Celebrity is truly the public health crisis we deserve. I recently watched a clip of pop star Katy Perry on a Japanese game show, clapping handfuls of chicken nuggets into her mouth as her eyes welled with tears. The audience roared – stars! They’re just like us! It mirrors the trope of the conventional beauty who insists she’s a dork, the model who claims to be a klutz, the politician who just wants to grab a pint with you. Contemporary celebrity is plagued by two conflicting imperatives: 1) Always be relatable; 2) Never be ashamed. “I was taught by my parents,” George Trow wrote in 1980, “to believe that the traditional manners of the high bourgeoisie, properly acquired, would give me a certain dignity, which would protect me from embarrassment.” This genteel cultural sentiment, that privacy and decorum are endemic to the American Dream, seems quaint in retrospect. Warhol, avatar of mass culture and high glamour, knew that fame was destined to be the real American Dream. Glamour itself is a skewed dignity, one that demands to be looked at. By the time Laurie Simmons and her Pictures Generation cohort Cindy Sherman were exploring glamour and female privacy with a cinematic eye, Trow concluded that the celebrity was truly the modern subject. We are a nation of mini-celebs in a love-hate relationship with attention.
The opening scene of Simmons’s recent film My Art finds the filmmaker and artist playing a deliberately dressed-down version of herself named Ellie, embarking on the familiar artworld errand of swinging by the Whitney. She ambles and pauses in front of works by Catherine Opie, Glenn Ligon, Robert Heinecken, and in a saccharine wink, a painting by Simmons’s real-life husband Carroll Dunham. The movie is dotted throughout by what she calls “these little flowers.” They frame the deliberateness of address for a film she describes as “very much for my people.” Amid the current groundswell of interest in women’s stories, My Art takes up the mantle, unique in popular film, of depicting an older female artist dodging the histrionics of creative crisis.
By “dressed-down” I don’t mean that Ellie appears merely casual, although her jeans, braids, and flowy tops betray the character’s nescience compared to Simmons’s own attire at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere in January. Ellie has been dressed down, lightly, gradually, by the artworld itself. My Art follows the 60-something single artist-professor on a summer break, housesitting for a friend, and clocking plenty of studio time. She finds unexpected collaborators among the locals, including the estate’s gardeners: two out-of-work actors who spend their days pondering exactly how much acting they have to do before they can claim that mantle. The splendid abode marks the dissonance between Ellie’s career and that of her friends (and is in fact Simmons’s and Dunham’s own Connecticut residence – another flower). On her way upstate, Ellie stops at another friend’s mega-studio in NYC, an artist named Mickey whose work is “played” by the work of Marilyn Minter (who also makes a brief cameo). Bright young assistants flit about the studio, trying to locate the camera Ellie came to borrow. Mickey can’t remember half their names. Her career is going well, Ellie remarks. Mickey says, “They love bad boys and old ladies. It’s just my turn now,” and then sends Ellie off with the camera and a bit of advice. “I think you should embarrass yourself more.”
My Art is rife with clichéd clumsiness: Ellie caught gyrating in her living room with a joint; Ellie on an awkward date with her student’s stepfather. Although they receive the full force of Simmons’s dream-inflected cinematography, these tropes never quite get their due dramatic weight. The beats of My Art follow the well-trod territory of romantic comedy, where bad dates and bad dancing serve as disingenuous turns that illuminate the charms of the heroine to her would-be suitor. Here instead, the movie cuts repeatedly to attentive montages of Ellie at work on her art, for which she eventually enlists both the gardener and the date. It’s kind of a relief, this constant undercutting of romantic tension by Ellie’s nonchalance. Her work forms a strategy for channeling “real” embarrassment into her art practice: producing flawed remakes of classic films. Frank, one of the actor-cum-gardeners, admits his confusion during his first foray into Ellie’s process, remaking a scene from The Misfits, the 1961 Gable-Monroe vehicle about the decline of the romantic West. “You can never be Clark Gable,” Ellie responds. “I can never be Marilyn Monroe. It’s exactly about the impossibility of us ever being able to be them.” In Ellie’s work, which is something like Simmons’s own practice, mashed with Michelle O’Marah’s lo-fi remakes, relatability and vulnerability come together in a flat-footed echo of the mass-culture narratives that have shaped women’s lives – my life – for too damn long. They look, in this light, toothless and a little dumb.
Star power is a precisely-calibrated quality both in and around the film. For me, this is its true “flower.” That Simmons herself is something of a celebrity, and her daughter Lena Dunham arguably more so, lends My Art’s autofiction its critical edge. The marquee names – Parker Posey as a nagging, imperious local, and Lena as an annoying, self-important young artist in the throes of success – are in the movie for all of two minutes apiece. They appear as heavily-leveraged cameos, presumably to generate PR. The post-screening Q&A was promoted by promising that Dunham would be moderating “in person.” During this chat, she asked about the origins of the movie; Simmons replied with a comment about Aura, the protagonist of Dunham’s 2010 feature Tiny Furniture, who is also a female artist. “I was blown away by how beautifully you wrote it,” she said directly to Lena, “and also how inaccurately you wrote it.” It seemed a fraught riposte to the creator of a critically-acclaimed television show. Girls and its creator generate ink at such a rate that even the mention of her name colored the film before I saw it.
Dunham’s volatile celebrity, and our culture’s inability to separate her personal narrative from her crafted ones, tightens a spring in me at the intersection of critic, artist, and entertainer. So much so that I asked a fellow actor-comedian for advice concerning this review. How do you operate halfway between cultural commentator and would-be cultural subject? Her reply: “I think the real question to ask is if you actually care what Lena Dunham does one way or the other.”
It’s a question most of us should ask about most celebrities. The answer says more about us than anything else. Mark Greif’s prescient essay “Anaesthetic Ideology,” traces our peculiarly Western anxiety epidemic as stemming from a peculiarly Western omnipresence of drama. As stars in the production of our own lives, endlessly inundated by a stream of representations masquerading as important news or relevant stories, it’s no wonder, as Greif writes, “life itself becomes a nightmare of aestheticized, dramatic events” and the fatigued self either checks out or implodes. In short, for our own entertainment we want to identify with the drama that constantly unfurls around us, but ceaseless spectacle is an unstable mode of being. Dunham feels like an ancillary casualty of Greif’s cultural diagnosis. Even after the American political climate forced the thinkpiece-industrial complex to try its hand at reporting, she remains a cultural punching-bag par excellence: a straw-man that allows young writers to spar with ideas that are conveniently characteristic of their own lives. This renders the calm tone of My Art nigh political. Simmons has crafted something like cinematic respite from dramatic overload and its attendant crisis of identification. Ellie is coolly preoccupied with the impossibility of substituting herself into the films she obsesses over. The project is her bulwark; the attention she can take or leave. Celebrity is the free-floating aura at work. In an age of hyper-drama and hyper-identification, it can feel like a miasma. We should embarrass ourselves more.
That Simmons’s film is not art, per se, is critical. Movies are a didactic form that shouldn’t apologize for their sentimentality. My Art, like a good pop song, is an infinitely digestible reminder of something easily forgotten. Its ham-fisted message, to her daughter, to her tribe, to me, might be cribbed from Wayne Koestenbaum writing about Susan Hayward, impossible celebrity of a bygone era: “A woman alone in her room is no small accomplishment.”