The polarizing conceit of Marie Antoinette, legacy celebrity Sofia Coppola's latest feature film, is that the French royal scene at its height and last gasp is best understood as teen drama. "It is about teenagers in Versailles, so I wanted it to have a teenage feeling," Coppola has mused. "The characters are only kids." Sure enough, the airtight world of pre-Revolutionary transnational European monarchy guaranteed that its heirs married young and ruled early. Or at least, you know, "ruled"--gorged on shopping, splurged on parties, and intrigued over sex and sexability. It's all enough, through Coppola's lens, to call up obvious associations with the present-day system of royalist celebrity.
Sofia Coppola should know, of course. We live in a society with an historically unprecedented volume of famous people. That the number of celebrities has skyrocketed over the past 25 years is not just a function of slipping standards: the C-list and D-list would hardly be what they are today were celebrities not producing their own celebrity offspring. The only non-negotiable fact about identity in Hollywood is that if you are born to a celebrity you are into celebrity born. The spotlight might not be as bright--in fact, it rarely is--but the glow does not wear off, and is intensified by the sorts of behaviors that typically tarnish the reputations of plebes.
Celebrity spawn run an ever-more-royal risk of being permanently sealed off from proletarian reality. The sociogenetic gulf is widened by the deployment of baby names with which none of our children could get a job in the middle-class marketplace--much less escape bullying and ridicule. Neither Shiloh Nouvel (Brangelina), Audio Science (Shannyn Sossamon), Pilot Inspektor (Jason Lee), nor Bluebell Madonna (Ginger Spice) will ever be truly normal, and "the public" is a phrase which will always ring for them with distance and irony. There are dangers. The limbo of warped family identity endured by Liv Tyler and Kate Hudson (and Liza Minelli, etc.), for instance, takes on the hall-of-mirrors quality of the bizarro relationships characteristic of the royal court of Versailles.
The danger for us, on the other side, is as it always has been: obsession crossed with jealousy. But in the most equal-opportunity market for celebrity of all time, the impulse to think of commodified identity as a zero-sum game is mitigated by reality television, niche marketing, and the miracle of MySpace.
This is the way in which we differ from the old school, when the only recourse against an entrenched and entitled aristocracy of blood-ordained fiat was the storming of the Bastille and the exercise of the guillotine. Our revolution against the absurdity and ornamentalism of the celebrity class has been a prolonged attempt to join it. An entire transactive system of identity capitalism has grown up to give us the tools to do so.
There is a way out. At a vital sequence in Match Point, Woody Allen's tragedy of manners, the wealthy scion of the established family pays his highest and most subtle compliment to the film's antihero, saying, "he's not trivial." The two, it transpires, had a most diverting conversation on Dostoyevsky. This is a deep point because it highlights the fact that our entire culture is hagridden with triviality, from top to bottom. The failure that makes fools of our modern-day royals and trash of our lower-class scene stealers is a fanatical devotion to the trivial intensity of the drama of everyday life.
We gag on our trivialities. What makes the Jolie-Pitt annexation of Namibia such a travesty is not the enactment of high society privilege but the embarrassing fixation on the birth of a mere human being. What makes the tabloids tabloids is the monomania they associate with celebrities' every pimple and grimace. We ought to hold our idols to higher standards.
By James G. Poulos