRY installation in Los Angeles last year, when the actor sat motionless in a room for days at a time with a bag over head and took visits from the public. #ALLMYMOVIES, however, involves a sharper concept.
The prospects of engaging with a famous creator evokes memories of (the far more esteemed) “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present,” but LaBeouf’s project is a keen dialogue on the evolving nature of movie stardom. These days, mainstream cinema and television hardly stays on the screen. Stories spill into social feeds and smartphones and stars no longer have the luxury of being confined within their performances; LaBeouf just got the ball rolling this time.
Yet #IAMSORRY also speaks to an older aesthetic theory. The Kuleshov Effect, a term coined by Soviet director Lev Kuleshov in the silent era, revolved around meanings that stem from different juxtapositions. Cut from a man’s face to the image of a dead girl, and his expression evokes sadness; cut from the same shot to soup, he’s famished. While LaBeouf’s live feed never shifts to the images on screen, the flickering lights on his face are a constant reminder of their presence.
In the theater, audience members (myself included) created our own cutaways, swiveling from the screen to Shia and back again. The effect keeps going, one day at a time, as viewers wonder not only which LaBeouf vehicle will crop up next but also how he’ll react to it. The duality reeks of playful gimmickry — but isn’t that the way we relate to movie stars, anyway?
Cinema has always been voyeuristic: a window for looking at people and places that we can pretend, ever so briefly, to understand. While the future of movies is an open question, star power remains as entrancing as ever, and not only within the context of a provocation like #ALLMYMOVIES.
In “By the Sea,” the quietly serene marital drama directed by Angelina Jolie that opens this week, the world’s most famous actress casts herself alongside her equally famous husband, Brad Pitt, in a sub-Cassavetes drama in which they struggle to repair their relationship during an ill-fated European vacation. Gorgeously shot against the French coast, “By the Sea” aspires to portray a fictional couple in the throes of heated marital issues, the full extent of which only emerge in the half-hearted finale.
Instead, “By the Sea” inevitably foregrounds the lingering appeal of Brangelina, with the real-life couple’s faces framed in gorgeous closeups for much of the protracted running time. As an alcoholic writer with withered features that say more than he can, Pitt does his part to deglamorize his appearance. But there’s no point in “By the Sea” when Angelina Jolie looks like anyone but Angelina Jolie.
Whether floating in the bathtub with a distant look — breasts bobbing, mascara running wild — or curled fetal on the floor as drunken Brad throws a tantrum, Jolie’s cinematic identity is inextricably tied to our understanding of her real one. As Pitt says mournfully during one of several ambling sessions at the local bar when he dons his best French accent, “ooo-la-la, what a body.”
Things get rough for the warring couple, but they’re still gorgeous bodies hurtling through a lusciously rendered period piece. The scenario is too pretty for pathos to sink in.
Of course, this celebrity monolith doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and to the extent that “By the Sea” takes on certain meta qualities, the pair must have known those connotations would exist. If the movie is a vanity project, it’s also explicitly about vanity — the frustrating task of attempting to lead a happy life against impossible odds. Rather than commenting on their own privileged existence, Jolie and Pitt ostensibly turn the tables by portraying the same obsessive tendencies that surround their fame.
In a key plot development, which leads to the movie’s best scenes, the couple discover a hole in the wall of their hotel room where they spy on a younger, happier couple next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Their idyllic existence turns out to be misleading, but it also provides the older couple with a handy escape from their own troubles. The fantasy of experiencing someone else’s private moments overtakes them. It’s a decidedly modern concept: From childhood, we’re told not to stare, which only heightens the appeal of getting away with it. Now you can do it more than ever. Just as they peep, we watch Shia LaBeouf. What’s he doing now?
While “By the Sea” uses its high-profile cast to explore the false standards of fame, a smaller movie opening this week addresses the topic with a shrewder eye. In “Entertainment,” director Rick Alverson follows the exploits of a terrible, disheveled standup (known only as “The Comedian”) who barks awkward punchlines and brawls with his audience.
The tragic antihero is portrayed by Gregg Turkington, a soft-spoken performance artist who’s been honing his alter ego as rambunctious provocateur Neil Hamburger since the ’90s. By invoking the desperate act of craving popularity and crumbling in the spotlight, “Entertainment” examines The Comedian’s prospects in the real world, and the tragicomic moments that result from his inane routine.
Where the Brangelina mythology invites us to relish unrealistic circumstances, “Entertainment” shows the downside of those extremes by exploring the hunger for fame and the alienation of getting lost in its allure. Watching LaBeouf’s face as he engages with his own image, we’re all forced to contemplate the same thing.