Charlie Sheen, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Before proceeding, let me state that even I do not endorse nor encourage any readers of this publication to emulate Mr. Sheen’s behavior. At the same time, I consider him to be a completely self-actualized human being. Now, mind you, the trajectory of his ambition was modest. This man strived to become the ultimate Hollywood low-life and, within those narrow limits, he attained his goal. Sheen has embraced his inner-a*****e and become it. Here is an a*****e of such darkness and gravity that no matter or light can escape its reach. The a*****e that is Charlie Sheen sucks planets, stars, and galaxies into his anal depths.I have no interest in psychoanalyzing this man. Dr. Phil and People Magazine have already supplied coverage ad nauseum. Rather, I’d like to interpret his “meltdown” as a fascinating instance of performance art. Sheen is an actor and his behavior should be judged on those terms.
Whether or not Charlie is fully aware that his podcasts or interviews qualify as stagecraft is irrelevant. Regardless of context, actors tend to act when a camera is in the room. The postmodernist saw of “reality as artifice” buttresses this notion. I also am reminded of Taussig’s anthropological study Mimesis and Alterity, in which he argues the shaman believes in his magic yet simultaneously understands its performative nature.*
In that regard, I’d like to analyze Sheen’s recent work in relation to two previous instances of celebrity performance art: Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix.
Andy Kaufman’s “I’m From Hollywood” stunts and routines alienated audiences across America, especially in the Southland.
The comedian played an effete, arrogant version of himself as a celebrity. To further turn off his fanbase, he organized “intergender” wrestling matches where he invariably beat his female opponents. This act culminated in a staged fight with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler who allegedly injured him so badly that he wore a phony neck brace for several months.
Thirty years later, Joaquin Phoenix staged his own “meltdown” as an introverted quasi-Hasidic rapper on the David Letterman Show. His extended multi-year performance was documented in Casey Affleck’s pseudo-documentary “I’m Still Here.” Personally, I found his act to be far less clever or engaging than Kaufman’s. The character he developed was whiny, unpleasant, but, most of all, boring. The world shrugged its collective shoulders and the Twitter and RSS feeds played on…On the other hand, I cannot stop watching Charlie Sheen’s rants any more than a slow-motion car crash. Nor can his 3,000,000+ followers on Twitter for that matter. We are all addicted to Charlie Sheen the drug. He has already sold out a 21-date LiveNation concert tour where he will do little more than sit in a chair and rant about “Vatican Assassins.”
What compels us to bear witness to this utter nonsense?
In part, I think Sheen’s persona invokes certain tropes that strike a chord with Americans. For instance, take the “winning” buzzword. Even if the declaration has become self-parody (and I believe this was Sheen’s intention from the outset), it declares a worldview that many hold sacred. Consider the words of another great American, George Patton:
Charlie’s Sheen’s narcissism is the funhouse mirror distortion of American triumphalism and exceptionalism. And, on a subconscious level, his über-confidence appeals to the instincts of the masses. That’s why recent comparisons of Sheen to Howard Beale (from Lumet’s Network) do not hold water. Like Charlie, the fictional newscaster got canned from his show by network executives and captured the attention of the American public. The similarities end at this point. Beale’s popularity drew upon a sense of existential malaise and doom that defined the Watergate era. Further, Beale, in effect, told his audience “I am one of you.” On the other hand, Sheen makes it quite clear he is not one of you. His veins run with “tiger blood.” If anyone else sampled “the drug” Charlie Sheen, “Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”
Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big-league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war because the very thought of losing to Americans…is hateful.
The other aspect of Charlie’s act that we find so refreshing is the lack of hypocrisy. To a greater or lesser extent, you already know that you’ve been duped. There is a $1 billion a year PR industry that tells you that movie actors are nice people just like you and me who do benefits for Haiti. The media usually plays along because if they exposed the truth, the publicists wouldn’t give them access to their stars. In many if not most cases, male celebrities are generally self-centered, stupid people who do embarrassing things. PR flacks get paid money to hide this fact.
So when Charlie Sheen unmasks himself, the result is jarring but compelling. He is what Reality TV always promises and never delivers: the ugly, unvarnished truth.
*I can’t recall if I read that in Mimesis and Alterity. That theory may have come from somewhere else. Apologies to Mick Taussig if I misrepresented his work.
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