New York

Michael Smith

We are now used to the idea that everyone wants to be a star. It is the dream of fame, and the wealth that is supposed to accompany it, that sees us through disappointments and dreary jobs. Everyone wants to be a winner, and daytime television, with its game shows and talk shows, has long provided a framework to contain that wish for a great many people. It is a cruel fantasy, but a potent one, and one that will inevitably become ever more available with the new surge of activity surrounding cable television.

Such a world of momentary celebrity is the one reluctantly inhabited by Mike, the sad-sack character Michael Smith has been developing over the past several years. Mike is too perplexed by life to get out of the house much—in fact, he rarely manages to get more than his underwear on in the morning. In past tapes and performances we have seen him dreaming of having friends, of throwing a party, of meeting a girl. Now, in It Starts at Home, he suddenly finds it all, or nearly all, happening. He has cable TV installed, and as a result of some mystifying technology finds himself on the tube, live in living rooms and bars throughout the city. He becomes a star, and never leaves his own home. Before he knows what is going on his deadbeat friends and neighbors are dropping in to stare, and his home is taken over by Bob, just flown in from the Coast, a deal-making piece of fur (literally) perpetually on the phone.

Smith’s presentation places the viewer in a strange space and time warp, an oddly imperfect mirror effect which works as a destabilizing device in tandem with Smith’s deadpan clowning. The tape is shown in a set, on the same monitor that plays the part of Mike’s treacherous cable TV on screen. But the set is not quite the same comfortable room that Mike is seen to inhabit in the tape, with its melancholy, worn-out furniture and secondhand mementos. It has become the home of The Star, with its bric-a-brac carefully arranged, and a disembodied voice welcoming you and guiding you to your place. And in a far corner—further evidence of Mike’s new-found celebrity—is a study area lined with showbiz caricatures.

The tape itself contains similar mismatched mirror play, discomfiting sight gags too corny to be funny and too funny to be anything less than deeply unsettling: Mike’s first discovery that he is on TV, watching himself watching himself on the screen, repeating movements endlessly in the empty electronic space; Mike sitting, dazed, in front of the TV, beside the mailman, another slob, only bigger; Mike dancing, in top hat and tails, with a beanpole partner, each reflecting the other as in some grotesque distorting mirror; even the space of Mike’s house, with its suburban garden out back and tenth-floor cityscape out front. What is real in Mike’s world is its unreality, the confused doubling that makes everything appear false and hopeless, a world of ersatz duplicity in which the only certainty is Mike’s star quality.

Thomas Lawson