Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Who is Charlie Sheen and Why is He Exploding Before Our Eyes?

I once shocked Noel Carroll by telling him that I never, ever watch a movie just because I like some actor in it. Apparently, even Noel, one of the most brilliant film theorists around today, suffers from the delusion that actors are artists.

I think of them as sock puppets that certain artists -- writers and directors -- use to express their passions, their ideals, and their visions. It is true enough that the great actors -- Garbo, James Dean, the early John Barrymore -- are also brilliant at expressing passions and ideals, but they are the exceptions. And look at Sheen's IMDB page. Take away the movie sequels, the voicework, the TV sitcom, and there isn't much left. This is not Barrymore we are looking at here. This is an ordinary person -- but with one huge, fatal difference.

I've always been a freak-fancier myself and before I became a professor had more than my share of insane friends. (Professors aren't allowed to be insane.) Watching Sheen's interviews this week brought back a lot of old memories. They are not pleasant memories. We are seeing a sight I have seen before: a human mind disintegrating before our eyes.

If Sheen had a boss who terrifies him and $10,000 in credit card debt, he would be in better shape than he is. Unfortunately for him, he has infinite amounts of everything. There are no hard constraints on his behavior. He has all the ordinary appetites and urges, and for all practical purposes an unlimited capacity to satisfy them. So instead of merely disintegrating, he is exploding.

I think this is why so many highly successful actors have such screwed up lives. They are ordinary people, with no more wisdom and insight than most have, but with no constraints on their behavior. Most actors -- the ones who are not hugely successful -- are not like that at all. But their life-circumstances are like yours and mine and not like Sheen's. They have to get along with others. They have to figure out how to pay their bills and taxes. We are always under a certain amount of pressure to figure out what the right thing to do is and do it. The pressure is so constant that we don't usually even notice it -- until we see a life in which it is virtually absent, such as Sheen's.

Note also that, compared to other lines of work that involve rare skills and talents, acting requires very little self-discipline and self-control. If you have a basic knack for it, it is a very easily-acquired skill. Learning to play the violin, or mastering calculus, are incomparably more arduous. Even professional violinists must spend many lonely hours, week in and week out, in front of a music stand, developing and maintaining their skills. Actors don't have to do that. If actors learn self-discipline, it probably won't be from the "work" they do.

I think what is happening to Sheen is sad, and that the proper reaction is not laughter or even anger, but pity.
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