Nostalgia trip: three takes on the theme of celebrity

Oliver Stone, J. G. Ballard and Courtney Love are the authors of this week's variations on a theme: what it means to be famous

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm

Film director Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, 1994), novelist J. G. Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970), and singer Courtney Love's band Hole (Celebrity Skin, 1998) tackle the issue of celebrity.

Natural Born Killers
Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jnr
Director: Oliver Stone

It's a horrible hybrid - a seedy mix of social media, reality TV and plain old hubris. All combined, the result is what we call "celebrity culture", a fascinating train wreck that shocks as much as it entertains. The film that predicted our voyeuristic tendencies all those decades ago was Natural Born Killers, a then-harangued and now strangely enthralling product of the 1990s.

Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are two messed-up peas in a pod, victims of abuse who turn to serial killing as an outlet. The cops are on their trail, but so is a reality show camera crew, desperate to raise the duo's already sky-high reputation to new mass-media heights.

The film is undoubtedly a product of its slick crime flick era, but it's particularly noteworthy for its synthesis of two of the decade's most influential celebrity filmmaking voices: Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. From the synopsis alone, it's easy to tell where one ends and the other begins. Tarantino had written the script as a means to break into Hollywood, a low-budget launch-pad that utilised his now-infamous gimmick of recycling grindhouse plots to further his own vision.

Stone, as the director, then tried to infuse his obsessively paranoid Americana mindset into the story. The hyper-violence and fast-talking dialogue were kept intact, but stuffed into the already bloating corpse was an attempt to overtly comment on the general populace's blind worship of cold-blooded celebrities and the media's merciless, twisting influence.

The result was a bizarre bastard child of two conflicting filmmakers ironically mimicking the characters on screen, and all of it jacked up in a schizophrenic ADHD style. Quick cuts, bizarre camera angles, grainy 16mm black-and-white and eye-burning Technicolor, animated sequences and a disturbing soundtrack by Trent Reznor.

All this was meant to mimic the killers' minds, as if on a permanent acid trip gone wrong. It worked - almost too well. The film's release was plagued by reports of teenagers who had taken the story seriously and gone on sex- and drugs-fuelled murder rampages, in the hope of attaining celebrity status.

NBK, as its disturbingly large cult audience loves to label it, is a curious film. Not quite a failure, but a prophetic example of how trying to do the right thing can sometimes go horribly wrong.

Most tellingly though, is that 20 years on, Stone and Tarantino are even bigger celebrity personalities. Go figure.

Courtney Love vindicated

Celebrity Skin
Geffen Records

Four years after her husband's suicide, Courtney Love felt she had much to prove. Her band, Hole, had been dormant since the end of a world tour that, coming hard on the heels of Kurt Cobain's death aged 27, had left her physically and emotionally wrecked.

Apart from a starring role in the movie The People vs Larry Flynt, in which she was well cast - and well received - as the hard-bitten wife of a notorious pornographer, her career was in the doldrums.

And with almost daily tabloid headlines alluding to lurid tales of drugs, rock-star one-night stands and accusations of irresponsible parenting, the suspicion was that Love was freefalling and washed up. Worse, some suggested she was cashing in on Cobain's legacy and had sold out.

It's apparent from this album's title that Love felt stung by circumstance. Essentially a rebuttal of her detractors set over 12 searing grunge tracks, Celebrity Skin didn't so much pick up where the band's previous album, Live Through This, left off as continue a theme from Cobain's final album: like Nirvana's In Utero, Hole's Celebrity Skin tried to resolve the personal struggle between fame and authenticity.

Where Cobain had sung "Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I'm bored and old", Love's take on being hamstrung by celebrity was "I was punk/ Now I'm stupid" in the single Awful.

Love, as primary lyricist (most tracks had been written with guitarist Eric Erlandson, and others benefited from the talents of bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and even Love's former boyfriend, Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan) gave vent to anxieties born of the expectations placed upon her. Was she a rock star, a mother, a grieving widow, a tabloid celebrity or a failure?

Hit so Hard hinted at seeking salvation in religion after the torment of the final drugs-fuelled years of Cobain's life. Dying alluded not only to her own post-Kurt drugs travails, but also to the raging love she still felt for him. And Heaven Tonight is for their young daughter, Frances Bean.

If Love had felt betrayed after Cobain's death, the reaction to Celebrity Skin would have salved the wound. The album won rave reviews, most tellingly without the adjective "brave" that had saturated notices on the release of Live Through This, which was released just four days after Cobain's death on April 5, 1994.

Celebrity Skin was Hole's final album with the band's "classic" line-up. Auf der Maur was the first to go, then drummer Samantha Maloney and eventually Erlandson, too.

Celebrity Skin remains Hole's biggest seller and, if not their key album, it's a testament of Love's drive and ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of death and despair, an act she'd managed before and has pulled off since.

The cult of celebrity

The Atrocity Exhibition
by J. G. Ballard
Jonathan Cape

Ballardian, an adjective coined for Shanghai-born British author J.G. Ballard, is a postmodern addition to the lexicon first applied to Shakespeare and George Orwell. It's usually used to describe dystopian and dehumanising worlds.

The Ballardian landscape is an unsettling vision of cold concrete and sodium-vapour lighting, of sexual voyeurism, the cult of celebrity, banal mass media and high-rise hell that he describes with the clinical dispassion of a surgeon.

Although fictional, The Atrocity Exhibition is more of an experimental literary collage than a novel. Each of its 15 chapters is broken into bite-sized tracts, most of which stretch to fewer than 200 words. Ballard called these "condensed novels", and in his introduction he advises readers to jump in anywhere they like: read a little here, a little there, read backwards, jump a chapter. It doesn't matter, as the narrative was never intended to be linear.

And if that isn't muddling enough, the name of the protagonist - a doctor at a mental hospital who is suffering his own nervous breakdown - changes throughout. He starts out as Travis but also becomes Talbert, Traven, Talbot and other names. Some extracts appear to describe what is happening to him; others, as he succumbs to psychosis, might be all in his head - or somebody else's.

Travis is consulted by a bomber pilot at the outset, and Ballard writes: "For some reason, the planes of his face failed to intersect." Change a few words, and it's a tidy review of The Atrocity Exhibition.

In 1990, two decades after the original release, Ballard added extensive annotations at the end of each chapter. All printings since have included those additions, and they provide captivating insights into his sources of research and inspiration, and into his fascination with celebrity at the time.

The Atrocity Exhibition, written piecemeal in the 1960s, is littered with references to such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, James Dean, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jayne Mansfield and Andy Warhol.

"People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed. I can't imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light."

It's interesting that Ballard's 1973 novel Crash, about car-wreck fetishism, strangely foretold Diana's death in Paris in 1997.

Next week's theme: Eagles