Jamie Bircoll: Tortured genius Shia Labeouf knows exactly what he's doing

Tuesday, November 17, 2015 - 5:22pm

As I write this column, Shia Labeouf has just finished his #ALLMYMOVIES event, during which he watched every one of his films over a three-day period. There was no explanation as to why he undertook such a cause. I do not understand this man — I very much want to.  

Labeouf (alternate spelling: Labeef) is perhaps the greatest enigma of a human being. He’s chameleonic but obvious, masterful yet simple, unpretentious yet completely in your face. I just can’t get a read on him.

Gone are the days of “Even Stevens” and “Holes,” which starred an unassuming Shia when he was young, meek and, dare I say, innocent: “Shia La-weak,” one might say. Gone, too, are the days of straightforward performance: the animated surfing penguins film, “Surfs Up,” the Hitchcock-inspired “Disturbia” or the feel-good sports film “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Even in “Transformers,” Shia seems at ease — if not in his element, then at least comfortable enough to deliver a performance that is … direct.

Today’s Shia is something different — not an actor but a perpetual performer, living and breathing his act. I suppose you could call it “performance art,” but that doesn’t quite capture what Shia is doing. But, then again, what exactly is Shia doing?

I must admit, for the longest time, I detested Shia Labeouf. I despised his confused face that stares perpetually into nothingness. I reviled the movies he chose to take part in, only to deliver an insipid, uninspired performance of the lowest caliber. I abhorred his apparent inability to deliver a line or to complete a sentence without stuttering, as if it meant he was “acting.” I loathed his ego off-screen, which oozed superiority.

But to my Shia-surprise, I have seen the error of my ways.

I realize that Shia is a philosophical mind, a thinker that has taken the Hollywood image and exaggerated it far beyond its traditional scope, cruising past parody into almost scientific case study. He pushes the limits of fame to see just what he can get away with, to see when people finally call out his antics. The funny thing is, the more he pushes, the more I am drawn to him.

It began when Shi-Guy created a short film that he plagiarized out of a comic, and then he apologized with a public letter that was also plagiarized (which in a way is genius; he opted to subvert a two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right premise and transform it into a weapon of public aggravation). Then came the “I’m not famous anymore” paper bag he wore to the premiere of “Nymphomaniac.” Then he took on #IAMSORRY, an event where participants could enter a vestibule and interact with a silent paper-bag-clad Shia in any way they chose.  

That last enterprise was an interesting one indeed. Mr. Labeouf expected to be harassed by his visitors, but, he said that many simply comforted him about his fall from grace (or ascension to nirvana; it’s in the eyes of the beholder). But he also claims, and others confirm, that a woman sexually assaulted him during the event; but if you read his explanation of it, he’s so casual, not hurt or damaged, just — for lack of a better phrase — bummed out. Which raises so many questions:

If Shia halted his performance to prevent such an assault, would that mean his performance was a failure? Does the fact that such a detestable act occurred constitute a failure in and of itself? Or does it elevate the performance into something intangible: a real-time experience of the tragic artist, intimately in-tune with real human suffering? And these don’t even begin to prod the legal and ethical ramifications.

It’s so easy to write off celebrity antics as “stunts” or “machinations of an unsound mind.” Not to say that all such antics are performance, but certainly these are far more than antics — a series of interconnected statements meant to illuminate some kind of truth: call it the Shia-ning. But what is that truth?

It seems to me that Shia wants to tap into something paradoxical: expression through isolation and openness concurrently. It creates an internal conflict — it creates pain. And from that pain, by simply putting himself within these bizarre situations, Shia creates art … or else complete and total bullshit. There’s no script to guide him, no director to offer advice. There’s only a mind and a will to achieve a perfect artistic manifestation of human emotion, whether it be dejection, depression, damnation … or he’s a slighted, self-absorbed professional bullshitter. It ultimately doesn’t matter: Shia doesn’t care — he just does it.

I wanted to give something back to him to show I recognized the insanity and the clarity within that insanity. I couldn’t be there to watch #ALLMYMOVIES, but I could watch at least one on my own — one I had never seen before, one of his worst reviewed movies ever.

“Charlie Countryman” is a trip: it drags, it makes zero sense, it’s dull, it’s generally awful and I’ll never watch it again. But it contains the best cinematic performance from Shia I’ve ever seen. Instead of pretention, he oozes absurdity that’s barely held together, chaos just beneath the surface. It comes through when Shia’s eponymous protagonist realizes that the passenger next to him on his transcontinental flight has died; he asks the flight attendant for help, “My hands! Listen! I need a wet nap!” as he squirms in his seat. It comes through when he downs several painkillers and hallucinates that the dead passenger speaks to him. Charlie stares, bug-eyed, slightly crossed, his face is as calm as it is manic. It comes through in the most tortured smile in the history of smiles. It comes through when he drops acid (which Shia actually took) with Rupert Grint (who plays an aspiring porn star who takes six Viagra, in case you were interested). And it comes through when Charlie, in a state of utter euphoria, runs through the streets of Bucharest, only to be hit head on by a taxi.

That’s a pretty apt metaphor for actual artist Shia Labeouf. The world will kick him around, but he’ll just get back up — the breathing embodiment of that Chumbawumba song. The world is his oyster; he can do anything. I don’t know what he’ll do next, but it will be worth watching.

The fact is, I’ve never seen a public figure so aware of his place in the spotlight and so willing to stretch the limits of that spotlight — someone so endowed with a sense of humor about his relationship with the public, as a celebrity and as a performer. You’ve done it, Shi-Guy; you’ve won me over. I’ll follow you anywhere — except another viewing of “Charlie Countryman.”