Starsuckers

Starsuckers

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

One of the best, and most satisfyingly contradictory, weapons available to the sceptic is the argument that demolishes itself along with the view that it aims to undermine. Back in ancient times, hard-line sceptics would use the metaphor of the ladder that must be pushed away once it has been climbed, or of the purgative remedy that flushes itself away along with the diseased contents of a patient's stomach, to describe a peculiar kind of deconstructive approach that lives (and dies) in a parasitic relationship with the position to which it is opposed.

This is, more or less, the methodology adopted by Chris Atkins in Starsuckers, his follow-up to the Blair-busting documentary Taking Liberties (2007). For while Starsuckers is concerned with the powers of the media to manipulate, misrepresent and manufacture reality to their own end, to make this case it self-consciously appropriates the very strategies of the media that it is criticising, so that accepting Atkins' arguments in their proper spirit should also involve radically questioning them. In short, it is a film that makes sceptics of us all, shaking us from brainwashed passivity into a state of awareness that makes resistance possible. After all, as one contributor puts it: "How can you fight something if you don't believe it exists?"

The film's wilful deployment of double standards begins with the masterful voice-over provided by Rupert Degas. The narrator speaks in a glib American accent and, employing the first person plural throughout, claims to speak for a cabal of news and entertainment corporations. Presenting a five-step tour through the machinations of the modern mass media as a seductive lesson in how to win friends and influence people, this is, overtly, the wheedling voice of an untrustworthy shyster and illusionist – an impression only enhanced by the accompanying images of card tricks being performed by a disembodied set of gloved hands.

Yet this same voice is also the medium of the film's own message, and in this way, Atkins manages to convey a mass of information in a highly palatable form, at the same time as prompting his viewers to challenge and scrutinise everything that they see and hear - including, of course, his own arguments.

Not, of course, that it is easy to pick holes in the reasoning on offer here. For Starsuckers carpet-bombs the viewer with statistics, sociological experiments, Darwinian studies, interviews with would-be celebrities and compelling testimonies from academics and commentators. All these contribute to a picture of the media multinationals as self-interested corporations that have hit upon the perfect formula for hooking us when we are young, bombarding us with addictive (if illusory) aspirations, distracting us with our own hard-wired need to follow those designated famous, conjuring up news stories that serve their own interests and suppressing anything that might damage their profit margins.

Finally, in tracing the ever closer links between the entertainment industry and politics, Atkins focuses on the Live 8 concerts as a case study, illustrating the multi-layered falsehoods that underlie their 'official' success, and suggesting that their real purpose was to draw public attention away from the weaknesses of the 2005 G8 Conference and from the serious protest movement against it. Result: virtually no pledged money ever reaching the Third World, vastly increased album sales for the corporations, and a general public left fuzzily convinced that the big music event was something more than mere bread and circuses.

When Michael Moore employs staged stunts to entrap and ridicule his opponents, there is always the sense that he is not playing fair. When Atkins does something similar, however - as, for example, when he feeds false and vapid stories to the tabloids to see if they will run with them, or when he tricks newspaper representatives into making some rather unfortunate admissions about their understanding of standards and self-regulation - he is only emulating the very practises of underhanded deceit and fabrication that he exposes as very much their own stock in trade, so that they seem entirely fair game.

Indeed, it is Atkins' contention that much of what passes for news these days can be reduced to PR stunts and trumped-up diversions. So by all means, Atkins suggests, object to his own use of such techniques, just so long as you become equally aware of their use by other, far more insidiously influential media outlets. Follow his arguments, rung by rung, and he will not mind if you push away the ladder once you have reached the end. After all, by then you will have climbed high enough for your perspective on the world to have been radically altered.

Normally press screenings of films are artificial affairs, insulated from the popcorn and palaver of the local multiplex. In the case of Starsuckers, however, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that a room full of journalists constitutes the ideal audience, forced to witness their (our) every value being thoroughly interrogated and found sorely wanting. It is a confronting and humbling experience – and one that might just make anyone think twice before turning on the television or reading 'harmless' celebrity gossip.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2009
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Documentary casting a spotlight on celebrity culture and the people who generate - or bury - the stars.
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London 2009

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Chris Atkins on Starsuckers

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Taking Liberties