Imagining the Real: Understanding the Use of Projection

(Originally written in 2011) Consider the film projector. A machine that takes a series of still images and projects them at 24 frames a second onto a blank screen.

These images of course are not real, but they seem real. Why? There is a humorous story about Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), where people sat in the audience, not sure what to expect, and shrieked in horror when the train appeared on the screen.  This may cause us to chuckle and think how ridiculous these people were for believing a train was coming at them. However, don’t we, even today, react similarly? An audience still gets frightened, or excited, or brought to tears, even though they well know none of it is actually happening. The people on the screen are acting, the sets are facades, the story is fiction. Yet, the show goes on.

To understand the peculiar nature of Projection, particularly as a psychological function, we should look no further than the movie stars and celebrities our culture deems important. We may like or dislike or love or hate certain actors or musicians, but seldom do we ask why we have such emotional responses in the first place. A famous person could be rude, physically unattractive, abusive, and overall despicable, yet millions of people will still be enamored. Why? What is happening here, and what power does this person possess?

I’m convinced that what makes a Star, that IT factor people talk about, is nothing more than an ability to project a specific type of persona or affect. It could be rebellion, or sexuality, or daring, or intelligence or innocence or as is often the case, a unique combination of many. A celebrity’s true gift is his or her ability to project an Ideal that captures the public’s attention at that particular moment in time. A good publicist knows this which is why overexposure is so dangerous to a movie star's popularity. Overexposure just means that one has become too known or too literal and that the projection is no longer malleable enough for people to shape into something they desire. By only making limited appearances which abstracts the celebrity’s identity through various characters, the celebrity remains a blank screen upon which an audience can project what image they desire to see.

When I see how people act around celebrities, I always think of that passage in the New Testament where a man was ill and wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment to be healed. This person believed that the very clothing Jesus wore was sacred. This same thing is occurring with celebrities all the time. Years ago. I was at a concert and after the show, I saw a girl pleading with one of the stage guys to give her the playlist that was taped to the floor. When he handed it to her, she started crying. Now this was nothing more than a piece of paper that the singer was looking at. Yet, to that girl, something else was going on. The singer was the perfect blank screen onto which she could project her image of the Ideal or Divine or anything she wanted really, and by having that piece of paper, she was touching his garment's hem.

Ultimately, this all becomes a tricky proposition for celebrities. Imagine the blank screen itself in our analogy. Upon it are projected images that we believe to be real; they are a part of the screen and even become the screen, causing the image and screen to seem as one. However, they are not. The screen exists apart from the projected image. Separating the image from the screen or the character from the actor can be difficult. The role or characters an actor plays often has nothing to do with whom the celebrity actually is and may be in fact a completely absurd representation. Imagine someone falling in love with you and they are willing to devote all of their life and energy and attention to your every wish, yet they think you are someone else. You may enjoy the initial attention, but eventually it will all seem rather hollow. 

I am certain that this is why so many movie stars get tired of acting and often get involved in politics or social causes. They are simply tired of their own projection and instead want to reveal their actual self. What most celebrities don't understand though is that the art of projection has deep psychological powers and interrupting it has consequences. When a celebrity no longer functions as a projection, he or she should expect to be ridiculed, mocked and even hated. Again, this has nothing to do with reason or logic and the celebrity should not take it personally. Just as we project our notions of what is Good onto a blank screen, we also project our notions of what is Evil or Vile. Since celebrities act as a blank screen for our projections, it makes sense that we would place our hatred and fear onto those who disappoint, just as we place our hopes and expectations on those who please. It's important for the viewers and purveyors of projected images to understand exactly what is occurring. Separating the projector, the projection, and the screen on which the image is projected will not keep the audience from marveling at the train on the stage, it will simply keep them from jumping into the aisle to get out of its way.