Several years ago, I was interviewed for the HBO documentary, Teenage Paparazzo, playing this month. The following is my story of that strange evening and my reflections on what it taught me about the nature of celebrity culture.
Let’s be clear: I have been an enthusiastic viewer (if not a hardcore fan) of the HBO comedy series, Entourage, since it launched, so you can imagine my excitement and disbelief when I received an email from someone associated with lead performer Adrian Grenier asking if I’d be willing to on camera with the star for an HBO documentary. Even with short notice, I was able to rearrange my schedule to meet Grenier at Boston’s Fenway Park. (This was back when I was still based at MIT, mind you.) Grenier originally planned to conduct a conversation with Noam Chomsky and me in the “Green Monster,” the elite seats, during a Red Sox vs. Yankee’s home game. Talk about one of the strangest trios you are likely to ever encounter. Despite twenty years at MIT, I only met Chomsky twice and both were intensely unpleasant experiences for everyone involved. Chomsky turns out to have been characteristically less accommodating (with the result that while his name appears on the credits of the completed film, he ended up on the cutting room floor.)
As I was walking from the Subway station to Fenway, I wondered how I was going to find Grenier and his production crew. I shouldn’t have worried. As I arrived, there was a massive sea of fans engulfing a small cluster of people. Elbowing my way through a rough and tumble Boston mob, I soon found Genier at the throng’s center. It turned out to be more difficult to separate myself out from all the others shouting for his attention than it was to find the charismatic actor at an already crowded location.
And that’s how it ran for the rest of the night. Everywhere we went, the crowds pushed and shoved to get close to us — well, him, really, but a boy can fantasize. He posed for pictures, signed autographs, hugged people, and remained surprisingly good-natured about the constant intrusions and interruptions. Of course, if he wanted privacy he would not be shooting at such a public location.
Filming a documentary during a Red Sox game worked about as well as you might expect. Every time I started to say something interesting, one of the teams would score a point, the crowd would go wild and it would drown out what I was saying. By the time they got to the part they included in the documentary, my voice was hoarse from trying to be heard over the cheering fans.
Even if there was not a baseball game going on, it would be hard to maintain my usual focus sitting just a few feet away from Vinnie Chase, I mean, Adrian Grenier, and sinking into the gravitational pull of his intense blue eyes. There’s an aura about meeting someone you’ve seen on the screen face to face — I don’t care who you are. It’s a heady, intoxicating experience, one which can scramble your sense of the borders between fantasy and reality, between fiction and everyday life. And it didn’t help things that Grenier is in person so much like the character he plays on the screen — puppy-dog likable, somewhat impulsive, deeply earnest, yet not necessarily inhabiting the same reality as the rest of us. It’s not hard to picture Vinnie being so touched by meeting a teenage paparazzo that he decides to make a movie about him or that he later feels a need to try to make an impression on the young man and change his life or that he wants to become friends with him outside the shooting of a movie which is necessarily going to change their relationships with each other, or for that matter, that he would try to interview an MIT professor in Fenway Park during a game.
As I watched Grenier interact with his old time buddies and his camera crew, it became clear just how autobiographical Entourage is. I watched him exchange text-messages with a certain female pop star who plays a key role in the documentary and who was put out by someone from Granier’s camp who may have said some not nice things about her. Off and on, for the rest of the night, he was grilling people, even phoning his mom, to see who may have made the unattributed comments that hurt his relations with said pop star. At another point, I watched a standoff between Grenier and a certain horror writer who also was in the Green Monster that night to see which was going to leave their box seats to interact with the other. Once the interview was completed, the star decided he wanted to go get Sushi and removed his team from the park, even though the Sox were still battling it out with the Yankees in a highly competitive game. Whatever else was going on, we were not there to watch the ballgame.
In fact, it turns out that we were there to be interrupted. I was there to interpret those interruptions, to bear witness to what it was like to live in a fishbowl. I was there to explain Grenier’s life to him. Whereas normally my job in conducting an interview is to abstract from the person asking the questions and help them disappear from the viewer, the opposite was true here. I ended up addressing my comments directly to Adrian, telling him about why his celebrity status matters to his fans.
It doesn’t matter to anyone, except maybe me, that while my son has been a season-pass holder for the Red Sox Nation (and has always wanted to sit in the Green Monster), I have little to no interest in baseball. This is not a place where I would be found if it wasn’t for the film shoot. For that reason, I was perplexed when I got texts and emails from friends who claimed to have seen me on the sportscast sitting in the stands with Grenier. I mean, given my well-known lack of interests in the game, how likely was that? Of course, when I saw the shot in question in the documentary, I had a better understanding of how a shaggy bearded academic in suspenders, waving his hands around like a crazy man, might be recognizably me even in a blurry and long-distanced shot on ESPN. So, you have to decide which was less likely — that I would be having an intense (and seemingly one-sided) conversation with the Entourage star at a ballgame or that someone who looked, dressed, and moved like me would be doing so.
My segment in Teenage Paparazzo shows a particularly insistent fan interrupting the interview, demanding a cell phone photograph of himself with Grenier, and praising him for the performance which Mark Ruffalo gave in The Devil Wears Prada. It is admittedly a very funny sequence — one which The New York Times and many other reviewers have singled out. In fact, such disruptions occurred all night long. Fans seemed not in the slightest deterred by the presence of a camera and production crew. They had no hesitation about stepping into the shot, though I would note that the crew could have been more effective at blocking off the traffic if they had wanted. The fans feel like they already know Grenier or at least his on-screen counterpart and they feel entitled to a moment of attention given the amount of attention they’ve given him over the years. This is, as the film tells us, an attention-based economy.
The part of the interview which made it into the film centered around the social and cultural functions gossip about celebrities performs in our culture. I argued that the focus of gossip shifted as we moved from a face-to-face culture where we talked about people we know directly — the town drunk, the village idiot, the school slut — to a networked and broadcast culture where we gossiped about people we knew through media — the drunken, crazed, and slutty celebrity. Indeed, the more we communicate with each other through networked computers, the more we need to discuss people who are known over a broader geographic scale. We use celebrities as “resources” which allow us to talk about our concerns, interest, and values. Here, I am drawing on John Fiske’s discussion of the O.J. Simpson case in Media Matters where he outlined the range of different ways the case got framed in conversations about class, race, gender, and justice across diverse communities. And I was also building on feminist writers — from Patricia Specks to Mary Ellen Brown — who have stressed that the value of gossip rests not on what it said about the object of the exchange but what kinds of communications it facilitated between the gossiping parties. We use gossip as a way of talking through our values by applying them to specific situations which are abstracted from our immediate circumstances. The film picked up on these themes and showed a range of young fans who used celebrities as an excuse for social interactions, for sharing values, and for talking about their own lives.
What got cut from the analysis though was another key point I made — celebrities need to learn how to mobilize this attention towards their own ends, not just to advance their screen careers but also to help shape the values of the society. I have always been disappointed by the ending of The Truman Show where having discovered that the attention of the world is focused upon him, Truman seeks to escape its gaze rather than direct it towards things that matter to him. (Of course, Truman is such a product of television culture that there may not be much that really matters to him beyond television itself, and the same may be true of some of the celebrities in question.) Around the world, some celebrities have stood for something (or stood up for something) bigger than themselves — whether it was Bob Hope visiting the troops in Vietnam in the midst of an unpopular war or the Dixie Chicks questioning Bush’s policies during their concerts, whether it is Bollywood stars running for political office or American celebrities promoting disaster relief. One can argue that Grenier is doing something like this in making a documentary about the pressing issue of celebrities who are made uncomfortable by being stalked by teenage photographers. Yet, the person who comes through in the film (and despite meeting him in person and even sharing Sushi with the guy, I don’t know him much better than I did after the two hour broadcast) is deeply ambivalent about the attention he is receiving: there’s a side of him who understands it as part of his obligation to his audience, a side that enjoys it as his rewards for his hard work, and a side that wants to deflect the cameras and hold onto as much privacy as he can. I understand all of those sides, even if the film risks portraying him as a tad self-indulgent in focusing more on his needs as a celebrity than on the larger social context within which celebrity culture operates.
Shooting the film gave me a chance to see close up what it is like to be a celebrity — it was frankly overwhelming. I don’t see how anyone can withstand the intense attention they receive, even though, experiencing it for a night, was pretty damn fun.