why “pageant place” sucks: understanding “the hills” part 1
October 21, 2007
i don’t like “pageant place” and it’s not because miss teen usa’s boyfriend is one of the ugliest people i’ve ever seen, that he looks like a wax figure of a backstreet boy that sat out in the sun too long and was decorated, snowman-like, by retarded children with tins of black shoe polish.
well, it’s not just that, anyway.
why don’t i think this video is hot? i’m a dude and these are girls i find attractive and have spent an inordinate amount of time watching and they don’t have many clothes on and there are close-ups of boobs. but i don’t find it hot, it feels like bad soft porn crossed with entertainment tonight. fair enough, it’s maxim, that’s exactly what it is, but still, it feels wrong.
and what feels more wrong, more pornographic than the fact that the girls are in lingerie writhing on a bed is that they’re looking directly at the camera. what feels wrong is when they say “hi, i’m lauren conrad and you’re watching my maxim photo shoot.” it’s the same reason that it feels so strange when they’re interviewed on “the hills aftershow” or on “regis and kelly,” because they’re looking back at me.
or maybe i just wanted to make a heavy-handed dramatic segue into some thoughts on self consciousness and “the hills.” (“we all self conscious / i’m just the first one to admit it” k.west, 2004)
(blah blah blah male gaze blah blah)
the quantum leap forward of the “laguna beach” aesthetic was the omission of talking head interviews, which are in like every other reality show on air. (save for a few exceptions: the warm, touching “rob and big” for one)
you can read this omission as an embrace of the cliché yet essential cornerstone of modern creative writing pedagogy, “show don’t tell.” talking head interviews are used by the producers of reality shows to explain away visual images. something will happen in a show, in scene, and then the producers will cut to a talking head, in which one of the subjects of the scene will explain or comment on what’s going on, for clarity. with this use of talking heads, there’s no chance for dramatic ambiguity; you know exactly what’s going on because you’re being told exactly what’s going on. if you want look at it in a sort of steven johnson kind of way (disclosure: i know jack about cognition), your brain isn’t having to do any heavy lifting about what the scene means or why a certain gesture or line of dialogue is important, it’s just following instructions
the producers of “laguna beach,” by getting rid of talking heads, instead relied on the strength of their cast, who, through their use of subtle performance communicated feeling and emotion, and on the strength of their crew, who through careful framing and cutting captured this performance in way that was communicative without being didactic. i’ve compared it to minimalist short fiction like raymond carver here before; because things aren’t explicitly stated, your eyes and your ears and your brain are working extra hard to tease out connections and read between lines, to catch the weight of gesture and the shade of vocal inflection.
what’s interesting about “laguna beach” is that the quantum leap forward of its aesthetic was, in a sense, a giant step backwards, away from the unconsciously brechtian gestures of reality television towards traditional cinematic illusionism, from dogme 95 style flat, square video to beautifully toned, letterboxed technicolor.
almost all reality shows before “laguna beach” relied on certain gestures which served to completely obliterate the fourth wall between show and audience. talking head interviews, with their direct address of the camera and audience, were the obvious culprit. the ugly video aesthetic, the bad lighting, the lack of focused, dynamic compositions: all of these things which added up to say “hey, you’re watching a TV show! but it’s like totally real!”
in terms of content, the subjects of these reality shows constantly referred to the fact that they were on a television show, talked about it with each other and with the hosts and with the cameras. they preened, discussed what they looked like on TV and how much screen time they were getting. if they were on a game or competition show they discussed “the game”, their strategies, how they were playing, who was “winning.” staring into the lenses, they cried, confessed, mused on how they were being perceived, wondered what friends and family and lovers might think of them, what “america” might think of them.
the aesthetic of “pageant place” is, compared to “the hills,” ridiculously overt and riddled with fourth wall-breaking gestures. consider just the first few seconds of the second episode:
- the first shot is a helicopter view of manhattan, the sort of establishing shot that you see on “the hills” every week. but where “the hills” would proceed through several more establishing shots of the same texture to organically build a sense of place, narrowing from general shots of los angeles to the specific location of the first scene…
- the second shot is stock footage of tara connor being crowned miss usa. this footage, though presumably shot in color, is tinted black and white and overlaid with a fake video grain effect, presumably to add to the “drama” of the image.
- then there’s a quick cut montage of tabloid covers featuring ms. connor, now in color, but still with the fake video effect.
- then there’s what looks like actual sampled video (seems that way from the shakiness/impurities/i don’t know the technical term) of more tabloid covers, probably from “larry king” or something.
- then there are two quick shots of tara walking the streets of manhattan, rendered in chunky slow motion.
in 8 seconds, that’s 5 different video textures. is this supposed to be brakhage 2.0 or a tv show about the daily lives of pageant queens?
over all this, there’s a voice-over narrator, a nondescript female voice belonging to someone who’s not a character in the show. the introduction of “the hills” also uses a voice-over narrator, but it’s lauren conrad, the star and narrative center of the show, so in that instance, the voice-over doesn’t feel distancing, it feels like we’re listening in on her internal monologue. it doesn’t remove us from the show, it brings us in closer.
after the introduction, the “pageant place” title sequence is pretty telling w/re:to the show’s overt artificiality. “the hills” opens with money shots of LA sunsets and images of the girls, all cut to a hooky sing-along pop song that matches the vibrancy of the images. it’s emotional; it makes you feel something, and it creates the strong sense of place, of the hills, that the show rests upon.
the title sequence of “pageant place” doesn’t ground the show in a real environment – literally. instead, the girls are chroma-keyed into a cell-shaded virtual manhattan, which, as the sequence goes on, is being penciled in around them with shaky line drawings. it’s really cool looking animation, but the show itself doesn’t take place in a virtual line-drawn manhattan, it takes place in the real world, where there’s like color and texture and stuff, so why this cute version of “the matrix”? the introduction should set the tone for the show, it should be a microcosm of what the show is (see “the hills” or the fantastic “sarah silverman” introductions for contemporary examples)
and the theme music. it isn’t a fun yet emotionally rich female-empowering pop song designed to pluck heartstrings and be sung into hairbrushes, it’s a nondescript rock instrumental overlaid with a voice-over of donald trump giving a bland pitch for the show’s concept. this may seem like a small thing, but i see it as a much bigger issue. during my senior year of college, we watched a lot of marathons of “entourage” on demand, and though i enjoyed the show, i grew to hate the theme song deeply. one day i was watching with one of my friend’s girlfriends and as the theme song started and i prepared to fast forward, she said “i just love this song,” and i said “really?” and she said, “yeah, it just makes me happy because i know ‘entourage’ is about to start.” and i think about it now and about the way i feel when i hear the theme to “friends” or “sex and the city” or even that ridiculous “seinfeld” synth bass; i think about the unconscious emotional reaction i have to these songs and the memories and feelings they dredge up in an instant. theme songs can become iconic; voice-overs can’t. i don’t know many girls with posters of donald trump on their bedroom walls.
the editing is tres overt. in the first episode, the girls, in a stagey meeting with donald trump, are being told that tara connor, ex ms. usa, is coming to live with them. this scene is intercut with shots of tara connor arriving at JFK, set to a crunchy nu-metal riff. this intercutting is over the top (like something of “miss congeniality”) and it breaks the unity of scene. because we’re everywhere (in that particular scene, four places: the trump boardroom, yet more shots of tabloid covers, the brilliant white world of the talking heads, tara connor at JFK) we’re nowhere.
the show is loaded with gaudy video effects. besides what i mentioned during the introduction, the big aesthetic motif of the show is crash zooms which land on the subject in soft focus and then slowly fix on them. there are animated split screens to highlight tension between characters. every talking head is accompanied by this ridiculous transition effect where the scene explodes into this white haze and then another explosion of white transitions back to the scene. the titles (announcing locations or the characters’ names) are huge and bold and accompanied by several animated pink bars. it’s all one star wipe away from cable access.
wikipedia kind of intimates (this is a blog, i don’t have to use real quotes) that freud describes mimesis as dreaming while awake. you can’t dream “pageant place” – there are always alarms waking you up.
“laguna beach” and “the hills” eschew all of the aforementioned self conscious gestures for a kind of mimesis. the cinematography, directing, and editing of “the hills” create an immaculate surface, without any distractions to allow viewers to distance themselves from the show (aside from the looping which i have discussed extensively before). there are no talking head interviews, there is no direct address of the camera at all, and the show NEVER deals with the fact that it’s about a group of girls who are on a television show.
think about that last thing for a second. everyone with the slightest interest in pop culture knows from the extensive rehab rolls in the tabloids and from loads of celebreality shows (“the osbournes” to “the surreal life” to “breaking bonaduce,” countless others) that being on a successful television show has an incredibly significant impact on a person’s day to day life. yet this is never an issue on “the hills,” ostensibly a show about the real lives of the girls it follows. have those two words, “the hills,” ever even been said on “the hills”? i don’t think so. the girls don’t mention it, their bosses and coworkers don’t mention it, the guys they meet in clubs or at the gym don’t mention it. it just doesn’t come up.
in a way, this careful omission is the biggest proof that “the hills” is completely and totally mediated; if it was “real,” the plot lines would revolve around the girls leveraging their fame into endorsements, dealing with paparazzi and obsessive fans, scheduling interviews with usweekly and intouch. in jennifer egan’s novel look at me, a homeless man is hired as the subject of a sort of proto-justin.tv reality website. the irony, he realizes, is that even as he’s making tons of money, he has to remain a homeless man because that’s what the audience is paying to see. that’s fiction, but how different is it than this? why is lauren, the star of a major television show in it’s third season, working a low level job at a teen fashion magazine? why is heidi working this absurd job at bolthouse that absolutely no one in their right mind believes is actually real instead of spending all her time being a celebutante and hanging out with her rich boyfriend? both heidi and lauren, we know, have budding careers (as singers, fashion designers, models, endorsers), so why do they continue working entry level jobs, other than to suit the narrative of the show? in magazine interviews, both say that their careers are the most important parts of their lives, yet in a show that’s supposedly about their everyday lives, we never see heidi at the recording studio and we never see lauren working on her line. it’s ridiculously fake.
but somehow that doesn’t matter. it doesn’t make the show any less captivating – if anything, it makes it more captivating. why is that?
the experience of watching “the hills” is not dissimilar to the experience of watching professional wrestling. if this were an academic essay, this is the point where i would do an applicable close reading of the “wrestling” chapter in mythologies. this is a blog, so instead i’m going to go on about how much i liked professional wrestling when I was 13 years old.
i liked professional wrestling a lot when i was 13 years old. between the ages of 13 and 15, i believed that the greatest book ever written was not ulysses or lolita but have a nice day, the autobiography of wrestler mick foley. i know, it is kind of surprising that i am now almost-quoting barthes instead of snapping into a slim jim.
my first significant experience with writing was co-running a fantasy professional wrestling league when i was 13 years old. we wrote play by play commentary and recaps for our fake TV shows and pay-per-view extravaganzas that totaled in the thousands of words every week. it seems silly, but the things that i find fascinating about “the hills”; the nature of performance, the questions of authenticity, the concept of kayfabe (which directly relates to the thing about the girls’ jobs i was just talking about): they were all there in the WWF. the strong visual aesthetic, too. my introduction to the power of montage was watching the bombastic highlight reels that opened the shows. the editors would compress interviews and press conferences and half-hour long matches into three minute epics, with slow motion and fast motion and jump cuts and stutters, tons of the overt video effects i was dissing earlier, all underscored by haunting female choirs and symphonic strings and big reverbed sound effects to emphasize particularly powerful piledrivers and bodyslams. for a thirteen year old boy, these sequences provided a sensual rush equaled only by stolen pornography and shotgunned mountain dew. they were my odessa steps.
while it’s popular to paint the audience for professional wrestling as unwashed proles whose idea of brain food is a beer bong of busch lite, the act of watching wrestling is a pretty sophisticated thing. very few fans of professional wrestling actually believe that what they are watching is real. the great majority know that the outcomes are planned, that spots in the matches are choreographed and staged, that the wrestlers are playing roles and, with few exceptions, do not really wish to hurt each other.
yet you’ve seen the fans. they pack arenas, painting their faces, dressing up, holding up signs that proclaim their support for their favorites, screaming until they’re hoarse. they’re as crazy and rabid as the fans at real football games. how is that so? how can they jump up and down and shout and get genuinely worked up about something that they know is fake? i feel that fans watching professional wrestling do so on one of two levels:
- though they understand that what they’re watching is fake, when they’re engrossed in the physicality and the excitement and the rush of the moment, in the heaven of the spectacle, they almost completely suspend disbelief and take in what they’re watching as real and true.
- they understand what they’re watching is fake, so while they may lapse at times into the trance state described above, a lot of what they’re doing is a kind of meta-watching, appreciating all the elements of the production and how they come together, trying to discern what is real and what is fake. the experience of the show becomes like a game.
these are the same ways that i think fans watch “the hills.” either they become so engrossed by the powerful aesthetic/great performances/addictive storyline that they watch the show in a sort of mimetic trance or, alternatively, they’re watching with a fervent skepticism, checking the evidence of the show against what they’ve read in cosmogirl or seen in an exclusive video on tmz or heard rumors of in “the virtual hills,” against what they’ve heard about how editing works and how it can change the context and the meaning of images. but then in the middle of this brainstorm maybe lauren will look at jason in this one way and the universality of it will pierce them, will melt their skepticism, and they will feel what it feels like when once they looked at someone like that or what they want it to feel like to look at someone like that or which someone they might want to look at like that. when the moment ruptures, if it ruptures, maybe they’ll return to their passionate detachment and then maybe later drift back to belief and so on and so forth. at least that’s how it works for me.
people who don’t like professional wrestling criticize it in two ways – by designating the moral content as stupid and/or offensive and by saying that they can’t understand how people could watch something so fake. people who criticize “the hills” say exactly the same things.
the audience for “the hills” isn’t wholly cynical, but we’re not rubes either, not that mythical lumiere crowd who thought that the film of a train was so real that a train was going to come out of the movie screen and run them over. we’re the generation that grew up with reality TV as a given and a constant. we’ve internalized its aesthetic; the moves that were innovative and stunning on “the real world” 15 years ago are old hat now. reality TV shows no longer need to constantly signify that yes, indeed, they are TV shows and, why, yes, they are representing reality; creating the illusion of authenticity is no longer a moral imperative but merely one aesthetic decision of many. it’s a choice. and the choice that the producers of the “the hills” make, to avoid constantly reminding their audience that they’re watching a reality television show, to create a world that is emotionally and sensually if not “really” true, is part of what makes it a great reality television show.
so, in closing, that’s why “pageant place” sucks. wow, that took awhile.