Charlie Sheen’s descent into what has, in the last few days, appeared to be a sort of personal narcissistic totality, has been quick. While the severity of his current condition is slightly shocking, it’s hardly unfamiliar. In fact, Sheen offers us a glimpse into our own culture, writ large across an increasingly gaunt face, and spelled out in fiery, disjointed words.
“I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending like I’m not bitching, a total fricking rock star from Mars, and people can’t figure me out, they can’t process me. I don’t expect them to. You can’t process me with a normal brain,” Sheen said in an interview with NBC.
He also told ABC that he was on a drug — “a drug called ‘Charlie Sheen’” — and that if anyone else were to take it, their faces would melt off and their children would weep over their exploded body. [I wonder if they treat that particular substance at celebrity drug rehab — Ed.]
It’s difficult to know exactly where to go after that, especially since, as Sheen put it, ‘rock bottom’ was just a fishing term. But Sheen hasn’t hit rock bottom. In fact, one might say that he’s never been more popular.
Sheen joined Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, calling himself an ‘unemployed winner’, and by evening had already garnered well over 150,000 followers. His first tweet read, “Winning..! Choose your vice….”
Winning: it’s what makes the most interesting thing about Charlie Sheen’s weird saga only partly Sheen himself. More intriguing is what he tells us of the narrative that surrounds the endless cultural fetishization of a dying star. That is, our fascination lies not just with a reputation in free-fall, or that he seems to have slipped into a netherworld of his own fantasies; it lies simply in the fact that we all want to see how long he lasts. More specifically, how long he lasts until he is rescued.
One of our most basic cultural narratives is that of a last-minute rescue, the dues es machina moment of any hero’s journey when the gods intervene and pluck him or her from sure death, either physically or otherwise. Something, we are told, will save us in the end, even if it appears that we are headed for sure catastrophe, or even apocalypse. As a society, we rely on this narrative trick constantly, and especially so in popular culture.
It is with pop culture that Western society tells itself stories, and where its lies live in full display. It’s a fantasy world without defined limits where we can reinforce our corrosive over-consumption, learn to justify our growing narcissism, and where the cult of desire over happiness is prophesied. And it is built increasingly on the ridiculous collective expectation to be plucked from the depths of obscurity or despair. Pop culture repeats the narrative of a last minute rescue for no other benefit than its own posterity. We will all be saved, it says, so don’t worry, do whatever you want. Your moment is coming.
Except, no matter what we think, we — like Charlie — will not be saved by sheer magical, devine intervention, or by the power of an instant wish being granted. For the overwhelming majority of us, it simply does not happen. And the longer we go on believing it, lost in a perpetual hallucination, the less likely we are to be able to save ourselves. No matter how much we might try to convince each other that we are all chosen, we aren’t. We can’t all be rock stars from Mars.
But ignoring that truth is all we have left, because otherwise we are faced to accept what might befall us: losing. See, pop culture also has an opinion about that, too. It’s unacceptable.
When the Oscars paid tribute this year to members of the film community who passed away in 2010, it noticeably skipped child actor-turned-drug addict, Corey Haim. The snub was noticed by fans on Twitter, but there was no official acknowledgement of a mistake, as there had been when Farrah Fawcett was also left out of the same list a year prior. Instead, Haim was fully ignored.
Haim didn’t have a final-second escape. He did all the right things a celebrity should do, but somehow it went wrong. And as far as our cultural narrative is concerned, he was a loser, just an expendable baddie. Just a dead drug addict.
“Winning!” Sheen stated bluntly to ABC’s Andrea Canning over and over during their interview.
He kept repeating it — like a mantra. His narrative will not allow for anything else. Nor will ours.
Photo by Ash90291.