Disconnected

Two recent movies comment on a disturbing direction we seem to be traveling in American culture. Over the past few decades, communication technology- notably the internet and smart phones –has made it more possible than ever for Americans to be in touch with one another, and yet, somehow, many people are more disconnected than ever.

In the movie Her, a man (Joaquin Phoenix) has a romance with a computer operating system. The operating system has no physical presence. It’s not human, just a disembodied voice (Scarlett Johansson), yet he connects with it passionately.imagesXGMG8ZTS The movie makes an interesting point, that the core of interpersonal relationships is communication, that even without touch, or sex (they have a form of sex, sort of like phone sex, a poor substitute for the real thing) or a face and body, romance can still flourish. There are, of course, certain real advantages to such a romance. She’s available all the time, never sick, or tired, or sleeping. She doesn’t age and she never dies. She’s whip smart and socially adept. In the ways that matter most, she’s just about the perfect companion.

That’s a little scary. Humans have been bonding with other humans for eons now. Those relationships have always been the center of our lives. But now, as Her predicts, we may be moving toward relating more to media than we do to each other.

The other movie, Don Jon, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a man who’s had a lot of success getting a lot of women into his bed.untitled But over time, he comes to prefer porn over actual women for sexual release. He makes arguments that porn is preferable. It’s less work, always there, never unwilling. You can find and enjoy every fetish imaginable. You need absolutely no social skills to get sex. You don’t even have to leave the house. All you need is a computer and an internet connection.

Both these movies explore the same theme, that media is now capable of competing successfully for the most important parts of our lives. In the past, the idea that a machine could displace other people for these needs would be the stuff of science fiction. But it’s rapidly moving from science fiction to science fact.

In the span of about six decades, since television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, we’ve been increasingly abandoning each other and turning to media for entertainment, information, companionship and gratification. During that same period we’ve seen a decline in marriage, the traditional family, friendship, group activity, and dating. Maybe that correlation is not a coincidence. Maybe as our media consumption has grown, it has eaten away at our social lives. Maybe before many more decades, media will be our dominant life partner and other people will play only a small role in our lives. If that happens, it will be a major shift in human lifestyle.

Some time ago, I posted a blog about what life was like in a small Arkansas community in the late 1800s. I had read the diary of a woman who lived near a small farming town and what struck me was how connected the community of neighbors was. Not a day went by that they didn’t go visit each other, or have visitors in their home, or both. Contact with other humans was not only the heartblood of their lives, it was also a support system. They shared their food, their labor, helped each other out in every way you can think of, cared for each other from the cradle to the grave,  and entertained each other. Life was almost entirely about your connection with the people around you, family, friends, and neighbors.

We’ve pretty much lost that now. I know lots of people who don’t have any friends. They’re distant from their relatives. These days, it’s not unusual for parents to lead separate, insulated lives from their own children. Lots of people who have lived in the same place for years don’t know their neighbors.

Sure, today people have Facebook friends, and a bunch of numbers in their smart phone, and lots of followers on Twitter, but, really, how close are they to those people? They may share cat videos, and selfies, and inspirational quotes, but when their cars break down, they call AAA.

It’s a new era. People are out, media is in. How will it all work out in the long run? Who knows? We’re headed into uncharted territory, all racing headlong somewhere we’ve never been before.

Movies About Movie Stars

Daniel Day Lews and Sally Field in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lews and Sally Field in Lincoln

Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly

Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly

In the last couple of years, I’ve noted a growing trend in moviemaking, films focused on movie stars and political figures. In other words, movies about celebrities, being played by other celebrities.

With the 2013 Academy Awards less than a month away, one of the leading contenders for best picture is Lincoln, and the favorite to win best actor is Daniel Day Lewis who portrays the sixteenth U.S. President. Also favored to win is Sally Field for her supporting role as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Just last year, Meryl Streep took home an Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Julianne Moore won a 2012 Emmy for playing Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change miniseries. And Bill Murray also is getting into the act, literally, with Hyde Park On The Hudson, in which he plays FDR.

But even more profuse are the films being churned out in which movie stars play other movie stars.

In one of the more intriguing films of this type, yet to be released, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly with a story line about how miserable Kelly became during her marriage to Prince Ranier.HITCHCOCK-Movie

In current release is Hitchcock, in which an ensemble cast led by Anthony Hopkins, cast as Hitch, step into the shoes of movie royalty so moviegoers can go gaga with celebrity worship retroactively. Scarlettt Johansson takes on the iconic regurgitation of Janet Leigh in Psycho, James D’Arcy morphs into Tony Perkins, Jessica Biel is Vera Miles and Helen Mirren plays Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville.

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in The Girl

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in The Girl

Actually this is the second time the legendary director has been the centerpiece of a film recently. Just last October, HBO premiered The Girl, about the making of Hitchcock’s The Birds, starring Toby Jones as the director and Sienna Miller as Tippy Hedren.

It seems that if you were a major Hollywood star, you can count on a movie coming out about your life not long after you die.

One example, Liz and Dick. Last year 3.5 million viewers tuned in to Lifetime to see Lindsay Lohan imitate Elizabeth Taylor and Grant Bowler try to recreate Richard Burton.

Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler in Liz and Dick

Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler in Liz and Dick

Finally, there is the most portrayed movie star of all time, Marilyn Monroe, who has been the subject no less than 25 times in films, music videos, advertising campaigns and TV shows. And the idolatry goes on. In October 2011, My Week With Marilyn came out, featuring Michelle Williams as the blonde bombshell and it garnered some awards attention. And released just a few months ago and produced by Brad Pitt, Blonde is based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel and Naomi Watts is the latest actress to try to inhabit the legend that is Marilyn.

So the question arises, why all these movies about movie and political stars? There’s certainly no denying that we’ve seen these kinds of movies before, with everyone from Jim Morrison to JFK being chronicled. But in past times, these kind of movies seemed to only come along occasionally. Now, we seem to be inundated with them.

One factor seems to be that celebrity worship is more rampant today than it’s ever been. A few years back, Robert Redford came and gave a speech at the local university. One of the things he addressed was celebrity worship and how overblown it is in our culture. Then, as soon as he finished speaking, a huge mob of people rushed up to him to fawn and grovel.

70202150When Hollywood makes a movie about some former movie idol, there is a double-edged built-in audience. First, movie lovers are interested in learning more about the life of the person being dissected, and second, they are interested in seeing how closely some current actor can transform himself or herself into the legend. So the appeal for this kind of movie is strong, and that should drive the production of more and more movies like this.

Another aspect that makes these movies ready-made for shooting is that the audience already knows the story and mainly just wants to go along on the ride. Who doesn’t know how Lincoln’s conflict over slavery came out? Who doesn’t know the Sarah Palin boondoggle fiasco? We know Princess Grace died in a car wreck. No dramatic surprise ending there. The point is that no screenwriter has to strain creativity to produce a brilliant innovative screenplay. The story is already there, laid out, and all the writers have to do is journalize real events. That’s a lot easier than creating a story from scratch.

Time and again, I’ve heard movie lovers who’ve seen one of these movies raving, saying  something like, “It seemed so real it was spooky.”

Naomi Watts as Marilyn in Blonde

Naomi Watts as Marilyn in Blonde

There’s no doubt that good actors can do almost letter perfect portrayals of other actors. When you play someone famous, the audience knows that person, so they are amazed when the actor playing them practically brings them back to life. But this ability is overrated. Actors can spend endless amounts of time reviewing how a famous person talked, what their signature mannerisms were, how they walked, how they dressed, how they comported themselves. Any good actor should be able to do this, and it shouldn’t be so amazing. But because the actor can hitchike on the star’s charisma, is usually is.

Probably a lot more difficult, from an acting standpoint, is creating a memorable character from fiction, a character the audience never met before. How impressive is Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump or Billy Bob Thornton’s twisted Carl from Sling Blade? Those actors didn’t have nearly the template to work with. They had to envision the character themselves from words on paper. That’s much more challenging.

The future of this genre, movies about celebrities, seems secure. It could get ridiculous. Every person with name recognition is a potential movie. (Remember that movie about Chuck Barris?)

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh

I have to wonder if one of these days, we’ll be watching a movie about the life of Scarlett Johansson, and it will include a section about Scarlet playing Janet Leigh, and then, whoever is playing Scarlett, will there eventually be a movie about her, playing Scarlet, playing Janet? The whole thing could get more convoluted than that picture on the Pet Milk can, which just shows that celebs are cash cows and Hollywood will keep milking them.