Shia LaBeouf has done something weird again.
This time, the erstwhile film star has continued his fondness for performance art with #ELEVATE, a YouTube stream documenting his conversations inside the lift at the Oxford Union for 24 hours. LaBeouf has form for these kind of hijinks. Plenty of it. But is this another attention-seeking outburst or a genuine piece of art?
The Beef began his transition from ‘movie star’ to something more back in 2014 whilst promoting his role in Nymphomaniac, a film which, despite a four-hour runtime and numerous scenes of graphic sex, managed to be less controversial than its star. He quoted the ever-enigmatic Eric Cantona at the film’s press conference and appeared on its red carpet wearing a bag over his head reading: “I Am Not Famous Anymore”. At this point his antics seemed to resemble nothing more than a desire to escape the limelight, but he wasn’t going to slip out of its glare quietly. LaBeouf didn’t just want to stop being a celebrity, he wanted to destroy the notion of celebrity altogether.
Later he appeared in an art installation titled #IAmSorry (referring to his plagiarism of a comic by Daniel Clowes and, quite possibly, everything that had happened since) wearing the same paper bag. Visitors could sit opposite the silent LaBeouf one-on-one. He was regularly moved to tears during the experience. He would later claim that a woman “whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me”.
Despite his erratic behaviour at the time there’s no reason to doubt LaBeouf. His fuller statement in the original interview with Dazed is even more revealing and authentic. Whatever traumas he suffered during #IAmSorry, mental or otherwise, the experience seemed to have done him more harm than good. After an incident at a Broadway show of Cabaret, LaBeouf announced he was seeking treatment for alcohol addiction.
He was certainly making a statement, but at this point it was blurred by all the other problems in his personal life. There was little sympathy from the public or press either, a reaction that feels uncomfortably similar to the equally public disintegration of Amy Winehouse, so insightfully chronicled in Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary.
Thankfully, LaBeouf appeared to turn a corner shortly after. His behaviour was equally provocative but, crucially, far more productive. He wasn’t just screaming into the void any more. He was actually saying something.
He poked fun at his own outlandish public image by making a Wellesian cameo at the end of Rob Cantor’s legendary Shia LaBeouf ‘musical’. He appeared in one of the best music videos of the year for Sia’s ‘Elastic Heart’, opposite 13-year-old dance sensation Maddie Ziegler. He delivered a motivational speech that was at once terrifying, hilarious, and genuinely inspirational. The last of these appeared to be directed at himself as much as anyone else. He was no longer running away from his problems or hiding his fame behind a paper bag. He was making art.
LaBeouf continued his transformation into the most self-reflexive artist working today with #ALLMYMOVIES, a project developed with his collaborators ever since #IAmSorry, Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rökkö. The actor organised a movie marathon where he watched all of his films in reverse chronological order, with free entry for anyone to join him in the cinema. The event was also streamed live.
It proved to be a fascinating deconstruction of the acting profession, and especially every actor’s oft-repeated claim that they never watch themselves in movies. Here we got to see LaBeouf laughing, looking bored, falling asleep and eating popcorn as he endured his own filmography. Whilst the camera may have been focused on one man, its spirit was entirely democratic. “I’m just like you”, LaBeouf seemed to be saying with every frame. “I watch these films and I too feel happy, sad and bored.”
His latest project, #ELEVATE, sees the final remnants of his celebrity washed away in the most base human experience possible: the awkward lift conversation. Alongside collaborators Turner and Rökkö, LaBeouf speaks to anyone who wants to enter the lift for minutes at a time, chatting about anything and everything. It’s a major step for LaBeouf in that for once, he speaks on camera, and not just in riddles. Most of his other work has brought with it an impassive silence, but finally, LaBeouf seems willing to engage.
He asks people about themselves, he takes selfies with students, he reluctantly plays Fuck, Marry, Kill with Sia, Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Megan Fox, he discusses Kanye West, Harrison Ford, Bernie Sanders and fragile masculinity. In short, he holds fascinating conversations about anything people want to talk about. This is his interpretation of the famous Oxford Union address, the official version of which he’ll be doing at 8pm tonight. He wanted to do #ELEVATE as well as it “felt cold just coming to do the talk. We wanted to treat people with intimacy and warmth.”
He’s not wrong. If there’s one thing that strikes you about #ELEVATE it’s the lack of affectation in his performance, if you can even call it that. Every single work of art he’s created before has felt constructed around a central identity, that of the mute LaBeouf, reflecting on his own work with a certain disinterest. Here, perhaps for the first time, he feels like a normal, articulate human being having a simple conversation. For someone who at the height of his insanity was possibly the most famous man in the world, that feels like the greatest performance of all.