Let’s opening with a warning – I may have taken last week off to recharge a bit, but don’t expect this installment to be any better. I’m still trying to figure out what this column is.
Oh, and spoilers for Rango follow. Read at your own risk.
I watched White Hunter, Black Heart for the first time last weekend. (No, I don’t know how it slipped past my radar for so long. I thoroughly enjoyed it – surprise surprise – and highly recommend it. Clint Eastwood channeling John Huston is particularly strange and heady in a post-Daniel Plainview time. We all have our version of that voice now. (Mine is pretty swell, if I may say so, despite that I don’t have that rumbling male pitch.)
And as I listened to Eastwood enunciate those patrician vowels, and tried to transpose that to him doing his best “I’ve abandoned my child!”, I wondered what the hell Huston would think of everyone mouthing off in his unique tone. I don’t know if anyone mimicked Huston before White Hunter. I don’t think so, considering he was alive and well until 1989, meaning you could just call on him to lend his own voice if you so wanted, so it’s unlikely he ever had reason to say “Well, I don’t like that at all!” (Something tells me Huston would be terribly amused though.)
But it got me thinking about how bizarre it really was to lift someone’s life, voice and story so easily. Huston was still alive when White Hunter went into production, as was Katharine Hepburn, and both were casually lifted for a fictional recreation, first on page and then onscreen, all for our amusement. Hepburn actually criticized the film for inaccuracy, but it’s not as though she could really do anything to stop it. It had that “inspired by real events” excuse.
This kind of thing is a different animal than a biopic – where you know your life will be dissected and possibly rewritten, and is generally done with you or your estate’s consent – and while it can be flattering and interesting, it’s deeply unsettling the more you really think about it.
In a funny twist, this was freshly kicking around in my mind when I went to see Rango last weekend, and was thrilled and horrified by just who personified “The Spirit of the West.” As I’ve talked about the film with friends and family, we all keep coming back to that scene, and everyone refers to CGI Clint with a mixture of fascination and dismay. We all keep asking the same thing. Did he approve it? Why didn’t he do the voice? Did they even bother to ask? Robert Zemeckis asked before lifting his name in “Back to the Future 3”, and Eastwood was reportedly delighted by the homage, and I’m deeply curious how he might feel about this one.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what he thinks, because the image is no longer his own. The Man with No Name belongs to studios, to cinema, to history, and to audiences. It is his face, but it can be appropriated for animation and birthday cards. Of course, there’s something completely awesome in that, but it’s also incredibly terrifying about the loss of that control. Celebrities often complain about privacy and the paparazzi, but those photos and TMZ videos are still essentially them living their lives. There’s still a connection. It’s something else to go see an animated flick, and find yourself a central character, and you never set foot on a soundstage.
Before you think I’m saying “Oh, poor celebrities!”, believe me, I’m not. There are worse things in life than being wealthy and culturally relevant. We should all be so lucky to have fans and last forever. And yet, when your face and your life is the art, at what point can you even take credit or pride? It is, after all, no longer yours. It’s the public’s. They’re entitled to see you in Rango. Other artists have the freedom to use your voice to hang a terrifying character on. It’s something beyond homage.
And yet, if the Rango reactions I’ve heard are any indication, no one is entirely sure whether it is appropriate to lift someone’s image (stylized though it may be) and use it in such a way. I’m not going to speak for everyone, but no one I’ve discussed the movie with has spoken of it with a lot of enthusiasm and glee. It’s more of a “That was cool but … man, I don’t know. That was just weird. Do you think they asked him? It fit the movie, it did, but … wow. It was strange. Didn’t you think so?”
I did. I loved it, but it bugged me. And I imagine I come at this with a paranoid perspective, having seen some amazing things done to people with bylines or YouTube accounts. Recently, someone sent me an article from the LA Times where the author argued for forcing commenters to use their real names in order to raise the level of online discourse. That cry is old hat – it was the comments in the article that fascinated me. Readers were screaming that they had the right for their identities to remain private. One of the most persistent fears was that someone might steal their identity, and use that identity for crimes ranging from fake comments to stealing credit cards.
How preposterous, I thought. Why would anyone care to troll comment fields looking for identity? But, I have seen it happen even when people use aliases. I’ve seen it happen to those of us who have the fortune (or misfortune) of writing for websites from here to Gizmodo. Identities lifted. Backstories pilfered. All of it up for grabs in a strange sense of entitlement. Once it’s out there — from photo of a dog to a comment you left in a forum — it’s up for grabs.
I’m reminded of a Rilke poem – I think it was Rilke, but I can’t find it anywhere – about people wearing masks or borrowed faces, and then ripping them off. The author mentions that he isn’t afraid to look at the faceless individual, but that he is too terrified to look at the face they hold in their hands.
At the risk of sounding a bit psychotic, there’s something in that sinking terror, and I find myself completely sympathetic to anyone demanding the right to obfuscate their identity. We know how easy it is to lose our face. In this age of YouTube and Twitter celebrity with its 24 hour double rainbow memes, we all know that tomorrow something could happen to thrust us into the spotlight. Within 2 days, you would find yourself an object of homage or mimicry, kind or cruel. Like Huston, and Eastwood, and Jack Sparrow and even Sarah Palin. Like Double Rainbow guy. All we’ve got is that one face, that one voice … and how frightening would it be to watch or hear it walking on without you?