Friday, April 18, 2008

Reality TV, Reality Effects, and Realism

Justin at Songs About Buildings and Food hates this New Yorker article because it hates The Hills. I agree that the tone is a bit nasty, but the analysis is not too far off:
“The Hills” isn’t aiming to stimulate or inspire; I think people watch it mostly to figure out why they’re watching it.
Close, but I actually think people watch it mostly to figure out what they're watching, not why. Both questions are very difficult to answer, though, and either way this is more self-awareness than you get with most other shows.

So here's an example of a tendency on The Hills that I mentioned last week, when a character enters a scene with their face obscured even though the entrance is staged. This is Audrina closing the door behind her as she comes home:












There's no logistical reason why the camera can't be moved a few feet in order to catch her face. This is a location that appears in every episode, and I guarantee that the producers know how to shoot here. So the question is, why obscure her face? What purpose does this serve?

I suggested last week that it has something to do with the "reality effect," a concept developed by literary theorist Roland Barthes. If there's a descriptive detail in a novel that serves no narrative or symbolic purpose, then its very meaninglessness is used to signify that the novel takes place in "reality." This is one way of pointing out that the "realism" of any artwork is not a result of how faithfully it reproduces the outside world, but how much it signals to the reader or viewer "this is real." But since TV and movies (leaving aside animation and special effects) are already constructed out of accurate pictures of the outside world, adding more details doesn't actually reinforce the realistic effect. The principle that "lack of meaning = reality" still holds, though, except that the lack of meaning comes not from extraneous details in content, but from unmotivated camera choices, in this case framing. So one reason this shot is included could be to signal to the audience that this is reality. "If this shot were planned, don't you think we would have planned it better? Therefore, it's obviously real."

But in the stylistic history of film, this has not been the usual way of signaling reality. Usually, you use long takes to better show a natural dialogue between characters, including things like awkward pauses and people talking over each other. You show scenes where very little happens in terms of plot. The Bicycle Thief is a classic example the realist school, or for something more recent try Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. This is precisely the opposite of what The Hills does, following Hollywood convention. Dialogue is chopped up into alternating shot/reverse-shot angles in order to 1) encourage spectators to identify with one of the characters and 2) streamline the conversation and make it flow. (1) And the weird thing is that The Hills is actually less streamlined than most Hollywood entertainment: after a conversation is broken down into its constituent parts, The Hills puts it back together with the awkward pauses either still there or possibly even deliberately edited in.

My point is that camera placement and editing in The Hills turn out to work against interpreting the show as "real"--instead, they highlight the show's constructedness. The show is purposely trying to look as much as possible like a Hollywood film, to the point of taking the Hollywood editing style to such extremes that the way it's constructed is blatantly obvious. And that includes the obscured faces, which are part of the currently popular "run-and-gun" style of filmmaking, where the best example is the Bourne films. This is also the reason the show is shot in widescreen.

1. By the way, this is basically the film-editing version of Taylorism, where actions taken by factory workers are broken down into the smallest possible pieces and then analyzed for efficiency--actually one word for this editing style is analytic. I'll say more about work on The Hills in a future post, to expand on my comments last time about industrial vs. information economies.

Dissertation progress yesterday: Finished Staging Fascism, which was excellent. Did about 40 pages of indexing/notetaking. Wrote about half a page, still on Nanook/primitivism.
Last movie watched: Crazed Fruit (1956), which is apparently the best of the Taiyozoku films. Based on an Ishihara Shintaro story, it was an influence on the French New Wave. Truffaut loved it. There's a lot to be said about the post-Occupation rejection/imitation of America by the Japanese counter-culture (if you can call it that).

19 comments:

justin said...

"Justin at Songs About Buildings and Food hates this New Yorker article because it hates The Hills."

um, a little simplistic, i am not quite the teenage girl on the forum going "OMG HEIDI IS SCH A BITCH OMG." not yet, anyway. what i hate about the article is the lack of an attempt to understand the show or to offer any you know, critical insight. the sentence you quote is one of the very few times in the 1500+ word review that she goes anywhere near actively engaging with the show in a serious way. most of the thing when she gets to reviewing the show itself, after that extended introduction to the reality genre, is her smarmily dicking around and making jokes. after some cutting-edge musings on isn't it funny how young people look ("But I’m still trying to figure out why teen-agers want their bra straps to show and how it came to pass that crooked hair parts are considered chic and not a pathetic sign that you didn’t have proper mothering.") she says, "So I have plenty to think about as it is." but this is an obviously sarcastic line: she doesn't have to think about it because it's beneath her. that's basically how i felt about the whole review, that it was a whole lot of not thinking about something. add in a fun logical fallacy ("last month, conveniently, nude photos of Audrina surfaced on the Web, which led to the following show’s getting the highest ratings of the series’ run.") rinse, repeat, finished!


goddamnit, i said i wasn't going to talk about it! karina offers another take.

very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

er, that link should be http://karinalongworth.tumblr.com/post/32086621

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