the hills season 3, episode 19, “paris changes everything”

March 26, 2008

  • so, that was good.
  • in the recap from earlier in the season, brody’s “i’ll always be there for you, you’ll always be there for me” reminded me again of “friends.” this time it wasn’t the theme song, the beginning of every show, it was how “friends” ended, the finale. as you remember, in the last season of “friends,” rachel gets a job as a buyer for louis vuitton in paris. ross tries to convince her to stay in new york, but their relationship has become too complex and this opportunity is too good, the job too perfect to give up. he tearfully confesses his love to her at the airport, but it’s not enough. except then at the end of the finale he is in his apartment and she leaves a message on his answering machine about how she “has to get off the plane” and then as soon as the message ends she is standing in the doorway and “she got off the plane” and the narrative arc begun ten seasons earlier is finally neatly bow-tied and eyes cry and hearts are warmed, all because “she got off the plane.”
  • obviously “the hills” exists in opposition to that kind of narrative arc and that kind of romantic ideal. in the first season, lauren didn’t “get on the plane” to go to paris, either, and it seemed like a great idea at the time because she loved jason so much. but unlike “friends,” a sitcom, which is allowed to end and freeze and stop time, where we can just imagine that monica and chandler grow old together on some metaphorical front porch in an eternal sunset, where we can believe that ross and rachel’s clashing personalities cease clashing until they die together in their sleep in the same bed holding hands, “the hills” is a reality show and it keeps going and it became quickly clear that not getting on the plane was a bad thing, a thing to regret, a mark against lauren’s judgment and character. in “the hills,” there is no ross, no chandler, no joey (i think the closest we probably came to a ross was that well-meaning dim-bulb tallan from “laguna beach”); there are no guys who are basically good hearted and don’t have some kind of agenda (spencer, frankie, all of them) or demon (spencer, jason) or skeleton in their closet (spencer, jason) or just general asshole tendency (all of them, gavin). for lauren, there is no “mr. right,” there is “mr. ok” and “mr. maybe for a couple of weeks” and “mr. he’s not as bad as the last one.” even though she was like totally in like with brody jenner right before she was given the chance to go to paris, LC didn’t bat an eyelash over the decision – as she says herself in the introductory voice-over – “i had turned down paris for a boy before; i wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.”
  • the first scene was delightfully meta. i started to watch “inland empire” this weekend, as a kind of spiritual prep for the season, and lauren and whitney’s first scene with the driver definitely reminded me of the first scene in “inland empire” with laura dern and grace zabriskie (also the episode as a whole and especially the scene at the debutante ball reminded me of the david lynch gucci ad, which seems to steal its midnight helicopter shots right from a “hills” edit bay). lauren and whitney are picked up at the airport by a driver. he will take them where they want to go. he tells them “it’s a new world for you,” that “everything is different.” this is a kind of “through the looking glass” remark and lauren asks, like little alice, “how is it different?” he puts the reins in her hands by saying “it’s up to you to see.” they decide the plot, they decide where to go, what to do, how things play out.
  • we’re in paris now, i’ll be your tour guide, on your left is barthes – do not follow the signs, they may be misleading. sorry, that was painful. the thing i love about “the hills” and reality television in general is that they are a complete blow to the dated, romantic idea of the author, or, since we’re in france and since we’re talking about visual media, the auteur. the work that hisham abed and jason sands and tony disanto and the editors they employ do is crucial to the success of “the hills,” definitely, but the work that lauren and whitney and audrina do is crucial, too, and at least equally important. they are not just actors, they are writing the story of the show with their lives. everyone is collaborating to create meaning, they are all the author, even audrina. the cast and crew should have a centerfold in some critical theory journal, all wearing glasses like lauren does in that scene where she is sitting in the computer lab and wants to look studious. personally, i like this model of authorship way more than david simon giving sermons on the mount about how brilliant he is and cockslapping anyone who disagrees.
  • of course, the producers will try to control what happens. whitney asks, “what are we going to do?” and the driver notes, “oh, you have your itinerary.” this is obviously an allegorical stand-in for a script – the girls are supposed to go to location one and then location two and then location three – they are supposed to do these things in this order, to follow the plot. later, in the hotel room, lauren asks a similar “what do we do now” question and whitney says that there’s supposed to be an intinerary slid under the door, and, voila, there it is, the new day’s script, just like how real movies are produced! isn’t there a scene similar to this in “day for night“?
  • yet lauren and whitney have no respect for this plot, this script, at all. impulses and whims trump order and logic. the intinerary says they’re supposed to pick up the shoes first and then get their gowns. but lauren decides not to to, that, fuck the script, we want wardrobe, we want our pretty dresses; we make the decisions, driver, we own you, you have to take us where we want to go.
  • that this horrible decision will have negative consequences is totally, obviously telegraphed. as an audience, we are trained to understand that because of the economy of time on television we wouldn’t be getting this information unless it was going to be important later. yet, at the same time, it is telegraphed in the same way that things are sometimes telegraphed in real life, like when after we fuck up the reason we fucked up is completely obvious. a jezebel commenter noted during their liveblog, “shit i feel like they should have gotten the debutantes shoes first.” this isn’t an ironic comment, this person is genuinely reacting in the moment because she has probably had a totally similar experience.
  • the meta tendency is reinforced after the scene where girls pick up their dresses. outside the store, the driver asks them “was it good”? he is an analog for the producer – he drives them around and asks them how they are doing, how their scenes are going. he tries, with his itinerary, to tell them where to go, to shape the narrative, to get the footage he needs, but ultimately he is stuck following their (stupid) decisions. he is a driver and he is always down. 😛
  • when the girls go to collette, the decisions re: blocking and cinematography are telling. when they pull on the glass door and it doesn’t open, the obvious cinematic tendency would be to cut inside the store to a reverse shot of the girls so we can see their faces, their reactions. but even though the producers could have easily put a camera inside colette, they don’t, because, despite the occasional incongruous dubbing, they are bent on maintaining the verite illusion of the show and in the world of the show, colette is closed and nobody is inside and nothing can be done about it. thus, instead, were are stuck with this long lens shot of lauren and whitney from behind and then we get a little closer and whitney turns to the side a little bit to accommodate the camera.
  • this reminds me of something i heard on the “breathless” DVD commentary, about how a lot of the shots on the streets of paris were filmed in secret by godard, hiding with his handheld camera inside a mail cart to get footage without pedestrians noticing.
  • which brings me, of course, to paris. in this episode, more than ever, location is significant. this is an entire hour-long episode of “the hills” that does not, except for a brief interlude with spencer and stephanie, actually take place in the hills – our settings are paris and crested butte, colorado. as i said during the previous trip to colorado, the images there feel so strange, like an alien landscape. the scene with heidi and spencer arguing beside the SUV is no different – one commenter noted that it looked like “a james bond scene.” to me, it seems like in a lot of the shots with spencer that they have brought in dry ice or a fog machine, like the actual climate doesn’t create enough atmospheric texture for the camera to pick up on so they had to augment it with something artificial.
  • on this note, the establishing shots throughout the paris parts of the episode are really interesting. i guess it’s because when people think of paris, especially people (like me) who have never been to paris, they have a very preconceived aesthetic notion of the city. (this is kind of tenuous but i’m going to go with it for a second) the same is true of new york – like, when i think of new york i don’t think of what it’s really like because i don’t know; instead, i think of what it’s like shot by gordon willis or ernest dickerson or or the plastic-y simulation on “friends” and a ton of other 1990s sitcoms that i love dearly. felle owns roma of course, and for paris, my imaginary landscape is either a mid sixties godard film or some collectively held by americans gallic audiovisual stereotype of ye-ye girl music and reverent technicolor shots of landmarks and baguettes and cafes and gitanes (i’m sure there is a movie i can reference here, but i don’t know what – “an american in paris”?). it doesn’t matter whether paris is gritty as “code inconnu” or as pretty as “amelie” or whether (duh) it is a complex city that can’t be captured by a single film or director’s ouevre or even a delightful omnibus like “paris, je t’aime” – i don’t see any of that, i see it the way that it’s been built, celluloid brick by celluloid brick, in my mind’s eye.
  • yet in the establishing shots and interstitial sequences, paris is treated with the exact same aesthetic template as LA. i know the process is more complex than this in real life, but it’s like the producers just shot a lot of random raw footage in the streets and then fed it into final cut pro and there’s some automated macro to cut out two second chunks (building, then cars driving fast at double time, then crash zoom-focus cars driving fast from other angle at 1.5 speed, then other building, then oddly framed shot of something random) and splice them together. obvious, there are some differences (i don’t think we’ve ever seen an evocatively framed shot of a bike rack or many people riding bicycles in the LA episodes), but largely, things look the same. if you lit it well enough and then shot it and color corrected it and chopped and screwed it the way that the editors of “the hills” do, could you make one of those LA drainage ditches (like in terminator 2!) look like the seine, could you make the city of angels into the city of lights? probably. what does this say about paris? it says that it is just another image to be appropriated and sampled as necessary, but it no longer has a real essence, no true importance that the editors and cinematographers have to revere.
  • that this lack of reverence is an absolutely right and true decision for the series is proven by the one scene that actually is reverent towards the idea of “PARIS,” the scene where lauren and whitney and ROCK AND ROLL visit the eiffel tower at night with a bottle of champagne. this is also the one scene in the episode that is absolutely and totally flat and bland. the reason it’s flat and bland is that it’s really just a bunch of shots of a building (and not just a building, but a building everyone has seen a million images of before, q.v. the most photographed barn in america, but i’m not going to go there) in these exquisitely framed images of steel girders and iron cables and light bulbs, we can barely see lauren and co., they are a spectral presence in poorly lit long shots. there are no close-ups and no faces, and if there are no close-ups and no faces, there is no emotion or feeling or fauxthenticity and if there is none of this, there is no scene. they are no longer people or characters, they are just figures overwhelmed by the monolith.
  • later in the episode, before matthias takes her on her moonlight vespa ride around the city, lauren says she wants to “see the city,” but that’s just a flimsy pretext for her tryst. she’s just saying that because it’s something people say – she doesn’t really want to tour the catacombs or hit up the louvre or whatever other touristy things, she wants a romantic moment with a scruffy french boy. as the two of them cruise, the landmarks become just marks in the land. at the beginning of the trip there’s a really great sequence which begins when matthias stops the vespa on the side of the road. the camera then cuts to a static shot of notre dame. who knows – they may be actually looking at it at that exact moment or it may have been picked up by second unit after lauren and whitney went back to LA. but anyway, the shot: it’s a postcard image, flat, still, you look at it for a second and then throw it away, which is exactly what the editor does, which is exactly what lauren does. lauren says she wants to “see” the city but really she just wants to “look at” it. after notre dame, the architecture whizzes by – you’ve already seen the eiffel tower, so who cares about seeing it again besides in a short tracking shot. l’arc d’triomphe is something you see, out of the corner of your eye, down the road from an intersection you’re speeding through on the way to your hotel; it’s not something to care about or stop and take a picture of.
  • this visual irreverence and appropriation is mirrored with a linguistic version of same in that scene in the hotel where lauren and whitney are playing with the phrasebook, not trying to learn survival french or something educational but picking out words that are relevant to lauren’s personal life and then giggling at how funny and foreign they sound.
  • this reminds me of that scene in patricia’s apartment in “breathless,” how she sticks her fine art postcards up on the bare white wall.
  • blah blah globalization blah blah
  • lauren’s conundrum about what to wear to go the club is yet another genius example of the specific implying the universal. probably not many people watching “the hills” have had to decide what they can wear to meet the dress code of a fancy parisian night club, but everybody has had some kind of crisis about what to wear when they’re going out. the same thing when lauren fucks up the dress – most people haven’t burnt an expensive french couture dress with a curling iron but everybody has gotten a stain on their clothes before. not many people have had to rush through the shower to get to a debutante photo shoot at an expensive hotel, but everybody has had to get ready quickly (also, i love when lauren calls whitney a “dirty girl” – oh, faux innuendo!) etc. etc. etc. it’s not the audience’s experience but at the same time it’s completely relatable; it’s a talking point for the girls who watch the show, it’s a discussion starter, it’s a way for them to connect and empathize with the characters and with each other.
  • THE BAND IS CALLED “ROCK AND ROLL”! duh, lauren leaves the (relative) dreariness and boredom of her everyday life in LA for the (relative) glitz and glamour and ROCK AND ROLL of paris. it doesn’t matter that we don’t hear their music, it’s not important even that they are really rock and roll musicians (although it’s great that this is their one identifying characteristic, like, when matthias comes to pick up lauren the second time, he still has the subtitle “guitarist” under his name) but they are ROCK AND ROLL people, they represent ROCK AND ROLL as a concept, they drink and smoke and have long hair and wear really tight pants (obviously the archetypal rock and roll fantasy becomes a bit more effete en francais – a vespa instead of a harley, etc.) (also, i love how anything related to rock and roll, rock music, leather jackets, or dirty, unwashed hair has some kind of tangential connection to audrina.)
  • in my post about the half season finale, i discussed the fairy tale theme and how the hills is an utter refutation of the idea of fairy tale love. in this episode, we’ve got more variation on that theme. i don’t even have to read into it that deeply; i mean, this is an episode about our heroines going to a ball!
  • the obvious fantasy is cinderella: you go to the ball and you are elevated above your hardscrabble everyday life and you meet your prince charming. the reality, though is totally different – lauren and whitney are not real participants in the ball, they’re not debutantes, they don’t get to dance or find their prince charming. they are removed and detached from all this because they are working, they are doing their jobs: their beautiful ball gowns are just fancy uniforms, like butlers wear tuxedos.
  • most of all what they are doing at the ball is the same thing that we in TV land are doing; watching, seeing, gazing, staring, looking at, whispering comments to the person next to them. besides the little snafu with whitney’s partner and the cards, nothing happens in the scene; they and we are just watching a really expensive parade. it’s a gorgeous, luxurious sequence but also the shots of the hordes of beautiful girls bathed in flashbulbs become, after a point, a little terrifying. the agony and ecstasy of observation.
  • what about prince charming? oh, matthias, right. he’s tall (umm?), dark, uh, handsome? sure, i guess, if you go for that sort of thing. whatever, he’ll do.
  • so lauren and matthias go on their moonlight vespa ride and it’s great and wonderful and yadda yadda. this is the transformative experience, this is the fantasy, this is exactly what lauren and the audience want, this is what we’ve been waiting for.
  • but at the end, there’s no kiss! across america and canada, there are a million teenage girls sitting in their living rooms holding hands waiting for lauren to get her fairytale kiss from her mysterious stranger in france and she doesn’t, she just hugs him and walks up the stairs and lets the moment die. expectations popped like balloons.
  • but they had to be because that’s the fantasy and this is NOT a fantasy, it’s reality, or at least reality TV. the reality is the kiss that matthias and lauren share not at the climax of the narrative, but smack in the middle of their story, outside of club neo. as lauren and whitney walk to a cab to go back to the hotel, matthias approaches them from behind. our first glance is of him rushing across a frame to catch them before they leave, his speed an obvious symptom of nervy desperation. he grabs lauren from behind. she says “oh my gosh, you scared me.” he, gripping her, shoulder, says “you were moving without telling me byebye.” she doesn’t understand (lost in translation!) and he says, “you were movin without kissing me byebye” and so she grabs his beard like handles and gives him an exaggerated gallic double cheek kiss. he is drunk, he smells like smoke, it is kind of unpleasant; it is uncomfortable, it is awkward, it is real, too real, maybe. if you have never been in a situation like this, let’s just say that on both sides it’s not very fantastical. it is romantic in the way the mary gaitskill story “a romantic weekend” is romantic.
  • along these lines, it’s natural that spencer’s quixotic statement about heidi, that he’s going to “go find her on the mountain in colorado” is met with a derisive snort by stephanie and why spencer fails so spectacularly in his mission. the girls in “the hills” do not need to be rescued; being rescued is an imposition, it’s rude.
  • it’s not that paris as a fantasy doesn’t exist anymore – it does, it’s just as seductive as ever. lauren and whitney come to paris expecting everything and a cherry on top. but they, just like andy in “the devil wears prada” or carrie in the paris episodes of “sex and the city,” come to understand that the fantasy is just that, a fantasy, something that they’ve seen in movies and TV shows and fairy tales. it’s not something that applies to their real lives (or even their fake lives!), it’s not something they can live in, it’s not sustainable. paris doesn’t change everything because it’s just a working vacation and on monday you have to return to your life, your everyday, your home, your city. lauren doesn’t stay and languish in some dusty garret with matthias and at night sit in cafes listening to small jazz combos, she leaves, she goes back home. whitney doesn’t have any beautiful technicolor dreams realized; what she realizes is that her job and everyday life are boring and unsatisfying and she leaves too, she goes back home. they get on the plane and go because that’s how planes work; they don’t have a one way ticket, it’s round trip, so they have to go back home. they are not the lost generation, they are generation: lost, and they have to get back to the island, not get away.
  • because, of course, dreams must eventually end and we must wake up. the waking up is in the last scene, when lauren and whitney are in the hired car – its windows are way blown out; the light is the kind of light that hurts your eyes the morning after, when you’re hungover. the return to the norm is ultimately signified at the very end of the episode, when whitney says, “well, it’s back to reality,” directly addressing the camera but not in a haneke way or a godard way or a welles way but in just kind of an accidental “oh-oops-there’s-a-camera-there” kind of way. all roads lead to the hills.
  • FIN (LOLfrench)
  • oh yeah, heidi and spencer. as you know, i think heidi is very important but this episode wasn’t hers. the one scene i have anything to say about is the first scene between heidi and her mom. the conversation is great because it’s just an endless string of cliches (“you have a lot of growing to do, both of you, individually. i mean, i would love to see you starting fresh and, and just working on yourself for a while.”) yet this is life, life is a string of cliches. life is not like “juno,” people are allowed to say cliches unironically and they do. i consider myself a reasonably intelligent person and i do it all the the time; i’m sure you do too. the other heidi-spencer scenes had some revelatory carverian repetition, but i have already written like 4500 words and i am really not in the mood to transcribe them. their day will come soon, i’m sure.
  • my favorite shot in the episode was obv. when whitney tenderly swept a strand of lauren’s hair across her forehead.
  • everybody’s talking about that ginia bellafante review and all i can say if that she is crazy, then i am like the unabomber probably. my favorite line in the review was the one about whitney as a shakespearean mute.
  • 5 ways “the hills” in which the hills is JUST LIKE an antonioni film. so good. we should all have a cahiers du conrad; our cinematheque francaise can be mtv overdrive (sponsored by dove).
  • this whole episode made me want to reread “things: a story of the sixties” by georges perec, which i read when i was in college. you should totally read it, it’s basically a narrative which defines this young parisian couple by the things they buy. it has a dated marxist ending that i don’t really agree with, but it’s short and otherwise good. if you want something about women in paris but lighter and more fun, you should read “the dud avocado” which is proto-chick lit. or you could read what is probably one of my top 3 favorite books, gertrude stein’s “everybody’s autobiography.
  • writing this was both great and frightening for me. it was great to write about it because i felt my brain working in a way that it hadn’t worked in weeks, noticing things, making connections, etc. it was frightening because my brain hadn’t worked that way for weeks. like, does my brain only work for “the hills” now? is that quotation i have at the top right corner of this blog totally accurate, is it killing me?
  • there is so much more to talk about (check out this site, it is crazy)
  • the song i recorded this week is called “us, weakly.” i know, someone should beat the shit out of me for that kind of wordplay. i always write some kind of explanation or story in this space and i have something, but this is too long already and i am tired so i’ll save it for a little later


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