Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Review: Starsuckers

Debuting at the London Film Festival last week, 'Starsuckers' is the much hyped new documentary from the team behind 'Taking Liberties', the 2007 BAFTA-nominated film which claimed that British citizens are being robbed of their freedom.

The documentary premiered last Wednesday and I had tickets to the second LFF screening on Thursday, attended by director Chris Atkins.

'Starsuckers' purports to journey through the 'dark underbelly of the modern media' and 'blow the lid on the corporations and individuals' who profit from our obsession with fame. 'Warning', reads the film's website, 'even watching this film might get you sued'.

However, 'Starsuckers' is far less revelatory than one might expect, given the hype that has surrounded its release. In fact, it is actually quite confusing. The opening scenes show Chris Atkins and a female accomplice being chased through the streets of LA by a mob of paparazzi as onlookers intermittently ask the 'Starsuckers' film crew who they are.

It transpires that Atkins has paid for a 'celebrity experience', whereby ordinary people can fork out hundreds of dollars per hour to be hounded by press so that bystanders are duped into believing they're celebrities. But the segment ends almost as soon as it begins, and does so without any explanation as to why Atkins has embarked on this experience or any exploration of its workings.

Suddenly we find ourselves watching the exploits of two parents convinced of their own son's star quality, shopping him around various Los Angeles agents in the hope that he can strike it big and help them escape their working class lifestyle. Soon, though, we have abandoned that storyline as well and are instead taken on a journey through the history of celebrity by a pair of floating magicians' gloves, which Atkins later refers to as the 'God of Starsuckers'.

In short, 'Starsuckers' suffers from an almost complete lack of direction. One could easily be left thoroughly perplexed as to what the film is trying to say. Is it about adults so obsessed by celebrity that they are willing to pay paparazzi to chase them down the street? Is it about fame's corruptive influence on our children? Is it about the public's relationship with celebrity itself? Each subject could warrant a documentary of its own. 'Starsuckers' seems like a hodgepodge of several incomplete films that have all been mashed together because they fall under the same vague umbrella subject.

The 'God of Starsuckers' - a pair of floating magicians' gloves with a booming American accent - claims that he will explain to us how media outlets conspire to manufacture celebrity addiction amongst the general public, but the whole thing plays out more like a bizarre conspiracy theory movie (see: Loose Change) than a serious documentary.

'Starsuckers' contradicts itself at every turn. The overriding message of the film is that the media is sinister and conspires to indoctrinate us all with celebrity obsession for its own financial gain, despite the fact that Atkins and his team seem to be forever turning up evidence to the contrary.

In one moment biologists tell us that man's obsession with celebrity is an evolutionary trait, but in the next moment the God of Starsuckers is telling us again that it's actually a global media conspiracy. No sooner has Nick Davies told us that it's not laziness or unprofessionalism that's killing the media but budget cuts and understaffing, than the God of Starsuckers is lecturing us on how all media outlets are nasty and manipulative.

Perhaps the most baffling portion of the film - and also the primary focus of its marketing campaign - is a segment in which Atkins and his team conspire to plant bogus celebrity stories in Britain's newspapers. The team meticulously research their subjects, making sure that they know exactly where their unwitting celebrities were the previous night and what they were wearing. They then telephone the newspapers and attempt to dupe them into printing harmless but false stories (Avril Lavigne fell asleep in a nightclub, Guy Ritchie poked himself in the eye with a spoon).

There is a slight air of menace about the whole segment - the notion of concocting an elaborate hoax with the specific intention of duping somebody and then blaming the victim when it works is a bit like a school bully pushing a little girl head first into a puddle and then laughing at her because she's wet.

Even more bafflingly, Atkins has claimed in a recent Guardian interview that the stories could have been 'easily disproved within minutes' by checking with reps for the stars. The notion that a PR worker is more likely to tell the truth than an eyewitness is one that is sure to prompt outbursts of hysterics up and down Fleet Street.

If you telephone Guy Ritchie's public relations contact and ask them whether he has ever poked himself in the eye with a spoon, it doesn't matter if he's rolling around on the floor with a spoon sticking out of his eye socket at that very moment - they're still going to say no.

The film uses as as some of it's primary interviewees two authors; Jake Halpern, who wrote 'Fame Junkies' and Nick Davies, who wrote 'Flat Earth News'. Halpern's book analyzes America's obsession with fame and posits that in some cases it has become a literal addiction. Davies' book meanwhile alleges that distortion and inaccuracy are widespread in Britain's media because cost-cutting has robbed journalists of their time and resources. Atkins is clearly inspired by both authors and this seems to be the primary motivation behind the documentary.

However, Atkins has handled both subjects clumsily and made some extremely tenuous connections between the two. Those interested in the issues raised by the film may be better off simply buying the two books.

The primary problem with 'Starsuckers' is its clumsiness. It jumps from topic to topic with little in the way of narrative. It leaves key ideas unexplored and often ignores expert opinion, instead jumping to its own conclusions. There is also an air of hypocrisy to the film, which in one breath lambasts the media for its supposedly duplicitous nature and in the next sees fit to hoodwink Max Clifford, a 66 year old man, and surreptitiously film him in the privacy of his own living room.

Overwhelmingly, though, the film seems like a wild goose chase. The website claims to 'pull the rug underneath a string of untouchables' but never quite lives up to its own boasting. At its climax, the film descends into madness as it tries to prove that Bob Geldof, alongside the world's media, conspired in the production of 'Live 8' to systematically undermine the efforts of legitimate charities.

'Starsuckers' spends almost two hours trying to convince us that the media is evil - that it cynically manipulates all of us into a frenzied celebrity addiction... That newspapers lie on purpose to make us consume celebrity TV shows, and celebrity TV shows manipulate us into buying Heat magazine. But ultimately, it fails to do so. At its worst it's actually condescending, giving the public no credit whatsoever and instead working on the assumption that we are all brainless nincompoops who will immediately consume whatever our television tells us to - that we will automatically like whatever Ant and Dec tell us to like, or buy whatever Kerry Katona tells us to buy.

But not Chris Atkins. He's too clever for that. It's just the rest of us who are stupid.

The overall viewing experience is an empty one. I left the cinema feeling like I'd been nagged for 115 minutes by a paranoid hippie. 'Starsuckers' gathers together every paranoid cliché you've ever heard about the media and combines them all to form an ultimately flat and unrevelatory film that comes nowhere close to achieving what it sets out to.