I can distinctly remember when movie houses looked like old-fashioned theaters: with velvet armchairs, plush wall to wall carpeting, and grandly sloping aisles to an oversized stage. My beloved, long gone dad liked to take my older brother and I to the movies to see Goldfinger, with larger than life Sean Connery lighting up the screen. James Bond’s unflappable bravado, cool resolve, and self-deprecating humor was nothing short of magnetic. I was entranced by Bond’s coolness under pressure, his gizmo laden, bullet proof Aston Martin and his way with the women. As far as I was concerned, Sean Connery was akin to a god – an all-powerful divo – a divinity of sorts.
That was 1964, and much to my dismay, Sean Connery would eventually be substituted by many an actor. Not that they weren’t great actors or convincing secret agents, but, in my book, how could no less than half a dozen thespians be demigods ? Was society substituting copies or knock-offs for the real thing? Something, I thought, had gone awfully wrong in that imaginative space where dreams and reality collide.
Turn the clock forward to the present-day dystopian world of mass/social media, viral marketing, the content glut, streaming platforms, and corporate lackeys beholden and hostage to Wall Street’s short-term focus on revenues and scale, and I’m able to belatedly answer my own somewhat puerile question.
Way back in 1964, I wasn’t aware of the so-called “star system” in which movie stardom is manufactured through promotion, marketing, and if warranted, wide releases. I didn’t realize, star struck adolescent that I was, that Sean Connery was the product of a studio system, powerful talent agents, and legions of marketing executives fabricating sales strategies that could turn raw talent into box-office gold.
And little did I know that the star system, combined with technology’s tectonic advances would make mince meat of, dare I say the words: truth, beauty, and art. It’s almost as though pop culture has been subsumed by camp. Anything extreme, or over the top becomes the center of attention, as the celebrity obsessed media chase mass hysteric fans in an ascending spiral of exaggeration and one-upmanship, regardless of whether it’s movies, fashion, automobiles, real estate or yachts.
So here we are in a world where, to quote Oscar Wilde, we “know the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. Quantity’s takeover of quality has all but neutered our emotional involvement in the products we flaunt because we are caught in a self-feeding cycle of mass hysteria for tangible goods which become famous and recognizable simply because they’re…well, famous and recognizable. No wonder then that today’s movie “stars” are only as good as their last movie or TV series. With (at last count) 500 TV series being produced a year in the US alone, and distribution networks hungry for the next hit movie, the name of the game isn’t so much about fabricating and recognizing quality, but simply to let quantity determine quality.
Along those lines, I am reminded of the glossy media falling over itself for Lady Gaga’s four outfit change extravaganza at the 2019 Met Gala in New York. Miss Germanotta really outdid herself, with a signature finale, which left her diminutive half naked frame, in fish net stockings and sky-high platform boots, as the locus of media attention.
This may sound unreasonable but it’s not. In a world where “value” is determined by profit maximization, even the most revered icons of taste: Chanel, Rolls Royce, Ferragamo, you name it, have been eviscerated by private equity and/or shrewd corporate barons 2.0. (a’ la Mons. Bernard Arnault). Downstream from the boardrooms and executive suites, compare, say the timeless beauty of a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud from the early 1960s to a newly minted Rolls Royce Wraith. The former exudes the faultless bespoke craftsmanship whereas the latter exudes, well it exudes money, lots of it.
And speaking of corporate barons, even the robber barons or soon to be industrialists like Henry Ford or Giovanni Agnelli Sr. were in love with their product, the automobile. In a similar vein, the legendary Jack Warner, ruthless though he may have been, lived, ate, and breathed one thing, the movies. Fast forward to the scores of anonymous yet very wealthy businessman whose primeval point of honor today is to make money, while remaining agnostic about the product or service they’re selling.
Indeed, even money has become a commodity, and the world is awash in trillions as formerly level headed central bankers, make sure the system is primed and ever expanding and so-called “banksters” come up with the next toxic asset to be peddled.
So who’s a movie star, superstar, divo or celebrity these days ? Is it the Sean Connery, or Audrey Hepbun, of yesteryear? Is it the priceless Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, assuming it’s authentic and not a copy? Is it Psy with his 1 billion views of the Gnam Gnam Style video? Is it Jeff Bezos with his $150 billion net worth, give or take a few billion depending on the whims of Wall Street? Or is it Scarlett Johansson, who, according to Forbes, was the highest paid actress in Hollywood in 2019, at $56 million…
You get my gist. Call me old fashioned, call me nostalgic, call me a purist looking for innocence lost, but nowadays it seems as though we have turned our dreams and our stars into commodities, able to be bought and sold, at a dime a dozen, or for billions, makes no difference. We have literally bought our dreams and our superstars, turning them into the next big thing. Here today, gone tomorrow. But, sooner or later, humanity will wake up and realize – only love remains, all else is one grand illusion.