Fake People, Pure Product
In 1994 Connie Willis wrote a sci-fi novel called Remake . In Remake, Willis imagines Hollywood of the future using technology to create highly realistic computer generated versions of dead celebrities, and insert the digital Doppelgangers into other movies. If you wanted to see a remake of Easy Rider starring Mae West, WC Fields, and Peter Lorre (and who doesn’t) you could do that, if you had the money.
It’s not Willis’ best book, but the idea always stuck with me because as I read it, I realized that within my lifetime Hollywood would surely embrace the notion of e-actors. It just makes sense – how lucrative it would be to cash in on the love people have for iconic stars, and better still, to avoid having to deal with a problematic actor. No drug abuse, no #metoo offenses, no racist tirades, not even having to deal with the fallout of a weird and uncomfortable interview on the Today Show. A CGI celebrity would be pure product without the annoying person attached to it. It seemed all but certain that Hollywood, capital city of everything fake, would be all over the notion of computer generated stars.
The future is now, it appears, because the long-dead actor James Dean will be starring in an upcoming movie.
Perhaps predictably, everyone has come together on social media to cluck frantically over this new development. Understandable. If you believe even a little in the art of moviemaking and the craft of acting, you should find this a concerning development. And that doesn’t even take into account the economics of it all. This technology will essentially create hundreds more actors (already famous and successful, mind you, who are big box office draws) for working actors to compete with, in an industry that’s already next to impossible to break into. It would stifle innovation hugely since Hollywood would probably not ever take a chance on a unknown, quirky quantity like Adam Driver or Rebel Wilson when they could simply cast Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly instead.
In all its artistic conservatism Hollywood would probably just end up running repeats of stories that old-fashioned actors tell well, rather than embracing modern themes. Movies would become frozen in time, a time most of us don’t even remember; CGI actors reflecting the mannerisms and dialogue of a time long past while computer technicians struggle to make the expression, “Like, I don’t know, whatever” believably emanate from the lips of Katharine Hepburn.
But is it wrong?
Another thing that happened this month is that Dickinson premiered on Apple+. Dickinson is a reimagining of the life of Emily Dickinson in which she’s a sassy, horny, feminist teen questioning her sexuality and supposedly this is awesome and brave because giving Emily Dickinson an imaginary personality and set of values that are just like a modern person is somehow different than inserting the dead body of James Dean in a new movie.
Investigations, both real and fictional, of the sex lives of historical figures have long irritated me. I just don’t see the point of speculating if Abe Lincoln was gay, or learning more about the relationship between Catherine the Great and her horse. I don’t even care if Beto is a furry. Not only is it salacious, not only does it have nothing to do with the historical figure’s accomplishments (at times even detracting from them, possibly as a political weapon to undo the good things they’ve done by focusing on the “bad”), not only does it reduce a complex and amazing person to a walking set of genitals, but a great deal of this conjecture stems from the notion that throughout time people have acted and thought and felt exactly the same as we act and think and feel here and now.
There’s a kind of temporocentricness to seeing two guys sleeping in the same bed out of necessity and seeing a torrid homosexual love affair, or passionate letters between two Victorian women – common at the time – as signs of romance percolating beneath the surface. People lived and behaved differently in the past and it is at least as off-putting to me to impose our modern day sexual values onto historical figures as it is to resurrect an actor as a computer generated zombie.
But is it wrong?
A couple of helpful buzzwords we hear a lot lately are “body autonomy” and “consent”. Most of us would agree we have a right to control our bodies, and even to some extent our own images. Certainly things like revenge porn and upskirt photos are rightfully despised even though they involve only images, and most of us would agree we should have the right to prevent those images from being used by others without our consent. Taking the face and cadence of James Dean and shoving him into a movie seems very similar to terrible people taking celebrity headshots and digitizing them onto porn star bodies. Using a person’s name and image without their consent, most would agree, is a violation of bodily autonomy. Doing it to the dead seems like necrophilia.
But is it WRONG?
I suppose it’s one thing if the person is Carrie Fisher or Brandon Lee, people who had signed up to play a movie role and then sadly died before filming was done. It feels pretty much ok to me to use their digital form, even without their express consent. It seems moderately ok to use the likeness of Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger or yes, even James Dean, those who understood modern day fame and had signed up for it (even if they maybe didn’t know exactly what they were getting themselves into at the time). But Emily Dickinson? How could Emily Dickinson consent to having her name and likeness used? She didn’t want to be famous even in the 1870’s sense of the word. Only a handful of her poems were published during her own lifetime. She could have had no concept of what “fame” meant in 2019 and if she had, she’d likely have wanted no part of it. She could have had no concept of what queerness meant – if she did have feelings in that direction, they were far more personal and apolitical than how we define queerness today. I suspect she’d have been mortified by Dickinson, humiliated by speculation about her sexuality, and would not ever have agreed to having her person used like this.
BUT IS IT WRONG?
People say imagining that Emily Dickinson was bisexual is meaningful to them. After all, the dead are dead, and if an actually living human can glean something important from their lives, isn’t it worth the potential harm to their memory?? If something a person can do for another person benefits them, don’t we all have the responsibility of offering ourselves up as an icon from beyond the grave, whether we want to be one or not?
But I am just not totally convinced that something that benefits one person means that another person has to agree to it – even if it does not cause them actual physical harm. Louis CK thought that coercing unsuspecting women into witnessing a sexual act was ok because it was good for him and they weren’t actually “hurt” by his actions. The people sticking James Dean in a movie think they’re doing it for wonderful and selfless reasons (or so they claim). No one is obligated to do a thing just because another person super likes that thing.
Joyfully imagining something might be true in the privacy of one’s own mind seems a very different thing than “profiting from” and “getting off on” it. Exploitative. The word is exploitative.
I still don’t know if it’s wrong though.
Regardless of how greatly it benefits you personally, it seems to me that on some level it’s still a violation of a person’s body autonomy and their privacy to impose your own desires upon another, particularly when it’s for personal benefit/gratification. This is true no matter how much you claim to love the person you’re exploiting. Loving James Dean means you know he probably would have been disgusted by being animated posthmously and stuck into a war movie. And as for Emily Dickinson, loving her means you know she was a shy and private person who would almost certainly not have enjoyed being the focus of so much speculation regarding her most intimate thoughts and feelings and would have utterly despised being portrayed twerking.
Right or wrong, it seems to me a violation of both privacy and consent to take historical figures and use them for one’s own purposes. I do realize that in practical terms, we can’t do anything about it. Obviously people are gonna make biopics, they’re going to speculate about the affairs of Cleopatra and the sexuality of James Buchanan and WTF happened with Fatty Arbuckle. They’re gonna want to reinact the battles of George Washington and Napoleon onscreen because people enjoy that kind of thing. I watch biopics myself from time to time, and have often indulged in fictionalizations of famous people within the pages of my fave writer ever, Jess Walter, not to mention Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, and AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, among many others. In Turn, not only are George Washington and Benedict Arnold main characters, but a brutal and perverse imagining of Canada’s Founding Father John Graves Simcoe – a probably decent person and a dedicated abolitionist who all but singlehandedly prevented slavery from taking hold in the Great White North, appears as the primary villain. And yet I watched Turn and didn’t burn my TV in protest.*
Maybe I should have.
There is just something about Dickinson that feels like they’re crossing a line that the lighthearted insertion of historical figures in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure never crossed, and this road we’re traveling down is going to end up with the CGI ghost of Shirley Temple starring in an NC-17 remake of Pretty Baby.
I don’t know if it’s wrong, but it feels icky.
For some reason, other people seem to see this ick factor more clearly when it comes to James Dean than when it comes to Emily Dickinson. While I’m sure it’s partly because Emily is far away through the mists of time and seems fairer game than James does, I suspect it’s also because some people are so invested in promoting a particular worldview that they are blinded to how gross it actually is to co-opt a dead body to do the talking for you. But it seems to me that the makers of Dickinson could have made a show about a sassy feminist queer poet in the Victorian era and NOT made it Emily Dickinson herself. Just like the makers of Finding Jack could have easily cast James Franco or Robert Pattinson or some other moody douche in their movie. And the makers of Turn could have, and probably should have, invented a fictionalized alt-Simcoe rather than defame the real man.
I would have been far more likely to watch Dickinson if they had made the lead character a girl named “Emma Lee Richardson” instead, and winked and nodded at we, the audience. But I still am not certain that it’s wrong to write real people into fictional works, as long as you’re clear they’re fictionalized portrayals. I’m not even certain it’s wrong to cast e-James Dean in a movie when everyone knows it’s not really James Dean.
It feels wrong, but is it really? This is one of those gray areas I truly cannot make up my mind about. What I do know is this, whether it’s right or it’s wrong, it’s not necessary to do it in a disrespectful and salacious way that runs contrary to what the actual person stood for in real life.
It’s just not necessary to violate a corpse to make a great show. Good or bad, right or wrong, it’s not necessary.
What say you? Is all fair in fiction? Are there boundaries that we’re crossing? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the dead? Or do we have a responsibility in our representations of real people to make them at least somewhat like the real people, or is it anything goes if it advances the plot?
Help me make up my mind, wise readers!
*In my defense, I didn’t know Simcoe was a real person till after I’d watched the entire show.