“You’re more James Franco than James Franco.”
“Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”
I had, but I let the man keep speaking, and I let the other man to his right keep nodding.
Everyone, in fact, was nodding, shaking, vibrating. Heads, feet under tables, dollar bills, British pounds, seven different mobiles in various degrees of battery life. The blue and gold coat of arms hanging outside the Applebee’s where we’d been sitting, flag flailing in the wind.
We were in Cannes, it was 2011, and earlier in the morning, Lars Von Trier had been forcibly escorted out of the festival. Something about racist comments: Hitler, the Second World War, Jews — something about something.
“And when you are in my film, you won’t be acting,” the nodder, Wiktor, cut in. “You will be reacting. You will have forgotten all about ‘Chris Campanioni.’ You’ll simply be Sam.”
“Duncan,” the other one volunteered. His name was Bob. He was pale and lumpy, and his green golf shirt had sweat marks across his chest and under his arms.
“Really?” Wiktor said. “I pictured him as Sam.”
“You know what?” Bob looked at me. He stopped shaking. Everything seemed to stop. Unless I’m only remembering it in slow motion.
“What?” I asked, genuinely interested. I was holding a half-full highball, and I even put it down, letting the condensation form a halo around the glass’s edge on the fake porcelain table. Pausing to reflect on the image.
“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”
I had to laugh. This was a production, even if none of it was actually being filmed. I had met Bob on Facebook and all it took was a cappuccino at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s a week earlier for him to sell me on the idea of the movie he wanted to bring to Cannes, the movie and me, and the idea of course. It was first and foremost (and forever) an idea — and I’d decided to bring my friend, Eric, along for the ride, or whatever the ride afforded us, because we were as good friends as I could think of. As good friends as friends could be.
Two years earlier, in 2009, we were living together in Hoboken when the power went out across town for a week. There was nothing else to do but go to bars in Manhattan. Bars, restaurants, cafés, anywhere that had light, and preferably, heat. Returning home one night, a block away from our apartment, we had something else to do: each of us staring down the barrel of a gun. I know nothing about guns. It could have been a .357 Magnum or a toy pistol.
It wasn’t dramatic: it just was. The movies, those gunfights, those tense moments, being held up in the movies is always so much more dramatic, so much more real. In real life, everything feels flat. I don’t even think I was afraid. I didn’t have time to think about death, to think about life. I was silent. Maybe I was imagining it happening in the movies, trying to will it into being somehow more poignant. That’s the problem with movies. Unless that’s the problem with real life.
“In the sun, you look like a Juan.”
Bob repeated it, probably considering that I was hard of hearing or just hadn’t understood what he meant. What he meant was that I looked too dark to be a “Sam” — or a “Duncan” for that matter. My agents, past and present, were always telling me to stay out of the sun. Unless I was at a casting that called for Hispanic or Latino, which everyone in the industry used interchangeably.
I felt like I should say something; I wanted to say something; I didn’t know what to say. I only knew I wanted to say, to speak, to utter a few sounds together.
I said nothing. I did nothing, but write in my notepad, which I had been carrying with me since my evenings as a copy editor and reporter at the Star-Ledger. Remnants from a different life, which was the same as this one, just garbed in different clothes.
REPORTER NOTEPAD was etched across the front. Most of the pages were blank, but they were gradually becoming crowded with words. And like many other scenes, I eventually re-fashioned this one into a chapter of Going Down. I didn’t include the bit about Juan. Some names changed, others didn’t. I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me. It seemed like the best way to approach an investigation into the fashion and newspaper industries, two disparate worlds which meet to mete out fabrication. Manufacture it, sell it, reinvest the profits.
I put my hand around the highball again, lifted the glass, reflected on the image, the imprint of the surface.
“We are talking about creating an art film,” Wiktor interrupted. I was doodling in the notepad now, sketching a vision of Wiktor as Rasputin, because the two looked alike, at least on Google Images, if I looked from one and quickly to the other. Back and forth, from the digital to the physical and vice versa, just like that. “We are talking about bringing this message of consumption to the world.”
Movie-making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen. Movie-going is watching dead images coming out of a projector, twenty-four frames per second. Taking a photograph, at least, implies no such passage. The photograph is already dead.
I had thought that working as a model had transformed time into a circle, a cyclical exchange of repetition and recurrence. The only days that made any sense to me any longer were today and tomorrow. Everything else felt impossible to keep track of, points and spaces that were simultaneously long and short, flowing into and out from one another. But it wasn’t just my experience in the fashion industry that had changed time; it was also our culture, the technological processes we’d adopted. Bought and sold, and sold out to again. Time as it is represented in the world of images — selfies, snapchats, vines, and countless other self-interested glimpses — is instantaneous and fleeting. Quickly forgotten.
The last decade of my life has been filmed, photographed, streamed, and sold back to mass culture. I get paid for it but it isn’t just me who’s doing the buying and selling. It’s all of us; it’s all of our lives.
Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object. And actual experience is surpassed by talking about it. But not just talking about it, re-distributing it to the whole world, stamped and packaged in a Facebook or Instagram post. A new skill learned on LinkedIn.
We are selling ourselves back to ourselves.
We are desperate for the next new thing, the thing that feels real enough to touch, in a way that no touch-screen can achieve, not realizing that we ourselves are capable of authenticity, not realizing that we ourselves can become it.
The next new thing.
I remember being in grad school, sitting in seminar, driving home afterward, into the dark and silence and the night, and wondering just how desperate I could become, just how much desperation I could endure. I had the firm conviction that I had no idea what I was doing there, that I wasn’t writing anything worthwhile, or at least anything worth reading, that I had nothing else to look forward to.
I was stupid enough to believe that everything I’d ever done was already past me, that I had outlived my own adventure, that I would not have anything else to look forward to. On these night drives home, I’d turn up the music as I zigzagged through the Bronx, and I probably would think about moments like Cannes, moments like being in the hotel lobby of the JW Marriott on the Promenade de la Croisette, arriving from Buenos Aires in time to see Lars Von Trier escorted out of the Palais. The only time that’s ever happened, someone expelled from the film festival, then and now.
I will never be here again, I thought then. But I was wrong, because I’d said the same thing in 2008, when I made an afternoon stop in nearby Villefranche. My parents and I hiked the stony Nietzsche Path into the village of Eze and then explored the Vieille Ville, taking pictures and tasting cheese we’d neither heard of nor could pronounce. When I made it back, I tried to imagine the differences between Nice in 2008 and Nice in 2011. There were none, not even my breathless proclamation that I would never return, which was probably repeated in the driver’s seat of my Kia as I crossed the George Washington Bridge.
Cannes in 2011 seems like a fitting entry point into thinking about self-commodification in our post-capitalist world of 2015. So much has changed, except everything. Everything at the festival was for sale; everything was a money game. Bob the Producer brought me to Cannes on someone else’s dime and had me meet Wiktor, the Director-To-Be, as well as a couple (nameless) Saudi financiers (Bingo!), and another actor who’d play le second role. All that was missing was the movie. And still, the money was everywhere. We were spending it and shelling it out to anyone who wanted to take a business card and invite us to dinner or a party on the beach — one of many along the Croisette every evening, which always followed the day’s screenings.
The things we value and the things we pay for have always resided on perpendicular roads. But at the festival, everyone seemed to value payment, the ability to pay for things. People and things. Within a few hours of meeting him, Bob had Eric employed as his personal assistant, sending him off on errands (“print more business cards”) but mostly just having him stand there, making sure people could see him. Making sure people could see the role of Personal Assistant to Director — and especially, Director.
Social media capitalizes on our innate insecurities by removing them from the equation. Say hello, ask me out, say, even, you love me. Taking a photo in private to re-present to anyone else without having to look at them in the eye is a way to circumvent self-doubt. Everyone wants to show and be seen, but I never realized our natural inclination toward exhibition until I was the one on display.
And while the news on display, scrolling across flat screens throughout the festival, showed nothing but sloping quarterly reports and rising unemployment, money was being thrown around like it meant everything; like it meant nothing.
It wasn’t the first time we’d passed Go and collected two hundred dollars. The Eighties and Nineties manufactured a reality that everything that exists exists to be bought and sold, traded in and re-produced. Overnight, North American culture became masturbation and Photoshop. But it’s not enough to simply identify the strains of a society of commodities and narcissism; I’d rather we look at the effects this society produces on how we treat each other and ourselves, the relationships we have and the degree of intimacy we allow ourselves to have.
What happens when every part of a life becomes a product to be sold when every person becomes an object?
Rainer Maria Rilke instructed us in the art of being alone, urging his pupil in Letters to a Young Poet to seek solitude to better find the self. Except in 1902, there was no such thing as omnipresence, at least not in everyday life. Everyday life in 2015 means gazing and being gazed, an unremitted act of reciprocal voyeurism. How can we know ourselves if we are never truly alone?
It should be no surprise that so many of today’s Millennials are facing challenges steeped in identity. In an era of surveillance, media misrepresentation, catfishing, cult of celebrity, and wish fulfillment, what sense of self do we have besides one that is not our own?
I was drinking a martini and eating caviar, or at least putting it in my mouth, stainless steel spoon as small as my thumb, trying my best to swallow.
I loathe both of these things. But it was what the scene called for. Dry martini, vat of caviar, a goblet of rocks.
What the scene did not call for was me in my underwear — blue briefs, yellow trimming— but that’s where I was, or at least what I was wearing, staring down a long stretch of dumbstruck waiters and one stern-looking maître d’.
I was never very good at acting, even though I never thought of it as being hard. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good at it. It’s not hard. You just do what the director tells you. They tell you everything to do. In modelling, it is the same, except the photographer is the one calling the shots. Unless it’s the art director. And then things go amiss, just because so many people begin to speak at the same time and no one, no one listens to anyone but themselves.
So in a sense, I knew all about following guidelines, curating an image, radiating it toward an audience that would either consume it or ignore it, or refract it toward their own audience, multiplying and distorting the image the way light floods a prism.
I knew all about what it meant to produce a bid for approval, the same psychological element that is at play whenever anyone commits a photo of themselves to their social network. Like it, share it, pass it on. Take a screen shot and re-tweet it. Or spend your time sorting through hundreds of images for that top shot to compete with the one you’ve just liked, likely not acknowledging the possibility that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing. Alone, or at least in private.
I’ve always just done what was asked of me in public, while in private done what no one ever thought I could do, writing about my desires and fears and feelings, real sensations of everything that when produced in an action or gesture or any sort of physical movement, seems actually to melt or fade or recede. Reality became more like an impression than an imprint, a prism that twists and alters depending on the angle of the curve and the speed of the light. I was watching in the dark of the cinema again. I’d reach out; I’d never know what I might grasp, except for the roles we are obliged to play and the roles we ourselves have created.
As early as 1975, Michel Foucault wrote about the power of surveillance as a disciplinary apparatus, panoptic observatories which would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. But post-global culture is not just about being watched, it’s also about being commanded to perform. The fundamental question of identity: “Who am I?” has been replaced by “Who am I pretending to be?”
It is tenuous; everything is tenuous, and at Cannes, I began to understand that even I had no control over the performance any longer; I had built an image of me that would outlast me. In truth, the image didn’t just outlast me. It replaced me. The same way that today, our carefully curated online presences replace our physical ones. The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.
It’s all fun and games has become It’s no longer fun even if it’s all a game.
“And for your next magic trick?” Bob asked, turning to me with one arm raised in feigned amazement.
Probably the only great feat I ever achieved was to allow the leisure class to read the kind of literature that affronted their very lifestyle. That’s real subversion, I think. To trick someone into unwittingly contributing to the demise of the culture they love is like using the language of the spectacle to dissolve the spectacle.
But I hadn’t done that then, not then, not yet. So I just smiled like I always do, letting go with another pre-fab long, loud, laugh.
“You do whatever it is you want, right?” Bob returned. Waiters were hovering like goldfish, lips as wide as their eyes. A few feet from my crotch guests were dining on what looked like soufflé. It could have been bread pudding from the box. “Whatever it is you feel like doing at that moment.”
“Always being myself,” I replied, grabbing my towel and trudging off toward the pool, where the sun was starting to pierce the clouds.
“Well,” Bob slurred, following with a martini that spilled, once or twice, on diners’ feet. “It doesn’t count as stripping if you just show up naked.”
“I thought this is part of the performance,” I mouthed, not bothering to turn around, “or is it a free show?”
Bob shook his head and scowled, hands in his pockets, fumbling, I figured, for his wallet.
“We pay to be here, man.”
I nodded. Bob was right about one thing, at least, even if it wasn’t him who actually paid. But payment was permission after all. It was the only password anyone needed, then and now. And for a price, you can have anything, or at least the illusion of it.
You always get what you pay for.
Tracing our fascination with celebrity and our accompanying patterns of narcissism is analogous to bullet-pointing key moments in cinema. First there was movement, then sound, then color. And then things got really definitive in HD. Everything became louder, crisper, more real. Close enough to touch.
Likewise, celebrities were strangers, people the audience could worship precisely because they had the things we did not. They did the things we wanted to do but never would. Maybe they even did the things we do, every day, except even the mundane began to look magnificent in Technicolor and with the right framing Everything, it turned out, was better on screen, even the things that were edited out in post-production to live again as supplementary materials. We were passive worshippers of the cult of celebrity. We adored these strangers not because we wanted to be like them, but because we wanted to be them. Worship and replace. Wish fulfillment.
But really, we don’t want to replace God anymore; we want to replace ourselves.
Close enough to touch.
And our wish is granted through any device with an Internet connection.
When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979 he could have only guessed at the degree of self-absorption in today’s Millenials. We’re the unique generation. The generation raised to believe we are all very special. One reason why we look up to celebrities, why we worship fame, is because we know it will set us apart. It will make us somehow different, fulfilling the promise bestowed by our parents and the silhouette of a gold star in their hands. But the greatest danger we as humans face is actually thinking we are all very different from one another. The greatest danger we as humans face is perpetuating the myth that “disconnect” is our default setting.
Yet still we curate, sifting and selecting a seemingly singular experience, tailoring the image we convey to the world and also the images we want to see in it, the soundtrack playing on our headphones, the moods and emotions we want to feel through each song, the movie we are producing, directing, and starring in, in our minds. In the age of proliferation and replaceability, is our abundance of content actually saying anything?
When I think about the festival today, I think about the noise and chatter, the constant eruption of action — action for action’s sake. To speak and be seen; what mattered — what always matters — is the eyes. Quantum mechanics calls it the Observer Effect. We act in accordance with the people watching. If no one’s watching, we don’t exist.
Noise and chatter. Periodic eruptions. Everyone speaking loudly and at the same time. Everyone speaking English the way Americans do in Italian films from the Sixties. So loud and boisterous. So boring.
“I can’t tell if you have excellent emotional control or none at all,” Bob once told me. And it was only because I was so often inside myself. It was only because I would often watch and listen, instead of speaking in return. It would take me so much longer to finish writing it all down.
Even the sky began to act in accordance with the principle of noise. The last day of the festival, as everyone was leaving, abandoning the set for another one, the barrage kept coming.
Voluptuous rain. Enter thunder. Enter the great big bowling balls of the gods. Drizzle, drizzle. Eyes like a goat. Everyone would be staring, stunned to stillness — brief as it might be — looking at me as if they were expecting me to say something. Looking at me as if there was actually something to be said.
When I was younger, I used to be afraid of the camera. Not in the way that certain Native Americans and Aborigines are: I didn’t think it stole your soul (I didn’t know any better then); I was just afraid of the sound. Taking a picture was like a small explosion. The bang I expected but which never came the moment I was facing death for the first time.
Nowadays, taking a picture, capturing an image, takes no time at all. Takes no sound either. Silence.
The skylight dimming and shifting. Questions slipping between us and clinging to our waists.
Four years ago, I took a photograph in my camera eye and tried to preserve it, re-work it, turn it into fiction so it could be more real to me; so it could be more real to you.
The rest is rust and stardust.
Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime, a book of poems from Berkeley Press. Find him in space at www.chriscampanioni.com and @chriscampanioni or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.