Apparently, people love puppies more than they love performance art, so when I turn up to LeBeouf's elevator at the EC English language school, there is a meager line outside. It may have something to do with the fact that it is 9 AM on a cold February day, but Oxford students have lined up for hours here for less—namely to be in the same debating chamber asMade in Chelsea stars. People here seem pretty bemused at their own interest in the event, and nobody coming out of the elevator looks any more enlightened. The most pressing question here really is why? Why here, in this abrasively orange building, on a market square in a quaint university town? Apparently, because Oxford asked. And apparently, because no other building would have them.
We didn't wait long to get to the elevator doors. After pressing the "up" button a few times, a group filed out and we filed in. I shook LeBeouf's hand, then the hands of his collaborators Nastja Rönkkö and Luke Turners. The door closed. Forgetting that our voices were being live streamed, we talked about the elves in The Lord of The Rings—the subject of the dissertation my nerdy best friend I brought with me is writing; we talked about how Shia had liked the floors in the college he stayed in, because they "have a lot of history"; and we talked about how much he likes partying at Mexican quinceañeras. I brought up Transformers once, tentatively. He changed the subject.
After a couple of minutes, two chemistry students came in, and momentarily, we forgot that we were in a confined space with a celebrity and just chatted between ourselves about mundane student things. Eventually, when conversation ran dry, and we were aware that we were Shia-hogging, we left. On my way out, someone asked me what he smelled like. But like any short conversation with another human being, my only real impression of him is that he is a nice guy. Listening to the live stream, he just told someone he liked his corduroys, and at another point, he made everyone get out of the elevator so an old woman could actually use it. He held the elevator door for people. He wanted to know the names of students' dogs.
LeBeouf has been the simultaneous subject and arbiter of the media frenzy about his spiraling descent for the past couple of years—ever since charges of plagiarism over his short film HowardCantour.com. Critics who are unaware, or more likely unwilling to acknowledge that this narrative has been created by LeBeouf himself, have dismissed his artistic performances as the self-indulgent narcissism of a celebrity desperate for acknowledgement from intellectual circles. Recently, we watched him watch every single one of his movies in reverse chronological order in #allmymovies, snidely joking about his falling asleep in Transformers. We made and shared GIFs out of his motivational Just Do It video. We read articles about him allegedly being raped in the process of #Iamsorry, but apparently, no one went to the exhibition itself. We laughed about his lurid spandex outfit when he ran laps around a gallery in Amsterdam to mark a 12-hour art conference in #metamarathon. We were bemused by the pretension of the silent interview in a hotel room he did with Dazed magazine. We were bemused, period.
It is easy to call LeBeouf's behavior erratic and attribute his performances to the same crazed celebrity mentality that saw him fighting outside strip clubs or checking into rehab. But it is so much harder to seriously engage with him. This is, obviously, less hard to do when you are in a confined space with the man himself, as he looks into your eyes and says that #allmymovies was just a struggle to "come to terms with myself." Alongside sincere moments like that, there was the inevitable bullshit that you would expect from someone who has had to be in the same room as Megan Fox a lot. Like when he told the chemistry student we were in the elevator with that he believed in science like he believed in magic. That was one of those times.
This piece, called #elevate, is an effective, if trite, exploration of the painful performance of small-talk, of the yearning for genuine human interaction, of bringing celebrity down to earth. Of course, it's a derivative rip off of Marina Ambromovic's The Artist is Present—like how his apology tweets for plagiarism were all blatantly plagiarized, and just like how Damien Hirst's work is a rip off of every artist ever. This is just where art is at right now—and the enduring popularity of self-referential narcissists like Kanye West, James Franco, Joaquin Phoenix, and Bret Easton Ellis is a testament to that. Whether or not I am able to confirm a wry irony in his smile, or an element of performance in his earnestness, standing in an elevator with Shia LaBeouf was worthy of my time. Listening to him is worth yours.