April 12, 2010

It’s 2010 and a lot of us already know that we are constantly being had. But it’s always good to be reminded that many of us are either still in denial or just plain unawares. Starsuckers (2009) is a documentary film that hopefully does more than just preach to the converted about the oppressive cycles of capitalism, looking specifically at the utility of the fame factory within it. So if you didn’t know, or if you just weren’t quite sure, then Starsuckers is the kind of documentary that ought to help you find out.

The way in which the phenomena that is ‘fame’ operates is as an echo of the greater system within which it thrives: capitalism. Starsuckers purports that through convincing children that everybody can be famous  and that the key to happiness lies within the entertainment industry, the elusive and untouchable ‘powers that be’ (media networks, global corporations, et al) begin to control and direct our lives from the moment we enter the soul destroying system that is the capitalist western world. These claims seem fair and the world of fame is certainly a suitable target for mockery. But as always with this mode of ‘revelatory’ documentary (see anything by Michael Moore), it needs to be viewed with a pinch of cinematic salt.

Structured a lot like a persuasive essay or a series of debate cards, Starsuckers is segmented into clear points of contention to support its central thesis; that you’re being conned. Of course you are, but not just by the capitalist system, Starsuckers itself utilises many persuasive and manipulative visuals to convince its audience of its chosen agenda. For example, though I’m sure it is true that if there were a magic button you could press to make you smarter, stronger, more beautiful or famous, a majority of children probably would answer ‘famous’, but it might also be useful to know a little more about the reception studies at hand beyond the most obvious and binary opposition of gender, such as; socio-economic background, race and ethnicity, skills, aptitudes and abilities of the children surveyed. That is to say that the presentation of ‘factual’ information is at best partial and therefore subject to potential bias. Even when it asks questions that ought to be asked, such as, ‘to what extent are parents to blame and to what extent are the forces of capitalism at fault?’, it isn’t really asking. Having already suggested that we were all raised by “the system” it essentially absolves parents and individuals from any form of liability before it can even entertain the concept of responsibility.

The documentary goes to great pains to accredit itself and corroborate its message through the presentation of a great many talking heads authorities who include psychiatrists and university professors in related fields; their words weighty and their opinions valid. Inter-cut with humorous and at times eccentric found archive footage as well as undercover ‘observational’ documentary film bites, Starsuckers masterfully blends just about every mode of documentary filmmaking known to the discourse. Successfully alternating between serious persuasive argument, shock-factor footage or statistics and humorous eccentricities, Starsuckers is trying to reach the not-already-in-the-know “average television viewer”. If you’re not convinced then take into account the fact the film has been simultaneously released on terestrial television and on DVD. So, aspirationally, at least, it’s got its cinematic conscience in the right place.

One of the more contentious and therefore significant points the film raises is to do with the boundaries between “healthy enthusiasm” and “unhealthy obsession”. There is certainly a difference between the two and the film, to its credit, does attempt to address it. Its ultimate conclusion however is that the pervasive intent of the media is something of a responsible party in the increasing cases of mental illness amongst children. Little support for the claim is provided.  The film also indicates a central instigative problem of individuals necessarily copying one another since the dawn of mankind. Whilst there is certainly something to be said for the way in which we learn from others and are taught to repeat, mimic and copy, in terms of media reception there can hardly be such a suggestion without taking into consideration the history and evolution of art, film and televisual media, let alone theories of identification and spectatorial studies. Something the film sadly neglects.

The film focuses its watchful eye primarily on US and UK media, giving the British press an extra special mention when it comes to celebrity gossip. Revealing the farce that is the British popular press, Starsuckers shows how several publications don’t necessarily fact check their stories before going to print. The nature of celebrity gossip is in fact such that they don’t even go out looking for stories anymore, they just wait to see what endless amounts of tosh come to them. Suggesting that the view of free press and increased access to information via the internet has not actually given us a greater sharing of information and opinion – that being far too optimistic a view – Starsuckers lets you know in no uncertain terms that there is very little journalism out there and that most of what is on the internet is incomprehensible babble. I’m not going to argue against that, but I would like to put forward the idea that for all the babble there is still some cohesive criticism.

But for all its flaws there are equal measures of achievement. 1) In terms of persuasive argument, at least five members of parliament in Lithuania were previously famous pop stars, television presenters and/or entertainers, 2) in terms of cinematic shock-factor footage, so called “charity events” such as Live Aid and indeed Live 8 actually do more harm than good, enabling ethnic cleansing and preventing other charitable organisations (specifically those which make up Make Poverty History) from succeeding not only in supplying aid (alone, something that in fact acts to keep third world countries oppressed), but also in achieving fair trade and debt resolution (a strong combination of which would help alleviate a country’s third world status in the long term), and 3) in terms of humorous eccentricities, as the head of The New York Reality TV School claims, “I was actually, like, raised by a television.”

And if no none of the reasons above convince you, then you ought to watch it to find out just how much of a C**t Richard Curtis actually is.


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