It didn’t take long. Just a week into a four-year long campaign, Shia LaBeouf lost it…and it was amazing.
LaBeouf set up an art project encouraging people to chant, “He will not divide us” into a web cam in an act of solidarity against Donald Trump. It is quite possible Trump won’t last long in the Presidency, but no one was guessing the kid from “Transformers” and his web cam would outlast him.
As you might guess, Trump supporters and white nationalists have specifically targeted the project as a way of showing they won’t be divided either. They held up photos of Pepe the Frog, they came out to the camera and spoke coded white nationalist phrases like “1488” into the speaker, and they mass ordered pizzas for the gathering protesters that no one could afford. Maybe even more predictable though was that LaBeouf would let these trolls get to him.
On Day 3 LaBeouf was caught on video shouting down a Trump supporter. A crowd of people had gathered in front of LaBeouf’s art project outside the Museum of the Moving Image to voice their support. A bearded Shia was among them, wandering, smiling and bundled in a red felt hat and a jean jacket. He wasn’t leading the ritual but was a gleeful participant. Then in steps a dude blocking the camera and beginning to rattle off white-nationalist talking points. Shia doesn’t break in rhythm, but he quickly escalates, thrusting into the kid’s face and growing louder and louder, clearly rankled. A moment later when they’re off camera, one of the protesters steps forward and narrates, “Shia just shoved the shit out of some Trump supporter.” Days later, LaBeouf shoved another person. This guy asked if he could take a selfie with Shia, and when the two got on camera, the man instead said, “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
Guess who came off looking like the asshole in that situation? Despite the way the media reported it, this wasn’t proof of another failed stunt by Shia; it actually went off like gangbusters. Maybe LaBeouf shouldn’t have gotten aggressive, but he shouldn’t come off like some crazy person either; in fact, he’s kind of awesome.
In no time flat “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” has put a face on the rampant, inevitable and distressing hate and mindless drivel that gets spouted on Internet comment threads every hour of every day, especially when it concerns politics. Suddenly the people who wanted to troll these protestors and the Hollywood elites like LaBeouf had to come out in the cold and look not just these people but the whole Internet in the eye for the world to watch them live. No more arm chair subversion, no more hiding behind a Twitter egg or within 4chan threads in order to spew the same rhetoric and memes.
Separated from the politics, watching the web cam has proved a fascinating social experiment. It’s hardly the first live stream event that has inspired regular people to act, but at a given moment you can see complete strangers carrying on conversations, while others are emotionally caught up in the moment and chant for hours on end. At one point I watched live as a man slowly muttering “he will not divide us” like some form of penance changes his tune when another guy off the street walks up and puts a rhythm behind the chant.
This sort of critical analysis gets lost in the viral clips of LaBeouf simply shouting at a guy. And several of LaBeouf’s other art projects have been met with similar misunderstanding in the media. When he sat for 58 hours in a theater and live-streamed himself watching #AllMyMovies, it looked like a massive act of self-aggrandizement. Others though saw it as a thoughtful act of performance art. In Rolling Stone, critic David Ehlrich revealed that sitting in that theater with him “finally began to make sense of his madness” and that it’s one more of his attempts to confront and destroy modern celebrity. Through the course of over two days of performance art, Shia demonstrated that the person he was watching in each of these films on screen was not the same guy sitting in front of that web cam.
That attempt to reclaim his public identity in public has looked like mental illness to a lot in the media. Prior to 2012, Shia’s scandals were your typical tabloid fodder: he got drunk and arrested in a Walgreens, then got drunk and thrown out of a performance of “Cabaret” because he thought Alan Cummings was the sexiest man alive. Bizarre, but not the stuff of legends.
But when LaBeouf’s behavior shifted to plagiarizing writers and wearing a paper bag over his head on the Cannes red carpet, that media perception started to shift from goofy and quirky to bananas and unhinged. Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s more traditional acting choices in this “meltdown” period have been among the best of his career. In Lars von Trier’s controversial “Nymphomaniac” (a part he landed by sending his sex tapes to the director) he showed actual depth, maturity and even menace in his performance. In last year’s “American Honey” (the press thought it was more goofball behavior when he was filmed freestyle rapping while on set), Shia donned a rattail and managed to blend in with the riff raff of real America, dancing atop checkout counters at Target in one moment and putting the charm on a Midwestern housewife the next.
In a just world, LaBeouf would’ve had the same implausible Best Supporting Oscar campaign that followed James Franco’s “Spring Breakers” performance. Not surprisingly, Franco is a good point of reference. In a New York Times op-ed in 2014, Franco described LaBeouf’s initial outbursts as “a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona,” but warned that he needed to prove he is an artist without using up all the good will he’s built up. Basically he’s saying to be weird but not so weird that he alienates everyone in the process.
And yet what’s been so fun about watching LaBeouf’s rebranding, meltdown, whatever you want to call it is that he’s absorbed all the criticism and all the alienation. He made a cameo in a “Citizen Kane” capacity in a satirical song by Rob Cantor calling him an “actual cannibal.” He posted a hilariously exaggerated video of him shouting “Do it” in front of a green screen. People could now literally project any image and scenario they wanted on LaBeouf’s flexing physique.
In terms of erratic, outlandish behavior both in public and online, not to mention self-important artistic side projects, Shia is matched and surpassed only by Kanye. The media doesn’t know quite what to do with half of Kanye’s output either, but whereas everyone has embraced Kanye’s self-appointed messianic image, LaBeouf is still seen as a nut or a goofball. Maybe if Shia was married to someone like Taylor Swift the way Kanye is inseparable from Kim Kardashian, he would warrant the round the clock media attention that Kanye receives.
Whether LaBeouf is self-aware of all of his madness and is secretly a next-wave modern art genius or just caught in a spiral of stupid stunts, can’t we agree that watching this version of Shia LaBeouf has been way more fascinating than whatever we thought he was before? Do you really want LeBeouf to return to boring movie star mode? Would anyone like him better if he starred in “Transformers 5” and tried to again take up the mantle of the next Indiana Jones?
Enjoying Shia’s public presence and taking joy and amusement out of everything he does shouldn’t necessarily be an endorsement for his rash behavior or proof that all of his projects are actually good art. But his entertainment value has been undeniable.