On the Undying, Undead Devotion to Art, Part 2

Was Hoffman's flat affect a masterfully controlled choice?
Was Hoffman's flat affect a masterfully controlled choice?

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the performing artist as undead presence. You can read Part 1 here.

I didn't even get to go to the Oscars.
Only actor in history to be nominated twice for an Oscar after he was deceased.

“There is no posthumous fame for actors” was a favorite expression of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s Charles Ludlam. Of course, this hasn’t been exactly true since the advent of film technology. James Dean famously received not one but two consecutive Best Actor Academy Award nominations for East of Eden and Giant after his fatal car crash at age 24, cementing his reputation for all time as the ultimate Undead Teen Idol. While his two nods remain a singular achievement, he was hardly the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar after his demise: Peter Finch (Network) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) both won from beyond the grave.

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Given the irresistible appeal to Hollywood of making itself feel good when one of its own self-destructs under the pressures of its sadistic system, it’s very possible that next year’s ceremony will feature another postmortem nomination. Currently playing in movie theaters is the latest Philip Seymour Hoffman film, A Most Wanted Man. In this adaptation of a John Le Carré novel the late star turns in yet another absorbing, subtle, Oscar-worthy performance as a German antiterrorism intelligence agent enmeshed in the international intrigues of our post-9/11 world. As Alan Scherduhl noted in his review in The Village Voice, the character is a “poker-faced riddle…As you watch, teasing out the character’s mysteries, it’s impossible not also to worry about the actor’s.”

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Was Hoffman's flat affect a masterfully controlled choice?
Was Hoffman’s flat affect a
masterfully controlled choice?

It’s also impossible to tell if Hoffman’s flat affect is a masterfully controlled choice or the best he could muster under the circumstances. While watching the film, I found myself searching for onscreen evidence of the opioid death spiral we now know he was caught in. The one moment when his character lets loose is in response to being double-crossed by his American counterpart (played by Robin Wright), which as a result, causes him to inadvertently betray the trust of several of his contacts. His rage in that instant is a terrifying thing to behold. (Hoffman’s great genius lie in the disconnect between his characters’ schlubby appearance and the titanic depths of their emotional lives.) One can’t help but wonder just what personal feelings of helplessness he was drawing upon in that scene and whom he felt he was betraying.

Hoffman is not the only deceased popular artist to add more credits to his resume this year. He at least was actually still alive when he shot the movie he’s currently starring in. Michael Jackson was several years dead when he “dueted” on the Top-10 dance track “Love Never Felt So Good” with Justin Timberlake. Jackson’s track was originally recorded with Paul Anka in 1983 with only handclaps and Anka on piano. Through the medium (pun intended) of digital technology, Jackson’s ghost can commune with the very-much-alive Timberlake and generate cash dollars for the Epic label, which really means it’s generating yen for the global monstrosity that is Sony Music Entertainment. This is the same company, after all, that increased the price of Whitney Houston’s greatest hits album 30 minutes after her death was announced.

The narrative of the artist finally receiving recognition and sales or publication after his or her passing is a compelling one. From Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh to the recent battle over the estate of the late photographer Vivian Maier, the legend of the misunderstood/unappreciated/hidden genius coming to light is a potent one. In these instances, however, the artist leaves behind a completed body of work—physical objects and writing (which at least until recently had its own materiality). Even Dean’s films existed as celluloid prints in a can. In our dematerialized present, Jackson and Timberlake “collaborate” on a video for a “new” single, and one of the lead comments on its YouTube page exhorts readers to “keep voting for mj for most famous person 2014 he already won most famous person 2013 long live the king.” (sic) It would appear that, not only is posthumous fame for performers possible, it’s damn profitable and endlessly perpetuating.

So does it finally come down to that? Are we meant to be eternally existing brands, like Disney or Ford—names of living, breathing men that have now become wholly synonymous with products? Is that what capitalism wants from us—productivity into perpetuity? By signing up for DeadSoci.al, the London-based “free social media end of life tool,” I would be able to release to all of my social media contacts new content that I had created before expiring. I could time-release fresh essays or send a video of my legendary performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch”—basically forcing everyone I know to remember ME, ME, ME long after “me” ceased to exist in any meaningful way. And don’t think someone won’t figure out a way to monetize the cultural products that would be made available as a result.

While this service is pretty creepy, in my opinion, it can’t hold a sputtering Gothic candle to the “ick” factor that is LivesOn, whose tagline is “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.” And, no, this is not a Saturday Night Live catchphrase: it’s actually real, or rather, artificially intelligent. AI is inching us closer to the day when Tim Cusack@Theatre Askew can keep Twittering his pithy opinions about contemporary culture long after the remains of the flesh-and-blood me has been incinerated in a furnace. By analyzing the living, breathing you’s syntax and content, this program will supposedly keep generating material from “you” forever (or at least until all human infrastructure collapses), while your body lies a-mouldering in its grave. I would have more to report, but currently all of its beta accounts have been allocated. When I signed up to be notified of available slots, I received the response, “Thank you for your interest in the after life. We will contact you soon.” Which sounds exactly like the kind of drily snarky thing Vampire Pam would say on True Blood right before she turns some poor unsuspecting human into a fellow creature of the night.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the performing artist as undead presence. You can read Part 1 here.

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Tim Cusack
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. For Askew he has appeared in and/or directed numerous productions, including Bald Diva!; i google myself; I, Claudius; Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor; and Busted. He is the co-author of a study guide to the significant court cases of the gay rights movement and a former contributor to Stage Directions magazine. He holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College, where he was a Vera Roberts fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @TheatreAskew.