Employees at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center had been warned about what was going to happen, but they didn’t know when it would start. And then, at noon on Tuesday afternoon, part-time actor and full-time agent of chaos Shia LaBeouf settled into an aisle seat in the theater’s smallest auditorium and began to watch — in reverse chronological order — all of the 27 feature films in which he’s appeared over the span of his career. The marathon event began with Dito Montiel’s brand new, yet-to-be-released Man Down; it’ll end 58 consecutive hours later when the credits roll on 1998’s Breakfast with Einstein, around 10pm on Thursday night. What LaBeouf is attempting would be an act of extreme masochism for any performer, let alone someone who’s starred in three different Transformers movies.
Once thought to be an innocuous goofball who parlayed a broad comic charm into a blockbuster-star career, the 29-year-old seemed to grow profoundly disoriented towards the end of 2014, as if he realized that fame was a minotaur’s maze in which he’d lost his way. But this hasn’t been your average episode of Behind the Music; LaBeouf’s curiously counterintuitive attempts to escape from the public eye have been far more artful than any of the things he did to put himself in it. Everyone thought he was having a nervous breakdown. Now his meltdown increasingly seems more like a calculated plan to confront — and perhaps destroy — the modern concept of celebrity.
Unsurprisingly, LaBeouf’s latest stunt was revealed to be a new piece of performance art called #ALLMYMOVIES, a new work from the actor’s arts collective (his collaborators Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rökkö could be seen scrambling through the foyer; they officially declined to comment for this piece). Complemented by an unblinking live-stream of the actor’s face and brought to life by an open invitation for the public to drop by for as long as they want, the “installation” mixes equal parts Christian Marclay, Marina Abramovic, and David Blaine — an event fueled by the same electrical storm of fame that it ultimately exists to embarrass and dismantle.
Rolling Stone arrived just after 1pm on Wednesday and found all the fanfare that you’d expect at a movie screening on a rainy weekday afternoon. Two guards stood outside the door to the auditorium, and the piercing beeps from their security wands announced the arrival of each new attendee. Inside, twenty-odd twentysomethings were watching a melodramatic WWII drama (Fury) in reverent silence; someone sitting towards the front had a large camera pointing directly at his face.
As for the live-stream, it makes #ALLMYMOVIES seem like an exercise in vanity: You’re the viewer, and the star is playing the part of the perpertually viewed. It’s a one-way street. But as soon as a middle-aged man strolled down the aisle, bent over LaBeouf, and snapped a picture of the actor about three inches from his face — with flash! — it became clear that the online portion of the installation was ultimately just an advertisement for the experience. Sitting a few feet behind him and watching him stare up at his own gargantuan reflection, his method finally began to make sense of his madness.
The actor first broke from the prescribed A-list star template back in December of 2013, when he was caught plagiarizing a Dan Clowes graphic novel for the script of his short film “HowardCantour.com.” The theft was quickly eclipsed by LaBeouf’s apology campaign: a manic series of tweets that were themselves plagiarized from pre-existing mea culpas. A few days later, he announced his “retir[ement] from public life.” By the time he walked the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival, wearing a paper bag over his head on which he’d scrawled “I am not famous anymore,” it wasn’t clear if LaBeouf was biting the hand that fed him or trying to eat it whole. But he had successfully rebranded himself as a human disaster artist.
But the icing on the cake of his tailspin remains #IAMSORRY. Hatched in February of 2014, the five-day event invited individual members of the public to sit alone in a room with a silent LaBeouf and interact with him however they chose. Sometimes, it ended in tears — once, it ended with LaBeouf’s collaborators intervening to prevent their friend from being raped. “I went from being a celebrity or object to a fellow human,” he reflected afterwards. “It happened in less than a second for some.”
#ALLMYMOVIES relies more upon visceral immediacy than it does intellectual heft, and is predicated on an incredibly simple idea: You can’t pay attention to a film when one of its stars is sitting right in front of you. No one at the Angelika could avert their eyes from LaBeouf’s utterly unremarkable head; everything happening on the screen was a complete afterthought. And like a millennial Benjamin Button or Boyhood in reverse, the installation led viewers back through time as LaBeouf reverts from our current conception of him to rising star and, eventually, just a curly-haired kid. All the while, the guy who was fighting Nazis, robots et al. on screen was sitting in our field of view, his static physical presence a constant contrast to the transformation projected behind him.
When the credits rolled on Man Down, there were a few giggles and no applause, and the man of the hour immediately bolted for the door — it’s unclear if he had to pee, if he wanted to check in with his collaborators, or if he just didn’t want to deal with the guy breathing down his neck for the brunt of the afternoon. Of course, it’s not like he would have engaged him in conversation; continuing a practice he employed in #IAMSORRY, the actor refused to speak. LaBeouf wasn’t rude — he courteously moved for people to leave his row, and he even shared some popcorn with the girl in the next seat over. But for the next 50-plus hours, LaBeouf doesn’t want us to know who he is. He just wants us to know what he isn’t.