As I write this today, I’m confronted with the news of the sudden and tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rumours abound about the method and manner of his departure, and his life is being condensed into thirty-second sound-bites for the television news. And I am finding it increasingly sad that he is being reduced to the sum of his filmography.
Now, I wasn’t a huge fan. Truth be told I would probably struggle to name three films he was in. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn – for want of a better word – someone who made a big impact on the industry he chose to pursue. And it’s got me thinking about the culture of celebrity and what it’s all about.
Naturally this culture goes from the sublime (as an example, the earnest, in depth discussions people hold based on the teachings of a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Theresa) to the ridiculous (an MSNBC ”journalist” cutting short an interview with a US Congresswoman because of breaking news of Justin Bieber’s arrest). I would much rather hear debate about the short-sighted decision to dump dredged sediment in the Great Barrier Reef than to know what twerking is, for instance … but it would seem I am in the minority. CNN even put twerking on its front page after the Miley Cyrus incident rather than, say, Syria.
So what is it about celebrity that makes us grab hold of every word a person says, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about? Why are young Miley and Justin (and after seeing this, I’m not convinced they’re different people anyway) more important than the people who run our nations, the scientists, the mathematicians, the visionaries – the people who can’t just be replaced? Sure, they entertain us, but that’s pretty much all they do. Why so much reverence and adoration?
Of course, I don’t have an answer. I suspect a lot of it is world view, and also the fact young people use social media the most and therefore it is their interests that fuel those websites. I do wonder, though, what this says about us as a society. Is this really what we want to project to future generations? That a teenaged brat is more important than a Congresswoman? That a dance is more important than a war?
I am not trying to denigrate the professional lives of people like Miley and Justin, who I am sure work very hard and are very good at whatever it is they do. They have contributed enormously to the public sphere. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose passing inspired this reflection, was a great actor and another great contributor. The film world will miss him, I know. There are probably thousands of people, most of whom never met him, who have been brought to tears by the news. But he was an actor, and while he was a very good one, there is little he did that someone else couldn’t have done.
It’s sad when someone leaves this world before their time. Anyone. But celebrity for celebrity’s sake is meaningless in the long term. Let’s celebrate these people for the good they have done, not the puerile newspaper headlines they generate while they’re here.
Farewell Mr Hoffman, and may you rest in peace.
Disclaimer: Yes, I am in my own way seeking fame – as an author. Having said that, though, I can’t think of anything worse than being ridiculously famous. It’s a paradox and one I’m trying to get my head around as I ready novel #1 for distribution to agents/ publishers.