The internet’s positive and engaged response to Shia Labeouf’s latest stunt — in which he’s riding an elevator in Oxford, England for 24 hours straight — is a testament to how far The Beef has come since he was ridiculed for helming the awful Transformers movies. As I type this, I’m listening to him (LIVE!) as he discusses Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with a guy who found it boring.
He began his ascent into the realm of self-referential performance artist — and into the arms of his artist buddies Ronkko and Turner — by wearing a paper bag over his head to the Nymphomaniac premiere. Most news sources and angry Twitter users were personally affronted. “Fine!” many of us seemed to say. “Peddle your crazy back into cultural irrelevancy, Mr. Beef, see if we care!” We made vicious memes about him, chortling like fat Wall Street bankers when he was accused of plagiarism. For a period, Shia was a Hollywood pariah, a too-earnest whipping boy, and the public liked it that way.
Was it Shia’s appearance in Rob Cantor’s viral video that turned the tides of hatred? After listening to a gorgeous song about how unapproachable and unnerving he is, Shia stood in an empty audience and clapped like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Notably, this shot of Shia recalled the scene in which Welles’ character is trying desperately, militantly, to start a round of applause for his wife’s dismal performance. Did Shia know that goofiness was his way out of the mire?
By the time Shia announced #allmymovies — the stunt in which he sat for a screening of every single film he’s ever made, alongside any fans who wanted to attend, and streamed the whole thing online — the public tripped over itself trying to come up with a cohesive response. Was he a douchebag, aligned with ridiculed “serious” millennials like James Franco, or was he becoming someone else, a celebrity so odd and erratic that it could only remind us of our own helplessness? As #allmymovies continued we all fell back in love with Shia, the way we had with the quirky boy in math class back in junior high. At first, out of intimidation, but then out of the belief that he harbored a secret self-obsession: a pattern of neurotic urges that only we could understand.
We made fan art of his face, called him a perfect cinnamon bun when he demonstrated genuine joy watching The Even Stevens Movie. We pointed at our computer screens as he grimaced and slept through the Transformers films. “See?!” we said wildly to each other, “He knew! He knew all along! He’s just a cog in the Hollywood system, taking the roles he’s offered!”
Shia had reached that pinnacle of relevancy that all performance artists strive for, one that has been reached by the likes of Marina Abramović when she stared at all those New York celebrities in a red dress. Now that he’s enacting another performance meant to go viral — he’s calling the stunt #ELEVATE and is streaming the whole thing here — his public is here with him again, in solidarity. All he has to do is transmit his silly humanity, his fragility over his ego, and he won’t lose us.