The Philosophy of Shia LaBeouf – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Shia LaBeouf, exploring the motivations behind one of the most enigmatic actors and internet sensations around. After bouncing from one tabloid scandal to another, Shia LaBeouf emerged as an auteur of the bizarre with his #IAMSORRY installation – a performance art piece aimed at apologizing to the world with sincerity. Drawing from pop culture references like Deadpool, Spring Breakers and Brittney Spears, we dive headfirst into understanding how sincerity and apology works in a world of post-modern cynicism and disillusionment.
Written by: Douglas Lain
Narrated and Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Shia LaBeouf
Hey Wisecrack. Jared here, and today we’re exploring the bizarre antics of movie star-slash-performance artist-slash-internet meme Shia LaBeouf. While Shia is perhaps best known for his breakout role in Evens Stevens and his commercial successes it’s been his smaller projects and erratic off-screen antics that have transformed him from a movie star into a kind of meme artist.
Growing up is hard, especially for child actors and LaBeouf is no exception. His life of fame seems to have left him with very few boundaries and an almost masochistic love of self-mockery. When musician Rob Cantor wanted to shoot a music video for his song about a rampaging cannibal known as Shia-LaBeouf, Shia was not only willing to participate, but — suggested that he reenact the clapping scene from Citizen Kane. Why does Shia have his own entry on the knowyourmeme.com? What makes him internet famous?
Is he just another actor like William Shatner or Chuck Norris who is willing to cash in on his fame through self-parody, or is something else going on? Welcome to this Wisecrack edition on the Philosophy of Shia Labeouf. For nearly a decade Shia Labeouf has bounced from one tabloid scandal to another. Back in 2007 he was arrested in a Chicago Walgreens on his 21st birthday.
In 2011 Shia was involved in a bar brawl at the Mad Bull in LA and was clapped in irons again. And in 2014 , after “drinking a lot of whiskey,” LaBeouf interrupted a performance of Cabaret by accosting Allan Cumming as he was making his way to the stage. But his most significant controversy occurred when he plagiarized Daniel Clowes comic “Justin M Damiano,” using it as the basis for his 2012 short film Howard Cantour.com.
After HowardCantour.com premiered at Cannes it was released online where fans of Clowes’ comic inevitably found it, and tore it apart. Exposed, Labeouf needed an excuse to explain himself. First, he tried to explain the plagiarism as an act of “postmodern” reappropriation, claiming that he was undermining the idea of originality and authorship, but that didn’t really work out so he tried to apologize, but that didn’t cut it either. At this point, Shia turned to an obscure art movement called metamodernism for help.
Postmodernism? Metamodernism? (What am I talking about?) I’ll explain. An easy way to grasp the difference between postmodernism and metamodernism is to think about Hollywood movies. An example of a postmodern movie would be Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool – a film we’ve talked about before. A traditional superhero like Spiderman believes in big ideas like justice, responsibility, and truth with an absolute sincerity. Deadpool – says fuck all that.
(In Deadpool) there are no big ideas worth believing in. For the merc with a mouth, the idea of truth and sincerity is just a movie cliche to be lampooned as he massacres “bad guys” for strictly personal reasons. But what about metamodernism? What does THAT mean? If traditional Hollywood heroes embody sincer values, while postmodern heroes wholly reject such ideas, then metamodernist ones fall in between- a kind of sincerity that is communicated through an insincere distancing. Confusing? Yeah, well this stuff can get a bit nebulous.
The best example of a metamodernist movie would Harmony Korine’s batshit crazy Spring Breakers. Our heros are four bikini clad girls on a hedonistic rampage- we follow them as they plunge in to sex, drugs, and debauchery. And yet, despite over-the-top depravity of the party scenes, the girls describe their experience as a sincere process of self improvement and self discovery.
Juxtaposing the quasi-spiritual tone of the girl’s monologue with images of indulgence or mass murder may seem ironic, but the girl’s epiphanies are 100% authentic. Something similar can be seen when Alien and the gang terrorize other Spring Breakers while Britney Spears’s “Everytime” plays in the background. This bizarre contrast would seem to trivialize their actions, but what they’re doing is sincerely crazy, wrong, and maybe even evil. In true metamodernist fashion, Spring Breakers uses an ironic, insincere approach to communicate something absolutely serious.
After spending months defending himself online, Labeouf came to the realization that neither clever jokes nor genuine explanation were good enough. He needed to do something that would show everybody that he really was sorry. He needed to be vulnerable. So Labeouf created his first metamodernist artwork entitled #IAMSORRY – a performance art installation in LA where he invited the public to join him in his sorrow.
Audience members were to enter the mostly empty gallery, pick out a prop- Indiana Jones’ whip, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a Transformer— and then sit across from LaBeouf who was wearing that infamous paper bag over his head. He wanted to show contrition, but like Spring Breakers, he delivered the apology so that the audience would hold it at a distance- making it not entirely sincere, but not entirely insincere. It’s all the distance and irony of postmodernism with all the sincerity of a classic narrative.
Most didn’t understand what they were seeing or what it meant, but encountering an apologizing, sometimes crying, Shia LaBeouf in an LA art gallery- (encountering a scene that was both sincere and ironic at the same time)—gave them a decidedly metamodernist experience. And even if they didn’t understand it they felt it.
The spectacle of Shia didn’t end with an apology, instead, the hashtags and stunts kept coming. And in each case the performances were both ironic and sincere at the same time. His “meditation for narcissists,” an hour long session wherein LaBeouf jumped rope in front of a mirror, was both self-mocking and truly meditative. is work entitled #INTERVIEW, was both a simple minded stunt, and an hour long exploration of uncomfortable intimacy. His work #TOUCHMYSOUL was both ironic and sincere.
And perhaps his most memeable work, #INTRODUCTIONS, was meant to be a shallow viral sensation while simultaneously communicating true feelings. #INTRODUCTIONS, wasn’t originally meant to be an absurdist version of a motivational speech, but was a collaborative film project created with the help of 36 film students. Shia and his collaborators asked the students to submit short monologues for LaBeouf to read while standing in front of a green screen. Each monologue had to evoke a feeling…any feeling. The students’ work was naïve even sentimental, yet LaBeouf’s performance in front of the green screen was coldly calculated. The work was both a viral PR stunt and entirely heartfelt.
In an interview for (with) The Guardian, collaborator and metamordernist Luke Turner explained that these works with Shia were about engagement and not detachment even though they were consciously using PR tricks and LaBeouf’s celebrity status to their advantage. And that’s what Metamodernism is. (clip from Spring Breakers, showing the girls running) It’s a mix of shallow self-promotion and intimacy. It’s a process where the bland and the commercial is made uncomfortable and even dangerous. A metamodernist moment is when what is designed to numb you (turns around and) breaks and makes you feel something.
We’re all cynical, we think that we can hold ideas, like Uncle Ben’s famous line about responsibility, at a distance. What metamodernism does is agree with us. It encourages us to be cynical, but then surprises us by making us feel the guilt we would have felt if we’d taken Uncle Ben seriously. LaBeouf’s performances aim to make you take him seriously. He wants to take your cynicism about his fame and persona, and turn it against you. Shia is like the girls from Spring Breakers. They too come off as trivial people who don’t have to be taken seriously, but they turn out to be very dangerous and impossible to ignore. So what do you think? Is Shia LaBeouf a bold voice taking performance art to the next level? Or is he just a bored celebrity pulling pranks on us all? Let us know what you think in the comments.