Man of Our Time
Kylee V. Luce chronicles Shia LaBeouf’s glo-up from Disney darling to GQ cover boy, and all the arrests in between.
Shia Labeouf’s 2007 mugshot is an image I can call to mind in perfect, luculent detail. Howling from the hinterlands of a full decade ago, when he was arrested for refusing to leave a Walgreens, when it circulated widely online and on gag t-shirts, his face, hovering above a purple hoodie, wears an expression bemused and somehow infinite, almost like the girl in Balthus’ Thérèse Dreaming. His lank mustache curls above a small parted-lip smile and his eyes shine as if lit by a bounce. Looking at it still makes me laugh.
It wasn’t the first time he’d warmed the backseat of a police cruiser, nor would it be anywhere near the last. The inciting incidents behind these visits are a gallimaufry of absurdities, a stew of bad behavior both banal and severe. They begin, as he explains in an essay for the 2015 book Prison Ramen, when he was nine years old; he was arrested for stealing a pair of Nike Cortezes. Two years later, he was caught stealing a Gameboy Pokemon from Kmart. He then had a nine-year reprieve from the constabulary backseat before, at age 20, attempting to stab a neighbor and spending two days in jail. Later that year, he got arrested at Walgreens; it was 2:30 am, he was drunk, and he was buying pimple cream; a security guard, he thought, was laughing at him. Seven years later he was drunk again – “wasted from the second he walked in”, according to Alan Cumming’s interview about the incident on Conan O’Brien – while watching a performance of the play Cabaret in New York City; he was arrested for disorderly conduct that included shouting at the actors through one side of his mouth, smoking a cigarette with the other, and grabbing Cumming’s ass.
Of his post-Walgreens night in jail, he wrote, “For some reason, I had the best sleep ever.” Of the full day he spent incarcerated after Cabaret, “While there, I did have a terrific egg sandwich.” His essay is as funny as his most memorable mugshot. But though he titled it “Error Breeds Sense,” this has proved to be a velleity; his mistakes have not bred enough of it for him to stop getting arrested. In Austin, Texas, for instance, for public intoxication in 2015. In New York City, for misdemeanor assault and harassment at the location of his Donald Trump protest artwork in January 2017. In Savannah, Georgia, for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and obstruction in July 2017, which was – in case you’re losing track – last month.
And then there are the crimes he wasn’t arrested for. Most notably his ostentatious plagiarism of the beloved Ghost World writer and artist Daniel Clowes, in a short film he made, and of two different writers, Benoît Duteurtre and (hilariously) Charles Bukowski, in two of the comic books he made. The negative press that followed prompted him to wear a paper bag over his head bearing the words I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE, scrawled in sharpie, at the February 2014 Nymphomaniac premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and to execute the performance art piece #IAMSORRY with the artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö & Luke Turner two days later. In the latter, he appeared in a Los Angeles gallery in a tuxedo and the same not-famous paper bag, crying in silence as visitors dropped in to sit across from him and out again to write up astonished recaps of the experience for large media outlets. It was around this time that I and many other people began to suspect that Shia, and Shia’s fame, would not be continuing in any average way.
To think of fame as a thing one can be average at seems, at first glance, strange. Being truly famous is obviously and by definition exceptional, but celebrity is also, as the novelist Jarrett Kobeck once said, a totally separate species of being: “We need to start thinking about celebrity as a disease which, when contracted, can lead to dramatic DNA alteration. ... We’re trying to use entities which are no longer human and thus no longer contained by our social constructs to have long and pointless discussions about major social issues defined, primarily, by those constructs.” Which is to say that celebrities constitute their own social class, with its own rules and interests, and every social class has averages against which it sets limits. There are many ways to be famous and socially ostracized, but the only absolute law of celebrity is the law of the market: stay famous. Thus the average celebrity does just enough to stay known without being truly notorious for anything much.
This was not Labeouf’s fate, and thank god. He has never ceased to be human because he has never been at ease with the celebrity class, though I’ve been paying my attention to him, and often letting TMZ collect, since I saw Disturbia a decade ago. There I saw the same thing as Steven Spielberg: “When I first saw Shia, I was amazed at how someone so young could be so unselfconscious," he told GQ in 2008. "He seems closer to audiences in his ability to be himself." That year a journalist called him “young, infectious, and beyond prosecution, as much sinner as saint.” His presence was winning and witty and kinetic like a pinball. It is easy to be a boyish white actor reciting lines with an honest face; instantiation of this can be found in any studio movie in recent memory, a fact that suggests this brand of boyishness is the defining cinematic trope of the last decade. Less easy, as always, is to be an interesting person, an ineffable quality that the screen often captures incidentally or by accident. By all other accounts Disturbia was an unremarkable thriller with a familiar plot and pretty rote writing, and yet every girl I knew that year, as a teenager in a flyover American suburb, had seen it more than once. He was the boy next door if that door opened to a $60 per night motel in Burbank, where a barely-pubescent Shia lived with his addict father for three entire years, smoking joints with him and riding to work at Disney on the back of his dad’s motorcycle, while he was filming his first role in Even Stevens.
He would go on to star in a number of enormous studio movies in his early twenties – Transformers (1, 2, and 3), Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, Eagle Eye, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – but he could never forget for long being the kid who got caught stealing sneakers he couldn’t afford. Acting, he once said, was something he pursued at first because he wanted to be able to buy a Sega Genesis. His mother – a fabric saleswoman and jewelry maker – and his father – a Vietnam Vet, convicted felon, and member of the Mongols biker gang – once collaborated with their toddler-aged son on a roving business idea called The Snow Cone Family Circus. They later sold hot dogs together in Echo Park. If Spielberg saw the coruscant surface of Shia’s charisma and successfully bottled it several times for profit, he was unprepared, in a Hollywood where half the names inscribed in the credits have more-famous parents, for its inevitable shadow, the darker shades of such a ‘colorful’ working-class upbringing. When he and then everyone started comparing Shia to Tom Hanks, “a mix of wit and ease and confidence,” the former tried to be flattered but could only feel the panicked eclipse of being misunderstood (much of his subsequent behavior, maybe, was his way of explaining this to a wide audience). Tom Hanks, so fatherly, calm, deeply decent, and utterly mature: a more alarming projection, to Shia, would have been difficult to imagine. The easy dignity of true security was, and by all appearances continues to be, the furthest thing from his experience of life; and it is for that reason, although he’s not at all average, Shia Labeouf is an emblem of millennial masculinity. His life is, among other things, an extraordinary case study of a problem that belongs to everybody. Why would anyone want to become a responsible, dignified, self-effacing family man anymore? That social position has been foreclosed. Masculinity, in this economy?
If Spielberg is worried about his young protégé’s development, he has that in common with Alain Badiou. The latter is worried enough about boys, generally, that the French philosopher’s most recent book The True Life spends one of its three chapters addressing what he sees as their peculiar and utterly contemporary plight, one stemming from a central difference from the past, which today’s youth are among the first to live through: a lack of initiation rites into adulthood. These rites, which were “often severe”, he writes,
“are no longer imposed to mark the passage of youth to adulthood. ... These might have been bodily markings, daunting physical and moral tests, or activities that were prohibited before and allowed afterwards. And all these things indicated ‘young person’ meant ‘someone who has not yet been initiated.’ There was a restrictive, negative definition of youth.”
During his own adolescence (which was “not so long ago when measured against the scale of the human animal’s whole historical existence”; he is eighty years old, and a Capricorn), boys were initiated into adulthood through the guise of military service, and girls by getting married. Though vestiges of these traditions still exist in many places, including the one I grew up in, the culture has moved on. Today’s kids have largely escaped the issue of initiation, have been freed from these restrictions; but free to do what?
To be arrested eight times by the age of 31, perhaps. “I start drinking and I feel smaller than I am, and I get louder than I should,” Shia told Variety last year; in other words, more childlike. When there are no clear lines drawn between youth and adulthood, Badiou argues, all adults become more adolescent instead, and become infantilized. Decline replaces ascension and the only place left for the culture to go is backwards: into a cult of youth. The old want to stay young at all costs, rather than the young wanting to become adults; an adult is simply someone slightly better able to buy things or command convenience than a young person; the freedom of youth has become “above all the absence of certain taboos. It is a negative, consumerist freedom condemned to the constant variation of commodities, fashions, and opinions.” In place of old, hierarchical traditions, we have a single, diffuse law: that of the free market.
Evidence of this has never been easier to locate. Jia Tolentino wrote, in her recent essay “The Land of the Large Adult Son” in The New Yorker, about the rise of that meme to a presiding fact of our country’s politics – “...it’s memes all the way down with this Administration: Trump, the father of the large adult son of the summer, is himself, clearly, a large adult son. He is the loudmouthed, mischievous, and disorderly child.” As she points out, even one of the dumbest men who has ever written for The New York Times (a crowded competition), David Brooks, couldn’t help but decry in a recent column: “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.” #masculinitysofragile has been hashed out across Buzzfeed lists enough times the last several years that even my network’s corner of flyover-mom Facebook knows the gist.
This situation leaves boys with three possible lifestyle choices, none of which position them close to the book’s eponymous concept of a true life – more on that later. The options available to them on the drop-down menu of free-market monoculture are perversion, martyrdom, and obedience. Perversion, in the sense he’s using it, occurs when something has been diverted from its original purpose; ‘the perverted body,’ then, is one that has been distracted from pursuing real meaning through drugs, tattoos, the aesthetic of pornographic sex, and empty hedonism – a flouting of old taboos that leads nowhere but an “inertia of eternal adolescence.” Martyrdom, or ‘the sacrificed body,’ occupies the opposite end of this spectrum, as a reactionary who is desperately trying to bring tradition, and the old hierarchies, back from the dead; he is a religious or ideological extremist motivated solely by fear of the perverted existence. He’s a suicide bomber, or he’s Rod Dreher.
Finally, a boy can choose or be ushered into obedience. He can land between the former two poles as ‘the deserving body,’ the one who has been carefully planning his career path since second grade, ambitious but docile, who does whatever he needs to do to be “best suited to the external laws of the market,” and who uses his career as a “hole-plugger of meaninglessness.” This, in other words, is a carefully ordered boogie life, empty but competitive work rewarded with increased consumption, and incidentally, it’s the only one that comes with protection from the police, who see the first two bodies as natural enemies of the deserving.
This relation to the law illuminates something about both Shia and my sustained interest in him, an interest that has sustained no less than 36 email threads in my inbox, with various fellow enthusiasts, containing his name. “My outright disrespect for authority is problematic to say the least, and completely destructive to say the worst,” he wrote in an apologia posted to Twitter this July; but though it has indeed caused him problems, it’s always been one of the most charming things about him. He has never felt deserving, even when a deserving life unfurled fast and cushy in front of him like a yoga mat. His relationship to authority was forged in the working class and remains there, an outline overlaid on every interaction he’s ever had with a cop. When he screamed, as he was getting fingerprinted last month, that “a black man arrested me for being white,” he had the axis of his analysis wrong; a cop arrested him for acting working-class. But this formative position, fraught as it’s been, also welded in him a relationship to art and work markedly more intense than most of his peers.
“There's no pain worse than being bad [at acting],” he told Interview in 2014, “so I'm willing to do anything and everything. It's not good for my personal life. But neither is being bad. I'd rather be anything but bad.” That last statement, in the last half-decade of his life, has proved true. Upon hearing that Lars Von Trier wanted real sex in Nymphomaniac, he sent him a video of his real dick as a sort of avant audition tape. On the set of the war drama Fury, he went full method, refusing to shower for two months, instructing a dentist to remove one of his teeth, cutting his own face with his pocketknife to increase the realism of his on-camera wounds, and converting to Christianity to play a US soldier in Nazi Germany during World War II. On the roving set of the best film he’s ever made – Andrea Arnold’s heartstopping American Honey – he went on a seven week road trip with the rest of the ensemble cast during filming, sleeping in motels and acquiring no less than twelve new tattoos with them as “a bonding exercise.” And then there’s his performance art – but more on that soon. A less ‘deserving,’ bourgeois work ethic is hard to imagine. Compare, for instance, I’d rather be anything but bad to an announcement made by the recently anointed, Kushner-faced Baby Driver leading boy Ansel Elgort, who was raised in Manhattan and whose idea of a memorable interview quip is “I’m super easy to hate. But it’s fine. It’s hard to be liked and successful.”
It was the apparition of early, and enormous, success that allowed Shia to cycle, at least superficially, through all three of Badiou’s false lives for boys, a kind of maximalist case study in permanent boyhood. From about 2007 to 2014 he tried on the life of an obedient, conformist action hero, and found it too ill-fitting to keep. His occasional violence and his attraction to method-extremism superficially resemble martyrdom. And through it all, anytime he was drunk or down, perversion, his birthright for being born poor. With his dreamy 2007 mugshot, two of his more recent police portraits form an eery triptych. In one taken after his arrest in Austin, Texas two years ago, he stares directly into the camera with a regretful, desperate countenance and an overgrown neckbeard, his shirt weirdly the same purple as the hoodie in his Balthus shot; in another, taken after his most recent arrest in Georgia, his eyes downcast, his face weathered, he stares somewhere to the right of the frame with bottomless weariness; in all three together, an object lesson on our inertia of eternal adolescence.
It nearly goes without saying that neither a woman, nor a black man, nor a person with any relation to their body more complicated than cis, would be allowed half Shia’s chances. “I am actively securing my sobriety and hope I can be forgiven for my mistakes,” reads the last line of his most recent public apology. Which is not to say, necessarily, that he shouldn’t have been given them; it’s to say the lifestyles available for girls and some others are different. Girls, who used to get married to become adults, are not just born into adulthood, says Badiou, they’re sexualized young and expected, in every way, to always be older than they are (in this sense, black boys, who are often, like Tamir Rice, not allowed innocence, are feminized). Hence why girls do better in school, and why mainstream feminism has pivoted to being about giving them more seats in the corporate boardroom. Boys suffer from the anxiety of stasis, girls from the anxiety of prematurity – “if boys are forever immature, girls, on the contrary, have always been mature,” goes his theory. He continues:
“Let’s exaggerate things a bit. What might the world become under these conditions? It might become a herd of stupid adolescent boys lead by smart career women. We’d then have something perfectly suited to the opaque world being offered us: in terms of Ideas, there would only be things.” Essentially, this is Badiou’s idea of a false life: one “full of little [consumer] desires and without any Ideas whatsoever,” a fate both boys and girls are circumscribed to in different ways. When life has no guiding light but the free market, and all individualism is inextricably bound to consumption, people are gradually prevented from realizing their true potential. A true life, then, is simply one that allows you to find out what you’re capable of.
One quality of art, especially performance art, is that it contains at core an idea. Often a bad or boring idea, but still, an idea. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have had fifteen of them in four years, projects and performances with titles like #FOLLOWMYHEART, #TOUCHMYSOUL, #ANDINTHEEND. Some are more successful than others, conceptually and/or with the public; the viral #ALLMYMOVIES, for instance, where Shia sat in a movie theater for three days, on a livestream, and watched every single one of his cultural products alongside anyone who cared to drop in, versus the somewhat dopey, and much vandalized, Trump protest-art #HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS, which instigated Shia’s seventh arrest. All these works together, however, in sheer terms of will, desire, and effort involved are, for an actor as famous as the Man Of Our Time, no less than astonishing.
My favorites among these fifteen, are two projects on isolation and contact that mirror each other. The group’s most recent, #ALONETOGETHER, performed this April, involved all three artists spending a month in three separate, basic cabins, somewhere in Lapland, Finland. They had no access to phones, the internet, or each other, a circumstance that, in late-stage Twitter 2017, increasingly sounds more like fantasy than nightmare; their only contact with the outside world was through a fourth cabin, installed in a Finland gallery, where visitors could communicate with them through text; these text exchanges were livestreamed. Ten months earlier, they enacted for one month #TAKEMEANYWHERE, by posting their exact coordinates online and asking that people – whoever wanted to – pick them up, and take them anywhere. Shia traversed almost the whole United States this way, popping up in Instagram posts and articles in local newspapers, making brief but intense in-person contact with a range of people that included one family of polygamist Mormons.
There’s something kind of too-obvious and strained about both performances. And yet I find them moving, in their open-ended probing of amity, in their willingness to ask a question, to accept any response and just see what happens. Though I’ve long, and with some irony, sexualized him for fun, and consume his paparazzi photos like a sport, truthfully, in all this thrashing messiness, in his sincere struggle to find something beyond all the stupid lives he’s been given, Shia moves me too. What, exactly, are we capable of?
Originally published in the “Masculine” issue on August 21, 2017