Okay, it has come to my attention that certain people (you know who you are) are reading this and wondering how exactly The Hills might relate to my dissertation on French Fascist film reception. That's my fault for not being clear. This blog is basically a place for me to brainstorm about things I will write more formally in the dissertation, but sometimes I forget that and wander into intellectual masturbation, and the title of the blog becomes a little too apt.
The central assumption of the dissertation is that the ways in which a work of art is produced and distributed has political implications. So take film. A movie is (or used to be, anyway) a long strip of celluloid with pictures in sequence, which is projected onto a white screen in front of an audience that is sitting in the dark. Filmmakers address this audience in different ways. They can present them with performers who will do a song and dance to entertain them; they can show them footage of distant cultures or recreations of historical events in order to educate or persuade them; they can tell a story which will cause the audience to identify with the protagonist and involve itself or lose itself in the film. This last one is most interesting to me. Why would you want to lose yourself? What can someone make you do when you lose yourself? Is losing yourself in a film audience anything like losing yourself at a fascist rally?
This image is taken from Triumph of the Will (1935), the most famous Fascist film. Audiences can react in different ways to it. Many Germans would have watched it in order to be part of the mass ritual it depicts, to bind themselves to the nation as depicted in the film (the word fascism comes from an Italian word meaning "to bind"). Today we watch it to educate ourselves about a historical period and a political movement.
There were no French Fascist films, mostly because fascists never came to power in France (unless you count Vichy, which was too traditionally conservative to qualify). But there were a few very prominent French Fascist film critics--the critic for the most important literary daily, and the authors of the first history of film to be published in French, were all Fascist. Just like filmmakers, film critics make assumptions about the film audience. What do they want? Are they each individuals or do they form some kind of collective body? Are they bound to each other by language, by race, by class? The types of films critics like, and the things they say about them, tell us a lot about what they think about film audiences, which tells us a lot about their politics.
Okay, now take The Hills. The way in which this show is produced and distributed, the way in which people watch it, and the assumptions that critics make about it are all very different from the conditions surrounding 1930's films. Those differences also have a lot to do with what kind of audience watches the show, or what kind of audience is created by the show. Contrary to what most people assume, the show rewards and encourages a very sophisticated viewing, a type of viewing that is simultaneously absorbed in the plot and detached from it. Younger viewers are probably on average better at this than older viewers. Here's Lauren with her iPod. Notice that one earbud is out--she's multitasking, listening and not listening at once.
The reason that The Hills is better at this than other shows is that it destroys the difference between reality and fiction. All actors on the show are living their real lives, but those lives just happen to include an entourage of cameramen, make-up people, wardrobe, etc. The show has been criticized because it pre-plans scenes, makes suggestions to its actors about what might make for good TV, and even reshoots some scenes. Critics claim that this destroys its legitimacy as a reality show. But the show isn't aiming for this kind of legitimacy--it makes no claims to be educating its audience about reality. Actually very few reality shows do.
So you would assume that the show invites its audience to become absorbed in the story, to identify with one or more of the characters as they would in a fictional drama. You can indeed watch it like a fictional drama, which confuses some first-time viewers who aren't familiar with how the show works. "Is this a reality show? It can't be, because it's so well scripted and so well shot." But if you watch it only in this way, you're missing out on all the fun stuff, which comes from watching the double meaning of everything that occurs--every line and every action is motivated by the show's narrative, but even more so by the characters' attempts to position themselves in the public eye.
An example from last week's show: Heidi and Lauren have had a major fight, which was the big event of last season, and Heidi moved out of the apartment they shared and are no longer talking. Heidi is now trying to renew her friendship with Audrina, Lauren's roommate, and stops by the apartment ostensibly to pick up some stuff she left behind when she moved out. When Lauren gets home, she learns about this from Audrina (I'm paraphrasing):
Audrina: Heidi was here.
Lauren: What, she just stopped by?
Audrina: No, she called and said she wanted to pick up some stuff.
Lauren: Did she just pick up her stuff and leave?
Audrina: She sat down for a minute.
When Lauren asks whether Heidi just stopped by, we can interpret that as her asking whether this scene was filmed. Will the Heidi-Audrina encounter be part of the show? Yes, it will. Lauren must now proceed knowing that millions of people may eventually watch her asking Audrina what happened. She solicits more information from Audrina, and the extended drama of Heidi vs. Lauren continues. The point is that we have just glimpsed a small part of the way the show is made. Very few TV shows or movies are willing to expose their conditions of production, and most of those that do play it for laughs. The Hills not only exposes this, it does it in virtually every scene, and it turns it into the whole subject of the show. Viewers constantly shift back and forth between what they know of these people in real life and what they see of them on the show, between distraction and involvement.
What does this have to do with politics? Well, Heidi has recently endorsed John McCain for president, but that's not what I'm interested in. I'm concerned with what types of audiences are created by different types of movies or TV shows. I hope I've shown how the audience for the Hills is potentially very sophisticated. It is more able to evaluate official visual images in light of other sources of information. The show is an example of intertextuality, which means that it exists not only as a TV show but also as every single other medium in which these actors are mentioned. The photo of Lauren above, for example, is a "behind-the-scenes" photo that I got off the MTV website. But Lauren is in character for that photo, as she is her entire life, and so that photo is part of the show, in a very literal way. So is every magazine article, every late show spot that Lauren or Heidi or any of them appear on. This very blog post is actually part of the show. So are you, the reader.
The implications of this type of audience are still being worked out, which is what makes the show so cutting-edge. One thing to watch is how people respond to the fact that there are now people out there whose job it is to BE THEMSELVES. As we move from a product-based economy (where real things are manufactured) to a service-based economy (where nothing but information is produced), this is an important question. Will this shift allow all of us to get paid for being ourselves? Is this really what we want? Will it make us happy? Tune in next week to see.
Dissertation progress yesterday: Read half of Staging Fascism, about a crazy theater project in Fascist Italy which attempted to use a new type of theater (involving a truck as the main character, not even kidding) in order to create a new, fascist, audience. Indexed and took notes on about 20 pages of newspaper articles. Wrote about a paragraph on fascist opinion of early documentary film.
Movie I watched last night: Eternity and a Day (2001), by Theo Angelopoulos. Contemplative movie about a dying Greek poet, and his last day remembering his past and dealing with his present. Long takes, slow camera movement.