Of all the marvelous and startling things that happened at the Epiphany Cafe that day, the one thing that everyone talked about afterwards was how, around one-thirty-six, a movie star walked in and ordered a cappuccino. There was no sustained buzz over the Crazy Dog Lady and her six dogs, Little Theresa’s generosity, the re-enactment of the creation of the universe, the breakthrough of the Therapist Emeritus, the Moodus Noises, or even that an attractive young woman said yes to a geeky guy. No one remarked or even seemed to notice that a fictional character, namely, me, spent most of the day writing on a fictional laptop while drinking a series of French roasted Guatemalans and eating a scone as dry as the Kalahari. Never mind that a caffeine addicted river had run uphill so that it could rush by the cafe. Forget that the woods and hills were teaming with fairies and ghosts; they’d always been there. No, it was the Movie Star who everyone talked about.
The moment he walked in, I had set aside my writing and was almost done reading Water Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, to keep up my cover as a cultured professor. I knew a movie star was among us from the reaction of everyone else in the cafe. The Lisping Barista didn’t look up at first when he stepped up to give his order, but, when she did, her hands met at her face in a position often associated with prayer. The hands covered her mouth and nose, but left her eyes exposed so she could stare at him.
“Oh, my god!” she said, giving way to uncontrollable giggles.
This caused quite a commotion around the cafe when everyone looked up to see what all the noise was about and saw that there was a movie star standing by the counter. The Movie Star only wanted to drink a cappuccino. He would have wished he could do so in peace, like everyone else, and not be the cause of a hullabaloo everywhere he went. He would do it with us, grace us with his presence, if we comported ourselves, or take it to go, if we did not.
He was recognizable to me, as well, although I didn’t know his name. He was the guy in that thing I saw. I remember it well. He drove fast cars and chased bad guys down crowded city streets. He was able to get out of the way of bullets, and caused women to wet themselves with excitement. He looked just like he did in that movie. The same, but different. His mannerisms were the same even though he wasn’t playing a part. There was something else about him. He stood out. There was an additional dimension to him. He may have been more real than everyone else in the cafe. He had a shine.
In his essay, Benjamin was arguing that Art has always been copied, but copies lack something inherent in originals. Anyone with paint, brush, canvas, and some skill can attempt to reproduce the Mona Lisa; but no one will plan their vacations around a copy, no one will rush through miles of corridors at the Louvre overlooking uncelebrated masterpieces and crane past crowds to see the very painting that they have seen in photos, on coffee cups, and neckties, a million times before. There’s just something about originals.
Benjamin said that the originals of Art link us back to the time, the place, and the person that created it. They situate the Art within history, within a sphere of authenticity. Copies are free of these moorings and can be used for alien purposes. A copy of an icon of Christ Pantocrator, loosened from the churchy context of the original and not used in worship, as it was intended, can be enlisted to win votes, perhaps, or to sell cars. Endlessly reproduced, it loses its power; but, if we see it in the original, within its proper context, the power is present.
The Lisping Barista was able to recover long enough to make the Movie Star’s cappuccino, pull him into a selfie to post on Facebook, and get his autograph on her apron, close to her breast. Others in the cafe pressed him into such service as well. He was gracious in the way that only well-coached celebrities can be. I wasn’t going to be the only one without an autograph, so I had him illegibly sign my copy of The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, adding considerably to its value, for a reason I will never understand.
He decided to drink his coffee in the limo with tinted windows waiting outside, parked, obscuring the view of the Waving Man, who only cared about cars in motion. After he left, I was able to go back to the essay. Benjamin said that originals have retained the magical, cultic purpose of earliest Art. Cavemen, presumably, painted buffalo on their cave walls to call them forth. Byzantine iconists painted Christs and Madonnas, not just to depict their imagined appearances, but to make the spirits real. Art is a form of incarnation, a technology of miracles.
His essay was written in 1936, when cinema was young. Benjamin thought that this new form of art was different from all the rest. There are no originals of the movies we see. There’s no original of Gone with the Wind in a museum somewhere. All there is are copies. Cinema, Benjamin thought, was an aura-less art form. Art in general was being scraped clean of aura by profligate reproductions. The gods were leaving. It was just another example of the disenchantment of the world in the modern age.
I guess Benjamin never met a movie star.