Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of female celebrities go through very public meltdowns. But who’s to blame for this? Kristen Cochrane examines this Hollywood phenomenon, through the lens of Will Rebein’s eerily poignant films.
If you grew up watching Amanda Bynes on All That and The Amanda Show, it was probably really disturbing to see her public meltdown.
Most reactions to her behavior, both in real life and online, were mockery. When she tweeted “I want Drake to murder my vagina” in 2013, it felt like a scripted gag, an extension of her televised and cinematic caricatures. As we know, the line between what’s “real” and what is performance have become ever harder to gauge in the age of Web 2.0, where actors’ and comedians’ performances extend to their social media accounts.
In 1892, Charlotte Gilman Perkins wrote the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, where the female narrator is given the “rest cure” for her “nervous depression” (in other words: don’t get out of bed because you have “hysteria”). Her husband, who is also her doctor, tells her that she cannot work or write. While she manages to occasionally escape her proverbial prison room, she hallucinates, believing that a woman is trapped inside the wallpaper. She frantically tears the wallpaper apart, eventually believing that she herself is now part of the wallpaper.
But was it the female narrator’s own psyche, or her creepy, overbearing husband who made her go bananas? If you think it’s the creepy husband, then you would call this “gaslighting,” a tragic phenomenon where you are told you are crazy when you aren’t. Often, people think of this horrifying form of mental abuse within relationships, where a narcissistic or controlling partner controls the reality of the victim.
In our 24-hour TMZ Paparazzi cycle, gaslighting continues, with the victims tending to be female celebrities, and the arbiters being both the media and random people commenting on shared articles on social media. This disturbing phenomenon is being explored in the films of Will Rebein, a 22-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the author of the Tumblr/Instagram/ Twitter accounts Party Like It’s 2007.
Will Rebein’s film, I’m Not Crazy (2013)
Rebein’s film I’m Not Crazy (2013), opens with an eerie, experimental ticking sound, which is actually the first 20 seconds of Sia’s song “Free the Animal,” cut into loops and slowed down. (Note the irony—female celebrities are treated like animals, or property, but that property is sentient and has the ability to think, feel, and lose their mind once they’ve been provoked enough.) The song is the soundtrack to a montage of black and white clips of female celebrities who have arguably been held hostage to the blinding lights of cameras and curious spectators—an ingenue-like Marilyn Monroe smiling in a chair; Amanda Bynes being taken away by a police officer in her infamous blonde, dishevelled wig; Paris Hilton waving to the throng of photographers; Lindsay Lohan posing and smiling for cameras, quickly followed by a newspaper headline that describes Lohan’s toilet cleaning duties at a “no-nonsense Utah facility” where she went to rehab.
The most unsettling part of the introductory montage, however, is the camera that lingers on Britney Spears’ upside down face as she looks back from her stretcher. Britney Spears is still made fun of for the incident where she chased the paparazzi with an umbrella, and the infamous pink wig she wore after shaving her head.
When I met up with Rebein for a chat in New York, he and I both had trouble describing his films. Are they documentaries? Are they experimental films? How do you describe montages of sleazy paparazzi clips, especially when they are actually good and aren’t just amateur hour YouTube montages that have no narrative coherency?
Another way of describing Rebein’s productions is the term “art film,” which is what Mitchell Sunderland at Broadly called them in a story about Rebein’s film SPEIDI (2015), a highly unsettling 150-minute montage of sections of the totally-scripted “reality show” The Hills, where Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt’s infamous ascent and subsequent descent is chronicled through found footage.
SPEIDI (2015) by Will Rebein
In I’m Not Crazy, the multi-character rendering of Amanda Bynes, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Nicole Richie follows a story arc that critiques gaslighting, or at least, the things that can happen to you before you start to develop serious mental health issues. Banal paparazzi clips drive the narrative, revealing the power of images that shape our understanding of surveillance and mental health. In one clip, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are getting into a car, and Hilton begs “guys, don’t be perverts” at photographer’s attempts to get a crotch shot, a hot commodity in the mid and late 2000s.
And even though these films are made up of found footage that has nothing to do with the “found footage” of Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, it still feels like you’re watching a horror film where women in crop tops and short shorts are chased by deranged villains wielding knives and axes. This time, photographers wield cameras and chase women to their cars, infantilizing them and getting testy when female celebrities don’t respond in the way they do for their own video montages. Then we ask why people end up going crazy.
The public reaction toAmanda Bynes’ “breakdown” was profound. Amanda Bynes was a modern day Marcia Brady. If you’re a Gen Z Millennial like me, Bynes’ various personas, overacting, and G-rated humor made her the Will Smith of preteen comedy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show All That and then her own very successful spinoff The Amanda Show, Bynes would play herself and other characters, seemingly unafraid of making herself look ugly or ridiculous. Bynes then went on to have a successful film career, which is why it felt random when she suddenly said she was retiring from acting in 2012.
And so began the driving incidents in Los Angeles: first a ticket for using her phone while driving in March 2012, then a DUI after side-swiping a police car. In September of 2012, she was charged for two hit-and-run incidents. She was caught driving with her suspended license a year later in September of 2013.
During this time, Bynes’ Twitter was ridiculed. It became a full-fledged spectacle. Bynes was surveilled by the paparazzi, but she was also tweeting things that keep publicists up at night. Among them was the infamous “I want Drake to murder my vagina” which went viral in 2013 because obviously. Months later, Bynes called him “ugly,” among other epithets.
Bynes was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And if this seems sudden, it’s not. The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25 for both men and women. For schizophrenia, it’s 25 in women and 18 in men. To be experiencing a serious mental health crisis at 26 makes sense in Bynes’ case, and her issues probably began earlier. But somehow, Bynes kept anything out of the ordinary under wraps. This was highlighted in I’m Not Crazy, where Rebein included montages of Bynes dodging questions on TV interviews where she was asked how she avoids the culture of drinking, clubbing, and partying.
I’m Not Crazy was finished in July of 2013. Rebein had put trailers for the film on one of his Tumblr accounts, heidiblairmontag, that same year. His followers were eager to see the film, especially in light of what was happening. This was, after all, the year where Bynes threw a bong out of the 36th floor of her New York apartment. But Rebein didn’t want to release the film during the media frenzy, feeling it was inappropriate until there was more information about her well-being.
Which makes sense. But like most celebrity breakdowns, the hypersurveillance, disparagement, and the accompanying stigma on mental health issues forces these events to be carried out like a Greek tragedy, replete with its own chorus of anonymous voices commenting on the dramatic action as it unfolds.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, about Drake’s “nice guy” complex, HERE :)