The Degrees of Ownership in “The Faithful”

Written by Robert Steiner

The Faithful is a documentary that starts simple enough: a curiosity about fandom and the cottage industries of memorabilia that form around certain celebrities, using Elvis Presley, Pope Joh Paul II, and Princess Diana as case studies. But over the film’s runtime, that general idea becomes the anchor to explore bigger, more complicated questions about image, celebrity, faith, death, and ownership. That last topic, ownership, especially towers over every aspect of the film, from the merchandise bought by fans to the assets owned by estates to the old tapes we use to remember loved ones.

So what kinds of ownership are at play in the film? What does that word even mean in this context?

First off, there’s ownership of identity. The film’s three subjects had, like all public figures, two identities for most of their respective lives: The private one they were born with, and the public one created in public and adored by the masses. Elvis Aaron Presley was born January 8, 1935; Elvis was born when he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, September 9, 1956. Diana Spencer, born in July 1961, became Diana, Princess of Wales in July 1981 when 750 million people watched her fairytale wedding. The Pope was just Karol Józef Wojtyła for 58 years of his life until the white smoke from the Vatican announced the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978.

Though paparazzi, tabloids, and overeager fans tried their damndest for an inside look at these figures’ private lives, there was ultimately an element to Presley, Diana, and His Holiness’ respective beings that belonged to them, and only them. Elvis, at least, seemed particularly aware of the duality — during a press conference featured in the film, he’s asked “Are you satisfied with the image you’ve established?” He answers by looking over his shoulder, as if looking for the man behind the sequined suit, iconic hair, and dashing smile, then saying, “Well the image is one thing, and the human being is another.”

Related to public image is the ownership of said image by the greater culture. Yes, this includes the apparel, mementos, merchandise, memorabilia, artwork, etc. that are created or purchased by fans. But in a more spiritual sense, if the celebrity in question becomes so deeply part of the zeitgeist, reaching people all over the world that they will never actually meet, they inherently become part of the lives, the memories, the life experiences, even the individual identities of everyday strangers.

This idea becomes especially true when the celebrity dies, and all that is truly left is their memory. In his article “ Policing Elvis: Legal Action and the Shaping of Post-Mortem Celebrity Culture as Contested Space,” David S. Wall describes the culture “recoding” that occurs when a figure of Elvis’ stature passes — the person behind the celebrity ceases to exist, evolving into “a cultural icon, spiritually, as simulation and simulacra, and as an art form.” Such a progression then gives way to merchandise, artwork, impersonators, costumes, churches, conventions, and anything else that gives fans and followers a sense of connection to a singular, larger-than-life icon that they admire and emulate.

Finally, there’s ownership according to law. When the public figure dies, it’s up to their surviving family to pick up the pieces, and in the case of those who die unexpectedly, the estate takes on a complicated and murky task. With public image comes the legality of who owns that image as intellectual property. The owner isn’t always the person behind the image — bad deals and shotty contracts, still too common in the entertainment business, can jeopardize even the most successful icons. When a public figure dies and their image is recoded into the culture, the tension between homage and theft becomes even more strained.

Elvis’ finances and legal affairs were in shambles upon his death, leading to the drawn-out formation of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the numerous lawsuits the estate filed in order to corral as much control over the King’s IP as possible. But this was ultimately a fight they wouldn’t win — the King had already been claimed by the people, already forever part of the 20th-century pop culture canon and memorialized through tributes, homages, impersonations, and unofficial merch. The result, Wall explains, is a “Paradox of circulation and restriction, whereby the holder of an intellectual property right in a celebrity culture needs to circulate it in order to exploit its popularity and thus generate income streams, while simultaneously regulating the ways that the celebrity culture is consumed in order to maintain legal control over it to preserve those same income streams.”

These are ultimately the forms of ownership at play in The Faithful and within celebrity culture in general: ownership of the self, of the image, of the IP, and of the culture. Unfortunately, the lines between these types are muddled and contradictory. An icon inspires creation, but that creation could be interpreted as infringement. An estate can be tightly regulated, but too many lawsuits and hollow corporate deals risk cheapening or flat-out extinguishing their subject’s integrity. These challenges are relevant to the artists and fans profiled in the film, as well as the film itself — which is partly why the film took so long to complete in the first place. More on that next week.

Originally published at https://medium.com on February 26, 2021.

NYC-based Director/Producer/Writer/Editor Recent work: The Faithful, Utopia 1.0, Street Views, Of Birds and Boundaries