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John Lennon, Michael Jackson - do celebrities die anymore?

It seems that George Lucas may be collecting dead people the way your grandma collects crystal fowl. In a recent Daily Mail interview, British director Mel Smith, who worked with Lucas years ago, said: "[Lucas has]been buying up the film rights to dead movie stars in the hope of using computer trickery to put them all together in a movie, so you'd have Orson Welles and Barbara Stanwyck appear alongside today's stars."

Although the Star Wars director hasn't confirmed this hobby, a penchant for splicing the dead and the living is very au courant. Michael Jackson, who died in 2009, was this year's top-earning dead celebrity, making $275-million, according to Forbes. His new album features Dave Grohl and Lenny Kravitz, both rumoured to be alive.

Last year, the luxury chain of Dorchester Hotels released an ad campaign showing celebrities like Kristin Scott Thomas (living) dining with Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly and Orson Welles (dead, dead and dead). Let me put on John Lennon's new, remixed album - on the 30th anniversary of his assassination - and ponder the question: Doesn't anybody die any more?

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Technology has reshaped celebrity death. In 1997, Dirt Devil released an ad showing Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

The press and public were appalled, and sales of the vacuum cleaner actually declined. Exhuming the dead for the purposes of shilling engendered a protective feeling in the audience. Astaire had no agency in this particular pas de deux (not to mention poor, erased Ginger Rogers) and there was something chilling about the fact that the strings animating the corpse were held by a computer.

In 1981, Greil Marcus wrote with horror that Elvis Presley had become in the mere four years since his death "a T-shirt, a black velvet wall hanging, an emblem of working-class bad taste or upper-class camp." "A dead person is vulnerable in ways a living person is not," Marcus wrote. "A dead person can be summed up or dismissed."

Three decades later, dead celebrities aren't just reduced, but regurgitated, revived, remixed and reissued, making a silk-screened T-shirt seem like a folksy little problem. Today, anyone with a computer can put herself in a room with Elvis, add a Santa hat and send a Christmas card around the world. The Dorchester campaign didn't seem to generate any disgust at all. In the age of techno-mechanical reproduction, manipulation of the dead is a yawner.

And so, dead celebrities have become big business. In 2005, stock photo agency Corbis acquired a roster of "classic personalities," including Einstein and Mae West (psst - classic means dead). The arm where they now reside at Corbis is called GreenLight, which reportedly earned $50-million in 2009 by renting dead stars for endorsements. "The nice thing about a dead celebrity is [that]scandal is behind them," a GreenLight VP told the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Living artists should be wary of these shenanigans, at least if they believe their work is what creates value. To split a dead performer from her context for fun or profit seems like some mad-scientist exercise in CGI onanism. I don't think I want to see Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas, her 73-year-old delivery divorced from its original meaning, spliced into a scene where she counsels Renée Zellweger on her dating issues.

Perhaps there's a filmmaker who could make a compelling film in this manner, but it probably isn't Lucas, who has always privileged technology above story (the two most recent Star Wars movies seemed to be about intergalactic taxation). His grave-digging project tells today's actors what many of them must deeply fear (and know): You are really just a face and a body. You are a brand.

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And the older the celebrity brand, the better. When Elvis died, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote: "I can guarantee you one thing, we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis." Guarantee fulfilled: Audiences today aren't in disagreement because they're rarely in conversation. We nest in our niches, listening to music recommended by our social networks and swooning over stars carefully cultivated for our own demographic. Advertisers - and Lucas - know they have increasingly rare currency in Elvis or Marilyn Monroe (who appeared last month on the cover of Vanity Fair): a nostalgic, shared reference point, understood by everyone.

Freud wrote about the human death instinct, an inborn fascination with death that pushes and pulls against the lust for life - the kicking, thriving pleasure principle. Perhaps in a movie starring the living and the dead, we get both, and from the comfort of this side. It's a profitable endeavour - for the living, at least.

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