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Why Shia LaBeouf's #AllMyMovies was so successful

If the former child star really wants to be a performance artist, he might finally be on the right track

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Surprising things happen to people's faces when a film really entrances them. They stop focusing on all the personality presentation we take for granted when we talk to each other: the polite eye contact, the alert expression that says "I'm listening and reacting to what you're saying." When people watch movies, their faces go a little slack, and their emotions come through clear and raw. I had a particularly great experience observing this back in 2007, when I had friends over to watch J.A. Bayona's excellent horror film The Orphanage. Having already seen the film, I decided that instead of watching it, I'd watch my friends watching it. Watching other people gasp or shrivel in nervous anticipation let me see the movie freshly through their eyes.

That sense of voyeurism, that ability to see people in a vulnerable state and re-appreciate a piece of art at the same time, is at least some of the appeal behind #AllMyMovies, the social-media-ready art installation that 29-year-old actor Shia LaBeouf staged last week. For the piece, LaBeouf watched all his feature films back-to-back at New York's Angelika Film Center over three days, while a fixed camera transmitted his reactions to the internet via live stream. #AllMyMovies is the latest in a series of LaBeouf-centered performance art pieces, and the second to widely solicit public interaction: in this case, admission to the film series was free, and anyone over 18 who was willing to submit to a weapons check could join LaBeouf in the theater, space permitting. The line to enter the screening room built steadily over the course of the event, with the wait time eventually stretching to several hours as word-of-mouth grew.

The initial bafflement was replaced with enthusiasm

A stream of journalists infiltrated the Angelika to write about what it's like to sit in a darkened theater with a movie star, waiting for him to do something interesting: Alison Willmore for BuzzFeed, Abraham Riesman for Vulture, Jordan Hoffman for The Guardian, Erin Whitney for ScreenCrush, Ariana Bacle for Entertainment Weekly. And they all apparently came away nonplussed by the experience, many voicing disappointment that they weren't able to get much out of theater management, or anything out of LaBeouf himself. By all accounts, he barely spoke throughout the three-day screening series, and only acknowledged people's comments or questions with minimal nods or shrugs.

But over the course of three days, the initial bafflement was largely replaced with enthusiasm. "Shia LaBeouf Is Getting the Best Reviews of His Career for Watching His Own Movies," Sam Adams wrote at CriticWire. Rolling Stone's David Ehrlich called it "the best performance of Shia LaBeouf's career," and "a work of genius." Those watching the stream and using the #AllMyMovies hashtag on Twitter cracked jokes and posted screencaps and GIFs capturing what the actor was up to at any given moment — laughing, crying, chomping on popcorn, sleeping, cringing at scenes in Michael Bay's Transformers movies. But by and large, the tone was companionable, and the jokes were not necessarily at LaBeouf's expense.

That's markedly different from the response to LaBeouf's other major performance art installation, #IAMSORRY, where he sat in a small room with a bag over his head, weeping, and invited the public to enter and interact with him through a series of "implements" laid out on a table. Or his appearance at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2014, where he walked the red carpet with a bag over his head, painted with the words "I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE." Or last fall's #INTERVIEW, where he and a journalist stared silently at each other for an hour while wearing GoPro cameras. All these projects were met with hostility and mockery by the press and public. As they did with #AllMyMovies, journalists visited the #IAMSORRY installation to report back on their personal experiences, and the pieces written about it had a similar tone of confused remove, an unwillingness to be caught engaging too thoroughly with whatever emotion LaBeouf was trying to provoke. And in those cases, public approval never caught up the way it has with #AllMyMovies.

One important factor working in #AllMyMovies' favor is that it has nothing to do with the plagiarism accusations that surrounded many of his public projects in 2014. When news got out that the script for his short film "HowardCantour.com" was copied nearly verbatim from a comic by Daniel Clowes, LaBeouf repeatedly apologized on Twitter — using plagiarized apologies — and via an interview using uncredited lines from writers and artists. He may have meant all this as a puckish joke, but it read as flip and insincere. #IAMSORRY itself took heavy cues from Marina Abramović's 2010 installation "The Artist Is Present." And LaBeouf's one apparently original stab at mending fences — hiring a skywriter to print "I AM SORRY DANIEL CLOWES" in vapor over Los Angeles — fell flat when numerous press outlets pointed out that Clowes lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Shia was celebrating something, instead of wallowing in self-abnegation

The fact that throughout this series of colorful, exaggerated public gestures, LaBeouf didn't actually contact the man he'd stolen seemed to confirm the overall narrative of LaBeouf as a petulant, attention-seeking former child star. (Especially when he announced he was "retiring from all public life," then didn't.) Given that he wasn't speaking in his own words, it was impossible to tell what was really going on in his head, so there was plenty of room to assume the worst about his intentions. His grotesque, flamboyant martyrdom with #IAMSORRY didn't help: he might have been channeling real personal turmoil, but it was impossible to tell, given this burlesque dumbshow of suffering. And the fact that so many of these gestures happened within weeks of each other made the self-pity behind them increasingly exhausting.

It's been over a year since LaBeouf's last public happening, and 18 months since #IAMSORRY. In that time he's had some legal trouble, most notably being arrested in June 2014, and again in October. But he's still been much less ubiquitous in the news over the last 18 months than he was in early 2014. And that lower profile gave him the opportunity to define this latest project on his own terms, instead of as part of a continuum of troubled behavior.

With #AllMyMovies, Shia was celebrating something (in this case, cinema) instead of wallowing in self-abnegation. Sure, LaBeouf himself was often up on the screen, but in the narrow space created by the live stream, the image of him at the movies was decontextualized. The piece was unquestionably performative, but the artifice wasn't nearly as heavy — there were no outsized antics, just a man in a chair in a theater. No matter how abnormal the installation itself was, the normalcy of his presence, largely unchanging from hour to hour, was lulling. Plenty of commentators assumed LaBeouf's reactions to the films were feigned — he is, after all, a professional actor — but even if they were, he was acting in a much more intimate scale.

In addition to being emotionally accessible, #AllMyMovies was publicly accessible in a way LaBeouf's other stunts weren't. Over the marathon's three-day stretch, the live feed let the project speak for itself, directly to viewers. Those curious about #IAMSORRY had to rely on written reports (and one extremely awkward, confrontational video) to know what was going on; news of his Berlin Film Festival appearance were filtered through outlets like TMZ and Gawker. But with #AllMyMovies, viewers could tune in and judge LaBeouf's sincerity for themselves at any given moment. LaBeouf might have invited strangers to use a whip on him in #IAMSORRY, but he's far more vulnerable this time around.

Anyone who's seen a movie can feel a kinship with other people sitting in the dark, staring at a screen as a story unfolds. That became one of the common threads of the response to the movie marathon: "Hey, this Hollywood superstar is doing the same thing we like to do — and doing it with us." #AllMyMovies was presented without sound, presumably to prevent the copyright complaints that might arise if LaBeouf and his artistic partners, Luke Turner and Nastja Sade Ronkkö, broadcast the films' full soundtracks. Viewers could only experience the movies vicariously, through that intimate close-up of LaBeouf's reactions. In that close-up they saw the appealing nakedness of a man appreciating art, a dropped guard and open emotions. In this case, LaBeouf's silence helped rather than harmed him: again, in the absence of an elaborate explanation of what was really going on in his head, viewers were invited to see whatever they wanted to see.

LaBeouf still has the opportunity to deflate the success of #AllMyMovies by talking about it. After #IAMSORRY, his lengthy interview about the experience completely changed the conversation around it, particularly around a reported sexual assault that wound up overshadowing everything else about the installation. It will only take one interview after #AllMyMovies to turn him back into a specific, problematic, opinionated person, a movie star with oddball ideas about how other people should see him.

But for now, he may as well take the win. NewHive promises "the entire three-day live stream will live in perpetuity" online, so it can go on speaking for itself as long as viewers want it to. As tempting as it may have been to ask him questions in the moment — for instance, exactly how numb his butt was when he hustled out of the Angelika after the final film — the final product will be something more timeless.

[Update: While this piece was being edited, NewHive posted a lengthy interview with LaBoeuf, his partners Rönkkö and Turner, and NewHive co-founder and CEO Zach Verdin. LaBoeuf does in fact go into great detail about what was going through his head during the installation.]