some notes on the hills season three premiere

August 14, 2007

tonight was the season three premiere of the hills and it was even better than i could have imagined. how liz gateley et al constantly manage to top themselves is incredible and inspiring.

in the new york times today, virginia heffernan wrote that “‘the hills’…is more convincing than “friends” and just about any other comedy about female relationships…” which i, though holding onto my testicles at this very instant, completely agree with. now, this is not the point she was making with that quote, but i read the review before i saw the episode and then there’s an early scene where lauren is drunk at a club and flirting with an english boy and it’s just like incredible deja-vu, like, the crip, the cush of deja-vu. it’s what they teach you in writing classes about how the more specific you get the closer you come to representing the universal. lauren in that scene is like a million drunk girls i have met and will never meet and want to meet, but she’s just one person, just lauren, standing for all of them. as the mtv marketing machine tags, “i know you can relate.”

heffernan writes that “women’s friendships are commonly burnt down along rigid moral lines” and i think that’s true of the show, but what’s interesting and what’s great about the show is the way those moral lines are not actually rigid, but only appear to be.

why laguna beach season three failed and became unwatchable (see the post about the season two premiere a couple posts down) was, among many other things, setting up a clear moral binary; there are the good girls who are nice and the bad girls who are bitches. it gave tessa, the main character who provided all the voice-over narration, complete moral superiority, which is boring and uninteresting. the hills is so genius because it sets up a false image of that binary; the good girls, lauren and audrina and whitney; the bad people, heidi, spencer, jen bunny, et cetera. at the end of the second episode, with her mother, lauren says “i know the difference between good people who do bad things and bad people who do bad things”. but the image is an illusion, as is obvious at the end of the second episode: there are no clear cut moral judgements, there is no “good” and “bad”. “good” lauren is incredibly judgemental and has serious issues with anyone being in a romantic relationship and, as the previews for the rest of the season seem to hint, is ready to do with jason the same thing she cut off heidi for. “bad” spencer seems completely and totally in love with heidi. no one is simple, nothing is black and white. if lauren is our main character, unlike tessa, she has no moral superiority; she’s an unreliable narrator and so the tension between what she says and what she does and who she is ripples with cracks and fissures.

the performances are spot on. lauren was really overshadowed last season by heidi and whitney, but now, with this new aspect to her character, the mistrust taken to an almost absurd level, she’s really shining. audrina isn’t the standout surprise that heidi was last season, but she holds her own. whitney, as usual, continues to dazzle with faux-awkward facial expressions and wide-mouthed stares, use of hands on face, and use of the frame. she is the queen of fake authentic reality performance. if dreyer was alive today and filming a youtube version of “the passion of joan of arc”, he would surely cast her in the title role.

a thing i find really interesting about the hills, with regards to its status as an erstwhile “reality” show, is the use of dubbing. you hear it in the first scene of the season, when whitney asks lauren if she’s “talked to heidi lately”. this is the thing that’s been bubbling under the entire scene and finally it’s let out, and when it is, it’s a dubbed line, it’s life being molded to fit the script.

an even more interesting use of dubbing is in the club scene when heidi and lauren have a confrontation. the most frequent use of dubbing on the hills is during club scenes. and here, during the first moment of contact between heidi and lauren, during the most important moment of the first episode of the third season, when heidi says “here lauren, i wrote you a letter” the line is dubbed, it’s not the real audio, it’s not from the moment.

now of course, in dramatic cinema and television dubbing is a accepted and necessary practice. but this is “reality” we’re watching here. of course it’s no big deal for an actress in a hollywood movie to rerecord her dialogue during an emotional scene weeks or months later; even if she was “in the moment” then, she was just acting, just playing a role, and presumably she can bring that moment back and tell the lie again. but for this crucial moment on the hills, how can heidi, who is of course not a professional actress, replicate all her pent-up feeling about not seeing her ex-best friend for months in a recording studio booth before a microphone weeks later. even if that’s not how the dubbing’s done, even if the audio’s recorded in the bathroom later that night under the guise of a script supervisor’s clipboard and stopwatch, even then, it’s still not the real audio, it’s not what was said in the moment. if these girls aren’t actors, fine, what does that say about performance? what counts for authenticity these days?

it’s easy to forget about dubbing, though, when the dialogue is so good. when the lauren-heidi thing finally blows up to a knock down-drag out screaming match, the repetition and variation are revelatory (“do you know why i’m mad you? you know why i’m mad at you. you know what you did. you know what you did” although that’s nowhere near as strong on the page as on the screen and just one scene of many) i’ve said it before, if raymond carver’s formal aesthetic (which is the important stuff, forget your dirty realism, that’s just blah blah content) could be used as the basis for a television show, this would be it. fuck “short cuts”; there were some entertaining bits, but carver isn’t theatre in that big showy altman kind of way, it’s personal, it’s private, it’s the coal of youtube polished, comma by comma, cut by cut, into a diamond.

the cinematography is as stunning as it’s ever been. there’s a short montage set to rhianna’s “umbrella” where lauren and audrina are drinking and dancing and having fun at a club. wong kar wai and kieslowski would marvel at the colors and lighting, the rich reds, the flickering oranges, the play of shadow. and the improvised takes, the strung together jump cuts of lauren dancing, playing with her hair, making faces; they could be vintage godard, as breathless as breathless. antonioni would have had a field day with these girls, who talk well enough but say so much more with their bodies, with their eyes, with the myriad transcendent ways that they take up space.

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