Tag Archives: celebrities

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: There’s Something About Amy

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I can’t remember when or where or how I first came across Amy Winehouse, but she had her hooks in me way back when her success was a cult hit, not the embarrassing phenomenon it is today. It was more than just that smokey, showstopping voice, which would come to win her nearly unanimous acclaim. It was the lyrics. The nonchalance with which she, 19 years old when her first album came out, sang about lovers simply not man enough for her and tramps in f-me pumps had me captivated.

Today, of course, she needs no introduction. With her skin disease, stints in rehab, coked up performances, visa troubles, peculiar dress sense, publicly violent marriage and what seems to be a hell of a knack to get photographed looking like she’s a cross between your worst nightmare and your second worst one, she’s become a sort of running tabloid joke. A woman so obscene not just in the way she looks but the way she lives that no one really knows what to do with her. Heiress flashing her nethers? No. Silicone starlet? No. Spawn of two stars, reality TV wannabe, Disney tween queen gone wrong? “No, no, no”, as Amy herself infamously sang.

She’s in a category all by herself.

Winehouse is conventionally attractive only by a gargantuan stretch of sheer kindness or kinkiness. She neither cleans up pretty nor seems to make the effort to try to. The last epitaph on earth that could wind up on her tombstone would be “media darling”. No, that phrase is for wimps and little marionettes dancing on the strings held by some big machine. Amy Winehouse – or at least, the Amy Winehouse I imagine – would snort at the thought if her nostrils weren’t stuffed already.

In a world positively festering with clones and clichés and pretty puppets galore, Winehouse is a gash, an anomaly, an abomination. It’s what makes her irresistible. It’s what will, ultimately, canonize her good and proper as a Dangerous Woman. An unforgettable one.

Because here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the few people in the entertainment industry anywhere who are where they are by sheer talent alone. Winehouse, in other words, is a serious artiste. And one in the style of the true greats – a reckless, ruthless, roaring creature. No apologies here, no excuses. No pretending to be anything but who and what she is. We can’t take our eyes off the mess the paparazzi show her to be because we’re just too mesmerized by her music to look away. She’s the siren’s call – and she’s also the shipwreck.

That category she’s in by her lonesome? It’s a category she seems to have created all by herself too, although this is probably just a side-effect of being idiosyncratic and destined to be iconic. And that’s what’s most intriguing about her – in a time of daddy-bought celebrity statuses and pin-up doll factories, this ridiculous, fabulous woman went right ahead and manufactured… herself.

And it’s the kind of self no one else wants to be, not right now anyway. But mark my words – when her birth centenary – which she’s not likely to see, if the track records of the legends before her are anything to go by – rolls around, rest assured there’ll be “Come As Amy” parties (ever been to a “Come as Frida” one?). Beehive hairdos, nasty eyeliner and tequila on tap all round. Not too many entertainers around today are going to leave such legacies. Not too many people, entertainers or not, dare to live life so unapologetically. And for that, I keep my headphones plugged in and raise a decidedly Bacchanalian toast in her honour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.