Celebrities renovate their public images all the time, but few—if any—have matched the drama and sheer absurdity of Shia LaBeouf’s transformation. Once the fresh-faced star of the “Transformers” series, LaBeouf decided around 2014 to become something of a postmodernist: He transformed his Twitter into self-professed “meta-modernist performance art” and appeared at the Berlin Film Festival wearing a brown paper bag emblazoned with the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” This past week, LaBeouf added another bewildering work to his oeuvre by standing in an elevator for 24 hours—a project he dubbed #ELEVATE.
Is #ELEVATE really all that elevated, though? On first glance, not really. Judging from the live stream of the event, not much happened except for a participant getting gently slapped in the face at his own request. LaBeouf seemed like a celebrity just messing around and trying to maintain a degree of name recognition, using yet another bizarre and memetic event to create a sort of brand—weirdness as marketable identity, like Lady Gaga or early Nicki Minaj.
Then again, LaBeouf seems to fascinate and confuse people in ways that no pop star ever has. Witness the completely inexplicable and amazing “‘Shia LaBeouf’ Live” by singer-songwriter Rob Cantor: The production utilizes ballet dancers, two separate choruses, an orchestra, and paper-mache heads to tell the nightmarish story of “actual cannibal Shia LaBeouf.” The video has over 33 million views on YouTube, probably because it perceptively captures the opaque and entirely individual strangeness of the man. LaBeouf is more than just eye-catching—he’s actually unsettling (maybe legitimately cannibal-like) in his endless and inscrutably serious performance.
And this performance might actually have a degree of artistic merit. When all of LaBeouf’s endeavors are considered collectively, they slowly come into focus as an intriguing investigation into the nature of fame. In continuously plagiarizing famous apologies on his Twitter and wearing a self-castigating paper bag, LaBeouf mocked the repetitive and somewhat vicious culture surrounding celebrity transgression and apology. When he hosted a marathon of his own movies, he called attention to his own reproducibility and the vacuousness of those reproduced images. The overriding thesis, it seems, has something to do with the simultaneous magnifying and emptying of personal identity that comes with fame—and it’s an idea as compelling as it is disturbing.
#ELEVATE departs slightly from this tradition: It renders LaBeouf accessible rather than remote, emphasizing his selfhood rather than bizarrely erasing it. If all goes well, participants leave the elevator grinning, telling their friends what a nice guy Shia LaBeouf is and how he rides in elevators like normal people. However, the structure of the project ultimately calls attention to the personal entrapment and artificiality behind such encounters. It debunks the notion of the “just-like-us” celebrity just as it seems to reinforce it, and it does so cleverly and movingly.
Oddly enough, #ELEVATE suggests a comparison between Shia LaBeouf and lauded author Ben Lerner. A MacArthur Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and a finalist for the National Book Award, Lerner writes novels that blur the line between fiction and memoir: “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04” both use the instinctive tendency to conflate author and protagonist in an exploration of power, fame, and warped identity. The project even extends to Lerner’s in-person appearances. He affects modesty and unrehearsed ease, but repeats almost the same speeches over and over again.
Who, then, is Ben Lerner? Is he his self-castigating, cripplingly self-reflexive protagonists? A likable, unpretentious author? Someone else entirely? His fame allows us to claim intimacy with him, but we actually have no access to his real self. And that all sounds like Shia LaBeouf. His methods—constant performance, self-duplication—are largely the same as Lerner’s, and his arguments about identity, celebrity, and connection are strikingly similar. Elevate away, then, even if Lerner does wear fewer paper bags.
—Staff writer Charlotte L.R. Anrig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org