Home Moral guidelines A Hollywood story all foam and without morals

A Hollywood story all foam and without morals

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The world is full of things that don’t interest me. The rules of American football. If there are aliens. Nothing to do with the Kardashians. I don’t need to know them and I never will.

It’s a wonderful relief. I was a clumsy child, so curious that I continually got into trouble for taking the kettle apart and cutting worms into pieces and being scared of the stars, then a perpetually foamy young woman for not knowing enough, ever. It’s so calming now to realize that there’s just so many things I just don’t need to add to the brain bank. My closets are a mess but I have a Marie Kondo approach to the spirit.

I have to thank social media for this achievement. As the incoming payload mounts hour by hour, it’s a luxury to tick off the bundles of trivia I never need to worry about. Overflowing stormy teacups that you know will be broken dishes by tomorrow. Wags at war enriching their lawyers; Johnny Depp’s Divorce? I prefer to hear about nematodes from others on Gardener Question Time.

So I thought about this week’s little brouhaha about the creators of the film don’t worry darling, and their behavior at the Venice Film Festival – otherwise known as SpitGate, as Harry Styles (wearing one of the dumbest shirts ever designed) apparently spat on his co-star during the film’s premiere – would be the one I could safely erase. Since everyone would also have forgotten about it in about 48 hours.

But he turned out to have a strange stamina. And I found myself interested, not in the stupid story of the said-she-said-she-said-itself, barely average chatter, but in the almost obsessive interest people have in her.

Admittedly, those involved have been drip-feeding the story for some time. The main actor leaves or was he fired? The director jumps into bed with a celebrity replacement. The female lead argues with the director. Everyone growls at everyone. There’s a car accident from a press conference. And of course, “sources deny” that any spitting took place.

So far, so forgettable. And discouraging, given the obvious backlash of misogyny/schadenfreude toward a female-led film. Still, there’s something about this boring little drama that has hooks. It goes beyond the obvious appeal of glimpsing behind-the-scenes tangles of egos. Perhaps it’s more about control – in this case, its lack. The profiles of those we elevate to celebrity status are usually so neatly ordered that we love it when the wheels come off the machine perfectly.

Decades ago, Hollywood star makers were famous for their control, creating divine beings with gleaming teeth and silky smooth family life. There were lots of cracks in the lacquer, sure, but often the fairy tale tales held together – the task was much easier without the internet and social media.

We laugh at the Hollywood dream factory of the 1950s, and a public so gullible that they thought Marilyn was blonde and Rock Hudson was a ladies’ man and the rest of la la land fantasy. But aren’t we equally controlled, equally gullible? We live in an even more artificial world. A giant public relations industry works around the clock to shape our beliefs, opinions and desires; influencers and TikTokers who do nothing at all have huge influence. Able to infiltrate our lives at so many points, and in so many subtle ways, the power of this thought control is even greater. What makes it so strong is precisely that it is not top-down, it is self-generating. We can all have a say, through social media, so there’s an illusion of freedom and power, of our potential to tell as we see it, to shape history. So we’re in control, right?

False, surely, as well as dangerous. It is our lack of power that we should look at. The tapping on don’t worry darling is a sort of crowd hysteria, harmless enough in this case, perhaps, but indicative of an effect that can be profoundly harmful. The arousal of a social mood by sheer force in numbers: we are more likely to be controlled by this than to be the independent drivers we imagine ourselves to be. Sometimes it’s easy to spot – in the likes of “internet personality” Andrew Tate, for example, for whom preaching violent misogyny is a career choice. But it is above all much more insidious. It tells us what to do, think, buy. What to worry about.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against gossip. I think stories about other people are a basic human need, as well as a pleasure. Reports of events in the nearby cave probably helped our ancestors survive; Greek myths (their glamorous, unruly gods are the equivalent of our celebrities) were pre-literate teaching tools and instruments of social order; the stories have been formalized in literature and theater and a lot which I love. But I thought every story, no matter how trivial, had a meaning if not quite a moral. This one, however, doesn’t seem to have either. It’s just foam on daydreaming.

Jan Dalley is the artistic editor of the FT

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