LFF Preview: Starsuckers
Starsuckers is the second feature-length documentary from writer/director Chris Atkins, who made the BAFTA-nominated Taking Liberties in 2007. The film takes an in-depth look into celebrity culture - and sleb journalism - and the results are both laugh-out-loud funny and worrying.
The issue of made-up stories making their way into showbiz gossip columns was discussed by George Clooney and Kevin Spacey at the press conference for Men Who Stare At Goats last week (after the London Film Festival press screening).
Of course, there was nothing new about the debate, but it was intriguing, hearing two celebrities, who have been hounded by the media, describing how it feels, right in front of us. In fact, we got to watch it happen - in each of the two press conferences I saw Clooney in (Goats and Fantastic Mr Fox), he was besieged by a number of questions about his private life, namely when the hell he was going to get married and have kids. Some of the non-tabloid journalists later complained about this hijacking of precious press conference time. Who really cares? Well, as Starsuckers shows, we're all meant to, because caring about slebs makes us buy stuff...
Narrated by a jovial-sounding voice that uses "we" and is supposedly the representation of the media, Starsuckers takes us through the ways in which celeb culture takes hold of the public, including hooking children on it, and creating fake news. An interesting choice for a Friday morning press screening. As Atkins put it on his Twitter, "have been advised against going to the Starsuckers Press screening friday to avoid actual bodily harm," but judging from the atmosphere in the room afterwards, he may well have found some sympathisers. It's not hard to see why, judging by the quality of the film.
While Starsuckers explores how celeb culture exploits both the participants and the public, the thread holding the film together is that of six-year-old Ryan, whose cash-strapped (and rather sweet) parents want him to become a star. Heartbreakingly, even though the little guy can "barely read" at the age of 5, he knows the word "résumé," and he is somwehat aware of his parents' financial situation, and promises to buy his mother "a big house to live in" with his pay. This story provides the thing closest to an emotional heart to the film, as the narrator takes us through the scary links between celebrity, commerce, politics and power.
There are some Chris Morris-alike touches, such as Atkins and team setting up a stall in a shopping mall calling for child actors, named "x.ploit tv." Parents willingly file in, ignoring the name, and the fact that their children are being asked to dress up as though they work in a slaughterhouse, or else pretend to be drunk for a show called "Baby Boozers." In fact, the parents encourage their children to do well, envisioning a better life for the kids thanks ton TV money and fame. They've obviously never heard of Child Star Syndrome.
The most reported-on aspect of the film actually takes up very little time, but illiuminates the worrying state of journalism. The crew called up the media tip-off lines and span ridiculous tales of celebrity doings, such as Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud having loads of books on quantum physics and Amy Winehouse accidentally setting her own hair on fire. This episode illustrates the point that fact-checking is alien to celebrity gossip desks - they'll take their material from anyone.
So far, so what, who cares what people write about slebs? This is where the film goes a bit visual-version-of-Flat Earth News, an investigation into the state of journalism today, and, indeed, the book's author, journalist Nick Davies, gets a significant amount of screen time in the film. Flat Earth News coined the term "churnalism," which signposts the tendency for journalists - under great time pressure, and possibly covering the jobs of laid-off colleagues - to use un-checked press releases and wire stories to fill space. This is why you often see very similar stories across a wide range of media - they may well have originated from the same email attachment. Sleb journalism is ideal for this, as everyone knows who they're talking about, the subject will attract interest, and if they deny it, well, everyone's lost interest by then.
Scarily, Atkins gets a lot of interest from reporters when attempting to sell medical records, which is illegal. Posing as the friend of a medical secretary who works in Harley Street, Atkins offers the information (celebrity-related, of course) to tabloid journalists. Those from the Sunday Mirror, the News of the World and the People bit, but the Sunday Express guy was the only one to point out that this was illegal and flouted the Press Complaints Commission Code. The illegality is more of a concern than the PCC, which is run by a group of editors, and is famously seen as a "toothless watchdog" within the industry - as admitted by one giggling journalist secretly filmed by Atkins' crew during a medical records meeting.
Most unnerving of all is the celebrity power / political power axis. Of course, we're not surprised that Americans are susceptible to star power - look at ex-matinee idol Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1981, and of course, the Governator of Florida. In Lithuania, they've gone several steps further: the second biggest party in their government is the National Revival or National Resurrection party, and is composed entirely of celebrities. Their introductions to camera become entertainingly, and then eerily, monotonous: "I was a TV presenter/actor/singer... and now? I'm a Member of Parliament." Even the head of the nuclear committee has a starry past. Eek. It's like putting Rik Waller in charge of defence. Or, alternatively, a London mayoral candidate into the jungle. Oh, wait.
It's not as though it hasn't happened here - how about Glenda Jackson? It seems as though people like voting for a familiar face; as one of the Lithuanian sleb MPs put it, politics has a theatricality to it, it's all about performance. And yet, the candidates' claims to fame and political expertise are getting ever shakier. Atkins speaks to John Smeaton, the baggage handler at Glasgow International Airport, who shot to fame as the man who stood up to terrorists back in 2007. He will be standing as an Independent candidate in the Glasgow North East by-election on 12th November 2009. He is currently the head of security at a private car park near Glasgow airport, having moved jobs since the incident. In his conversation with Atkins, he did not come across as highly articulate. What would be his plans for political office, were he to gain it? Here's an idea:
Smeaton, who became famous after kicking and hitting one of the attempted airport bombers in July 2007 and was awarded the Queen's gallantry medal, said Labour had failed to increase jobs and investment in a constituency known for its deprivation.
"Well I can," he said. "And, if I'm elected, you'd better believe it – I will. I'll bring a storm down on Westminster, knock down doors and badger them until they listen. No messing.
"We must have someone in parliament who knows how the public feels. I know I can do that."
Smeaton said he knew the Glasgow North East constituency because his mother worked in a local pharmacy some years ago.
He explained that he had decided to stand because he was "angry and fed up by the way politicians have been behaving".
"Like everybody I was shocked by the fiddling by the MPs ... it really made my blood boil," he said.
However, Smeaton appeared to be completely stumped when, at a press conference, he was asked about Jury Team policies on linking MPs' pay to civil service pay grades and the holding of referendums on key policies.
Asked about the public electing Commons select committees, he said: "It's something I will look into and get back to you on that."
Right. Into the vacuum left by an MP shamed for expenses swindling (ex-Speaker Michael Martin), a pseudo-celeb must go. On the flipside, the bigger a celebrity for EU council president, the better.
Starsuckers ties together strands that look disparate from the outset, but increasingly look connected: lazy journalism, celebrity obsession, photogenic politicians, high-profile charity work such as Live Aid/8. Little Ryan's story weaves through them all, and surely continues out in the real world. We see him becoming more spoilt and obsessed with being the centre of attention. The ending of the film isn't comforting; it forces us to look more closely at what is really happening behind the overheated headlines, advertising to tweens and cease-and-desist letters.