Yesterday afternoon, Shia LaBeouf announced the immediate opening of an art installation at New York’s Angelika Film Center called #ALLMYMOVIES, where the actor would, over the course of 72 hours, watch all of his movies in reverse chronological order. While the theater in question only permits about 50 people to join him at any one moment — the line for a seat quickly grew to several hours’ wait — a concurrent live feed allows us to follow along in real time on the internet, where, at last glance, LaBeouf was struggling to keep his eyes open during “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” He’s ducked out for a piss, noshed on popcorn (an act that was promptly GIFed), and — still in range of the webcam — taken an overnight nap on the theater floor.
This isn’t LaBeouf’s first like-minded art project. It continues a phase of his career that began with the short film “HowardCantour.com,” an apparently sincere, if not especially sympathetic, portrait of a critic, played by Jim Gaffigan, that LaBeouf publicized by contacting critics (including me) directly over social media. But LaBeouf’s transformation began in earnest when “HowardCantour.com” was exposed as an act of blatant plagiarism, lifted directly from Daniel Clowes’ comic strip “Justin M. Damiano” without attribution or permission. LaBeouf quickly removed the short from the web and appeared to apologize for his actions, but his apologies also turned out to be plagiarized, a Hail Mary attempt to retroactively turn an act of simple theft into a deliberate provocation.
The discovery seemed to break something in LaBeouf, or set something free: Within months, he was appearing on the red carpet wearing a paper bag reading “I Am Not Famous Anymore” over his head, and staging a happening in a Los Angeles gallery called #IAMSORRY whose participants could interact one-on-one with a mute LaBeouf in any way they chose, up to and including sexual assault. #IAMSORRY was itself an act of plagiarism, blatantly copying the performances of Marina Abramovic, but rather than getting caught after the fact, LaBeouf and his new artistic partners, Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and British artist Luke Turner, were apologizing in advance.
LaBeouf has continued to act, as the recent entries in #ALLMYMOVIES make clear, playing small roles in big movies (“Fury”) and big roles in movies, like “Charlie Countryman” and the as-yet-unreleased “Man Down,” that almost no one has seen. But it’s his performances — or, if you like, stunts, although who can tell the difference — that have gotten him the most attention. The more he insists he’s not famous, or rather, the more publicly he performs his ostensible ordinariness, the more famous he becomes. Even for a working actor of LaBeouf’s mid-level fame, it’s not that hard to stay out of the public eye, as long as you can avoid, say, getting thrown out of a Broadway show for drunken disruption. But LaBeouf doesn’t want to vanish. He wants to be seen, and to understand what it means for others to see him.
If “HowardCantour.com” was an attempt to find common ground with the critics who watch and evaluate is work, #ALLMYMOVIES puts LaBeouf in the position of an ordinary moviegoer. The method is, once again, stolen, this time from Abbas Kiarostami’s “Shirin,” with the added element of public participation (or at least observation, since viewers are told not to take pictures or use their phones, and LaBeouf is not responding when spoken to). But whether he’s hit on a better idea or simple worn down the critical establishment’s collective resistance, something funny is happening this time: The reviews are good. Some of them are great, even. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich called it “the best performance of his career,” and Vulture’s Abraham Reisman, the Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush’s Erin Whitney, and BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore all filed appreciative notices. He’s getting better reviews for watching his own movies than he did acting in them.
From a distance — which, whether it not it’s how it’s “meant to be” experience, is how most people will — #ALLMYMOVIES seems like pretty thin gruel, a honeypot for film journalists and the idly curious. (If Shia LaBeouf did not exist, James Franco would have to invent him.) But if LaBeouf’s goal was to get people to see him differently, he may finally have succeeded, even if anonymity is farther than ever out of reach.