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David Thomson on Films: Lindsay Lohan’s Face and the Tolls of Celebrity

On Thursday, April 5, I saw the best movie I have seen so far this year. It was only 74 seconds long. That seems quick, yet it felt stealthy and suspenseful as it traveled through time. For the show was the story of a life, or 25 years of it. That is Lindsay Lohan’s age now, and her future is more precarious than 25 usually promises.

I watched it first in the early morning of the fifth on Yahoo. Not long thereafter, it apparently switched to YouTube, where it had nearly six million hits in its first day. 

You may have been one of the hits, so it’s important to try to describe what happens in the film. By my count, the story is made up of 37 still pictures. The actual number may be a little higher. It is hard to keep count because of the slippage with which the stills morph or dissolve into others. The movie is about the erosion of aging in Lindsay Lohan. These still photographs cover her from babyhood to her present status of being 25 and “in the clear” as far as the courts are concerned. So it’s a movie about her and what we are left to make of her aging, and how it has been a matter of growing up, or down, or in some more complex direction. But it is also a study in morphing or dissolves. The way one face grows out of another and then into one more is the source of its beauty, its regret, and its sinister import.

The faces in the pictures are nearly always the same size, and the close-ups are frontal and direct. Still, there is a sense of seething cell life as the montage moves: A hairline shifts, a jaw juts, the brow pulses, as if bruised, the eyes change mood and hope, the hair runs through a range of colors, the smile becomes professional after infant naturalness, and then it becomes mortal, fatigued and worse. There’s something like the shudder at the end of Psycho when Norman Bates’ staring face lets his mother’s bare skull peep through for an instant.

Twenty-five is still the prime of life, and it’s not that Lindsay Lohan doesn’t look beautiful today, or pretty, or like a movie star. It’s just that a haunted soul lurks in the last faces of the series, a gaze that seems to know the camera is like an illness from which she has no escape, a look that is hard to face or admit now, but which may become banal and obvious in a few years, as well as too late.

One reason why this little movie looms large is that we know it could be done for anyone, even ourselves. Every day, more or less, we check the mirror to see if we look “all right.” And thank God we do not get 74 seconds of montage revealing how we have arrived at that moment. The mirror is often regarded as an accomplice to vanity, but it is also a window on the horror of decay and passing time. Even the narcissist knows that shame—and anyone watching this short film must wonder whether Lohan herself should see it and what she would think, if thinking could fight its way through the storm of dismay and visceral defiance. “No, that’s not me,” the face would have to cry out. “It’s only what the camera sees.” And just as once Christopher Isherwood tickled the world with, “I am a camera”, we now cling to the privacy and the tenuous hope, “But I have something the camera cannot see.”

Visibility is so much of celebrity, and I wonder whether Lohan and her people felt an instant urge to remove this film and sue those responsible, or reclined in the glory of all those hits, aware that Lohan now exists in history more deeply than any actress of her age, no matter that she is hardly the best. There’s the riddle of being Lohan and it’s close to the impossible dilemma of being Marilyn Monroe (whose death will be 50 years old this August). Marilyn was more of an actress than Lindsay: She had a brighter charm and a shy comic edge somewhere between knowing and helpless. But Marilyn, too, was a goddess of still photographs. That’s when she was most at ease. Passing time, continuity, saying things and moving in an ordinary human way (as opposed to doing a sexy roll) was not easy for her. Yet in several of the late stills of Monroe (she was 36 when she died) there is the same exhaustion and flat line we can see in Lohan. And Lohan has already done a series of photographs that are modeled on one of Marilyn’s last photo sessions: Bert Stern was the cameraman on both occasions. Why do Monroe and Lohan do this? Because our culture tells them to be known, to be famous and photographed, and never spells out how far every picture can be like a hit, a stealing and a diminution of cell life.

Who made the movie? I don’t know. It is credited to “VJ4 rawr.” It could have been a last gift from Lohan’s judge. Someone did it and I would say it was a person with skill, imagination, and tenderness, as well as an autopsy attitude. I have watched it several times for it is like a movie that yields up fresh glimpses and ideas at every viewing—not that “fresh” is exactly the word. It doesn’t require an author.

The real makers of this film are Lohan and ourselves: It may be the most cogent imprint of celebrity we have had. It is a real movie, so as you watch it you feel a mixture of dread and desire. Should I be watching this? How can I stop? And like any good movie, it is an enquiry into seeing and our nature as both voyeurs and the beheld. All picturing, both still and movie, is a pointer to the nature of time and its consequences. So this small miracle involves more than Lindsay Lohan on her brink. We are looking up to see what will happen, sympathetic, yet eager for a spectacular show. I can’t believe Lohan will ever make a regular movie that has the impact of these 74 seconds.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.