Thursday, March 26, 2009

Becoming Famous Despite Shrinking Social Distances

I thought, today, about the irony of an actor applying make-up to the face of an amateur attempting to portray an actor—an Escheresque thought to twist my mind while spending the day alone. Following close in the footsteps of her dad, our darling daughter was plying her newly-learned skill as make-up artist at a local “Every 15 Minutes” event. Due to unexplainable logistics problems, today she felt the need to have a friend accompany her and provide assistance.

That friend happens to be an actor. If you ask him, I’m sure that is what he would affirm. He has spent innumerable hours considering the craft. He has paid his dues in the required local amateur events, served for wages little higher than sheer gratitude in experimental attempts to break into the market, and actually succeeded in making his face stick to product that has seen the light of day.

The event they were assisting this morning required the early-morning painting of over two dozen high school faces in the macabre shades of death. This was all in preparation for a mock car wreck staged for the benefit of the pre-prom student body—a grim reminder of possibilities each student’s parents would rather not face. Some of the students, standing in as “actors” in the scene, would be made up to look like victims of specific injuries—all designed biologically-precisely by an attendant emergency-room nurse supervisor. Claire and her new-for-today assistant were tasked with bringing those hospital-exacting schemata to life.

I could just hear the backroom chatter now. The creator of the morbid moulage, coaxing his palette’s plaster onto the site of the student actor’s wound, somehow letting slip that he happened to be an actor…for real. What impact in conversation that ensued?

When I was little, I knew the magnetic pull a comment like that could make. I happened to grow up being the kid sister of an actor. On the rare occasion when he came to my home to visit, every school-mate of mine for a multi-mile radius somehow heard the news and flocked to my front yard. I’m not sure what they expected when they got there. I’m not even sure they knew what they expected. But this was someone “famous” and that is what is supposed to be done when someone famous happens by.

That, however, was when there was one source of daily entertainment—one television, with three predictable stations, that offered itself as near-sole provider of entertainment to an entire population. If you saw it on TV, chances were that everyone saw the same thing. And people who were seen on a screen like that became, by definition, famous.

So, if famous means everyone knows who you are, what is happening to famous today?

In the current iteration of the niche-marketing mantra, the plethora of entertainment products makes the star of one DVD a nobody in everyone else’s world. And that is just looking at today’s world. Add the digital capability of reviving one’s favorite entities of times past, and even today’s stars get buried.

Wired’s Chris Anderson analyzes the economic imperative of yesterday’s blockbuster in his book, The Long Tail,and concludes it is the digital prowess of today’s technology that both annihilates the economic necessity of hit-driven stardom and enables the esoteric candy-shop environment where both the hits and flops of years gone by are still on the shelf. Old or new—if you know where to look, now you can find almost anything you’ve always meant to buy. “Don’t step on that dwarf—hand me the pliers!” may not be a winner on today’s sales charts—may never have been when it was new—but in the aggregate, generates enough sales to justify its current “for sale” sign.

In addition, it used to be a significant find to discover that one’s friend or acquaintance was a relative of someone famous. Does it seem that almost anyone is related to a famous person nowadays? Or is this just a shrinking world? The famous series of “Small World” experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Harvard in 1967 sought to answer the question: What is the possibility that two randomly-selected people would know each other? With an ever-increasingly connected world, the path linking two total strangers seems to be shrinking. That “social distance” makes random connections more likely, stand-out anomalies less likely.

Obscured in the lateral breadth of product, buried in the vertical crush of historic variety, shrink-wrapped in diminishing social distances—what’s a star to do?

Assuming that humble, toothy stance of “yeah…yeah, I’m an actor” may not ignite such a reaction now, thanks to our post-modern world.

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