Me and Michelle Pfeiffer
on a Sunday Afternoon
Robert J. Lewis

It may be that the most impressionable form of experience now for many if not most people consists in their emotional transactions with actors. - Arthur Miller

It seems we’re always reading or talking about them. They disproportionately occupy our wall space, fantasies and daydreams. We write to them, worry about them when they fall ill, and like those special people whom we have felt close to, we weep when they pass on. And yet we don’t know them, have never met them, which makes all of the above quite astonishing, and the subject of this inquiry.

Pfieffer, MichelleWho are these very special people -- strangers who are anything but strangers -- and what enables them to exercise such an effect on our collective imaginations? To the first part of the question, they are the stars and starlets of the silver screen and/or television. The manner in which they so compellingly engage us is directly related to the way we have come to know them: by looking directly at them as they make their appearance on the screen. As we gaze into their faces, a very particular one-way relationship develops, which endears them to us even more than some people we know: people we may see on a regular basis, but with whom we ‘do not’, and ‘can not’ sustain direct eye contact. In the real world the only persons we can stare at are our intimates: husbands, wives, boy and girl-friends, or lovers, and only after the highly charged emotional reciprocities that link two people have been sufficiently accumulated and singularized. We will have already submitted to the rites of courtship over a period of time in order to nurture and develop those special bonds which, when established, grant the right to look into the other’s eyes.

On the silver screen, all the rules of intimacy are violated. We purchase our admission and minutes later we are staring into the eyes of our favorite actors and actresses, into the eyes of persons we haven’t met, don’t know, with whom we are not bonded, total strangers who in a matter of minutes have become so familiar they would leave us breathless if we were to meet them in real life. That the bond is one-directional and has no real terminus doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is that the medium of cinema permits us to stare at and engage with an incredible range of personalities that we then begin to think of as people we know, to the effect that the promise or expectation of feeling intimately connected to a film’s star and/or character may be more important than any film’s content? Or, to parrot McLuhan: the medium is indeed the message.

Consider the fact that star culture employs tens of thousands of people (scriptwriters, gossip columnists, journalists, photographers, fan club operators, talk-show hosts) and generates billions of dollars because we feel connected to (intimate with) people (actors) we don’t know. Bonding with our favorite actors, or any celebrity we have come to know through visual media (rock star, athlete, talk show host, news anchor), requires no effort: we simply tune in and stare into their eyes and they magically become part of that privileged constellation of people whom we care about, who share the same orbit as the people we know. Like watching pornography, it’s so easily done (they can’t stare back, reject, criticize), some of us might be tempted not to bother with the real rites and risks involved in relationships.

Because intimacy is such a basic need and is nature’s way of providing both a purpose and protection against an indifferent and sometimes hostile world, when its left wanting, an existential void develops and quickly fills with dread and longing. As we begin to feel at home in the 21st century, more of us are turning to the ersatz world of cinema to fill that void, convinced the path of least resistance is its own reward. Which means we needn’t bother asking what happens to longing and desire when the mental powers required to sustain them begin to atrophy. Norman Mailer reminds us that “a drug which offers peace to a pain may dull the nerve which could have taught the mind how to carry that pain.”

If we are to set ourselves on the path to better understand both the psychological and philosophical consequences of becoming emotionally engaged with media stars, we must begin with the fact that ‘who we are’ is inescapably defined by what we are doing at any given moment. By recognizing myself as that person in a dark theater trying to recreate the intimacy, intensity or drama that is lacking in my life, I may become sufficiently unsettled to want to resituate my real needs in the real world.

Less than that, another perfect Sunday in the park with ‘my Michelle’.


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